The Animal Rights Conference 2013. Like last year, it took me a week to commit my thoughts to print. While the conference overall was not as lively and tense as last year’s (and many of the people involved in that tension last year were not present this year), the conference still brought with it the burden of racism, marginalization, misogyny/sexism, and homophobia. This recollection will try to capture my full experience and impressions of the conference, not just the shit that is frustrating and tiring to deal with.
Voices of the Movement
As I recall the voices of the animal rights movement, I think not so much of the usual suspects who sit on the plenary sessions. I think of all the attendants I get to have conversations with and learn from who aren’t speakers, who don’t get to talk at the plenaries, who often spend out their own pocket and barely break even to attend this conference. Those were the most valuable voices I got out of this conference. This year had a few new speakers and I gravitated toward them instantly. Dr. Baruch was one of them. If you ever go to Washington D.C., you must visit his restaurant Everlasting Life Cafe, located across the street from Howard University. They make the most delicious vegan soul food I have ever tasted in a restaurant and they also have a juice bar. And at night it becomes a soul cafe where artists and students come, perform, and chill. It’s an amazing place for a community in need.
Well, at the conference, he spoke about food deserts and how they are huge barriers to the collective wellbeing and empowerment of communities of color. Although food deserts are often an issue of concern for food justice and environmental justice activists and they have been addressed for several years in the work of the vegan food justice organization Food Empowerment Project, the food desert is not a topic that gets much mention at the Animal Rights Conference. So that was new. And I also had the benefit of participating in a humane education training session where I got to follow up afterwards with humane educators and talk about humane education as it is relevant for impoverished communities of color where illiteracy and violence are high and are barriers to any efforts toward critical engagement and more holistic awareness. It was a wonderful exchange. I felt like I was engaging with contemporaries who get intersectional work and are doing what they can to work at those intersections and really make a difference. I also appreciated the conversations I had with militant direct action animal rights activists who are so often treated as fringe subjects at the conference. But they are the ones most likely to understand systemic oppressions and they are most likely to build solidarity with other social justice and ecological justice activists because their understanding of systemic oppression is strong.
Even though the debate between Gary Francione and Bruce Friedrich was the highlight for the whole conference, I was neither inspired by nor interested in their voices; their views both strike me as narrow and absolutist and they are not relevant or effective at the levels at which I work. I sat there watching and listening to two well-off white men argue differences in approach toward the same goal of vegan abolition. The debate got hotter as time passed, to the point of mild hostility on both sides, but by then, I was no longer paying attention. The debate was recorded, so if you want a more detailed account, it’s best to see it for yourself. See the video at AR Zone.
Structural Oppressions and Bigotry at the Conference…again
The conference hadn’t even properly began. The same friend I mentioned in Recalling the Animal Rights Conference 2012 (who is now an employee of FARM) and I were at the FARM table registering attendees. We were next to each other–she standing while I was sitting. A white woman from Belgium named Dominique Cheyns came to my end of the table to register. She said to me, “Do I know you? Have we met?” I replied I don’t know but it could be possible if you were at last year’s conference. Then she said both to me and to my friend, shrugging her hands in the air, “Well, you know, all you people look alike.” Just like that, I was triggered. I felt violated, unsafe. How could this woman say this to us? Who the hell is she? And what’s worse, she kept repeating it. “No, really, all you people do look alike.” She repeated this as though trying to get our support, like, yeah, you’re right, we do look alike, we have no real distinctions or intersubjectivity at all, you are so right white woman.
My friend responded angry, and told her she was pissed that she said a thing like that to us. I’m looking around–we’re surrounded by white people who are avoiding our gaze, trying to look like they’re not paying attention, not involved. Alone and triggered, we become “angry black women.” The woman looked dumbfounded and didn’t realize what she had done wrong. Then I told her, “Just tell me your name so you can register.” Looking meek now, she did as she was told, and shortly after, my friend pulled her aside to explain to her what she had done and how that affected us, given our experience and collective history as black people in America. The woman acted like she had no idea and began to cry. She came back to me, tears streaming down her face, and apologized, explaining that she doesn’t know how to talk to people and that she doesn’t have many friends, never mind black friends, and that she’s from a different country so she doesn’t know the rules. I responded “okay” but I did not accept her apology. And because I was a work scholar–working off the hours to get my registration fee reimbursed–I felt compelled to “get back to work” without any time to decompress or relieve myself. I was in a sea of white people who didn’t get it and they expected me to brush it off like it didn’t matter.
Still shaken up, I wrote later that day because I didn’t have the space really to let it out without becoming a target. And I convinced myself I didn’t want to let it out so soon because I knew it would come out as rage and I would vent hostility toward all the white people there I didn’t know and then, boom, there goes my conference experience, ruined. I wrote:
I feel so stressed out. It’s very distracting from my experience with animals and my longing for animal liberation. Racism hurts so much…I realize that the majority of these ‘animal rights activists’ don’t care about people. I found out that some of the work scholars were booked through their meal times. So if they’re depending on the buffet for their meals they’re out of luck because FARM couldn’t really give a shit. The shaky hurt is boiling into rage. They don’t care about people.
When I wrote this, I was speaking from a place of hurt–unvalidated hurt. And so, throughout the conference, I was compelled, even though it stressed me out to do so, to share my experience again and again with everyone I could engage in conversation at the conference. I wanted people to know what happened. I wanted the conference organizers at FARM to know. I wanted them to take responsibility and seriously create a system of accountability. I spoke with one of the board members of FARM and challenged FARM to draft a system of accountability and policy to address matters of socially injust speech and actions that go unchecked and ignored at the conference and become the burden of the people who are experiencing the stress of that oppression. With the support of pattrice jones, I managed to get up and speak at the “Commonality of Oppressions” panel and share some of my experience. It was through sharing my story and frustrations that I encountered other people with stories of their own concerning the frustrations and burdens at the conference.
There was an impromptu lunch meeting on sexual assault and what we can do to address it at the conference. Apparently, sexual assault at the Animal Rights Conference has been an issue for several years, but the conference organizers have tried very hard to avoid it and do nothing about it. The issues of sexual assault and sexism at the conference were brought up formally ten years ago and while a little progress was made, all it took was a 2-year absence of the main leaders bringing these issues to the forefront for the conference to revert back to the default way of doing things–which is to say, offering no support to victim/survivors and protecting the violent perpetrators. I was appalled to hear this, but alas, not surprised. And as the conference went on, more shit progressed. For some reason, at the awards banquet, Brenda Shoss at Kinship Circle thought she would make a joke to make sure we didn’t confuse her for being a man. The reason why I mention this in alarm because at this year’s conference, there was significant number of LGBTQ people. There were trans-people as well as genderqueer folk as well as gay and lesbian and bi/pan people in attendance and if one spent any time at all talking to people who weren’t panelists, it would be obvious. So that joke pinched a nerve. Then they brought in a vegan comic named Myq Kaplan whose act was based on being awkward and saying awkward jokes. He also thought it was a great idea to focus heavily on gay jokes. And while he wasn’t all out slamming gay people, he was emphasizing a lot on how he was not gay yet he went on with his stupid gay jokes for about ten minutes. What made it so annoying is that he wasn’t making a point at all, he was just using gay people for stupid awkward humor that went on and on. Some people in the audience found him funny. Others, who I recognized as queer people I had met earlier, were not laughing. Some walked out and came back after he left the stage.
Finally, there was the on-going tokenizing and using the struggles of people of color and women as a means to motivate and charge up the animal rights movement but knowing so little about the oppressions of these people that it feels like exploitation. We see this all the time in writing. After experiencing what I did at the beginning of the conference and listening to white affluent plenary speakers repeat the same comparisons of racism and speciesism over and over again without the slightest insight as to how racism operates in America, their comparisons made me feel more violated and misused than usual. How dare they talk about racism in this superficial way when they’re not even willing to address how it’s unfolding at this conference? How dare they use the plight of my people to justify a righteous enterprise for animal rights? How dare they use animals and people of color in this way?
From beginning to end, this conference was not rendered a safe space for people of color, women who experienced sexual assault at the conference prior and received no justice, and lgbtq people. Harassment and violence seem to be the order of the day—no conference is unable to go without somebody being harassed or violated on the basis of race, gender, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation. What made this more painful than it needed to be was the response of the conference organizers (or lack thereof) for most of this. It’s about time they start taking responsibility for the spaces they create or they will find they will have intentionally created spaces that are homogeneous and barren–or is that the “mainstream” they’re unconsciously striving for?
pattrice jones, an amazing friend and critical thinker, reminded me that my position is unique compared to other feminists of color who have critiqued the vegan animal rights movement. That is, I am one of very very few who is actually part of the movement, not looking in on the outside. My gateway to veganism was not personal health but an aching empathy with animals. I have been an animal rights activist since I was a teenager. Before I came to the conference, I was feeling so disheartened in my relationships with other self-identified animal rights activists that I was seriously contemplating abandoning the title “animal rights” and calling what I do something else. But I realize, through my conversations and connections with people at the conference who return and try their best to transform the movement toward a path of more holistic liberation, that my position is an important one. I’m not going to deal with this crap all the time, but I’m also not going to abandon my undying connection with animals and the longing for animals to live in self-reliance, dignity, wellness, and freedom (language I have adopted from Gay Bradshaw) just because the animal rights community still has a way to go to address the racial and gender tokenizing, the marginalization and exclusion, the exploitation of oppressed people’s suffering, the silencing of animals when it really matters, and the denial to admit that we got some issues to work on.
A Well of Inspiration
Fortunately, the conference wasn’t all racist, sexist, homophobic shit. I attended Jonathan Balcombe’s talk titled “The Inner Lives of Animals” which highlighted his new book by the same title. Though many of his examples and the way he told the stories of animals were not new to me, it was refreshing to return to animals’ lives in a meaningful way. Learning their stories and learning as much as I can about them on their own terms are like being home. (However, not all his examples were learning about them on their own terms. Many studies in animal cognition and behavior still tend to be anthropocentric in structure, with human cognition as the basis for measurement in the hierarchy of cognizance). I was just happy to learn about animals and see images of them, not bloodied and in pieces. Out of the entire conference, his talk was the only one that ran even close to getting to know who the diverse array of beings we call animals are. And for me, that’s very important and taken for granted in the animal rights movement. I wouldn’t enter transgender advocacy work and call myself a trans ally without learning in depth, as best as I could, the full experiences of transgendered people on their terms. So why do we assume we can get away with that in the animal rights movement? I met a few activists at the conference who had similar concerns and it was a delight talking to them, learning from their insights and experiences with animals. That’s why I’m so inspired by animal liberation and animal rights work that includes animals’ ways, perspectives, and decision-making as though they matter. They are the pioneers of visionary work to help animals help themselves and build communities where animals genuinely matter and their decisions and choices matter. And I find that so beautiful.
Over the past two years, I’ve been using more language I’ve adopted from various thinkers and teachers like Audre Lorde, Gay Bradshaw, pattrice jones, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Robert Bullard, David Abrams and other spiritual, scientific, intellectual, and social change teachers. The language is reflected in my blog posts. And I introduced this language at the Animal Rights Conference. The notion that animal rights from an anti-slavery abolitionist standpoint means nothing so long as animals can’t live in self-reliance, dignity, wellness, and freedom in the diverse ways that they unfold. The notion that reproductive freedom, space, agency, and community matter to animals. The notion that our main goals should be to help animals help themselves. The notion of what it means to be an ally not a voice for animals. The notion that transforming our ecological and economic relationships are so key. Being able to have conversations with people at the conference using this language in a meaningful way was so important for me because for the first time it didn’t feel like a waste. I’m so used to being alone, on the fringe, nobody getting the deep words streaming from my mouth. And even though I will probably never feel like I’m rooted in any particular community, I was happy to experience the relief and rejuvenation that the Animal Rights Conference is supposed to bring to people doing hard work for animals–alone. It was so wonderful to see again people who don’t have the resources or money that the large animal advocacy organizations have but are still doing effective, powerful work. I love VINE Sanctuary. I love the work of SAEN. I love DARTT and other grassroots organizations that name and shame financial supporters of animal research. I respect the activists who use direct action and force animal researchers to be reminded again and again of the atrocities they do, who make these people–protected by government, academic, and corporate institutions–visible when they’re otherwise invisible. I value the women who take their limited cash and resources to rescue animals from horrid conditions and rehabilitate wild animals whose lives are regularly disrupted and harmed by humans. I appreciate the people who use their skills and professions to make a difference in whatever ways they can: vegan hairstyling, redefining what it means to be a physician and medical researcher, hacking and leaking important information the public should know, counseling veterans with PTSD through better eating habits and more meaningful relationships with nonhuman living beings. And none of these people were speakers, but were so inspiring for me. They encourage me to value my hard work and motivate me to collaborate and work in solidarity beyond the confines of my current geography for holistic animal liberation. They remind me that I need to be surrounded by humans who ask these questions and do this kind of work and believe that just relationships with animals are beautiful and important. They remind me that where I live, I don’t get that and so it’s easy to be swept away by the demands of one’s environment, even when they don’t reflect the truth I know in my heart. I am so grateful for those reminders.
At the beginning of the conference, I told my friend I would not return to another conference for a while. The next conference will be in Los Angeles. I doubt I will have the resources to make such a trip and I’m less inclined to make the sacrifice considering I’m likely to face the same shit, the same headaches. But because of the other aspects of the conference, the sources of inspiration and areas of relief the conference can actually bring, I can commit to return again when I have the money and time. Meanwhile, I keep in touch with the connections I made and remember my unique position as a black woman who values animal liberation and ecological justice, who finds herself at the intersections, the vortex, the crossroads, and that that’s always a difficult place to be. But I am more confident now than I have been in a long while, that where I stand is where I need to be and that my commitment to animals is not frivolous or in vain.