Not even sure where to start except to thank Johanna for creating such an important forum.
Like Breeze, I am glad that VegNews took the opportunity to allow their readers to see the vegan movement from a different perspective (June 2010, “We the People” by Michael Parrish). I have been involved in the animal rights movement for over 20 years, and that involvement has been about justice – fighting for it and wanting to fight oppression in whatever form it takes. This extends to both humans and animals. In the past, using my forum to speak about injustices against people caused me grief from some in the animal rights movement, which is why I started the Food Empowerment Project: so I could talk about both. (Just for the ease of reading, I will use “human” to refer to human animals and “animals” when referring to non-human animals.)
One part of the VegNews article that intrigued me was the idea that it was surprising that vegans of color exist – as if we are hard to find. As a woman of color who has run two non-profits, I know that the grassroots is full of people of color.
Right now, a huge issue that’s on my mind, as it is for many people of color, is the law that recently passed in Arizona. I am sure many of you can understand that there are no words of disgust, sadness and outrage that can be expressed with mere words on a computer. I studied the civil rights movement and have devoured countless books about racism and the painful struggle for justice, and yet I am still in a bit of shock.
I have been speaking for a few years now at animal rights conferences about how racism is alive and well in this country, and the law in Arizona and the treatment of our President make this crystal clear.
But where does the animal rights movement fit into this? Animal rights organizations typically make decisions that focus solely on the animals, as most would expect, but occasionally those decisions have repercussions that offend those who are our natural allies. For example, a few years ago a very important initiative, sponsored by organizations that work for animals, was passed by voters in Arizona to ensure that pregnant pigs and male calves raised for veal had the ability to turn around and stretch their limbs.
I bring up this initiative because one of the key supporters – who was recruited by the organizations that sponsored the initiative, and who did television commercials for it – was Sheriff Joe Arpaio. When I learned this, I expressed my concern and disgust and commented, at that time, that if there had been one person of color in that room there was no way that person would have been okay with Sheriff Arpaio. In case you haven’t heard of the notorious Sheriff Joe, he is credited with laying the groundwork for the current law.
These organizations stated over and over again how popular Arpaio was and how he helped the campaign, and they continued to defend their use of him (with some mocking of those who were opposed to this) even after the campaign had been won.
But my question then and now is the same: at what cost? Malcolm X is known for the phrase by any means necessary, but I do not believe he meant that we should sell our values, our principles, our sense of decency, or that we should seek to make progress at the expense of other victims of abusive systems.
This type of thinking only hurts us and the animals in the end. If we are a movement that speaks out about the injustice that takes place against animals but ignore injustices against humans, that just plays in to the hands of our opposition and fosters the lies they tell about us. It also weakens us, as we no longer show ourselves to be a compassionate movement. And again, I am not saying that the animal movement should take on other causes as we have billions of animals to speak out for; however, we need to be consistent in our sense of justice.
Isn’t it possible that the initiative would have still passed without Sheriff Joe? We won’t know, but we do know that aligning ourselves with someone like him should never happen again.
I was allowed to be a part of the endorsement process when the initiative came to California and ended up opening more doors of communication between animal, labor and environmental justice groups.
That is why I love the slogan of this forum: “Because we can’t afford to be single-issued.” And honestly, that sums it up for me. I can’t be afford to be, we can’t be afford to be. And while animal groups must focus on animal issues (to abide by their mission statements) I truly hope that they can reach out to us and respect us enough to listen to our concerns and take us seriously.
Trust me, I think animal groups need to work primarily on animal issues, as that is their role and the animals need them—and for them to work on other issues that tie in may not always result in a sincere effort. But it is vital for them to work with groups and individuals who don’t look at these as single-issues in order to avoid alienating people.
As many people have heard me say before, Martin Luther King, Jr. became most dangerous to the system when he started to embrace other movements (anti-war and the plight of janitors) and went beyond the civil rights movement. We, too, will be more of a force the sooner we embrace those the system works to divide and conquer. We can’t allow them to do this to us—we can’t afford it and neither can the animals.
From the perspective of some environmental justice groups in Arizona, animal groups gave the impression that they cared more about animals than humans, and in some ways I know there are those who feel that way; however, our movement will never grow if we continue to turn our backs on people who suffer injustices, as they also deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion.