Fighting the Chill: Interview with Sarahjane Blum

A few years ago, I learned about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and the U.S. government’s efforts to label animal rights and environmental activists as “terrorists.” As immediately offensive as all that information was, it was made all the more real–and terrifying–when I started connecting it to individual activists and their courageous work. 

One image that has stuck in my mind since those initial periods of research on AETA is of a woman standing in what looks like an industrial farming shed and holding a duck. 

Years later I was connected with Sarahjane Blum, the woman in the photo, while organizing an anti-AETA event in Chapel Hill, as part of a larger weekend of action put together by the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. Her experiences doing open rescue and other forms activism led her to take part in a lawsuit against the government, for its violations of First Amendment rights through AETA. With the rising interest in Open Rescue (thanks to the foundational work of Animal Liberation Victoria, and most recently Direct Action Everywhere), I was curious to get Sarahjane’s story as an open rescuer, her perspectives on direct action, the impact of AETA, and much more…

blum1Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?

I realized the other day that I have been vegan for just over half my life. Which means that some of my memories of what took me down that road are fuzzy, and that some of my stories about my early veganism sound like a bad “back in my day we had to walk barefoot uphill to school and back” joke.

With that said, my process was pretty simple, though not quick. The weekend of July 4th, 1990, a friend of mine invited me to go out of town with his family. I was raised in New York City, in a very urban environment, without a lot of contact with animals other than squirrels, pigeons, and humans.

We went to this little island teeming with critters, and I sat around watching them mesmerized. The last day I was there, my friend and I went for a bike ride, and there was a raccoon on the side of the road who had just been run over by a car. I don’t know if this was actually the first time I had seen a dead animal in a context other than a dinner plate, but it felt like new knowledge. I was twelve at the time, and came home and told my parents I was going to stop eating meat.

From there on, it started to strike me how many seemingly unconnected choices involve animal use and exploitation. I started looking for shoes which weren’t made with leather; I saw an ad in the back of a magazine and wrote away for a booklet about alternatives to dissection and got on PETA’s mailing list; and the list of things that I tried to be conscious of kept growing.

Some time in there, I decided that when I left my parents house for college, I would go vegan. I still can’t remember when I first heard the term, and I had only ever met one vegan in my life at that point, but it seemed to me that if I could find a way to live a less-exploitative life, I should. And I’ve kept trying to do that ever since.

What has been your path as an activist and what issues got you into activism?

I’ve always been easily outraged, and done my best to act on that feeling. There wasn’t a petition I didn’t want to sign in my youth, or a social justice movement I didn’t want to support. And, again, this feels like a very long time ago, so forgive me the vagary. When I started getting connected into an activist scene, I tried to go to every event, get active for every cause, and soak up as much knowledge and passion as I could. I started going to weekly meetings at the Wetlands Collective in NYC, and organizing with the New York City Animal Defense League. Rather than me rehash old war stories about those days, I’m just going to suggest everyone head over to the Talon Conspiracy and take some time digging into the history of our movement.

You have been involved in “open rescue” direct action. Can you talk some about what open rescue is, how open rescues are conducted, and some of your experiences as a rescuer? Where does open rescue fit in to the tactics of the movement now as you see it?

In the early 2000s, I worked with a group of activists to conduct a nationwide investigation into the foie gras industry, and to rescue a number of ducks from farms where they were being force-fed to the brink of death. Without attempting to conceal our identities, we did our best to exhaustively videotape the conditions on the farms, and the slow rehabilitation of the birds we rescued. We spent months conducting the investigation, researching how the facilities worked and obtaining footage of all stages of these animals’ lives. We had veterinarians examine both the live animals we were able to rescue, and the dead animals we came across. Some of what took us months might be a much shorter process today because of improvements in technology, since a lot of logistical quandaries would have been avoided if we didn’t have to lug large camcorders or could have set up motion sensitive cameras. When we felt like we had a full picture, we started telling the stories of these birds, and the open rescue angle allowed us to personalize their stories and bring more attention to the suffering of animals being bred and raised for food than we would have been able to otherwise.

In our case, we were fortunate to attract a lot of attention. The exposure of the industry really got the attention of the movement, the public, and the media. There was a groundswell of outrage that helped pass the law outlawing foie gras farming and sales in California. (This week, as I was contemplating the questions you sent me, foie gras producers and restaurateurs won an appeal that at least temporarily allows foie gras to be served again, though its not clear if that’s a permanent shift. The production is still illegal, and the California farm that was the state’s only producer is out of business.) There was print and TV news coverage, and even a feel-good half-hour episode of a show on Animal Planet devoted to showing the rehabilitation of two ducks we rescued from Hudson Valley Foie Gras. That doesn’t sound so groundbreaking today, but looking back it seems clear that the outpouring of videos from undercover exposes and open rescues really opened the door for violence against animals to be covered and shown in a mainstream way on TV. Jane Velez-Mitchell and Whale Wars, to cite just a couple of examples, have demonstrated the market for stories about animal issues on TV and created frameworks (admittedly still limited) for having mainstream conversations that push back against the assumptions that underpin our treatment of non-human animals. The work done by groups and individuals undertaking undercover investigations and open rescues in the late 1990s/early 2000s is a clear part of that cultural shift.

The inroads that activists were making at that point in time led to backlash. The open rescue movement is just a small part of the story of the green scare, as it has become known. Everything from the SHAC campaign to the ALF to Vegan Outreach was bringing really unwanted attention to corporate interests that made their money by exploiting animals. Again, I won’t bore you with history, but encourage you to read Green is the New Red and Muzzling a Movement to learn about how lobbyists led the charge to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The AETA raised the stakes on any sort of civil disobedience or direct action and certainly it caused people to think twice before taking part in open rescue. But even while acknowledging that people backed away from direct action (and even speaking out on behalf of animals) after the passage of the AETA, I don’t think that tells the whole story about why we saw so few open rescues after 2006.

These past few years have seen a huge uptick in the number of breaking stories about undercover investigations. Now that you can get accurate depictions of the realities of farming on your cell phone, with a small hidden camera, go pro, or motion sensitive camera tucked inside a farm, or with a telephoto lens from way off, there are a lot of new, novel ways to start engaging people that use some of the same energy that drew us to open rescue. I’m thinking here of everything from Will Potter’s Kickstarter-supported Drone on the Farm project to the activists who are currently being prosecuted under Utah’s ag-gag laws for taking pictures of a hog farm from public property. There is still momentum to expose animal exploitation. There’s also still open rescue. I just watched the new Direct Action Everywhere egg-laying-hen rescue video this morning.

You are also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. government in relation to AETA. Can you explain what the lawsuit is about and the current status?

In 2012, the badass lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the lawsuit Blum v Holder asking the federal government to strike down Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional. The plaintiffs in the suit were all long-time activists who felt the chilling effect of this law in our daily lives. As I said, I don’t think that the AETA was the sole reason for the fall-off of open rescue in the last decade, but I do know I curtailed my activism for a while when I felt the all-too-real threat of lengthy Federal prison sentences for engaging in that form of non-violent civil disobedience. The AETA presents an unconstitutional limitation on our first amendment rights, it’s clear. That was the basis of the lawsuit. But, because we were not actively being prosecuted under the law, there was a question of whether we had what’s known as “standing” to challenge it. In the end, rather than rule on the constitutionality of the law itself, the courts determined we didn’t have standing. On November 10th, 2014 the Supreme Court denied cert in our case, which means we can’t take it any further. It’s disappointing, but more disappointing is the fact that during the period when our suit was winding through court, Kevin Oliff and Tyler Lang were charged under the AETA for allegedly freeing mink and foxes from fur farms. CCR is working to get their case dismissed, but they need all the support they can get.

You live in a hotbed of radical vegan activism in Minneapolis. Are you involved in a lot of the actions going on there? Why do you think Minneapolis has attracted so many passionate, innovative vegans?

I’m a transplant to Minneapolis almost by accident, so I am probably the worst person to ask anything about why people end up there. It was a happy accident, though, as Minneapolis does have a really robust activist and radical culture, particularly for a town its size.

Not just in terms of animal issues. I remember a zine circulating around the RNC in 2008 called The Struggle is Our Inheritance that goes back through 50 years or so of radical action in Minnesota—actions that it seems like people in the rest of the country don’t know nearly as much about as they should. I guess between this and the earlier Talon shout out, it’s pretty clear that I think getting grounded in history is critical for being engaged in social change.

I show up to as many events as I can, but with how you phrased the question I have to be honest and say that day-to-day I don’t get to as many events as I’d like. I am torn between kicking myself for not doing more (which is the primary reflex action of most people who are drawn to trying to change the world around them), and being thrilled that there are so many people organizing around social justice issues that there’s no way one person could everywhere that there’s something worthwhile happening. Still, you just lit a fire under me to get to a protest or prisoner letter writing night soon.

In your mind, what are some of the most important issues that vegans—particularly radical vegans with an itch to take action and effect change—should focus on or learn more about in the future?

I want to go back for a second to my experience with open rescue. I often say that I think I ended up working on foie gras in particular because I hadn’t had much experience around animals growing up, but I had fed ducks at ponds. I had seen them around me growing up, watched them, wondered at them. I had seen them, so I could see them. Sometimes, I worry that if I spend too much time online I’ll lose sight of them, and all the animals for whom I’m trying to advocate. I can see it happening sometimes when I get on Facebook or wherever the new big theoretical debate is happening. We can argue tactics in terms of strategic efficiency, or break down activism as a numbers game, but unless we stay connected to other living creatures (including humans), how are we even going to imagine what a better world would look like? It’s critical we support sanctuaries, interact with real-live individual animals of the sort we are talking about saving from violence and exploitation, and get off our computers and into our communities.

Thanks so much for speaking with me about your work!

 Thank you!

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Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

One thought on “Fighting the Chill: Interview with Sarahjane Blum”

  1. Wonderful interview with Sarahjane Blum, an activist whose passion, compassion, and courage I have admired for quite a few years now. Most especially, I hope that everyone pays close attention to her succinct final comments, which emphasize the reality that if we focus our energies on fighting each other in online forums rather than animal abusers and their real-world massive systems of exploitation, we—and the other animals—may just be doomed. Thanks, Sarahjane and Justin!

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