A Family Affair

YukiOne of the most significant changes for me in my evolution as an advocate against exploitation has come about through providing sanctuary to farmed animals. In the past, advocacy and activism were important to me but always impersonal and to a large degree abstract. They could be matters of convenience, picked up and put down whenever I chose.

Now, as Rosemary and I spend the majority of our days caring for and fretting over the well-being of individuals whom most humans see as mere objects, as simple and insignificant things, the impersonal has transformed into an imperative.

You see, animal liberation can never again be anything but personal. Our work towards the end of exploitation is no longer abstract; it is individuated. It is not just about food; it is a matter of FAMILY.

Perhaps there is a great untapped force for all of us in our advocacy and our activism, should we undertake the radical, revolutionary act of caregiving. If liberation is to happen, the struggle has to be personal for all of us. It has to be about family members, not abstractions. Liberation must be lived by us, enacted in our daily relationships, for anything less will fall short of the goal.

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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!

In Memory of Coriander

The hardest part of being responsible for another’s life is not death. It is burial. It is digging a hole, laying in a body, and covering it with shovels full of dirt. It is the finality of loss enacted through putting someone underground. Coriander We live with rescued chickens, and our constant affection for them all is inextricably linked to a wariness and worry over their well-being. Coriander came to us in the spring of 2014, with her “sister,” Beatrice, and several other hens. She was an Easter chick who, like many others, quickly wore out her welcome and was abandoned. She was a beautiful being, whose bond with Beatrice was a joy to behold.

We also experienced unfading moments with her, such as when she would plant herself firmly in the middle of a plate of treats in order to block her flockmates with her body. Bonds are always flexible, of course…

The victimization of hens begins before they are born and is carried in their bodies until death. All for the sake of human consumption of eggs, these wonderful beings have been manipulated to lay at such frightening rates that their bodies are virtually ticking time bombs. (The wild ancestors of modern chickens lay 12-15 eggs per year, solely for reproduction. The hens whose eggs we steal lay between 250-300 annually, and typically live for only a few years before they die.)

Whether a hen is in a battery cage, on a “free-range” farm, or in a backyard flock, the biology is the same…the exploitation is unchanged.

We understood this quickly after starting to rescue chickens. The knowledge of impending death does not ameliorate the experience of it, of course–especially when those who die are innocent victims of human greed, no more and no less.

corianderWe brought Coriander inside to care for her and keep her warm when she started showing signs of discomfort. Despite constant care and attention, her body could not handle whatever she was struggling with.

I have been carrying a great deal of rage around since losing Coriander. Since burying Coriander, honestly. It is a non-specific rage–there is no particular target, though there are some very clear causes behind her death–which makes it all the more frustrating.

What I constantly circle around, though, is how hard it is for me to see veganism, animal rights, and the totality of oppression outside of the impacts human society has on individual bodies. In caring for, losing, grieving over a tiny fraction of these bodies, it becomes utterly impossible not to telescope one hen’s short life and devastating death. I cannot but replay her burial and try not to choke on the absolute repugnance I feel towards human privilege, mentalities of domination, and a convenient apathy that keeps our hands bathed in blood.

There is no solace in knowing that Coriander had a better life (and death) than many of her species. Our sanctuary is not a bucolic place of joy where no one suffers or where death, when it happens, is a quiet nodding off to sleep.

Our joys are like clay-footed gods, always.

Interview with Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

It is always exciting to meet another vegan metalhead (if you are a vegan metalhead like me at least). I cannot quite remember how I met Jayaprakash Satyamurthy in the realm of Facebook-Earth, but it was a quick experience of exponentially increasing excitement. Jayaprakash, who lives in Bangalore, India, is more than just a vegan metalhead; he is also the bassist for the band Djinn And Miskatonic, as well as a published writer of weird fiction in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft. Oh, and on top of all that, he runs an animal rescue organization and shelter, which means he lives with a big furry family.

I was fascinated to learn more about Jayaprakash’s experiences and his work…

JayaprakashPlease share your story of going vegan. When did you decide to stop consuming and using animal products? What motivated this change in your lifestyle?

I was raised vegetarian. In my college years I started to eat meat. I can say that it was the usual process of dietary drift a lot of young Indians go through once they are exposed to a more diverse peer group in college; I can say it was just the convenience of picking up a sheek kebab or shavarma roll after a night at the pub with my friends. I can make any number of excuses, but the real reason is that my vegetarianism was simply a matter of habit, and even though I considered myself an animal lover, it was more of a sentimental thing, not something I’d thought through rationally as an adult. More to the point, I think it just showed how weak-willed and ready to be tossed about on the waves of peer pressure I was. I didn’t care to “fit in” in my choices of music and books or clothing; yet it seemed okay to go with the flow when it came to more crucial choices like diet and even clothing—I wore my share of clunky leather boots and jackets during this time.

I will say that I was never completely comfortable eating meat. I always felt heavy and sluggish after eating anything more than a kebab roll, I was repulsed by bone and gristle in what I was eating, and I frequently fought down a sense of nausea while eating meat, thinking of the living thing it had once been. In fact, meat formed a very minor part of my diet, which was mainly ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Questions of the use of animals for food and clothing and so forth surfaced in my mind from time to time, but I never considered them in sharp detail. I was opposed to animal testing, and I continued to enjoy the company of cats and dogs, but since moving out of my family home and living in a series of hostels and shared flats, I hadn’t had a pet and I think losing that daily connection with the animal world helped blunt my instincts.

I reverted to vegetarianism after living with the woman who would become my wife. She was born into a meat-eating community but gave up meat as a little girl, not wanting to harm animals. It felt to me like a natural decision, a relief, a homecoming. You might ask if I would have continued to eat meat if I had met a different woman, and all I can say is that sometimes the right people come into one’s life and leave it at that. A lot of people remain meat eaters even if their spouses are not—this was the case with my father and mother—and I could have done so too. I also stopped wearing leather shoes and retired my old leather jacket.

As I grew more involved in animal welfare, moving from activism to regular rescue and rehabilitation of stray dogs and cats, I started to learn more about the issues involved in how we exploit animals for our comfort, convenience, and luxury. I read a lot about ethical reasons for a life free of animal products, worked my way through Massimo Pigliucci’s examination of these issues on his Rationally Speaking blog, and reconnected with the deep emotional connection I had felt with all animals as a child. Finally, a video by PETA on dairy farming in India pushed me over the edge. I decided to stop consuming dairy as well, and called my wife up and told her I had taken the decision to become a vegan.

I know that the exploitation, torture, and murder of animals continues around me daily. I know that my ceasing to use the products of this cruelty probably doesn’t reduce any of it. But I take comfort in knowing I no longer have blood on my hands, in knowing that there is no ethical contradiction in my animal welfare activities (well hardly any) and in, perhaps, serving as an inspiration to others. I feel like I have finally become someone the five-year-old me would have been proud of.

You are involved in the heavy metal scene in a number of ways, from playing music to being an active commentator online. How long have you been into heavy music? How long have you been playing, and what is your band, Djinn & Miskatonic, up to these days? Any other projects in the works as well?

I discovered heavy metal music through MTV in the early 90s. I was already a music lover with diverse tastes for an early teen: classic rock, some blues, some alt, a lot of western and Indian classical. At first, I had little patience for the “long-haired guitar bands” on MTV. But then songs by Metallica and Guns n’ Roses started clicking. My home life was not altogether happy, and I identified with the rage in many of these songs. When I discovered Iron Maiden, I responded to their complex melodies and epic storytelling. Judas Priest filled me with intimations of power and glorious darkness. Slayer’s music showed me how music could be sinister and attractive at the same time.

I wanted to start playing this music at once, picking up an acoustic guitar and playing at writing songs and being in a band with friends. It took me years to get any good, and to decide to play the bass guitar. I played with a few different bands in my college years, covering everything from alt rock to thrash and heavy metal, and trying out a fair number of original songs along the way.

I’ve been playing the bass guitar since I was 17. I had a long hiatus from music but started again in 2010. In 2011 I formed what would become my current band, Djinn And Miskatonic. Our first album, Forever In The Realm, was a more traditional doom affair, with lots of Saint Vitus, Reverend Bizarre, and Electric Wizard influences. We’ve nearly finished recording our second album, and this time around the musical range varies from Sleep/Vitus doom to Cirith Ungol-influenced epic doom metal with a couple of other odd things along the way.

I’d love to do a couple of other musical projects—something more raw and thrashy as well maybe a space rock project some day. Right now, I don’t have enough time or collaborators for anything other than Djinn, and anyway we’ve got an anything-goes approach to songwriting which allows us to try out a lot of different musical ideas.

In an earlier interview, I discussed possible connections between an interest in black metal and veganism with Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis. What is your take on being a vegan metalhead? Do you feel like your brand of veganism is in any way informed by your taste in music, or vice versa?

I think maybe extreme metalheads, if they have not been co-opted by the right-wing politics and misogyny that inhere in those circles, are people who are used to standing out from the mainstream and making their own decisions. I think there is a strain of nature-worship and pantheism in black metal in particular which is conducive to moving towards veganism.

But I don’t, ultimately, see a close link between the music and the ethics of veganism. I am happy to see that people like Mille Petrozza are vegan, but I also know many more metal musicians thrive on steaks and leather. There’s no consistent ethical stance in what is after all a diverse community of people and ideologies.

On the other hand, I have found in practice a lot of animal lovers in the metal community here. So that’s a good sign. I try to be visible in my veganism so that I can act as an advocate to people in the music community who may feel predisposed to at least hearing me out because they respect me as a musician. But ultimately, you become vegan because you do not wish to participate in the murder, rape, and torture of sentient beings any longer. People from any musical background can and have made that connection and that change in their lives, and I respect them for it and count them as my peers.

You are also an active writer of weird tales, and a fellow fan of H. P. Lovecraft (yes!). How does your penchant for weird fiction tie into your other activities—music, veganism, etc.?

Although I’ve tended to approach horror themes a little more crudely in my lyrics, my interest in weird fiction does have a lot to do with the urge to write dark, eerie music and with an overall preoccupation with dark, fantastic themes and imagery. So far, I haven’t written songs that are directly influenced by my ethical choices. I don’t know if there is any tie-in between weird fiction and veganism, but I have heard it suggested, I don’t know how seriously, that animals might have a very different kind of consciousness from ours, as different as those of the Lovecraftian gods are from our own—and we’ll never stand a chance of learning more about how that consciousness works if we keep eating them.

Along with all of this creative work, you also are involved in animal rescue in Bangalore. Can you discuss your rescue and what got you into rescue work?

I got into rescue work because I wanted to do something more practical and impactful than the activism too many animal lovers content themselves with. There is a place for raising awareness and running campaigns, but my own temperament draws me to working at the rescue side of things instead. I feel I am doing something of intrinsic and real value when I help nurse an animal back to health, find a new home for a former stray, or at least provide warmth, food, shelter, and love for a dying animal. There are many roles you can play in animal welfare: awareness, fundraising, admin, and so forth. I found that this was the role I could be most useful in, and even so I don’t think I’m very good at it yet.

My wife and I started to be the go-to people for anyone who found a lost or abandoned cat or kitten. There aren’t as many animal lovers in Bangalore working with cats as dogs, and our home population of rescued cats keeps growing. We also take in dogs, and starting a shelter seemed like a natural progression. We’ve had a setback recently, losing the land on which our first shelter was run, but we are looking at new sites and hope to include a full-fledged cattery at our next shelter. Our shelter is called Simba’s Run, after an abused Dalmatian who was one of the first rescues undertaken by our animal welfare organization, Animal Aid Alliance.

How does being vegan influence your efforts to rescue and care for animals in need?

The shelter I help to run is no-kill as far as possible. I have taken a decision to put down animals who were terminally ill and in pain, like a cat with a shattered spinal column or a puppy with an advanced, uncurable case of distemper. This decision is never taken lightly, and I try to spend time with the animal, comforting it, before the euthanisation. The idea of euthanasia for “unadoptable” animals or simply to keep shelter populations down is repulsive to me.

I’ve also had to accept that it is very hard to give cats and dogs a meatless diet. I don’t feel good enabling the slaughter of one set of animals to help my efforts to save another set, and this makes me feel like a hypocrite. Vegan diets for dogs and especially cats are a deeply controversial topic and hard to get clear facts and advice about. I have experimented with a vegan cat food with taurine added, but my cats have not responded to it especially enthusiastically. Still, I hope to learn more and to switch to vegan food for my shelter if it seems like the animals will not miss out on nutrients and flavor.

Sometimes I wonder what we’re all doing, setting up dependent relationships with animals and playing god. Some human beings respect that social contract with our companion animals; others don’t, and then people like us try to step in and rectify the balance. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

What sort of advocacy work are you involved in, and can you talk some about the vegan scene in the Bangalore area? What are some successes you have seen there, and what are some key issues you think need to be addressed?

I’m not involved in any vegan advocacy in an organized way. I make no secret of my veganism, and as an “out” vegan I hope to influence others. I think I have helped at least two people go vegan. There are a couple of vegan restaurants in Bangalore and a few vegan meet-up groups. I still haven’t interacted much with them beyond the occasional online chat. I really should, I’m sure, but in a culture and society that’s becoming deeply committed to meat eating, I think it is more useful to be out there, being visibly vegan, sane, and happy.

In my country, meat eating is a complex affair. It’s a way to rebel against Brahminical strictures; it’s forbidden flesh; it’s cool and sophisticated. Suddenly everyone is a foodie, sampling steaks and whatnot at hipster eating places. I think people need to learn to see their dietary choices as not just about their lifestyle and self-image but in the context of the ethics of what we eat.

At the same time, the average Indian vegetarian is deeply dependent on dairy products and the idea of doing without cow’s milk is unthinkable to many. I’d like to see that lactose addiction being combated with better information and better awareness of what it means to keep a mother in captivity, impregnating her time and again just to steal her milk from her babies.

Our government has in the past run highly successful campaigns to popularize milk and eggs as healthy and essential to our diet; I don’t think veganism should be government mandated, but I’d like them, and the media as well, to at least table it as a reasonable choice and not something extreme or just a fad.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Thanks for the chance to do this interview. I’d like to invite anyone in Bangalore who is seriously considering veganism to reach out to me to learn more. Also, I now kmow one other vegan in the Indian metal community: Aditya Mehta of Solar Deity. I’d like for our tribe to increase, so if you’re an Indian metalhead who loves animals, and would like to learn more about veganism, once again, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you, and I can be reached at jayaprakash@gmail.com.

Ferguson

Mike Brown and Ferguson have been on my mind almost constantly for the past couple of days. We can never know the reality of what happened when Wilson engaged Brown and his friend, but it is still impossible to believe how things have played out.

Many people are downplaying Wilson’s actions and talking about Brown’s “personal responsibility” in his own death. His actions–robbery before, possibly lunging at Wilson and going for his gun–are enough to excuse the officer for fatally shooting an 18-year-old black teen..

But I cannot get the stench of a fundamentally biased legal system and police state out of my nostrils. Wilson talked in his testimony of how terrified he was by Brown, indicating that his shots were in self-defense.

Wilson is a police officer and white, so obviously he has been given enough credibility for many, including a prosecutor and a grand jury, to suspend their disbelief so much that he walks away.

Yet Wilson is 6’4″, and on that day he was armed and suited up on the protective gear of his trade. He also chose to shoot after Brown was a more than safe distance away, and apparently standing with his hands up.

The grand jury’s decision basically says that there is insufficient evidence to even explore the possibility of Wilson’s guilt, even on something like manslaughter charges. It thus shows just how much freedom police forces have too carry out capital punishment, and how acceptable it is for police forces to *create* a war zone by casting an entire community of people as the enemy and militarizing in order to control them.

When you believe you are at war and arm yourself for war, there will be war. When you pre-judge individuals to be dangerous criminals, do not be surprised if many lose any trust that you will treat them fairly and respond out of fear and spite. When you discount the lives of people because of the color of their skin and where they live, expect that resistance will grow…even if the legal system and many others will tell you what you have done is perfectly okay. It is never okay, and it will never be forgotten.

“Those things we cannot unsee”: Interview with Jacqueline Morr of Project Intersect

One of my driving interests as an ethical vegan activist over the past few months has been exploring the intersection of ethical veganism and other social justice movements. Having been one to indulge in the myopia of “animal rights” for many years, I have experienced quite the eye-opening (to put it mildly) since pursuing a broader stance of resistance, leading me to take seriously the interconnections of forms of oppression. And to take seriously the necessity and importance of solidarity with other activists across movements.

As I explained in a previous post, I am co-editing a collection of letters from current vegans called Letters to a New Vegan. Through that project, I got connected with Jacqueline Morr, a writer and activist currently living in Los Angeles who is doing a range of academic and activist work on issues surrounding intersectionality, ecofeminism, and animal/total liberation. She recently founded Project Intersect, a zine that I hope will become a nucleus for intersectionality that brings together academics, activists, and a broader population… sliiime

Can 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? In January of 2011 I moved to Chicago. Nick, a longtime friend of mine, had contacted me about an extra room in his new apartment in Roscoe Village for only four hundred dollars per month; I did not hesitate to accept his offer. This was immediately after I finished with student teaching in my hometown (Mansfield, Ohio), which solidified my desire to teach—and to finally move out of state.

Nick left Ohio immediately following high school graduation, having earned a film degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in addition to working toward a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts Studies from Columbia College (Chicago) by the time I arrived in that city on the lake. He’d already been vegan for a year, whereas I was one of those self-proclaimed “vegetarians” who still ate canned tuna and never even gave cow’s milk or chicken’s eggs an iota of critical thought. I had also spent six weeks in an eating disorders treatment facility in Philadelphia in February and March of 2010—of my own volition, I still feel the need to mention—and was still recalibrating my relationship to food and hunger and also to the post-traumatic self, the multiply-fractured consciousness left in the wake of recovery.

When Nick found the skim milk, “organic, free range” eggs, and “100% real” butter I’d put in his fridge he indicated his discomfort. If I could name the sense of shame I felt for introducing animal products into his cruelty-free kitchen it might sound something like denial. This prompted serious conversations regarding his veganism, during which he recommended I read Eating Animals. I plucked that book from his shelf and read it in a little more than a day. I cried when I finished. Not only for the enormity of the other animals’ suffering but also for my own willful ignorance and, strangely enough, a recovered memory: an undercover video from a fur farm in China I’d seen years before, thousands of minks ineffectively bludgeoned and stripped of their skin while still alive and thrown into pink and steaming piles of others in various stages of dying and decomposition. Writhing ever so slightly. Lidless eyes filled up with the horror of that violent human indifference.

The next morning I held ceremony at my last non-vegan meal, which consisted of diner buckwheat pancakes and a milkshake.

Your academic experience is in trauma studies. How has that research and scholarship affected your work as an activist? Have you found it useful for yourself (and others) who are striving to end the suffering of others?

Trauma and the traumatic subject fascinate me. More than that—I feel indebted to the language and physiology of trauma. The hard work of my Master’s thesis, which culminated in an extended research paper (a history of eating disorders and female [writerly] resistance), an artist’s statement (on the inherent “madness” and “feminine” aspect of writing), and a conceptual nonfiction novel called sick girl (regarding my personal experience as a clinically “disordered” female), revolutionized my experience and understanding of research and writing and critical thought. Specifically: I had begun to more rigorously connect my desire for and aptitude toward knowledge to my increasing unrest as an advocate of critical pedagogy and feminism, amongst many other things (animal and earth liberation not the least of them). A further result was that I more clearly understood the urgency of action around the issues that were closest to my heart and mind—in addition to discovering their utter interconnectedness. During this time I made explicit the previously implicit connections between my feminism, atheism, ethical veganism, earth activism, anarcho-syndicalism, and so forth. Proclaiming it from the rooftops, as it were…sounding “barbaric” yawps from the Manhattan Bridge or the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park.

While my time in the Trauma Studies Department at NYU contributed positively and so thoroughly to my increasingly intersectional mode of praxis around my ethical and political self, it also clarified the extent to which my idea(l)s are “radical,” even (and oftentimes especially) in the context of disparate academic and activist circles. Where I sought allies I found willful resistance, oftentimes hatred and bigotry: “feminists” rejecting the equation of the exploitation of their reproductive systems to that of other female animals; polyglots and Ph.D. candidates in Literary Criticism arguing against boycotts and direct activism on the basis that “choice cannot truly exist;” LGBTQIA activists employing ableist, sexist, and speciesist language to discuss the history of their own oppression.

I could prattle on forever here, but perhaps I should end by noting that knowing itself can be traumatic. In the case of animal/earth liberationists and radical eco-feminists this strikes me as especially true. Those things we cannot unsee will often wash over us in a wave of cold desperation. Of panic, really, with an intensity that would bowl us over. You know the sort: undercover videos from factory farms implant themselves as memories in the Nightmares Section of our brain’s memory warehouse. This cathexis then connects to an intense urgency, hatred, fear around the gestation crate, the bull hook, the anti-nursing bullring, the captive bolt pistol, the puppy mill, the free-range shithouse.

What are some of your primary issues of focus these days as an activist and advocate? What do you feel ought to be some priorities of the vegan/animal-rights movement(s) in general?

Intersectionality remains a central focus of mine. How to cultivate safe and productive spaces for radical eco-feminists and (gender, ability, intellectual, or otherwise) nonconforming persons in animal liberationist spaces; how to successfully critique welfarist incrementalism and cognitive moral dissonance by modeling engaged, intersectional, abolitionist ethics and politics; and, perhaps most importantly, how to model intersectionality through the language I use and the tactics I employ.

There is, I feel, a startling lack of definitional rigor that encapsulates the contemporary movement for “animal rights” (I would instead use the term liberation or defense, for deploying rights-based language to advance any radical social justice movement mires us in legal jargon and a certain capitalist economy of subjectivity—very limiting and counter-productive. This is aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s shunning of the concept of “tolerance” during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It’s the presence of justice.”) Amongst the fractured sects of this movement there are no real working—read: widely-accepted and applied—definitions of violence, personhood, accountability, effective activism, and yes—even veganism. I am in no way advocating that diversity, nuance, multi-vocality, and anarchistic values be swallowed up by some equalizing structure or language. Each of us must retain access to the fullest range of significations without fear of subjugation or silencing. But if we are to organize we must ourselves be organized and intentional. Not slaves to any structure or forms but certainly willing pupils, always read to learn and humbly accepting our ill-fated (human) grandiosity: our gross lack of perspective.

You founded Project Intersect, which is an exciting effort to bring together different activists and scholars in order to create a space and vehicle for dialogue on various (but related) social justice issues. Can you explain, briefly, what intersectionality is, and talk some about why it is such a crucial component of ongoing justice advocacy and how you feel it can change the way we approach the ending of exploitation?

I feel I’ve talked about this a bit earlier in this interview, so I’ll keep it brief here: intersectionality, in my understanding, considers all oppressions as interlocking and mutually-reinforcing. Its foundation is built upon the recognition and acceptance of empathy as the driving force behind all ethical concerns—with some caveats around white (male) privilege, colonial histories, indigenous practices, geography, and so forth.

It’d be a true exploitation of my own privilege to claim that all persons should adhere to intersectional ethics as I must, and do. How do I honor the history of the term itself, which was coined by black radical feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” without coopting or claiming the experiences of persons whose lives, in so many ways, are distinct from my own? Me, born to middle-class white folks in Ohio exurbia, sent to Catholic school where I accessed a truly college-preparatory education, possessive of my BA and MA, never having wanted for food or shelter or, really, friendship. Of course, as a female-bodied, young, atheist, body-modified, anti-capitalist, earth liberationist, ethical vegan person, I can find multiple intersections between my experience (of oppression) and that of others, especially female-bodied persons. Never claiming their experience as my own; never speaking for or at or artificially “with” them; but in solidarity and humility to the greatest extent possible.

Identifying and illuminating these intersections is key to collaboration and solidarity across multiple movements for social justice and liberation (power in numbers). This means posing to feminist-identified persons that the exploitation of the female body, regardless of species, must be recognized as intolerable. It means speaking with labor organizers and those who campaign for the rights of working-class laborers and immigrant workers about the exploitation of workers (both adults and children) in slaughterhouses, tanneries, the ivory trade, and so on.

What are some of your goals with Project Intersect, in the near future and further down the road?

Well, of course, to distribute the zine more effectively and widely—to put the publication in the hands of as many unawares passers-by as possible! It’d be lovely to have the zine come out bi-annually, but I’m a High School English teacher and find that I don’t even have time to read for myself anymore, let alone write. Bitter about all of that (teaching is wonderful and awful and uplifting and miring all at once.) But! The first issue of the zine is currently available online (e-mail projectintersectzine@gmail.com to request a copy) and in some brick-and-mortar stores: The Pop-Hop bookshop in Highland Park; Skylight Books in Los Feliz; and Stories Books & Café in Echo Park. All in Los Angeles, currently, but my collaborators on the project—Ashley Maier (a good friend and fellow activist) and Nick Morr (my spouse, and another radical liberationist)—are working to improve distribution and promotion of the zine. If anyone would like to help, please, contact us!

As a post-script I should mention that the theme for the next issue, whenever it DOES come out, will be On Violence.

Another of your interests is Ecofeminism. How would you define ecofeminism and its relationship to the larger feminist movement? Why is ecofeminism not always also a vegan movement?

These questions! Eco-feminism has a particularly interesting history, which I won’t recount here; instead I’ll point readers in the direction of Marti Kheel, Lori Gruen, Josephine Donovan, pattrice jones, and so forth. Eco-feminism itself represents that marriage I discussed earlier: a sort of praxis of ethics, experience, and care that fuses (without coopting or whitewashing or undifferentiating) multiple ethical, socio-political, economic, environmental, and ontological concerns. I fear I’m sounding too wordy but I hope my high-flung language is appropriate enough for this context. I care very deeply about the accessibility of these concepts and lifestyles, which must be moldable enough to fit the needs and desires of innumerable persons and communities.

As I’m finding myself a bit overwhelmed by this question, and in the interest of our time, I’ll be as direct as possible: vegan eco-feminism is a “radical” stance in that it establishes and aspires toward rigorous moral baselines. It’s polemical because many feminists identify strongly with one cause or another. Many self-identified feminists I’ve interacted with that are NOT vegan perhaps have never heard of eco-feminism, or feminist arguments for veganism. Or, if they are aware of such arguments, they’re resistant—perhaps they feel they cannot relate, or they have adopted a humanist stance, or they are simply disgusted at the comparison between their reproductive systems and those of female animals of other species. These run the gamut. Melanie Joy’s concept of cognitive moral dissonance resonates well here.

I am in no way asserting that feminists who have not yet made the connection between the oppression of “women” and the multiple other oppressions tended to by eco-feminists and ethical vegan feminists are “bad feminists”—nor are they bad people, necessarily (yet these things always must go forward case-by-case, as we know). As a white, cisgender, educated, able-bodied person I must accept the skewed perceptions that such privilege can and does promote. However, I feel no remorse in proposing that embodying ideals of non-violence, anti-capitalism, solidarity across social justice movements, and the opposition to all forms of bigotry (including speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, nationalism, and so forth) should rightfully be at the heart of all efforts to end oppression/the oppressors.

Besides all of these projects and interests, you have also contributed articles to a few publications and do your own writing. Where can we read some of your previous work?

  1. My personal blog, which has been cast aside as the result of my teaching schedule: honeyonthebrain.blogspot.com
  2. I’ve contributed a few pieces for my column “I Forge Things” at Yay! LA Arts & Culture Magazine: http://www.yaylamag.com/category/yay-lit/i-forget-things-literature/.
  3. I have forthcoming pieces in Letters to a New Vegan and an as-yet-unnamed project by professor, author, and activist Laura Wright on the intersections of ethical veganism, femininity, and eating disorders.
  4. Also, I’ve written a conceptual non-fiction book, titled sick girl, that sits gathering encrypted dusk on my hard-drive. It was written for partial fulfillment of my Master’s thesis. I love it and miss it, and intend to get through that final round of edits some day soon, and re-submit to literary agents. Hopefully. Hopefully.

Thanks so much for speaking with me about your work!

My greatest pleasure, of course!

Letter to a New Vegan

It has been a long process, but the Letters to a New Vegan book manuscript has made great progress. After contributing to the collection, I soon joined Melissa Tedrowe as co-editor and had the greater privilege to read so many touching, inspiring letters from vegans around the world. My original contribution will not be included in the book, so I am sharing it here for all of the new vegans, would-be vegans, could-be vegans, and my fellow vegans–if any of them care to read it.

Dear New Vegan,

The most important thing that I have to say is, “Thank you.” Your choice to end your role in the exploitation of non-human animals is brave, an action of insight and strength in the name of compassion. Simply put, it is remarkable.

I went vegan in 1999 as a sophomore in college. As someone who cared deeply for companion and wild animals alike as a child, it somehow took me almost twenty years of being alive to figure out that truly loving them is impossible while you are eating them, wearing them, experimenting on them, or using them for entertainment. I am saddened at the disconnect in my awareness for so long but also glad I recognized that the only way for me to be at peace with myself was to stop my personal exploitation of animals. That decision has directed my entire life since. I hope it does the same for you.

The world that you exist in as a new vegan looks very different from the one I entered and existed in way back in a previous millennium. The sheer quantity of vegan-friendly products, businesses, informational Web sites and books, and opportunities to gather and get active available today is mind-blowing. If I stop to think about how far veganism has come since I became vegan, I feel something akin to whiplash—in a good way!

Honestly, though, vegans are still a minority demographic in the United States and around the world. And depending on where you live, you can easily feel isolated and overwhelmed by the amount and normalcy of suffering that humans perpetrate on non-human animals. Simply open your eyes and look around, and you will find something that makes exploiting animals seem okay and even praiseworthy. It is appallingly obvious, and often cripplingly painful . . . yet we vegans are the minority who see and refuse to continue the system of suffering.

Believe it or not, it took me more than a decade to even begin to get past this hyper-awareness of being a minority and the ensuing sense of overwhelming isolation. Hell, it is far too easy to fall down that dark well of vegan melancholy when the world seems nasty, brutish, and so profoundly antithetical to everything we believe (we know) is true . . .

Nevertheless, your decision to go vegan is truly positive and worth rejoicing. It is an act of defiance in a society that thrives on status quo; it is perhaps the strongest statement against a bloodied, destructive machine that any person can make. Yet it is also the start of a life that brings the deepest joy, fostering the rare instance where one’s ethics come into alignment with one’s lifestyle.

There is so much power in this alignment, coupled with the vision to see through the veil of cultural normalization. So, so much.

My biggest mistake as a vegan was kowtowing to the sickness of society, shutting my mouth with a nod and a smile simply because I was convinced that I had no right to speak up. For so many years, I acted (and thought!) as a minority on the fringe, whose perspective and message would inevitably be ignored or laughed off.

When you believe this and accept the minority mindset, it can become hard to recognize your own strength, your own value, and your own place as a key part of something better. You may let that initial act of empowerment flicker and fade . . .

Never allow yourself to make this mistake.

Never let the dominant narrative convince you that you are a minority and should act accordingly. Never let the snotty comments, sneering questions, juvenile jokes, or inexplicable stubbornness of people around you—even those whom you care about and are sure should know better—bow your back under their terrible weight. Never let your voice be silenced nor your energy wane in the effort to liberate animals from suffering and exploitation.

Veganism is power, and veganism is empowerment. Never doubt this. Never forget this.

Looking back on the path behind me, and seeing you standing at the start of your own, I am excited to see so many others walking along with us. They are all speaking up—some louder than others but all in their own voices. There are many of us, yet we also desperately need your voice and your power . . . for the animals.