One of the most important aspects of nonviolence to Mahatma Gandhi was the constructive program. It is about creating nonviolent alternatives to the violent systems we see in our world. Leenaert focuses a lot on this crucial aspect by wanting us to focus more on the how aspect rather than the why aspect. We need to make it easy and convenient to live as vegans without exploiting and killing animals. We need to build and support organisations and companies like Beyond meat and the Good food institute which create and support foods which are not built on animal exploitation. Having worked in the peace movement for many years I have been influenced and impressed by the idea of nonviolence. I like it on a principal level but like Leenaert I'm mostly interested in the result. When I have studied different kinds of nonviolence movements I have been astonished by what great results it can have.
I would warmly recommend Leenaert's book to everyone interested in a vegan world but I miss something very important in it. Nonviolence is about avoiding using violence (like not eating animal products) and about creating a nonviolent alternative (the constructive program). This is covered well in the book. But nonviolence is also about confronting violence and oppression and on this matter Leenaert says close to nothing. In the last few sentences of the book he writes: "Direct action and confrontation will be more effective as more will agree with our position. Rescuing animals from factory farms will have more public support."/.../ "We're not there yet, but I'm entirely confident that we will make it happen." He does not argue for why it is not time for it now or when it will be time for it. I haven't seen any strong arguments for waiting with peaceful confrontation of the factory farms and the slaughterhouses of our world. Below I will argue for why I think it is an important aspect together with all the other important work that Leenaert is mentioning.
Rosa Parks was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama. She had been a civil rights advocate for many years but was disillusioned about positive change for the African-American people because of the lack of activism in her hometown (and elsewhere). One day when she was on the bus on they way home she refused to stand up from her seat when a white man told her to. She was sentenced in court later for this act of civil disobedience. This "action" was not planned and she probably didn't think that it would matter much. But it certainly did. It came to be seen as the spark that started the African-American Civil Rights Movement (CRM) in the US. Her disobedient act was followed up by a boycott of the busses in Montgomery until the city had reformed their discriminating rules. Parks had misjudged the people of Montgomery. When the boycott began almost 100 percent of the black decided to join. For many it meant quite a bit of hardship, since some of them had to walk long distances to work or school.
The Montgomery bus boycott continued for over a year but had success in the end and inspired other parts of the US south to employ different nonviolent campaigns, often containing elements of civil disobedience. It often started small. Like in Nashville in 1960 where a small group of students were gathered by the pastor James Lawson who had lived in India and learned the ideas of Gandhi. After having had nonviolence workshops they went into restaurants where only whites were allowed. The black students sat down and asked to be served. When they were refused they stayed in their seats and brought up their study books. The police had to come and arrest them. When this group got transported away by the police the next group of black students sat down and also asked to be served. In this way wave after wave of disobedient nonviolent students confronted the local race-laws. Soon the jail was full of well-dressed peaceful young students. Their families and friends, who until now had been passive, now reacted when the brave students had taken the first step. They continued with boycott of the downtown restaurants and stores which discriminated blacks. The campaign's grand finale was a massive demonstration through the streets of Nashville. A demonstration that hardly had drawn many people at all had it not been for the disobedient sit-ins in the restaurant.
The methods of nonviolent confrontation of the discriminating race-laws spread like a wildfire from city to city in the south of the US. Martin Luther King became the face of movement. He was invited to the White house where he told the president, Lyndon B Johnson, that it was time for voting rights for the African-Americans. The president said that he agreed on principle with their demands but that the time wasn't right. Giving the vote to blacks was too progressive and would never pass in Congress. You have to wait, be patient, the president pleaded with King. "We have waited for more than 300 years" King replied and went back to the south and began to plan the Birmingham campaign. With different civil disobedience methods they challenged segregation in Birmingham, then one of the most segregated and racist cities in the US. Because of the violent response from the authorities the Birmingham campaign gave the CRM a lot of support for their cause and many people who hadn't really understood, or didn't want to see the destructive discrimination of the blacks, now realized that something had to change. Something that hadn't been possible just a few months ago was now possible and Congress voted for the Voting Rights Act which was a major step in the right direction against racial discrimination. There is still a lot of racism in the US today but no one denies that these were important improvements for the African-American population. I think that we in other movement, including the animal rights movement, can learn something from this and other nonviolent movements. Let's hear some objections to this and some possible answers.
Every issue is unique and we can't possibly compare such a different issue with the animal rights issue!
It's true that every issue is unique with its own complex dynamics. We would be foolish to carbon copy any strategy from one movement to another. There are differences in culture, time, stake holders, etc. But it would be equally foolish to disregard what has been learned from hard-earned experiences from other movements. The CRM learned a lot from the independence movement of India and from the peace movement in the US. Without those lessons it's unlikely that they would have been so successful. But we need to adjust our strategy to our specific issue and our current situation.
But in all other movements the victims struggle for their own issue. We need to think differently because the animals can't fight their own struggle!
It's true that a major factor in the CRM was that the African-American population had a lot to gain in their struggle and that it was (most likely) a strong motivation and part of their success. But it is not always the case. Take the example of the anti-slavery-trade movement in England. It was almost exclusively run by white non-slaves Englishmen and very successful. Take the peace movement and the environmental movement where many activists struggle for people who are much more affected than themselves. In a way it can be more powerful when people struggle for someone else because it shows more altruism to give of your time and energy compared if you would do it (partly) for yourself.
But confrontation will only upset people! It won't strengthen the support for the animal rights issue because people will only become more defensive.
Today we tend to forget how radical and criticised the methods of the CRM were. Most people only know Martin Luther King as a person who talked about his nice dreams. But King was seen as a terrorist by FBI. And you can bet that many white people got angry at the activists who peacefully confronted the racial system. King also got criticized by the people who agreed on his goals but thought his methods were too extreme. One time he was
criticised for this was when he was in jail. He wrote the now famous "Letter from a Birmingham jail". There he says that the purpose of nonviolent direct action is to force the society to deal with a conflict that it has up till now ignored. Nonviolent direct action does not create conflicts; it only transforms it so that it becomes more visible. Too many today just ignore the issue of the animals in our factory farms. Even though many are aware of the suffering of the animals they can continue to pretend it's not there, because the meat norm and speciesism are so strong.
But animal rights and veganism is hard enough in itself to accept. If we add illegal methods to that it will be even harder.
This is a legitimate concern. But not confronting an evil system is also a risk. The majority wants to keep the status quo. It is up to us activists to make the current animal oppressing system unacceptable. But we need to do it strongly enough so that it is not possible to ignore anymore but at the same time use methods that are acceptable for many. That's why it's so important to follow the rules of civil disobedience: to act non-violently, openly and to accept the legal consequences. Most important is nonviolence. Martin Luther King could express very negative things about the racist system but he also talked about the importance of loving your enemies. As animal rights activist we can show anger at the system that oppresses and kills animals AND we can show compassion towards the workers in the factory farms and the slaughterhouses. The same advice on communication that Leenaert gives should be applied also in our actions and campaigns. We should focus on what we want — seeing animals as someone, not something — stop the oppression and slaughtering — but we don't want to express hate towards our adversaries.
It is more effective to invite people to vegan meals, talk to people, companies and politicians about veganism, start vegan companies, lobby and use other legal and mainstream methods.
I think these methods can be effective but that they can be more effective when you add peaceful direct action. One of the success factors of the CRM was the combination of different methods. Their campaigns often consisted of boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, speeches, lobbying and compromises. If they hadn't used direct actions they wouldn't have had much leverage. The ones that hold the power and profits on the oppression need an incentive to begin to negotiate. The powers that be are perfectly fine of just continue business as usual. Sure, customer demand can change the system, but it will take much longer time and
less chance of change if we reduce ourselves to consumers when we as activist have a much bigger chance of changing the system.
But it is the professional pro-veg organisations that are the future. They don't need small direct action groups to mess things up.
Professionalism sure has its advantages. I believe it is good that we have organisations who can have many employed who can lobby, campaign, etc. But it's not enough. A movement is more than employees. It also consists of people who give of their time without compensation. If people only see people in ties in big offices in our vegan organisations they might not be able to differentiate us from companies or corporate lobby groups. But if they see people lots of people holding signs in scorching heat or freezing cold they might think differently. If they see people in cities across the world taking time to go a few hours every week or month to a killing factory — the slaughterhouses — and expose themselves to the pain that the animals suffer maybe they will wonder what makes a person do that. If they see someone risking their own freedom (for a while) to free animals maybe they will start to question their own part in the exploitation of the animals. Today most people think that veganism is just a preference. Taking the veggie burger instead of the meat burger is nothing more than choosing the blue pants instead of the black. Deep inside they might know that it is more than that, but they get away with their own self-deception if we don't show with our actions that we are willing to give up something for the freedom of the animals.
But these small direct action groups won't be able to lobby big companies and politicians.
I think that different organisations and groups can and should play different parts in the animal rights movement. Not everyone has to write reports, do advertisements, research, lobbying or direct actions. When groups and organisations do what they are good at it works best as long as there is enough balance in the different activities. I would agree with Leenaert that there is more room for pro-veg organisations that focus on all the good reasons to go vegan. There is also room for more direct action groups, especially working with civil disobedience, since there are so few doing this. That being said, there is no inherent reason why a big, professional organisation couldn't also do peaceful direct actions. Look at the CRM mentioned before who managed to both talk to the White house and do massive civil disobedience. Greenpeace is another example of a big professional organisation that writes reports and lobby politicians and still manages to do spectacular direct actions. Like the environmental movement needs organisations on the whole spectrum — from the more mainstream WWF to the more radical Greenpeace. I think we in the animal rights movement need the mainstream AND the more radical organisations and groups that push the envelope.
But if we promote peaceful direct action groups it is a slippery slope towards inviting violence and hate in our movement!
I don't belong to the ones that say that we need to use every tool in the toolbox, including violence, because that is what the animals want from us. The animals want us to be as effective as possible and I believe that violence (both physical and psychological) are not effective. In fact often violence will be a major set-back for the whole animal rights movement and in turn for the animals. When someone uses violence against someone else the most common response is to go into survival mode. To protect yourself you demonize the other and it is much easier to defend your own position, even though you are violent yourself. Compare this to the Otpor movement in Serbia who struggled for democracy. When they did their nonviolent actions in the streets they didn't greet the soldiers with stones and shouting hateful words. They instead friendly said "Brother, you belong with us, not with the oppressor. Come, join us!". And many of the soldiers defected from the dictatorship.
Perhaps there is a small risk of a slippery slope towards violence but if we are clear about our nonviolence in how we organize our actions and how we communicate our message I think the differences will be clear.
But direct action groups think they can change things over knight. They don't realize that it is a step by step process and that we need to use reform to work for animal rights!
Not many know that the stated goals of the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s was not the end of segregation. It was not even the end of segregation of the busses in Montgomery! Their goal, which they succeeded with, was to create a more fair segregation where the white and the black would get an equal number of seats in the buses and a few more black drivers on the routes with more blacks. So why were the authorities so resistant in giving them these moderate changes in the segregation system? Because they knew that they wouldn't stop with this. The whole time they were clear about the bigger goal — an end to segregation as a whole and justice for all.
Most direct action groups know, of course, that getting to animal rights is a marathon race and not a sprint. What needs to happen to get there is to have many creative actions that challenge the meat norm and the animal industry. This will hopefully raise the question of animal rights in the consciousness of the public. And it will hopefully also energize vegans to go from passivity to activity so that the movement grows. In time, with many peaceful actions and effective campaigns, the discussion will have to change and animal rights will become more accepted. The actions will pave the way for the politicians to write new laws that gives the animal rights. People will be more and more uncomfortable with eating meat and when more cut down or stop completely with eating animal products they will also be more open to accept animal rights in our society as a whole.
When writing about strategy and effectiveness is it easy to automatically support your own side, whatever organisation or method you currently are working with; especially if you are invested in it and have made sacrifices for it. Then you risk confirming only what fits with your preconceived ideas. This is often called confirmation bias. I certainly risk this since I'm right now serving a month long prison sentence for two open rescue actions. To realize that my actions were a waste of time and energy would be a hard thing to take personally. But the same goes for someone who for instance has worked tirelessly for many years for an organisation or invested countless hours in writing a book. The best we can do to avoid the confirmation bias is to be aware of it and to the best of our abilities try to have an open mind. If we try hard to have the concerns of the animals in focus we can afford to admit that we might be wrong and refocus our efforts to best serve the animals. This is at least my goal. My hope is that we with rational and respectful argumentation can become better at choosing the most effective methods. I look forward to more research on this and also to hear what your thoughts are on the subject.
Martin Smedjeback, is serving a prison
sentence from the 8th of November to the 8th of December at the Tillberga prison in Sweden after open rescues of a fish and four turkeys with the direct action group Empty Cages. (www.facebook.com/smedjeback)
p.s. I have no access to internet here in prison so I have not been able to fact-check everything but I have asked a friend to do it. If there are any mistakes I apologize.