I became vegan about 7 ½ years ago and an activist one year after that. I read and saw enough to feel that refraining from animal-exploitative consumption and habits wasn’t enough; I was compelled to actively pursue the challenge of making the planet a kinder place for other Earthlings. To echo the great activist Winona LaDuke, I discovered the difference between “simple ‘responsibility’” and activism (3). During those years, I’ve been a pamphleteer, protester, and provocateur. I have given out food samples, shown slaughterhouse videos, written books, and given talks. I’ve yelled, cried, and engaged in rational debates about animal rights and liberation. I have found myself in boardrooms, classrooms, and courtrooms. Over the past six years, I’ve been supported by peers and slandered by animal abusers.
I haven’t tried everything, nor have I invented new strategies, and I’ve made a lot of errors. However, I have and will continue to seek pathways to disrupt the speciesism of humans who remain apathetic in the face of easily preventable suffering.
Being the inquisitive type, I’ve also read a lot of animal rights history, and having moved to Minnesota six months after going vegan, I was lucky enough to meet activists who have been fighting for other species for decades. Some are courageous figures of animal rights lore and others have written inspiring books. Along with pages of text, stories from in-the-trenches activists have given me an overview of the movement I call home. These things, along with my experiences, lead me to conclude that grassroots activism is still a viable avenue for forging the path to animal liberation. And I am writing this article because I fear it is waning in the U.S. to the detriment of the species we wish to help.
A straightforward definition of grassroots activism (GA) is “locally based community organizing” (4). Building on that, I pose my definition metaphorically. Individual blades grow closely together in a specific location. There may be other patches of grass that appear like them all around the globe, but those blades come from a particular amalgam of matter, minerals, and organisms. In kind, grassroots activists are bunches of individual blades who focus on issues right in their own backyards, to use an apropos cliché. This image should not be limiting, for a grassroots campaign can grow internationally, with each patch of activists doing what they can in their geographical locale for a shared goal. (For an example of a vibrant grassroots campaign, see No New Animal Lab.)
While there are other examples of GA I could share, my purpose in this piece is to explore why there aren’t more grassroots campaigns popping up, with two primary reasons being non-profit organizations and e-campaigning. To be clear, neither of these things is inherently bad and can be extremely beneficial, especially the latter. (Still, regarding the former, I implore people to read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.)
The evidence in this article is based upon my experiences and talking to activists around the country and globe. A common grievance I hear is that fewer individuals seem interested in protest campaigning in the animal rights/animal liberation (ARAL) movement, opting for lifestyle-based events such as cooking classes and dine outs. This trend hurts grassroots campaigns.
I believe the rise of national animal rights and welfare non-profits are part of the reason this is happening. When I used to do outreach for a Minneapolis-based grassroots organization, I had people refuse literature or to make donations, breezily explaining, “Oh, I already give to [fill in with the name of a popular national organization here].” Usually, they would walk by so quickly I’d not have time to explain, “But wait! We aren’t them, and we are working on issues in your community.” Herein lies the attendant propensity to throw money at a problem rather than becoming an active participant in home-grown campaigns against said problem.
Fur Free Friday — a national day of anti-fur demonstrating that takes place the day after Thanksgiving — provides another example of the hold the non-profit industry has over the ARAL movement. The idea that there is one day per year compassionate people should take to the streets and protest fur has been successful in that people do just that…for one day. While I’m grateful to those who show up to any demonstration against cruelty, I’m also stymied because I help organize a campaign called Fur Free Minneapolis. Our general turnout for fur store protests is about seven people, but that number can more than triple when the last Friday of November rolls around. Nice, but if we want to close a fur store, we need to show up in noteworthy numbers more than once per year (ideally, more than once per week).
With faces turned toward national groups imploring people to take part in Fur Free Friday — and give donations while they’re at it — the reality that demonstrations against fur are regularly taking place in Minneapolis gets obscured. This occurs despite my attempts to take advantage of that day of action and recruit folks to the local. No matter how much money a national organization has, it will never have the power of a consistent mass of people showing up to a fur store and taking part in other community-based strategies. In cases such as this, I am a steadfast promoter of people power, for I don’t trust that money is going to rescue other species from the financial powerhouse that is animal industrial complex.
Further, no matter how much money a national organization has, it won’t know the particulars of a given community. To illustrate, in 2015, the Fur Free Minneapolis campaign, a project of Minnesota Animal Liberation, reached out to local television station KSTP to cease giving away a $1000 gift certificate to Ribnick Fur & Leather as a holiday lights prize, something they had done for quite a long time. After years of local concern and our final impassioned pleas, KSTP broke their ties with Ribnick. Sadly, the store is still open, but they have significantly changed their name to Ribnick Luxury Outerwear, a small but hopeful sign that selling animal hair and skin is not as acceptable as it once was. Changes such as this, if worked at consistently, may result in larger shifts that will hopefully make Minneapolis a city without fur stores.
I wasn’t active during what many see as the heyday of the ARAL movement, those years in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Those who were, however, both celebrate and lament the Internet’s takeover of most facets of life, especially activism. Of course, I don’t deny the remarkable avenues e-activism has opened up for ARAL and other movements. There is a downside, however. For sharing of posts and petitions, tweet storms and Facebook actions are best used as complements to, not replacements for, grassroots action. In some cases, they overshadow grassroots power.
In August 2014, St. Patrick’s Church of Stephensville, WI held its 44th and final Pig Rassel, a fundraising event in which people pay a few bucks to enter a mud pit with pigs who will be sent to slaughter the next day. As multiple humans at differing levels of sobriety enter the pit, the pig runs away as they attempt to wrestle her and drop her into or on top of a barrel. In 2014, this event, which is unfortunately not an aberration in certain parts of the U.S., caught the media’s attention due to a petition started by a lone Wisconsin activist. Within three days of the petition, 45,000 people had signed and a vast amount of phone calls and emails were sent to St. Patrick’s Church (the petition would eventually garner approximately 82,000 signatures). International news outlets were covering the story, and national AR groups were calling for its end. A U.S. sanctuary even offered a home for the pigs if the church allowed. Despite all of this brouhaha, the event went on as planned, but it would be the church’s last. In April 2015, St. Patrick’s announced they would no longer hold the event. Their statement has since been removed from the church’s Web site, but was reported as follows in the Post Crescent: “After much prayer and many hours of discussion, we realize that what we had for 44 years in the Original Pig Rassle was memorable, legal and great family fun. […] We also realize that our parish and diocesan talents could be better spent in areas that are less controversial” (1).
This is surely a victory due to the power of e-campaigning, but it is not the only reason. A few days after the cancellation announcement, a friend shared a Facebook post with me from an activist declaring the rassle dissolution as evidence that online petitions work. My friend informed this activist that the event was likely also cancelled because people went to Stephensville to stage a day-long protest, something the original poster was not aware of. I was aware, however, because I am one of those people.
With one notable exception — an activist who flew in from Texas — all of the protesters were from the northern Midwest. Two activists and I drove to Stephensville, WI from Minneapolis where would meet others from Milwaukee, Madison, and a few small Wisconsin towns. None of us were satisfied with the promise of a petition, so we took part in a demonstration within our tiny part of the globe. Approximately twenty protestors went to Stephensville and engaged in a variety of on-the-ground tactics: a church service disruption, a parade protest, and a final protest during the rassle with activists standing at the entry way. Two protest attendees were also willing to bear witness to the event; both came out shaking and crying at what they saw in the mud pit.
I am not seeking pity when stating this was one of the most challenging protests I ever attended. We were mocked, yelled at, and even physically accosted by very, very angry townspeople. On a more positive note, we also had some critical conversations with church and rassle attendees, and at least twice we were quietly approached by locals who thanked us for being there while also explaining that to publically decry the rassle would make living in Stephensville too difficult.
To be unapologetically honest, the people of Stephensville, WI didn’t want us there, and that is exactly why we went. That is also why we promised to return each year. Our physical presence put a damper on their traditionally fun day. This is all good because the other protestors and I wanted to ruin their day so that life might be a speck less horrible for the pigs of Stephenville. Our physical presence was needed to contest the traditional narrative about the purpose of other species.
As intersectional activist pattrice jones eloquently states: “Whatever would-be leaders might be shouting from their ivory towers, substantial cultural and political change happens—can only happen—when ordinary people collectively transform themselves and each other. Because each of us is somewhere and nothing happens in a vacuum” (2).
National organizations and e-campaigning are all well and good, but they aren’t enough, and passionate individuals have been leaning on them too much to do the work of social change. We have to understand how animal cruelty uniquely manifests in our cities, states, and regions. Once that is assessed: we have to consistently show up to counter that cruelty.
I want the world to go vegan too, and although others may balk at this assertion, being vegan is not enough if you really care about other species. I hope I never decide that being vegan is enough. I hope I never conclude that doing something in my community is pointless. I hope I am never satisfied with giving money to others to fight for me and for others. These hopes are not mere bluster, for they hide an honest concern that I may someday come to all of those conclusions because GA isn’t always easy, nor is it always fun. Oh, and it is never glamorous. But if there are enough of us, grassroots activism is something more important than easy, fun, and glamorous: it is effective.
- Behnke, Duke. “St. Patrick Parish Cancels Pig Wresting Event.” Post Crescent, 22 Apr. 2015, http://www.postcrescent.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/st-patrick-parish-cancels-pig-wrestling-event/26191365/, Accessed 25 Aug. 2016.
- jones, pattrice. Afterword. Confronting Animal Exploitation: Grassroots Essays on Liberation and Veganism, by Kim Socha and Sarahjane Blum, McFarland, 2013, pp. 263-280.
- LaDuke, Winona. Introduction. Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, pp. xi-xv.
- Pea, Milagros. Latina Activists Across Borders: Women’s Grassroots Organizing in Mexico and Texas. Duke UP, 2007.