playing to the paparazzi
Animal rights activists utilize a variety of tactics to try to stop the torture and exploitation of nonhuman animals. Activists do everything from civil disobedience to letter writing campaigns to try to stop animal exploitation. One component of most activist campaigns is outreach and education. In trying to spread our message to a wider audience we often try to garner media attention and while media coverage can assist in achieving our goals, it can be a damaging distraction for activists.
I am in no way suggesting any focus on media is bad. I have participated in and supported media stunts myself (the photo of me in this post is a testament to that). However, too much concern over the media can distract us from helping animals. It is one thing to do something to get the media to show up to a protest, it is quite another to allow their presence to distract from the business of protesting. This became salient for me at a circus protest last week. The plan was to have “the largest circus protest in history” with the goal of dissuading people from attending the circus and to send Ringling Brothers the message that until the circus stops imprisoning, beating and torturing animals, activists will be there. This protest had over 250 activists; a couple large groups decided not to go in and a couple of children convinced their families to turn in their tickets and attend. The protest was a clear success in so many ways but in some ways we also failed.
A celebrity appearance was arranged for the protest. Activists were not told who was coming but it was requested we not do any chanting until she arrived because she was “sensitive to that sort of thing.” We complied out of respect to the organizers, specifically PeTA who had made the request and arranged the celebrity appearance. The celebrity was Olivia Munn and she arrived about 45 minutes prior to the start of the circus. To start with, Olivia Munn is a questionable celebrity spokesperson. She is inarticulate about the issue, says questionably racist things like “I just have an extra special place in my heart for elephants because of my Chinese history,” and has recently done a horse racing themed magazine promo. While these are all important reasons to critique PeTA’s choice to utilize a naked Munn on their anti-circus ads and to have her make appearances at the circus protest, in this post I focus on my concern over the way that the protest deteriorated for the sake of photo ops with Munn.
The half hour preceding the start of the circus, the most crucial moments when the heaviest influx of potential patrons was arriving, people were posing for photo shoots with Munn. The entire troupe of activists was asked to pose for a barrage of photos in one big group-shot just 15 minutes before the start of the circus. We were asked to silence ourselves for the sake of a celebrity’s presence because the organizers felt that the potential media attention was more important than our efforts to turn people away from the circus. We were expected to halt outreach efforts and pose for the sake of a potential news story in the most crucial and valuable moments we had.
Angry tears welled in my eyes as I stood for group photos. I felt frustrated and trapped, but I complied with the request to pose. I don’t know why I just stood there and why it took me so long to break free from the crowd and begin chanting. When the chanting started those of us who were loud raised our voices, those of us who were good conversationalists talked to passers-by and potential patrons. In the last moments a family decided not to go. We did our job.
I understand why media matters to a degree, but as activists the attention should never be on us. We are fighting for animals and they need to be our focus every moment. Large organizations can focus on systemic routes to change, but systems of exploitation and oppression will not change until individuals demand it. As grassroots activists our power lies in focusing on change at the individual level. We need to focus on saving individual animals and changing the minds and hearts of individual people.
We need to stop trying to get attention and get to work because we have a lot of work to do. Fuck the media; what we need to do is to free animals from imprisonment, torture and exploitation. Saving one animal means more than any news story ever written. We need to make it clear to specific individuals and business that exploit animals that we will be in their face until they stop torturing and murdering animals. Convincing one vivisector to quit his job will save countless animals and redirect millions of dollars away from animal exploitation. Closing down a single furrier will guarantee that hundreds of animals will not suffer for vanity. We need to convince individual people to refuse to partake in the annihilation and exploitation of animals. Every vegan prevents the murders of 90 individual animals each year. Every time an individual refuses to wear skins, purchase companion animals from breeding mills, use animals as a form or entertainment or to eat dead flesh, there is a little more hope for a world in which compassion trumps violence.
Bottom line: we need to fight for animals not for notoriety or media attention.object>