But what about truly non-violent protest? Can that work? Many readers pointed to the importance of this tactic in achieving social justice for other movements. I want to explore why, for anti-speciesist efforts, I don't think this is an effective tactic either.
First, the vast majority of protesting in our movement pertains to single-issue campaigning. Most people out marching and holding signs are doing so to save the dolphins, to ban "fur," or to end factory farms, etc. Single-issue campaigning has a lot of serious flaws and have been heavily critiqued by many abolitionists as confusing and piecemeal. You can explore my position on single-issue campaigns in an article I have published with Food, Culture & Society available on my academia.edu page. See links below.
Consider the organization, Igualdad Animal/Animal Equality. They conduct non-violent protest, but they do so by specifically focusing on single-issues, like the dog and cat flesh trade in Asia. Protest of this kind picks "low-hanging fruit" and tends to obscure the more important structural problems by meeting people where they already are and not pushing them to examine speciesism. Most people in the US and Europe love dogs and cats, for instance, and already agree that they shouldn't be killed for food. Most people also agree that animals should not suffer "unnecessarily" in factory farms and reforms should be implemented. Less common are those protests that ask people to consider their personal engagement with exploitation and to recognize speciesism as an institution of oppression. Without a push to deconstruct speciesism at this level, single-issue campaigns are not accomplishing meaningful change.
As it stands now, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not viewed favorably by most Americans. Advocates for other animals are currently considered a terrorist group (thanks in part to the violent actions of many protesters). For protest to work in our favor, we need to rebrand ourselves as serious social justice activists, not unstable vandals and terrorists.
For that matter, we also lack the numbers. In the 1990, the movement was able to rally 25,000 activists to march on Washington. By 1996, only 3,000 or so showed up for the followup march. This pitiful turnout didn't show much evidence of solidarity or strength. We appeared marginal and irrelevant. In most protests today, less than 100 (and usually less than 25 people) show up. Indeed, my local news just covered a zoo protest where only two or three protesters were present. I will explore why I think this is in the next section, but for now, I want to emphasize that Nonhuman Animal activism is viewed unfavorably, many people are hesitant to participate, and publicizing our small numbers invites public observers to easily dismiss us as a few weirdos up to no good.
What about Igualdad Animal? Are their protests effective? Well, maybe they get some people thinking, I can't deny that. However, I suspect that many people view these activists as weird and disturbed, because most people in society are unfamiliar with vegan ethics and most support (or at least see nothing wrong) with speciesism. The law, the media, the medical establishment, the schools, etc. all tell us that using animals in socially sanctioned ways is normal, acceptable, and good. Until we create a more favorable political atmosphere, how effective do we think these types of protest will be? Be honest with yourself, what do you think is going through the heads of some of the people looking at the protesters? When they go home to their friends and family, what do you think their description will be like?
The Non-Profit Industrial Complex
One of the most important reasons why we can't garner solidarity (and why the 1996 march was so pitiful) has been the rise of non-profitization in Nonhuman Animal rights. Groups became competitive, fundraising-focused, and issue-specific. The non-profit industrial complex means that protesting and other campaigning is often only employed to raise membership and press coverage (in other words, the organizations are prioritizing fundraising over social justice work). I have written quite a bit on the role of non-profitization in defanging social justice work (see below). So long as the movement is distracted with paying salaries and keeping the cashflow rolling, they are going to be utilizing tactics that maximize financial return, rather than tactics that are most effective for challenging exploitation (single-issue campaigns play right into this approach, as they target issues most everyone already agrees upon and will gladly financially support). Non-profitization conflates effective advocacy with fundraising, but fundraising and bureacruatization are principle components of capitalism. We can't deconstruct an exploitative capitalist system by continuing to operate within it.
Consider Igualdad Animal again. Even in their more vegan-centric protests, they have all volunteers wear t-shirts brandishing their organization's name and posters/signs brandish the name as well. Their website is packed with "donate" buttons. But why the need for this tribalism in our advocacy? Why does one of their most favored forms of protest (holding Nonhuman Animal corpses in public spaces) require fundraising to this extent? They steal bodies from the trash and have volunteers hold them--this is free activism. They fundraise because they have bureaucratized; they choose tactics that get attention and promote their name so they can improve fundraising. Capitalist ideology has corrupted social justice work by convincing activists that bigger and bureaucratic is better and that money is the most important end goal.
This is not to say that I believe non-violent protesting does not have future potential. If the movement were to adopt a vegan-centric, abolitionist position and protest speciesism (as opposed to single-issues), protest could serve a purpose. If the movement were to gain in numbers and could mobilize a large number of people to give our message weight, we would not seem like a marginalized group of terrorists and killjoys. If the movement would see protest as a means of ending the exploitation of animals rather than a means of organizational publicity and fundraising, there may be hope. As it stands, our movement is too small, too disdained, and too focused on making money to feed its bureaucracy. Before protest could become effective, other steps need to be taken to improve the efficacy and public image of our movement. Other movements have successfully used protest, but they tended to enjoy a much more favorable political environment.
Of course, this essay begs the question, "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?" In other words, how can we create a public that is ready for our protest without protesting? I am not dismissing the utility of protest outright. I am simply asking us to be critical about the message we are giving and how useful protest will be given current contexts. I maintain the abolitionist position that the most effective use of our time is to promote veganism using non-violent educational measures. And yes, I accept that there are some vegan-centric forms of non-violent protesting that counts as abolitionist vegan education. Consider Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary's annual "Walk for Peace," which brings together vegan advocates and interested non-vegans for a short march. The event includes educational tabling and free vegan food.
We need to build up a sympathetic public and we need to be critical of ineffectual and toxic movement policies and tactics. Until we get things sorted in these departments, protest is not likely to be useful. In the meantime, it would be very interesting if organizations could conduct research to determine how effective their protesting has been on the attitudes and behaviors of their communities. For instance, if Igualdad Animal's public corpse display is turning people vegan, we may need to take a closer look at non-violent protest of this kind.
Relevant Citations & Further ReadingDan Cudahy - Single-Issue Campaigns: Pruning Exploitation
Corey Wrenn - A Critique of Single-issue Campaigning and the Importance of Comprehensive Abolitionist Vegan Advocacy
Mylène Ouellet - Why I Won't Support Single-Issue Campaigns
Corey Wrenn - Nonhuman Animal Rights, Alternative Food Systems, and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Corey Wrenn - The Non-Profit Industrial Complex: Effective Animal Advocacy & Your Checkbook