Saturday, November 7, 2015

My Scariest Halloween: Racism at an animal rights protest

I have been attending (or organizing) animal rights protests since 1987, and I have cried at them due to the cruelty that is inflicted on animals – from the rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma to walking with the elephants back to the railroad cars. But I have never left a protest in tears because of comments I heard from an animal rights activist until now.

This Halloween, I was among about 30 other activists protesting an amusement park that offers both rides and animals in captivity for entertainment.  After leafleting at this location for years, we know that many people go just for the rides and not the animal abuse.

As a Black family walked past us toward the park’s entrance, I heard (but did not see) one of my fellow activists make a comment to them. Someone from the family replied, “We are just a Black family trying to enjoy ourselves.” Although I did not hear what the family said first, I did hear part of what the activists said in response: “It doesn’t matter; we are all the same” and “We are all Earthlings; we are no different.”

I watched the family’s response, and the husband laughed to his friends and said, “They say we are all the same.”

Looking at two activists nearby (a Latina who I knew and a white woman), I said, “This is the problem when animal rights activists say shit like this.”

They were confused as to why I had a problem with this and then I realized that they were the ones yelling this rhetoric.

Recognizing that I initially did not handle the situation in the best way, I tried to recover quickly and show patience, and that was when I realized that nothing I said mattered. What I’d heard was only the tip of the iceberg.

They continued to say, “It is true; we are all the same, and all of the oppressions are the same.” I said that saying things like that and “All Lives Matter” is problematic.

I tried to explain that we as animal people need to show that we are not racists (well, at this point I had not realized what I was in for) and that we need to fight the image that we care more about non-human animals than human animals.

What followed were some of the most racist comments I have ever heard.  They told me that they (meaning Black people) complain about everything, they all say they are too busy with their own lives, they are always rude and angry, they don’t care about animals, they like to eat meat, and they are not special.

When I tried to relate to the Latina about how people say horrible things about our people as well, she looked shocked and told me it was not true. She said, “Yeah, but our lives were different,” and I said, “Yes, for some of us, this was our land— but they were brought over as slaves.” She said, “They need to get over that – it was a long time ago.”

I truly believe I was in shock, and my mind could not process what was happening.

I continued to try to relate to the Latina from our perspective by using the word “we,” but it was clear they thought I meant animal activists. Eventually I had to tell the white woman I wasn’t talking to her, to which she let me know what she thought of me, and the Latina told me she didn’t care about me and she only cared about the animals.

I tried to explain that if they truly cared about helping the animals, then we needed to relay the information in more effective ways in order to connect with more people.

I did mention how the Black community is taking the vegan and animal rights causes to heart, with vegan hip-hop dinners, etc.

I also apologized for this venue not being the best place to talk about these issues, and the white woman said she didn’t need me to tell her how to think.

I also tried to continue to explain how when I speak to people of color about being a vegan and an activist, I have to dispel the notion that we do not care about people.  (In hindsight I wonder why I continued.)

I have dealt with racist people in the animal rights movement before (people not knowing I was a Chicana and over the phone telling me not to move to particular areas because Mexicans lived there), not to mention racist comments when issues like charreadas come up, or Sheriff Joe, and of course, there was the time I was speaking at Boston University and a white woman interrupted me to insist that farm workers love their work. (The brilliant Dr. Breeze Harper reminded me the next morning that many white people have a romantic notion of what farm work is like.)

But I admit that it absolutely horrified me to have someone defend their racism to my face.

I was going to apologize for how I handled the issue to begin with, but by that time I was crying (I don’t think I realized it at first) and my wonderful husband asked if I wanted to leave.

I decided I needed to leave, mostly because I could not imagine staying at an event where these types of comments were being yelled at people of color.

The Latina asked me if I was leaving and I told her I was.

She seemed shocked and tried to explain to me that there are plenty of people helping people, but not many people to help the animals (she said this repeatedly). I tried to explain how untrue that was (and what came to mind was Hurricane Katrina), but I mentioned farm workers and she said there are always people to help people and the government could help the farm workers. I tried to explain many were undocumented….and just had to walk away. Sigh.

I was there for the non-human animals and this campaign is one I have been intimately involved with for two years, but I just couldn’t stand by and be complicit in these racist comments, so I left.

I am still sick to my stomach writing about it. And not because they were telling me that they cared more about non-human animals than human animals –I have been doing this long enough and unfortunately know how common this is.

Clearly, I should have started the conversation off better.

But did I do the right thing by speaking up?  I felt outrage and I would hope if I am not around people would defend me with the same passion as I have always done for non-human animals.

Would I have felt better now if I continued with an angry outburst of shock and incredulity?

Some of the irony of this is that these activists were trying to tell me (and the Black family) that we are “all the same,” and yet they said all of these racist things about Black people and how they were different.

You can’t have it both ways. It reinforces to me how problematic it is to say things like All Lives Matter (or those types of comments) and worse, what people really mean when they say this.

Halloween is by far my favorite “holiday,” and part of me wondered if I should have allowed myself to get so physically upset about this, but sometimes, you just can’t help it.

The best part? Other than seeing so many activists out for the animals and a beautifully put together event was the fact that a Black family with two kids walked by while all of this was going on. I handed them two leaflets, to which the Black little girl turned to me and said, “I agree.”

When I pointed that out to the two women, there was no response. But did I do right? I might have been better off trying to speak with that little girl more, but instead I wanted to prove my point.

I have continued to self-reflect about why such an incident caused me to cry even an hour after the interaction. Part of me wonders if it is because she was a Latina, or because this was at an animal rights event (having done animal rights since I was 17, I do consider animal rights activists “my family”), or because they felt comfortable defending their racist beliefs in person.

Mark and I spoke about it last night, and he said he sees these types of racist comments on social media. I am not on Facebook, so I guess I am spared, but I do know there are a number of animal rights groups that are indeed racist and promote this under the guise of “animals first.”

I realize it was probably a combination of all of these things as well as my overall feeling, Am I doing enough? Food Empowerment Project works on a number of issues impacting people of color to demand justice, but what do you do when racism is at the core?

Recently, I attended a vigil for the two-year anniversary of the killing of Andy Lopez (a 13-year-old boy who was killed by a cop in Santa Rosa for holding a toy gun), and a colleague of mine in the living wage campaign reminded me how prevalent white supremacy is. And I wondered, Am I doing enough?

When I think of all the excuses animal rights people use to treat each other with disrespect and at times act with cruelty – many excuse such behavior in the name of the animals – it reminds me of how some people use religion as a shield to hide bigotry. I can’t imagine the animals truly wanting us to be so cruel toward one another because, if nothing else, if we can’t live with solidarity among our own species, how can we save them?

Other similar blogs to link to:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bearing Witness

Last October I wrote a blog about why I started Sonoma County Chicken Save as part of our work at Food Empowerment Project.

Since October we have been in front of Petaluma Poultry slaughterhouse at least once every month to ensure that those who drive by this slaughterhouse are unable to ignore the lives being taken there.

Over the past year, we have noticed an increase in support from people driving past and even more are stopping by to speak with us.

The one protest we did that we did not promote on social media (meaning the slaughterhouse did not have advance notice to put the barricades up) was the one where two slaughterhouse workers came out and spoke with us.

One worker told us of the horrible conditions in which they work. I also gave this worker my business card, and I was surprised when he called me two days later. He told me about the chemicals that constantly rain upon the workers and of the chickens who are still breathing after they leave the boiling water.

Tuesday night, we participated in Bearing Witness as described by Toronto Pig Save’s founder Anita Krajnc, which was inspired by this quote by Leo Tolstoy,

“When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to her who suffers, and try to help her.”

In order to prepare for this overall event, I have spent quite some time in the middle of the night and day trying to get an idea of their schedules, which seem to be inconsistent.

Different from what is seen in other places, the chickens are brought here when it is dark. I have not seen them trucked in during the day, but I have seen them bringing the chickens in starting at 11:45pm all the way up to 5:15am.

It is difficult to know if this is because many people are upset when they see thousands of chickens crammed into crates and the feathers blowing in the wind (as I write this I have to recognize that many people are uncomfortable with knowing they are partly responsible for the suffering of the chickens they eat) or if it’s because chickens are more docile at night and it makes them easier to “handle” (i.e. kill).

We arrived at midnight on Tuesday and stayed until 3am. I have been at protests which started at 5am, but this was my first that started at midnight, and I was so comforted by the activists who came to be there at such an odd and early hour. We stationed ourselves in a spot where the truck would have to stop at the red light that is actually on a busy highway, but it is quieter at this hour.

We were able to rush to the side of the truck to be near the chickens. Although to avoid us, one truck driver drove through the red light.

Every truck was different as was the placement of the chickens in the crates—some facing us, some not. But one, who I can still see, was a small chicken lying on her side facing me. I could see her baby blue eye and her exhausted face staring back at me, blinking. She was on her side and looked like she was being crushed.

This is where bearing witness becomes almost unbearable. Watching her look at me and not being able to get her out is one of those situations where you fear losing your sanity because you lack the ability to do anything, much less comprehend why this gentle little bird was about to smell death, experience even more fear, and of course, die herself.

As I sit here now, my heart hurts and my eyes burn from the idea that she was probably gone within hours of me seeing her along with so many like her—thousands of them. The image of her will forever be in my heart and mind.

And all I can tell myself is that at least I was able to tell her (and all of them) how sorry I was and that I loved her. Which I repeated over and over…

More photos:

Thanks to my female comrades for also being out there: Debbie, Sarah Rice, pinky, Lisa Nicholson, all showing their hearts and courage.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Giving back just a little (Update on Food Empowerment Project School Supply Drive 2015)

As a vegan organization, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) encourages people who have access to healthy food to go vegan so as to not contribute to the suffering and death of non-human animals. In doing so, we are encouraging people to eat more produce. This makes us responsible to ensure that those who pick our food are treated with dignity and respect (and, well, it is of course what is right), especially since neither the laws nor the corporations are protecting them.

In addition to the work we do to support legislation, regulatory changes, and corporate campaigns to support farm workers, F.E.P. has tried to come up with creative ideas to do more. In 2013, we organized a school supply drive for the children of farm workers, and in 2014 we organized both a food drive and a farm worker appreciation day in Salinas. This year we organized another school supply drive and you gave. You gave a lot! (In fact, we had to rent a HUGE truck to get all of the supplies there, and that did not include the donations from the peninsula or South Bay!)

We organize events such as this to thank farm workers. California farm workers pick fruits and vegetables that are sold all over the country, but these workers are victims of some of the worst abuse that capitalism and racism have to offer.

But this is going to be an inspiring blog about all that we did together. There are links so you can read more about why it is so important to do all we can to make sure that farm workers are seen and protected and that we advocate for their rights.

To organize this event, I actually began in January. I want to thank all of the drop-off locations that agreed to do this early in the year and then went on to promote and gather the school supplies. We could not do this without the generosity of their space and their strong belief in this effort: Center for Employment Training (San José), City of San José, Gilroy Public Library, Girl Scouts of Northern California, La Peña Cultural Center, Marin Humane Society, Pachamama Alliance, Pesticide Action Network for North America, Santa Clara County, Stanford Prevention Research Center, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and Santa Rosa (Glazer Center).

This was a huge undertaking for a small organization like ours, and my imaginary hat goes off to those who do events like this several times a year.

Our first stop in Watsonville was at a residence where, thanks to Dr. Ann Lόpez, executive director of Center for Farmworker Families, farm workers were already gathering by the time we arrived. According to Dr. Lόpez, the apartment was 1,000 square feet with one bathroom where 16 individuals lived. All of the farm workers we met were from Oaxaca, Mexico.

We handed out backpacks until no one else was in line. While the kids were deciding which ones they wanted (we gave them an option between two), the parents were just wanting them to pick and be happy with what they had. What I did not get to see as I was handing out the backpacks was the joy of the children as they opened the bags up to find supplies inside!

Thanks to Dr. Lόpez, at both locations we were able to express to the families that we did this to thank them for all of their work and all they do to feed us, explaining that we wanted to give back.

We then drove to the second location where we parked again and handed out all of the backpacks and extra supplies until another rental truck from San José showed up. Then we handed out all of those backpacks and supplies, as well.

I was thrilled to be able to speak with some of the teenagers. A number were interested in why we were doing this and what organization we were with. So I explained to them why we were there and that we were doing this to thank their parents and to make sure they know how much we want them to stay in school and to succeed.

The saddest part of it all was that we eventually did run out and we had to turn kids away. I am not saying that because we all did not do enough (we handed out over 300 backpacks – see inventory below), but because there were so many in need.

These are children whose parents are working – in fact, we had to do this after 3pm on Saturday, when they got off of work.

A big thank you goes out to KKUP’s Latin Collective Maria Hernandez and DJ Jimmy Hernandez for allowing me to talk about the school supply drive on the air and promote our drop-off locations in San José.

And a special thank you to the following individuals: Sofia Anaya (Girl Scout Troop 61283), Jocie Bartlett, Jason Bayless, Valerie Belt, Greg Cajina (main co-coordinator in the South Bay), Chris Carco (bought supplies with money raised by SF Vegans), Michelle Chen (for making our video), Katherine Connors, David Crosby, Sandra Gluck, Mark Hawthorne, Jessica Holten (Sjaak’s Chocolates), Jennifer, Knapp, Laura Knapp, Roger Knoren , Donna Lou, Nanette Lopez , Billy Lovci, Cindy Machado, Marisol Morales* (main co-coordinator in the South Bay), Dorinda Moreno, Jonah Nessel, Jan Prater, the Rice family (Sarah, Kipp, and Meg), Hermelinda Sapien,  Teresa Sotelo, SOCO Nexus (those who we share our office space with), Raymundo Talavera, Tonya Talavera and her sons (who drove the U-Haul), the Tamez family, Lani Yoshimura, SF Vegans Group, the Latino Employee Resource Group of PG&E (Kentada Padron , Mario Lopez, Jacqueline Cabanlit), and all of the F.E.P. supporters, volunteers, and donors who supported this effort and all of our work.

Thanks also go out to those who donated to support our work and help cover some of the costs we incurred.

We also gave two backpacks to the cleaning woman who watched us pack the backpacks until 11:30pm for her two children, and we also donated 20 backpacks to the Graton Day Labor Center for the farm worker family members who frequent the Center looking for job opportunities. Thanks to Jesús Guzman and Rosa Gonzalez.

And of course, a BIG thank you to Dr. Ann Lόpez, whose work with these communities has built enough trust for us to be there.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for supporting my vision to give back to the farm workers and show them how much we not only appreciate them, but how we also want to help their children to succeed.  Everyone’s generosity was overwhelming in such a wonderful and lovely way.

Oh, one more thing. We WILL be doing this again next year, and we will need all of your help and more!
Enjoy the pictures**!

I know they made my heart grow (you do not need to be on Facebook to view):

Thanks to you, here is a sample count of all we collected: 332 backpacks, 185 binders, 106 calculators, 1069 boxes of crayons, 135 colored pencil boxes, 334 erasers, 219 folders, 205 highlighters, and thousands of pens and pencils.

*Thanks to Marisol’s family for helping with some school supplies in the South Bay, included in the packing up photos (Izaiah Anaya, Mateo Anaya, Sofia Anaya , Daniel C. Morales, Gabriel Morales, Javier Morales, Olga Anaya Morales, , Rebecca Morales , Ruth Morales, Sonya Morales, Daniel Morales, Jr., Victor Morales). What a team!

**Thanks to Greg Cajina, Sandra Gluck, Mark Hawthorne, Marisol Morales and Sarah Rice for taking photos.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Should vegans be exempt from California’s mandatory drought cutbacks?

Maybe we should.

The Governor of California issued statewide mandatory water reductions, and although I have not read them closely, I know that many people are taking him to task, as they do not limit the amount of water farmers use.

But I wonder—what about the slaughterhouses? As another huge water consumer, are they being forced to cut back? I ask this because the slaughterhouse Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) has been working to draw attention to has been permitted to expand by the Petaluma Planning Department.

As part of the international Save movement, F.E.P. started Sonoma County Chicken Save, which organizes a monthly outreach in front of a chicken slaughterhouse. We have been there every month since October to make sure that people do not drive by and forget whose lives are being taken behind those walls.

Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and California Public Records Act, we have been trying to get information about this slaughterhouse—Petaluma Poultry. I should note that Petaluma Poultry is actually owned by Perdue.

I did a FOIA request because I wanted information on how many birds they are killing a day, as well as how many birds they are boiling alive.

I did the open records request as I wanted to know how much water they were using. I made my request in September—long before the Governor’s announcement. Why? Because I know that slaughterhouses use a tremendous amount of water. Through some research, I was able to determine that some of the water they use comes from a private well and the rest comes from the City of Petaluma.  I felt that the residents of Petaluma should know how much of their water is being used and if Petaluma Poultry had done anything different due to the drought.

When I got the FOIA records back, some answers were withheld. 

It seems that, for some reason, Petaluma Poultry felt it might put them at a competitive disadvantage if they revealed how many birds they boil alive?  Ummm….right, because their competitors are really interested in how many innocent birds are going to be thrown in a scalding tank of water while they are still breathing?

I have a feeling it was more they didn’t want animal advocates to know. They know damn well why we want to know—because we feel everyone should know.

We contacted folks at the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), and one of their attorneys filed an appeal on our behalf. The USDA is still considering that appeal.

We were denied some information on our open records request on the water used at this facility, but we were granted access to view some, which we did.

In 2012, they were using more than 315,000 gallons of water per day.

(This does not include the amount of water used to raise these gentle birds for food who are actually just babies.)

The drought didn’t just start this year, or last year.

And this year, the planning department in Petaluma APPROVED the slaughterhouse’s request to expand. Yup, in a drought they approved the expansion of a huge water consumer.

I gathered a group of our supporters and residents of Petaluma to attend a City Council meeting and speak out against the expansion during the public-comment period. When the City Attorney was asked by a City Council member about this expansion, he said the expansion was about a shift change and the expansion of the driveways and parking lot.

According to an article in the local paper, they are expanding their hours. What do they think is going to take place in these hours that is different than the others? They will be killing more birds and using more water.

In some ways, I know this may be a simplistic way to look at the drought issue, so I want to add that those communities of color and farm workers living with contaminated water should also not have to abide by these new restrictions either because those who polluted their water supply should in fact be paying for their water.

As Food Empowerment Project is an ethically based vegan organization, we are against the killing of animals for food. But there is no denying that these two issues are connected—taking the life of these precious birds is impacting a precious resource: water. And, well, I feel we lose part of our humanity when we don’t recognize the negative impacts we have on other beings, and in this instance it is the chickens as well as ourselves who are impacted. 

*I took the photo at the top of this page in Petaluma’s downtown.*