I’m not going to do an in-depth recap of any of the talks I heard at the AR conference, I’ll just talk about some of the points that were made that really stuck out to me.
Now, I’m not saying these were the most important points of the whole conference, or that others in the very same sessions would have had the same reactions to the same panelists. It is more a reflection on my own state, where I am, what I’m ready to hear, I suppose. Our minds are such curious things.
In a session on Individual Activism (which I finally realized was where my efforts always turn, rather than grassroots), Rick Corbett, a 21 year old wunderkind activist, talked about his motto: MEOW. Message, Example, Order, Work. Essentially, what is your message? What is your motivation? And then he reminded us to be out there in the community, being a visible example, and to grow our skills.
Later that same day, I went to a session on “Developing Leadership Qualities,” primarily because it was the one session I knew I’d be able get to to hear Eric Prescott speak at, and I figured he’d have some good things to say. And he did. The first thing that caught at me was “Focus”. He also talked about knowing your mission, self-actualizing, and avoiding “hyperactivism” which is a term that Henry Spira came up with, and the definition was given as, “the phenomenon of doing without achieving.”
Though I can’t remember who said it, we were encouraged to write a mission statement, whether we are working in a group, or working on our own.
I know it isn’t the first time I’ve heard it, but I guess I was ready to pay attention. I hate the thought of writing a mission statement, just as I hate the interview question “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I panic, and invariably all I can think is that in five years I hope I’m on vacation somewhere warm with a beach and palm trees.
My mission statement induces similar escape-type thoughts. It reminds me, somehow, of an ani difranco line, “you say you’ll love me for eternity; I’m still trying to decide who I’m going to be today.”
Yet I know that they are right, that a mission statement, formally written or not, will help us all.
Something that is as true of us as it is of the earth is that we have limited resources, and we really need to use them wisely.
In a session on dealing with grief and despair, pattrice jones commented that doing something immediately tangible helps to alleviate the feelings of hopelessness that are so prevalent in a movement like this. Luckily, picking up poop is part of my weekly agenda, and it is hard to get more immediate or tangible than that. And since it is the poop of rescued animals, primarily rescued from abuse situations, it is immediate and tangible on two levels.
Another statement by pattrice was actually something that was shared with her by her activist mentor, who had in turn been mentored by Ella Baker and who had participated in the lunch counter sit-ins. Ella would say, as best as I can paraphrase pattrice, that we have to trust that whatever small part we are doing, that there are other activists other places doing the same thing, and that no matter how small our effort feels, it is not being made alone.
Now, the lunch counter sit-ins were direct action, and direct action was talked about at some of the sessions. I know that people have funny ideas sometimes about DA, and immediately assume that it is bombs and dangerous destructive actions. Yet think about a lunch counter sit-in. That’s as direct as you can get, and as peaceful as you can get, though the activists themselves were putting themselves in risk of bodily harm. And what about chaining yourself to the gate of a building, or sitting in front of a truck so that it can’t move. These are direct actions as well, and clearly, even to the harshest critics, non-violent.
Among the most inspiring speakers for me, in the 3 years I’ve gone to this conference, have been the Sea Shepherd folks. They are interesting, because of all the modern direct action groups, they have the distinction of taking non-violent direct action in their efforts to uphold international law. Something that the governments of this earth have yet to find the conviction to do.
Camille of Win Animal Rights is also inspiring. For some reason that always surprises me, perhaps because I am not, and likely will never be, comfortable with the home demos that are often part of her campaigns. Yet she is inspiring, and perhaps strongly so because she encourages everyone to push themselves, and yet she is not trying to say that everyone has to take the actions that she chooses to take.
In other words, pushing ourselves beyond what is comfortable for us might mean we leaflet, or give talks at schools, or yes, take direct action of some kind. There just is no one answer, no one tactic, that is going to be The Answer or The Tactic.
Another theme was persistence. This one should be obvious, but a great example was Charles Patterson, author of Eternal Treblinka, who wrote his book and had it rejected by 86 publishers before he started self-publishing, and finally was able to get help in the distribution and publishing after Lantern Books was started. Eighty-six publishers. I’m not sure I’d have had it in me to keep trying after six, let alone eighty-six.
The last half of my Sunday was spent learning about activist repression and legal issues. This mirrors how I spent the last half of my Sunday at AR07, and again, it was an amazing experience.
First, I just have to say that I find Heidi Boghosian of the National Lawyers Guild absolutely amazing. How anyone can manage to be painfully honest about what we face, yet pragmatic and not panic-inducing is amazing in itself. The NLG themselves are a glimmer of hope for me, in general.
Odette Wilkins is a sort of visual of what it means to be focused. At my first AR conference in 2006 I was in a session where Will Potter spoke about the AETA. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about it, but it was the first time I’d heard Will talk. I remember one of the people from the audience who got up to ask a question started off, “I’m a lawyer in NYC, and I want to hook up with any other lawyers in the audience. We have to fight this.” Something along those lines, anyway. That was Odette Wilkins, after hearing of the AETA for the first time, at her first AR conference. She started the Equal Justice Alliance, which has worked relentlessly these past two years on fighting back, and are working hard at gathering enough support to overturn the AETA.
And then, of course, there is Will Potter himself, of the hopefully well-known-to-all Green is The New Red.
I’ve told him this directly, and I seem to be compelled to say this to whoever is around me every time I have heard him speak, but he always manages to be distressingly realistic about exactly what is facing activists, and about the fact that activist repression does not depend on activists doing illegal things….he’ll explain all that, and you’d think it would be this huge downer, but Will then manages to find a way to turn this around and be incredibly positive and inspiring.
He described looking at state department documents at 3am, looking for what he could tell us. And he came across state department documents giving advice on how to deal with animal rights activists. “They’re clever,” was one warning, “they know their rights” was another.
Will made some fantastic points, about what it means that the state department is threatened by the fact that animal rights activists know our rights.
He also had a list of other things he’d have loved to have seen them warn about activists. “They never give up” was one of them. I can’t remember all of the others, but suffice to say I was inspired and strengthened by Will’s speech.
Those three weren’t the only giving talks on Sunday Afternoon. Sean Day, a Baltimore lawyer, gave some great advice, which can be boiled down to “videotape all protests.” Judges tend to rubber stamp all police statements, and one of the new trends that Heidi Boghosian made a point to mention is that police misconduct is now the norm. Arrest without probable cause, altering evidence, fear mongering, etc. Anyone remotely into bicycles has likely seen the video of the NYC Critical Mass ride, where a police officer, unprovoked, body-checked a bicyclist off his bicycle. The bicyclist was then arrested for resisting arrest and attacking the police officer (something that is hard to do as you fly through the air and then lay stunned on the sidewalk, I think everyone would agree). Luckily a tourist had, by chance, gotten it all on video tape. (which you can watch by following the link above, and you can also read the police officer’s official statement.)
The video in that case proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the police officer flat out lied on his police report.
This is not uncommon. Video for your own protection, especially if what you are doing is a legal peaceful protest.
As any of the SHAC folks can tell you, breaking no laws does NOT mean you’ll never be put in prison as a terrorist. You might not agree with the SHAC campaign, but they did nothing illegal, and were not put on trial for doing anything illegal. Their trial was based on “conspiracy” with “terrorism enhancement” added on. What were they convicted of? Causing profit loss to a corporation.
And isn’t that the point of a boycott?
The other point that Will especially made really strongly is that these terrorism charges mean that the prisoners are subjected to the worst of the worst when it comes to prison. Prison isn’t fun for any, but the terrorism enhancement means not only longer sentences, but the potential that they can end up in maximum security prisons. Think hard about what that means. A vegan animal rights activist who ran a website is placed in a prison where the most violent criminals in the country are sent.
Prisoner support is incredibly important. I keep in touch with Josh Harper, Jake Conroy and Rod Coronado. I’ve been bad about keeping up with the letters lately, but that is going to change. I write to three other prisoners, who aren’t connected to the animal rights movement, and all of them regularly thank me for reminding them that they’re real people.
Some of the prisoners don’t often have the money to purchase the envelopes and stamps to be able to write back to everyone. That doesn’t mean our letters don’t help them out, help them get through their days. As Will said, even if you don’t agree with SHAC’s tactics, it seems likely that you would agree that running a website (no matter how controversial) doesn’t warrant being placed in an environment with the most violent people in prison.
So, there you have it, a not-so-brief recap of my weekend.
I need to focus, figure out my own personal mission, and make sure that I’m working towards it. Since I’m pretty clueless as to what I want my own personal mission to be, for now I’m making a firm commitment to stop being so sporadic in my prisoner support, and so I have begun to catch up on my letters.
I’ve also begun reading “Strategic Action For Animals“, which I picked up at the conference. It is a refreshingly short book, and so far I have enjoyed reading it. As is normal, I can’t say that I will agree with everything that Melanie Joy has to say in her book, but I do think that she brings up many interesting points. It certainly fits in well to the overall theme I seem to have picked up for myself this past weekend.