“Kind of a long shot.” That was the subject line of an email message from Barcelona, wondering whether I could come to speak at a conference to be organized by an ad-hoc coalition of radical animal liberation activists. I wrote back to say that I’d be delighted to participate but could not countenance the ecological effect of flying all the way across the ocean to give just one talk at just one event. There was also the question of the cost of the ticket. Dalibor, a Bosnian born in Austria now living in Spain, took on the challenge of organizing a tour, sending me to seven cities in nine days, with all of the sponsoring organizations pitching in to cover the travel costs.
And so I set out from Springfield, with only a vague idea of which cities I’d be visiting on which days, knowing only that Dalibor would meet me in Barcelona and that I would then be passed from hand to hand (or, rather, from collective to collective) until I returned to Barcelona to catch a plane back to the sanctuary. Shortly after arrival, I met Marcos, another member of the Barcelona collective, who had arranged the travel logistics, taking exquisite care to ensure that I would be met, fed, housed, and conveyed at every stop — his sincere concern for my well-being was so evident that I felt enfolded by care at every turn.Here’s a recap of my whirlwind tour, which I used to both test out ways of phrasing some of my ideas and find out what other activists are thinking, in preparation for the new book I will begin writing this spring. I’ll tell you about each stop first and then provide a summary of my talks.
The Barcelona conference was held in a “House of Solidarity” in a working-class neighborhood. Other speakers included members of Panthère Enragées (angry panthers), an “anti-speciesist, anarchist, feminist, anti-fascist collective” from France who discussed the difficulties of counter-acting right-wing, racist vegans while at the same time facing police repression. They showed an awe-inspiring video of direct action against Air France, which transports animals to laboratories. Like the members of that collective, many of the conference attendees were anarchist, punk, and/or gender-bending activists deeply engaged in the quest to bring an antispeciesist analysis to the left. Many expressed concern about the recent turn, among animal advocates, toward a narrowly focused agenda of promoting commodified and fetishized veganism as an antidote to all ills. While vegan, most did not use that word as a noun, preferring the broader “anti-speciesist” as a term of self-identification.
In Rome, I had the great pleasure of visiting Il Grattacielo, a new sanctuary founded by ecofeminists determined to work intersectionally. Dedicated to anti-speciesism, anti-capitalism, social support, ecosystem protection, and cultural change, the sanctuary and its extensive organic gardens are located on a property also occupied by a community garden for seniors and a refuge for immigrant youth facing deportation at age 18 if they cannot demonstrate integration into pro-social activities. A few of the youth already have elected to help out at the sanctuary, and the hope is that, as the project grows, it will offer more opportunities for enjoyable and meaningful work that will satisfy the demands of immigration authorities.
Here’s how Barbara, one of the founders of the sanctuary, describes its ethos and praxis:
We are convinced that there will never be human liberation from oppression and discrimination without a simultaneous political process of non human animals liberation, slaves isolated in farm, vivisection, zoo, circus cages. The mental and cultural routes that lead to forms of intrahuman discrimination are the same that justify and perpetuate the enslavement of non human animals on this earth.
Il Grattacielo works through contiguity and proximate action.
The animal and earth liberation groups in our territory are separated, don’t communicate. Very often it seems easier to sustain virtual campaigns far away rather than focus on critical situations in our own surroundings.
Il Grattacielo works on its own territory, We try to involve and engage people nearby as well as local independent groups.
Il Grattacielo is direct action. We analyse the territory and activate projects that aim at a mutual liberation, human and non human inter-liberation. This means participation in social struggles, working class resistance strikes, house-right struggles, through assistance and rescue initiatives such as social vegan lunches, organised with products of our ethical and non industrial gardens, auto-productions and fair market to finance our projects, creation of refuges for animals in occupied areas, animals escaped or subtracted from exploitation, local demos against circuses, socio-economic analysis of the industrial and non industrial farms, their impact on the animals and the territory, initiatives against urbanisation, building industry, and the building systems, against defacement of ecosystems, initiaves against traditional local festivals that include animal exploitation and torture.
Il Grattacielo must get into the everyday life and reality. The liberation initiatives, thanks to the local actions, must permeate the social fabric through open conferences, school projects, creation of didactic refuges (to let children meet different-from-them individuals), social jyms, vegan community trattorias, community markets with garden products.
My talk that night was at one of those vegan community trattorias, a lively eatery into which activists squeezed themselves for a two-hour lecture that began at 9 p.m. and then stayed, spilling out onto the sidewalk in animated conversations, until past midnight. Also in Rome, I met members of a lesbian-feminist collective who use their weekly radio show not only to talk about feminist and LGBTQ issues but also animal concerns. One of the members of that collective, Maria Grazia, graciously housed and fed me, sharing olives from her family’s trees and preparing the most delicious pan-fried seitan I have ever tasted.
The day after my talk in Rome was my one talk-and-travel-free day. I used it to catch up with journalist and activist Marinella Correggia, with whom I discussed our perennial worry (activist tactics that are demonstrative but not effective) while walking in and around the most cosmopolitan plaza in Rome (Piazza Vittorio). There, in a fruit and vegetable market bursting with affordable fresh fruits, vegetables, and greens as well as bags of bulk rice, lentils, and beans of all varieties, I reflected on how much easier veganism would be if everybody had access to such bounty.
My talk in Florence was co-sponsored by a local animal rights radio show and a particularly innovative organization called “Intersexioni” — yes, the wordplay between “intersexed” and “intersectionality” is deliberate. Egon, a trans activist from that organization who has previously run a sanctuary, introduced my talk by explaining the importance of intersectionality and then going on to offer a passionate and heartfelt eulogy for a recently departed VINE resident. That empathy meant the world to me.
Here’s what the organization is all about:
intersexioni, founded in the spring of 2013, is a group made by activists and academics (all volunteers) of different origins (even geographically) and experiences (professional and life ones), who all have in common an interest in topics interconnected with each other in various ways, such as: gender inequality and the intersection between discrimination and gender, ethnic and class/social inequality; the intersection of sexism, racism, and classism; gender-based violence, bullying and homo-transphobia; the rights for intersex people (or dsd, meaning difference in sex development); the rights for sexual minorities, for gay/lesbian and transgender people; new families, gay/lesbian and trans* parents.
Our aim is to analyse and break up the logic of domination and oppression, with the goal of respect for every living being and the building of a better, more equal, fair and welcoming society.
At the Florence event, activists from Intersexioni gave me a flyer for one of their upcoming events, a vegan birthday celebration for the organization. The brightly colored handout featured a rainbow and a snail, with the snail representing the diversity of sexes, sexuality, and gender expression among animals.
In Bologna, I was met at the train station by Francesco, from whom I soon learned that “Cinque minuto!” (Five minutes!) does not, in fact, mean five minutes but, rather, some time soon. “Cinque minuto!” he shouted again and again during our half-hour hike (I lugging my suitcase and computer bag, he lugging the table and supplies for that night’s event) through broad streets and narrow alleys to the apartment where I would meet my translator, prepare my talk, and sleep later that night.
The Bologna event was held in a university library and cosponsored by Essere Animali and a local feminist collective whose representative provided a beautiful summation of the linkages between sexism and speciesism in her introduction to my talk, which had been advertised as an explanation of the linkages among homophobia, racism, sexism, and speciesism. Audience members seemed to be evenly divided between animal advocates and feminist/LGBTQ activists. Here I am, first listening to the translation of the introduction and then giving my talk:
My talk in Vicenza was organized by Anguane (an “anarcoqueer ecovegfemminista” collective), cosponsored by Liberazioni (an antispeciesist organization that publishes a quarterly journal as well as a blog that features nonhuman animals who have taken direct action against human hegemony), and hosted by AdaLab (a meeting place for radical activists of all kinds that also features a vegan bed and breakfast). By this point in the trip, I was beginning to feel worn out, but I was restored by the experience of hanging out with Anguane members annalisa and Erika and by spending time with the black cats and lizards in Adalab’s garden of dandelions and violets. Because Vincenza is a small city, the audience for this talk was smaller but was no less intent and engaged. Collective members had prepared an extraordinary range and amount of food, which we broke the lecture in half to consume. While I couldn’t understand most of what people were saying, I could tell that their animated conversations had been, in part, provoked by the talk-in-progress. I didn’t manage to say everything I wanted to say that night, but that was OK — annalisa and Erika had translated a number of my essays and interviews, which they put into a packet along with their own introductory essay, so that audience members walked away with more than enough to think about!
In Milan, I had the opportunity to spend time with another of my favorite people, Claudio, and to discuss our shared wish for more careful strategic thinking among proponents of animal liberation. (If you’ve not yet watched Claudio’s lecture on the successful strategy that led to the closure of the Green Hill facility that bred dogs for vivisection, do so soon.) Claudio took me to the dog sanctuary where he works, and there I had the opportunity to meet some beagles rescued from vivisection. (Later, I would meet some mice saved from the same fate.)
Another joy: The Milan event was held at a neighborhood branch of the public library! (Public libraries are, along with sanctuaries, my favorite places.) We gathered in the children’s department — the perfect place for me to mention how stereotyped depictions of animals in children’s books make both gender and heteronormativity seem “natural.” Essere Animali members provided vats of pasta and plates of cupcakes. Pasta first, then lecture, then cupcakes. As at other events, audience members included not only animal advocates but also feminists and non-affiliated community members. Afterwards, the librarian who had stayed after hours to supervise the event told me that she planned to buy and feature a whole shelf full of books devoted to the intersections I’d discussed. That was a highlight of the trip for me!
Back in Spain, I was driven from the Bilbao airport directly to a long-standing anarchist squat, where I walked into the midst of the weekly (Saturday) vegan lunch for the public: One Euro for salad, soup, entree, and desert! The place was packed with happy people (and a few especially happy dogs) of all ages and persuasions. Yes, plenty of punks and hippies, but also people from the neighborhood, all eating enthusiastically and talking to each other. We then walked a few blocks to the community center at which the lecture would be held. At the punk coffee shop on the ground level of that building, I noticed they were offering vegan tapas. Later that night, I had the very great pleasure of sharing a futon with one of the happy dogs (Copal) whose person (Elena) so graciously shared her apartment with me, sending me off after a delicious breakfast the next morning.
Back to Barcelona
Back in Barcelona, I was done with talking. Dalibor guided me through the streets to the sea. On the way, I saw a gigantic statue of Columbus, which reminded me unpleasantly of his out-sized role in bringing European-style patriarchy (including homophobia and animal husbandry) to the Americas. But then I saw the blue of the sea and all else was forgotten for a little while. On the way back to the apartment of the fire-juggling Finn and tango-dancing Russian who housed me in Barcelona (thanks Antti & Julia!), we stopped into one of the surprising number of vegan eateries I’d seen on my trip — because Marcos needed to see me in person in order to be assured that all had gone well. I am so grateful to him and to everyone else who made it possible for me to commune and share ideas with so many fabulous Spanish and Italian activists!
What did I say? Each talk was different, depending on the wishes of the sponsoring organizations and the constitution of the expected audience, but there were some things I made sure to say every time. Still, it was a two-hour (or more) lecture each time, and this blog post is already very long, so I can offer only a very brief recap.
I began by mentioning Maddox and then going on to remember that his mother is still stuck back on the “dairy” farm, milked by machines while still grieving her calf. I stressed that her predicament is a situation — the result of a conjunction of social and material circumstances, without reference to which it is not possible to understand or solve the problem. In this case, the situation includes cultural ideas about food and animals, the historical process of imperialism that brought both cows and those ideas to the region, present-day political and economic circumstances such as state and federal subsidies for “dairy,” notions about females and mothering, and etc.
That’s just one situation. All instances of abuse/exploitation of captive animals and displacement/pollution of free animals are situations in which people, motivated by a complex combination of interacting social and material forces, do things.
Given these facts, it is unrealistic to imagine that any one tactic could resolve even a single situation and particularly unrealistic to imagine that the same tactic (or set of tactics) would be applicable in all places.
From this, we can deduce that our activism ought to: (1) be situated, taking local conditions into account; (2) draw upon a diverse array of tactics combined into strategies matched to situations; (3) take not only social or psychological but also material forces into account; and (4) be ecological, in that it takes networks of relationships into account.
Among those networks of relationships are the interacting social processes that are the focus of the activist theory and practice of intersectionality. Intersectionality teaches us that what seem to be different forms of oppression are, in fact, linked at the root, interacting with each other in mutually reinforcing ways to create stable systems of oppression. The best way to undermine these systems is to attack the joints that hold them together — the points at which different forms of oppression intersect.
The ecofeminist concept of the logic of domination not only extends the idea of intersectionality (first articulated with regard to gender and race and since extended to other forms of social injustice such as homophobia and ableism) to include speciesism and environmental despoliation but also helps us to see some of the joints. This logic, or way of seeing the world, divides everything into binary oppositions in which the two sides (male/female, human/animal, culture/nature, mind/body, reason/emotion, etc.) are imagined to be separate, opposite, and stratified (male over female, human over animal, mind over matter, etc.) Furthermore, the terms on each side (up or down) are associated with each other (e.g. males considered more rational, women and people of color considered closer to nature, etc.)
This allows us to see that some endeavors, such as undermining traditional masculinity, are likely to have far-reaching effects. We can also see what we ought to avoid, such as denigrating emotion or neglecting the material, in our own activism. As Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Those of use who grew up in cultures marked by the logic of domination must school ourselves to think differently. Since this way of seeing the world encourages abstraction and dissolves connections, we may need to actively work to see ecological connections. There are several ways to do this when it comes to speciesism and other forms of oppression.
You can think about the roots of one form of oppression and consider whether these are also at the root of other forms of oppression. With speciesism, the ideas of exceptionalism (“we’re so special that we can do whatever we want to anybody else”) and ableism (“we have capabilities they don’t have, so we can do whatever we want to them”) are dangerous ways of seeing the world that certainly have and continue to motivate discrimination and exploitation of people.
You can think about the effects of a form of discrimination and consider whether this encourages other forms of oppression. For example, the callousness (not caring about suffering) and mindlessness (deliberately not thinking about suffering) fomented by meat-eating are, again, dangerous habits of mind that certainly do contribute to injustices among people.
You can think about a feature of one form of oppression and wonder whether this also plays a role in other forms of oppression. Invisibility is a feature of speciesism in two ways: (1) animal and animal suffering disappear into commodities; and (2) most people are unaware of the privileges they presume merely as a result of being human. Similarly, the sweat and blood of workers disappear into commodities, and most people are unaware of the privileges (such as white privilege or male privilege) they enjoy as a result of their identities within unjust cultures.
You can also choose two forms of oppression and think about the ways they intersect. With regard to speciesism and sexism, for example, we can see that animals are used in the social construction of gender and that reproductive control features prominently in each. With regard to homophobia and speciesism, we can see how the false notion that all nonhuman animals are relentlessly focused on reproduction both facilitates the oppression of animals and makes it easy for homophobes to claim that LGBTQ people are “not natural.”
Undermining the logic of domination also allows us to reclaim vital parts of ourselves — our animal bodies, our animal emotions, our (often queer) animal desires. Those desires are our most vital form of energy for change, and the good news is that this is a renewable form of energy. Let’s start tapping into that today.