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Arrested for Leafleting While Brown?

On November 16th, Food Empowerment Project founder (and VINE Sanctuary board member) lauren Ornelas was subjected to a “citizen’s arrest” by a Whole Foods Market manager while she was peacefully and lawfully distributing leaflets about the rabbit “meat” that the grocery chain has recently begun promoting. Other commenters have rightfully lauded lauren’s bravery in standing up for bunnies. But lauren was outside the store and within her rights. It ought not require courage to pass out information in a public place.

So, let’s pay attention to the gender and race dynamics that led a white male store manager to feel empowered to arrest a Latina. In these days of nationwide protests against overzealous policing, let’s also think about the complicity of the police in this unjust arrest. While we’re at it, let’s consider whether the speciesism lauren was protesting is in any way related to the oppression she encountered while attempting to exercise her constitutional rights.

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lauren Ornelas speaking at the 2013 IARC in Luxembourg

When I heard that lauren had been subjected to a “citizen’s arrest,” my first thought was to notice the word “citizen” and wonder whether racially coded notions of citizenship (including the presumption that brown-skinned people must be immigrants as well as the common use of the word “illegals” to denote undocumented immigrants from Latin America) encouraged the white store manager to feel he had the right to detain an activist of Mexican descent. Did he see lauren and think “illegal”?

In The Oxen at the Intersection, I write about “absent-minded border guards” who’ve conveniently forgotten that they are descendants of immigrants to the Americas and that the border they defend was forged by genocidal violence. Self-appointed border patrollers police not only the physical boundary but also the idea of  “America,” including the all-important notion of private property, which they consider to include both land and animals.

European immigrants brought animal agriculture to what is now the United States. The ancestors of the bunnies whose bodies are now sold as “meat” by Whole Foods Market were brought over from New Zealand as a consequence of the combination of colonization and trade globalization. And now we have a white Whole Foods Market manager, in defense of the “private property” and commodification of animal bodies brought to the Americas by Europeans, feeling entirely entitled to make a “citizen’s arrest” of a Latina speaking up for bunnies.

I’m having a hard time writing this, because the connections seem so clear to me that I’m not sure what needs to be explained. When I wondered, on Twitter, whether gender and race factored into the store manager’s decision to demand lauren’s arrest after she refused to stop leafleting, Sistah Vegan Project founder Breeze Harper replied, “of course. A brown woman who isn’t being submissive. Teach her a lesson.”

That’s another connection: The logic of domination brought to the Americas by Europeans demands the subordination of women, people of color… and animals. Breeze wondered, “Had Lauren been a white man…?”  I wondered that too, and I also wondered whether the fact that she was advocating for animals felt especially insulting to the store manager who apprehended her. If she had been passing out religious tracts, or voter registration materials, veg starter kits, or even leaflets about some other product carried by Whole Foods Market, I wonder whether that would have prompted the same response as an implicit challenge to the right of people to breed, buy, sell, and kill animals.

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Police officer explaining to lauren why he is issuing her a citation on the say-so of a “citizen” (wonder if he asked for the manager’s papers)

And then there is the police officer who had declined to interfere with lauren himself (since she was breaking no law) but then cooperated with the store manager by coaching him to make a “citizen’s arrest”—instead of, say, warning him not to interfere with people exercising their constitutional rights.

Imagine if the situation were the opposite: What if lauren or some other animal advocate were to attempt a citizen’s arrest of a farmer for violating animal welfare laws? Would the police cooperate by taking the farmer into custody, or at least writing a citation? Or would they charge the activist with kidnapping, perhaps adding a terrorism enhancement thanks to AETA? If the activist were a young Black man, would he even make it out of the encounter alive?

That’s white privilege multiplied by male privilege, folks: Feeling free to impede a woman of color from going about her business, secure in the knowledge that the police will not interfere with you and might even help you. In this instance of intersectionality, racism and sexism supported speciesism, by making it impossible for a woman of color to advocate for animals.

We at VINE encourage our friends in social justice movements to stand in solidarity with lauren Ornelas as she copes with the repercussions of this arrest… and also to think about why she was willing to risk arrest for rabbits. We encourage our friends in vegan and animal advocacy to stand in solidarity with other victims of overzealous policing… and to think more about how animal exploitation and social injustice intersect.

3 comments to Arrested for Leafleting While Brown?

  • catherine podojil
    Lauren, I’m so sorry you had to undergo this fascist action. Thank you for pointing out that Whole Foods does not get a pass for its carnivore shelves because it sells some vegan items.

    Be well, sister. Catherine

  • CQ
    I’m proud of lauren and grateful to her for defending our rabbit friends. She is truly as innocent as they are.

    Now that I’ve been made aware of this crime against a human being who was trying to aid her creature kin, I am going to email your blog post to the manager of my local Whole Foods Market and ask that he forward it to his staff as well as to all the other WFMs in my city. I’ve already contacted him about the store’s sell-out policy re rabbit flesh. So far, my region of the country hasn’t instituted that despicable trade (which, I admit, is no worse than any other animal product that have always been available).

    You made many excellent points, pattrice. Keep plugging away with your important message of equal justice and rights for all individuals who inhabit this planet.

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