driving the wedge: what peta’s lesser-known tactics can tell us about their work and our own.

Trigger warning for racist, fatphobic and anti-immigrant language and images.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively simple aspects of organizing for social justice is building an inclusive movement that respects the struggles of multiple communities.  It’s similar to building any meaningful relationship.  Genuinely share power.  Know when to listen, when to support, and when it’s not your role to take the lead.  Take accountability for your own actions and privilege, and change your behavior to respect the boundaries of those close to you.  Invest in your own growth and the growth of those around you.

But that straightforwardness doesn’t make it easy—that’s why so many of us are still learning.  Doing this work has made me deeply appreciate organizers and organizations that take accountability gracefully, and that change their approach to reflect the feedback they receive.  It’s incredibly moving to see organizing that’s truly borne of love and compassion—enough so to change its course when it leaves communities behind.

The flipside of this appreciation is a deep frustration with those that continually dodge accountability, or become more entrenched in their privilege over time.  And in my experience, there is no more consistent offender than PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

PETA has received consistent criticism for its sexist tactics, which sexualize and objectify women to drive their point home.  But PETA doesn’t just throw women under the bus—they target a variety of identities and communities.  And ultimately, it hurts their own work.  It stymies their ability to build a broader movement, and it alienates potential allies and supporters.  And, at its core, it exposes just whose support PETA is trying to win.

note. 

As with much of what we discuss at You’re Welcome, we’re here to talk tactics, and whether specific organizing reflects anti-oppression values.  This post will not debate the merits of veganism, vegetarianism, or the animal rights movement.  The discussion below is designed to focus on the tactics utilized by PETA staff and supporters to make their case.  And that, as we’ve discussed many times here, is what makes (or breaks) a movement.  It’s rare that we at You’re Welcome focus more on what’s going wrong than what we can do right, but I think there’s value in taking a hard look at what our tactics can say about our work, and what PETA’s says about theirs. I hope you agree.

exploiting racism.

In addition to its well-known sexist tactics, PETA leverages racist tropes and constructs to further their own work.  Earlier this year, they garnered some attention when PETA sued Sea World under the thirteenth amendment—the constitutional amendment that outlaws slavery.  Needless to say, this is shortsighted and overtly oppressive—to say nothing of the fact that, historically, comparing people of color to animals is almost exclusively the purview of explicit racism.  I’ll defer to Wyatt Cenac, who brilliantly dismantled this strategy on the Daily Show:

 

But the 13th Amendment strategy is just one in a string of racist tactics employed by PETA.  In 2009, supporters protested the American Kennel Club (AKC) and their Westminster Dog Show’s “purebred only” policy.  Their fliers read “AKC + KKK: BFFs?” and made the argument that both the AKC and the Klan wanted “pure bloodlines.”  Handouts were distributed by PETA supporters in Klan hoods and robes.  I wish I was kidding.  From the Associated Press:

Most passers-by seemed more puzzled than offended, though those who didn’t stop walked away thinking they really had seen the KKK. The most common reaction was to pull out a cell phone and start snapping photos. Police monitored the situation from nearby, but the scene was mostly calm. One shouting match broke out during the hour-long protest. Earlier, a man strode away yelling, "That’s disgusting! I’m going to buy more fur!"

Invoking images and even the apparent presence of the Klan, an organization founded specifically to disenfranchise and murder people of color, is beyond the pale.  But what could PETA possibly be trying to accomplish with these tactics?

On its face, this appears to be another attention-grabbing strategy.  And it is.  As organizers, we know that our communities often want to see us out in the streets, raising a ruckus that reflect the urgency of our work.  So we take to the streets at rallies and marches. But most of what we do is a lot less visible.  It’s the daily work of building support amongst potential allies, of changing the policies that impact our communities, and of martialing resources to meet our deepest, most basic needs.  It’s a lot of time on the phone, in meetings, writing and talking one-on-one with a lot of people who don’t necessarily support us.  It’s not the work that’s easy to see, but it’s the work likeliest to make concrete changes in our communities.  We often take on higher-visibility work to respect the struggles of those around us by publicly rallying around our shared needs.  And we do it to energize our communities for the days, months and years of day-in, day-out tough work ahead, and so that our communities don’t forget that we’re still here, we’re still working.

So for PETA to exploit those deep needs and daily struggles to rally their base and garner that attention makes light of all of that work, visible or otherwise.  But they don’t just do it for the attention.  Like all organizing, these tactics are designed with a specific audience in mind.

In this case, the likelihood that any people of color are going to approach anyone in Klan hoods is pretty slim.  In fact, the likelihood of engaging anyone who the Klan has historically targeted—people of color, non-Christian people, immigrants, queer and trans people—is largely nonexistent. 

But PETA’s not looking to engage us.  This tactic is designed to engage and build PETA’s base.  What this approach demonstrates, regardless of the organization’s intent, is that they want a base that experiences privilege around race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and more.  And they seek primarily to engage those who prioritize their own work at the expense of movements that might otherwise be engaged as potential allies. 

shaming fat people.

save the whalesA few years ago, PETA put up billboards in Jacksonville, Florida.  They included a bright image of a fat woman wearing a bikini, and read “Save the Whales. Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.”

In a heartbreakingly honest letter, one woman wrote about her experience seeing the billboard on the way to the beach with her family:

My family was visiting, and I was planning on taking them to the beach to enjoy the beautiful day when i saw a billboard that made me want to cry. It says “Save the Whales,” with a picture of an overweight woman in the foreground.

We all sat there and stared at it for a minute and everyone in the car was silent. No one wanted to mention my weight. I laughed it off as usual, but it really had made me so embarrassed, so self conscious and so ashamed about my weight that I dropped off my family at the oceanfront and left to go home, making the excuse that I wasn’t feeling well.

On their own web site, PETA staff responded to concerns of body shaming:

We agree that a world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place, but we also know that most people feel depressed and embarrassed about their weight and often need some tough love. Our aim was not to insult people who are overweight but to get people talking—and then persuade them to make a simple, positive change for their health.

gone billboardUltimately, PETA took down the billboards, but they didn’t go quietly.  The originals were replaced with billboards that read “GONE. Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian” – a masterpiece of non-apology.  This is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry you feel bad” rather than “I’m sorry for what I did.”  It’s an apology that undermines itself by dismissing the material harm it’s done, and restating the initial hurtful premise.  This is overt, paternalistic fat shaming at its worst.  Well, almost its worst.  On the Huffington Post, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk took a strident approach:

America’s obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America’s Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait.

We’ve unpacked fatphobia at You’re Welcome time and time and time again.  What PETA staff are saying here is absolutely, unquestionably fatphobic.  As fat people, we have no discipline, we’re bad role models, we’re part of an “epidemic” that we’re somehow also responsible for—hell, we’re the reason children are fat.  Won’t someone please think of the children (by bullying them in print)?!

Yes, these billboards are fatphobic.  They’re also shrewd.  They were placed in a city located on the beach in the summer. And they were placed in a state with lots of vacation tourists and a strong representation of fat people. Last year, an estimated 25% of Floridians were categorized as obese. So when they put up these billboards, PETA was presumably prepared to shame and alienate 1 in 4 Floridians. 

So let’s be real.  PETA is not trying to “tough-love” fat people into weight loss with tactics like these.  They’ve proven that they are not concerned with stopping body policing.  No organization that would use such extraordinarily fatphobic tactics is.

Again, these tactics don’t win many new PETA supporters. So who’s left?  As with their racist tactics, it seems that this fatphobic approach is designed to keep PETA in the public eye—largely to rally their existing base.  With rhetoric like this, they certainly don’t seem to want any fat people around, whether or not we’re losing weight.

appropriating immigrant struggles.

Immigrant communities have long been targeted by wave after wave of anti-immigrant policies and on-the-ground activity from groups like the Minutemen.  This has all been powered by deep-rooted xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating for a variety of social, political and economic ills.

In 2010, PETA joined in the immigration debate.  Just following the passage of Arizona’s racist, anti-immigrant SB1070, PETA posted this billboards around the state.  And just last year, they posted similar billboards in Alabama:

PETA does not appear to do any work in coalition with immigrant rights groups, so appropriating their struggle is, as I’ve discussed before, completely inappropriate.  But it moves beyond simply inappropriate when you see how they attack opponents at Agriprocessors for hiring undocumented people:

You may remember that a few months back the slaughterhouse was busted because "76% of the 968 employees of Agriprocessors were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers." This was the nation’s largest single-site immigration raid. That’s right, the slaughterhouse was almost entirely staffed by illegal immigrants who were exploited to do the dirty work—such as hacking into the throats of cows who were still conscious.

So PETA is playing both sides of the immigration debate—claiming, on the one hand, that “no one should need papers,” and on the other, utilizing inflammatory language like “fraudulent” and “illegal immigrant” to attack their opposition.  When combined with PETA’s lack of coalition-building work with immigrant rights groups, it becomes clear that they only care about the political capital of the immigration debate, not about the struggles of immigrant communities.  They will shrewdly, cynically play either side of an issue to garner media attention, shore up their own base, and get their point across.

what you can do.

To be honest, I’ve struggled in coming up with action steps around PETA’s work.  On one hand, PETA has been around since 1981, and has gotten more than 30 years of opportunities to apologize, change their approach, and build meaningful coalitions with organizations in potentially allied movements.  They haven’t done any of that—and that could certainly be cause enough to sever ties with the organization, or to begin counter-organizing.  On the other, if you feel invested as an animal rights supporter in an aspirational view of what the movement could be, that could investment could translate into more concerted accountability for an organization that doesn’t reflect your values.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, movements are made up of relationships, and this movement is what you make it. Holding PETA accountable, vocally disengaging from the organization, and counter-organizing can all have impacts here, and all strike me as viable alternatives to simply laughing off their presence or ignoring their actions.  Make whatever choice makes sense for you, your community and your work.  But whatever choice you make, be sure you’re making it thoughtfully. 

And, of course, learn from PETA’s mistakes—don’t utilize these divisive tactics in your progressive organizing.  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’d never use such overtly exclusionary tactics, because many of us wouldn’t.  But on a smaller scale, many of us make these missteps—often unintentionally—every day.  We do it when we say that we deserve rights as “taxpaying citizens,” which implies that undocumented people don’t.  We do it when we say that “gay is the new black,” an only slightly less ham-fisted message than PETA’s thirteenth amendment law suit.  We are already making these mistakes, and the biggest lesson we can take away is to be as attentive in our approach as we are in setting our goals.  Of all these tactics that PETA employs, perhaps the biggest threat they pose is making us falsely certain that we don’t, or can’t, make the same mistakes.

borders & intersections: wisconsin, choice & immigration

A lot’s at stake in Wisconsin.  Public understandings of the meaning and worth of labor are up for debate.  National displays of solidarity are popping up nationwide.  And, in amongst all of that, the very livelihood of thousands of Wisconsin workers is at risk.  We are looking at the resurgence of the labor movement.

One more thing that’s at stake in Wisconsin: corporations’ control over elections and legislative sessions.  To be clear, if Wisconsin conservatives get their way, corporations will be the only voice well-resourced enough to be heard in state politics.  By defunding unions—or preventing them from forming altogether—the biggest contributors to elections will be corporations.  Look, of course everyone approaches elections with their own interests at heart.  By breaking unions, we’re removing their voice from elections—which means corporations are the only voice left.  To make it all Marxist, we’re eliminating proletarian participation in democracy in order to play up bourgeois interests. Given that labor unions also fund and support most of issues we care deeply about Women’s rights, LGBT rights, POC rights this is not just an attack on labor its an attack on everything.

 

labor and immigration

Increasingly, “made in America” is a thing of the past.  Our economy is global, which means labor must be global, too.  When corporations can’t exploit labor abroad, they do it here—within immigrant communities.  When we fail to address immigration reform in a deep and comprehensive way, we unintentionally perpetuate classist and anti-labor systems of thought, policy and rhetoric.

This is an opportunity to re-imagine labor. Cesar Chavez had it right. The farmworker’s movement developed because migrant workers were the one pool of labor that could not legally unionize in the United States.  So business owners had carte blanche to treat farm workers however they saw fit—and with the latitude they had, they proved that corporations can play tidily into Hobbesian narratives of self-interest.  In short, they treated immigrant labor like shit. 

So what’s the Chavez connection to Wisconsin?  The farmworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s  interrupted what the labor movement was at the time.  Corporations were just beginning to outsource jobs and seek cheaper labor in other countries—thereby exploiting policy divides in nations that had less established labor laws.  In the United States, migrant workers existed (and still do) in a no man’s land: many aren’t documented residents who can leverage American labor laws against unjust employers.  At the same time, they also cannot unionize and speak out as a group about their own best interests.  It’s a stalemate in the truest form.  And corporations have been exploiting and perpetuating that stalemate for decades.

As of yet, major American labor unions haven’t deeply addressed the needs of immigrant workers.  In so doing, they have missed an opportunity to get union workers and their many allies to do something radical and actually identify with immigrants: as workers who can be all too easily exploited when they can’t frequently and vigilantly voice their own needs and enforce their rights.  And in the absence of intersectional, pro-immigrant perspectives, anti-immigrant xenophobia takes hold, even in the most progressive communities.  By not drawing the parallel between labor and immigration, we reify systems that keep immigrants undocumented and prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

And the labor connection to immigration is just one opportunity that progressive people in the United States miss.  There are many more opportunities to connect our work for immigration reform to choice, LGBT rights, and progressive activism around globalization.

 

gender justice

Gender justice is a term used to unite struggles for queer rights, trans justice, and choice & reproductive justice.  And guess what?  Immigration reform connects to all three!  Here’s how:

Reproductive justice & “anchor babies.”  A primary scare tactic used by the far right accuses immigrant women of entering the United States to give birth to “anchor babies” that will provide their path to citizenship.  In this trope are deep and unspoken fears of a conscious racial takeover.  And in using the “anchor baby” line of thinking, conservatives once again paint the fertility of women of color as something that’s “predatory” and must be restricted.  Once again, women’s families and reproductive health are up for public debate.

LGBT rights and asylum.  As astonishingly anti-LGBT stories continue to roll out of Uganda, and many LGBT people in the United States join together to show our support, we lose immigration and asylum as a key mode of supporting LGBT people in other countries.  Asylum is very rarely afforded to LGBT immigrants to the US, showing that, once again, homophobia and transphobia aren’t “real” enough, that it’s all in our heads, and that ultimately, we could choose to be or do something different.  (You know what’s not a choice, though? Being gay.)  At the same time, we fail to expose the role of American evangelists in creating the anti-LGBT climate in Uganda and then exploiting that climate by seeding sensationalist policies like the infamous “kill the gays” bill.

Trans justice, documentation and Arizona. Recently, Arizona effectively legalized racial profiling of people perceived to be immigrants  (read: Latinos).  If you’re brown, police will assume you’re not a citizen.  Something similar happens to transgender people every day: if they don’t present as gender normative, their documentation is challenged and questioned at every turn.   The whiter, and more gender normative you are, the less your citizenship is interrogated.

globalization & foreign policy

Globalization is inevitable, but the way it’s taking shape is not.  For decades, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so-called “free trade” agreements have defined what kind of power and money nations can access when they don’t already have power and money.  Many of us know that this is unfair, some of us know that this disproportionately breaks along lines of race (creating shitty impacts for nations of people of color), but few of us make the connections to immigration into the US.

In truth, “free trade agreements” could be more accurately renamed as “free labor agreements,” which allow American corporations to build maquiladoras and sweatshops in, among other places, Central and North America.  When those sweatshops open up, they employ many—if not most—people in the town where they’re located.  That means that corporations define the going price for labor in that area while simultaneously establishing a deep local dependence on that corporation to keep the local economy alive.  At the same time, corporations can decimate local natural resources and introduce social power structures that eventually decimate indigenous ways of living.  It’s malevolent, it’s racist, it’s insidious, and it’s forever.

 

do this, right now, today.

So, what can you do?  Here are some action steps:

  • Redefine “the immigration problem.”  Overwhelmingly, people on the left and the right will agree that the solution to “the immigration problem” is to stop the flow of immigrants to the US.   But the need for immigration reform runs much, much deeper than that.  If we had thought more deeply about the impacts of free trade agreements on Latino nations, we would have predicted the wave of immigration from Central America.  “The immigration problem” is more than documentation for farm workers, naturalization for LGBT immigrants, or the DREAM Act for students.  It bleeds into movements for labor, choice, and global justice in US-powered foreign policy.  And, at its core, it asks US voters who we think should be allowed to be an American.
  • Explicitly connect your liberation to the liberation of immigrants.  Because, as we’ve explored here, those two things are deeply connected.
  • Ask yourself: who benefits?  Overwhelmingly, you’ll find that the people who benefit from anti-immigrant policies and discourse are (surprise!) US corporations.
  • Come out as an ally to immigrant communities.  Speak up about your support for immigrant communities, and continue to educate yourself on the lived experiences of immigrants, the problems with public discourse about immigration, and how public policy continues to define who can be a “real American.”