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I got arrested protesting PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk. Then she taught me an important lesson in life. (Podcast)
A fight over pit bulls caused a rift. Only forgiveness could restore the harm.
In the fall of 2007, I and a group of fellow animal rights activists decided we would be doing something that, on the face, seemed bizarre: protesting and disrupting a talk by PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. What is perhaps even more strange, however, is that the protest and my subsequent arrest taught me, courtesy of Ingrid, one of my most important lessons in life: those who forgive are those who succeed.
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Ingrid, along with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, is one of the founding figures of the animal rights movement. She wrote the groundbreaking book, Free the Animals, about the importance of direct action and animal rescue, which has just been released in its 30th edition. And yet some of the most devoted animal rights activists in Chicago had gathered to shut down a talk she was planning to give at a Borders bookstore in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
The reason? A disagreement about pit bulls. The two most prominent animal advocacy organizations in the nation, The Humane Society of the United States and Ingrid’s own PETA, had taken the position that pit bulls seized from NFL star Michael Vick, who had been using them for dog fighting, should be euthanized because they were too dangerous or difficult to be released.
I and other animal rights activists disagreed – and fiercely. Just months earlier, I had saved a pit bull, my little Lisa, from a dog fighting circle. (We went through a life-changing traumatic experience together.) I had read a compelling piece by author Malcolm Gladwell arguing that pit bulls are more gentle than beagles. And perhaps most importantly, I saw PETA’s stance as a betrayal of the animal rights position. I was furious, and I wanted PETA – and Ingrid – to be held accountable. (In this regard, I was not alone. PETA and HSUS both took a beating in the media for their stand on the Vick dogs.)
What I did not realize was that I was falling victim to one of the most self destructive tendencies in social movements, a pathology called the narcissism of small differences that was first identified by Sigmund Freud. It turns out that, while we hate our enemies, sometimes we hate our friends even more. When people close to us exhibit small differences that suggest that they’re not REALLY part of our team, we act out with outrage. The betrayal suggested by this small difference angers us even more than far worse misbehavior by our adversaries. The reason, Freud believed, is that these small differences with an ally suggest that we ourselves might not be perfect. That triggers a narcissistic, ego-protecting reaction in those who are insecure.
Of course, to me, PETA’s position on pit bulls was not a small difference. It was a violation of the most basic values of our cause. But the reality is that, compared to most people on this earth, I was far more aligned with PETA than any other group. Like PETA, I believed in the principle of animal liberation – a world where every living creature is granted equal worth regardless of species. Like PETA, I supported direct action, in a movement that had become terrified of doing anything that seemed “extreme.” And, like PETA, I had enormous faith in grassroots activism.
Indeed, PETA was the reason I was a grassroots activist myself. As I describe in the podcast with Ingrid, when I received my first box of literature from PETA in the early 2000s, my face lit up, and I nearly cried. I had been struggling to find material that I could share with the people around me about animal rights. PETA had provided me exactly what I needed. Glossy leaflets with vivid pictures. Stickers for people who wanted to show their support. Even DVDs, which were incredibly hard to find back in the early 2000s, of PETA’s groundbreaking documentary short, Meet Your Meat.
But ironically, it was precisely because I believed so much in PETA that their position on the Vick dogs felt like a deep betrayal.
And, for that reason, I and a band of fellow activists decided the only option was to protest and disrupt. Our plan was to hold up signs, one by one, and then collectively raise our voices to protest the killing of pit bulls. (It was an action plan that I more effectively realized many years later, in disrupting an actual adversary: Chipotle in its showing of the documentary American Meat.)
But before the talk, a number of us were leafleting with a homemade, decidedly non-PETA pamphlet that discussed the importance of saving pit bulls. And lo and behold, Ingrid and a PETA supporter (who also happened to be someone I considered a friend), saw me leafleting and decided to confront me, face to face.
“What’s your concern?” Ingrid asked.
I was stunned by the directness of her approach.
“I have a pit bull, and I’m furious about what PETA’s done with Michael Vick’s dogs,” I said.
“What you hear is often not what’s true,” she replied.
And she had a point. The world is a complex place, and I had not personally reviewed the legal filings, or confirmed the stories I was reading on the internet. I was caught up in a fit of righteous outrage. The conversation continued for perhaps another minute. I remember feeling like I had stumbled and bumbled my way through all of my points. (Another life lesson: if you can’t make a point to someone effectively in person, as opposed to over a keyboard, you might not have much of a point.) But when Ingrid finally ended our conversation and went into the bookstore, I was left feeling even more confused.
Was I standing for justice? Or attacking an ally? Or both?
But I didn’t get a chance to resolve my existential angst because a police officer shoved me across the sidewalk a few moments later. When I objected, yelling, “That’s assault, sir,” he grabbed and cuffed me, and physically threw me into his squad car. I’d spend the night in jail, just another defendant targeted by Chicago’s notoriously corrupt police department, rather than disrupting Ingrid Newkirk. A video shot moments later shows the confusion among the activists on the street.
The charge that was ultimately brought against me was hilarious: “disruption of a fisheries officer.” The officer who shoved and arrested me apparently was trying to find something that suggested that, by merely standing on the sidewalk in his physical path, I was guilty of a crime. We won the case by pointing out to the judge the nearest fishery was over a thousand miles away.
But on that night in jail, I had no such reassurance. Instead, I had a moment to reflect. And here is what I thought:
We have limited time on earth. And huge problems. I’ve chosen to go after an animal rights activist for what I think is a serious issue. And yet, when faced with a monumentally corrupt power, such as corrupt law enforcement, my complaint against Ingrid seems kind of small. I need to focus on the things that matter most.
That is, in fact, what happened that day at the planned protest even without my newfound wisdom. Instead of disrupting the talk, as planned, one person, an activist named Mike Durschmid who we belovedly called MH (for Mad Hatter), made a loud comment and walked off. Then our entire team shifted their focus on getting me out of jail. The corrupt law officer was a real adversary, and one we needed to combat if we wanted to continue our work against factory farms.
But the deepest impact of that arrest did not come until years later. In December 2014, DxE was ready to release its first open rescue. I had worked night and day on a documentary short that had captured the attention of a few reporters at New York Times. But would the public release of what we had done – sneak into a Whole Foods egg farm and rescue a dying hen – lead to public outcry, or imprisonment? Much depended on how many people we reached.
And PETA had, at the time and now, the biggest platform in animal rights. Sheepishly, I reached out to Ingrid, who had for years supported activists facing potential imprisonment for direct action, and asked her if she had any advice on getting the word out. I was embarrassed and slightly ashamed to ask, given my history with her from 2007. But much to my surprise, Ingrid did not just provide wonderful advice, warning us that attacks by the government would inevitably come – “If you show your face, you will be charged” – but promised to share our videos with the world.
Our first open rescue video, along with many others subsequently, were shared with millions of PETA followers. Partly for that reason, I think, we were not charged in that first open rescue case – the overwhelming tide of public support scared the corporations we were targeting – and we were able to build momentum that launched a movement for open rescue. Hundreds of animals were saved; tens of millions were reached with the message of animal rights. And it all happened, in no small part, because Ingrid set aside her feelings, and supported someone who had tried to disrupt her talk.
I’ve spoken to many people since that day, on why Ingrid did what she did. For many years, I was too embarrassed to ask her directly myself. What I heard over and over again, including even from people who left PETA’s senior leadership on bad terms, is that Ingrid is quick to forgive. In fact, her ability to forgive, and refocus on PETA’s mission – helping animals – has been key to her success. While many movement activists, and people in general, fall victim to resentment and bitterness, over slights and conflicts from years in the past, Ingrid, one friend told me, has the almost preternatural ability to “not give a s___. If you’re doing something for the animals, she’s your friend.”
I was inspired by what I heard, and what I saw unfolding. But, until this podcast conversation, I had never talked to Ingrid directly about what happened. I don’t want to give away the words we exchanged. But I’ll say now, it was equal parts hilarious and meaningful for this conversation to finally happen.
What’s the upshot, for readers of this blog? I think it’s twofold. Before you fight with your family, your fellow activists, or your friends, ask yourself if you’re falling victim to the narcissism of small differences. Are you mad because the harm inflicted actually justifies your anger, or because the harm inflicted attacks your sense of self? Because, in some way that you might not even consciously perceive, the person you’re angry at has a point?
But the second lesson is even more crucial. Forgiveness is crucial to success. The most important reason to forgive, of course, is that it’s the right thing to do. None of us is perfect, and forgiveness is what allows people to grow from their mistakes. Forgiveness is just as important, however, as a practical measure to help ourselves. I was not particularly apologetic for my attack of Ingrid back in 2007. I never bothered to say sorry. But she forgave me anyways, and it was better for her. It allowed her to release the tension and stress and anger associated with the wrong I had committed, and refocus her energy on her mission in life: helping animals.
Ingrid has taught me many lessons in life. (Many of those lessons are in Free the Animals, which you should go out and read, if you haven’t!) But her lesson on forgiveness is one that, I suspect, will never be taught as powerfully to me by anyone else. The pain I caused, by attacking PETA at a point where they were already hurting, was massive; the gain I received in return, when Ingrid set aside my attack and supported our work, was just as large. Ingrid didn’t have to help me. But she did it anyways. For that, I will always be grateful.
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