Three Paths Forward from the Sonoma Verdict
Wayne's felony conviction for saving animals is not an end. It's a beginning.
Announcements from Wayne’s team:
NEW: Donate to The Simple Heart! Today is #GivingTuesday, and we’re launching a subscription program for you to support this newsletter. Wayne’s incarceration is a powerful story that can help him reach even more people — but only if we elevate his platform for doing so. You can contribute and help us share our vision of animal rescue here!
Wayne’s sentencing hearing is this Thursday, November 30th. The judge in the Sonoma Rescue Trial will determine how long of his nearly two year possible jail sentence he will serve. See how to show up and support him here.
Join our December 3rd Open Rescue Advocates meeting. We will debrief the sentencing hearing and discuss next steps in the movement for open rescue. Register here.
And now, on to Wayne’s blog…
In the days before the verdict in Sonoma County, I wrote about what I called an asymmetry in stakes. Whether the jury found me guilty or otherwise, the movement would benefit — by building precedent, if found not guilty, and by generating attention through my incarceration, if guilty.
However, there is a very real and factual way in which my ultimate imprisonment makes no difference: animals remain trapped in cages in Sonoma County, either way.
There are 1,200 human beings in cells at the jail in which I write these words. There are 200,000+ animals in cages at a single building, at Sunrise Farms, just minutes away. And across the county, there are millions of cows, chickens, and other animals living in conditions that are too cruel for most people to even look at. From a more global perspective, my own confinement is mostly irrelevant. The question is what happens next for all the other animals living in cages.
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And here is the good news: I believe what happens next could be transformative change, and our “loss” in court could fuel those efforts. Heads, we win. Tails, the industry loses. The key is for the movement to understand the promising avenues for change — and harness the energy from this verdict to push even harder for progress.
#1) Banning factory farms on the ballot in Sonoma County
I have expressed skepticism about ballot initiatives in the past. They rely on large-scale impersonal outreach to low-information voters. The result, typically, is that meaningful change is hard to achieve. Even once achieved, it is often even harder to enforce — see California’s Proposition 2.
The Coalition to End Factory Farming’s ballot measure in Sonoma County, however, is changing my mind. Despite an ambitious and much-needed proposal — an outright ban on all so-called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) — canvassers across the county have collected signatures with astonishing speed. (As of this publication, the effort is at 20,000 of the 30,000 needed by March 9, 2024.) And as a straightforward ban, the measure would be relatively easy to enforce.
The odds are stacked against the effort. The Farm Bureau is one of the most powerful forces in Sonoma County — and the entire state — and they have yet to bring out their strongest guns. (Expect a massive campaign of fear and disinformation if and when this gets on the ballot.)
This is where the verdict can play a key role. Dramatic, compelling stories will be crucial to counter the wave of paid advertising and media the industry will bring when the factory farm ban gets on the ballot. And what could be more dramatic and interesting than a man sitting in a cage, due to his efforts to get animals out of cages? Everyone loves a good David vs. Goliath story. We should blanket the airwaves and social media with that story to bring an urgent human element to this fight.
That brings me to the second way the verdict will help: the power of “communicative suffering” to mobilize a movement. Even more important than the general public are the activists who will help us reach that broader audience. And there is compelling evidence that efforts by powerful institutions to crush and imprison activists can backfire — and build an even stronger movement. The key is to use the stories of the activists who are targeted to ask the broader movement: “What can you sacrifice?”
There is nothing, as I sit in this jail cell, I would cherish more than a revitalized movement to ban factory farms. I’ve been willing to gamble my freedom on that prospect. I hope you will give up something — time, money, or a little social discomfort — to help us get out the vote.
#2) The Right to Rescue and the Right to Know
Two upcoming right to rescue cases will be just as crucial as the Sonoma trial in bringing attention to the plight of animals.
In Newfane, NY, Tracy Murphy faces a theft charge for giving care to two cows who wandered onto her sanctuary. In Dane County, WI, Paul Picklesimer and Eva Hamer face felony charges for giving aid to tormented beagle puppies — including a blind little girl we named Julie — taken from Ridglan Farms.
To sustain and support those defendants in the wake of the Sonoma verdict, it will be even more important for the movement to unify and show up to support. (Sacrifice can have great value, but only if the ones facing the sacrifice feel a sense of solidarity and purpose.)
It will also be important for lawyers, scholars, and even everyday activists to look carefully at Sonoma for lessons. (Here are some I’ve already offered.) For example, one thing that has been on my mind is the question of whether multi-defendant cases are better for the defense — especially when a hypothetical single defendant is a person of color. It’s notable that all the open rescue convictions in US history have been single defendant cases. The Sonoma County verdict will present this and other hypotheses for the animal rights movement to test.
A second and related front, however, is the right to know. Justin Marceau, Matthew Strugar, and other lawyers at PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are challenging unconstitutional “ag-gag” laws across the country — laws that have made it a crime to merely document animal cruelty. The evidence from the Sonoma trial shows the dangerous and constitutionally fraught dynamics at play; evidence was excluded at trial that local authorities were trying to stop not just our rescues, but our political and legislative activity. In particular, a PowerPoint document revealed to us shortly before trial showed the local authorities were concerned about resolutions passed in Berkeley and San Francisco in defense of the right to rescue. We should harness what was excluded from the Sonoma trial to show that all Americans, not just animal rights activists, have an interest in ending the industry’s stranglehold on our political system — and its efforts to undermine our most basic constitutional rights.
#3) Maintaining movement unity
The great scholar of social movements, Charles Tilly, examined dozens of movements through history and identified a simple formula for those that had success: WUNC. Worthy. Unified. Numerous. Committed.
The fight against animal abuse has all of these — save one: unity. And the problem with an un-unified movement is twofold. First, it limits the movement’s ability to capitalize on its full power. (It was not until warring factions in the Civil Rights movement came together and marched on Washington that they achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
But second, and even more important, an un-unified movement tends to waste its time attacking itself. This so-called “narcissism of small differences” — when we treat those who are slightly different from us with much more hostility than those who are completely opposed — is one of the most common pitfalls in not just movements, but all forms of human social organization. (Witness the infighting tearing the Republican Party apart.) But it is particularly dangerous for social movements, which can evaporate as quickly as they form.
One of the great powers of “communicative suffering” is that it puts the narcissism of small differences in the proper context. Should we really be attacking each other when the industry is literally putting our activists in jail? But it takes a collective commitment to movement solidarity to truly maintain movement unity. We all need the courage to intervene when we see our fellow activists being unkind. Too often, the majority does the opposite — who wants to be involved in conflicts? — and the net result is that everyone goes home, tired by endless infighting.
Let me be candid here and say what virtually all of us who have organized in progressive circles already know: much of this conflict revolves around race, sex, and gender politics. But in many ways, that disguises the interpersonal jealous resentments and personal disagreements at the root. The language of social justice has been weaponized to settle personal scores. We all need to be mindful of this — including in ourselves — and seek kindness instead. The unkind should be told by all of us — collectively and culturally — that there is a better way. We must be WUNC, not Woke.
There are many other priorities facing the world, including the animal rights movement, in the months and years to come. The rise (and fall) of plant-based meats. The threat of pandemics posed by factory farms. The impossibly stubborn plateau in the vegan movement. But in the wake of Sonoma County, there is a key opportunity on these three fronts: banning factory farms in Sonoma County; the right to rescue and the right to know; and the ongoing effort to create a culture of movement unity.
The Sonoma verdict, in many ways, is a blow to our momentum. But, as the ancient Chinese adage shows, every crisis has an opportunity. Let’s harness this one to maximum effect.