Over the past fifteen years a powerfully charged drama has unfolded in New York's Broadway venues and spread to the opera houses and ballet productions of major cities across the country. Its characters include angry college students, aging rock stars, flamboyant B-movie queens, society matrons, and sophisticated fashion designers. You can't buy tickets for this production, but you might catch a glimpse of it while driving in Bethesda on particular Saturday afternoons. If you're lucky, Compassion Over Killing (COK), an animal rights civil disobedience group, will be picketing Miller's Furs, their enemy in the fight against fur. These impassioned activists see the fur trade as nothing less than wholesale, commercialized murder, and will go to great lengths to get their point across. Such enthusiasm may do them in, as COK's often divisive rhetoric and tacit endorsement of vandalism threaten to alienate the very people it needs to reach in order to be successful.
The animal rights idealogy crystallized with the publication of philosophy professor's exploration of the way humans use and abuse other animals. Animal Liberation argued that animals have an intrinsic worth in themselves and deserve to exist on their own terms, not just as means to human ends. By 1985, ten years after Peter Singer's watershed treatise was first published, dozens of animal rights groups had sprung up and were starting to savor their first successes. In 1994 Paul Shapiro, then a student at Georgetown Day School, didn't feel these non-profits were agitating aggressively enough for the cause. He founded Compassion Over Killing to mobilize animal rights activists in the Washington metropolitan area and "throw animal exploiters out of business." Since then, COK has expanded to over 300 members with chapters across the country, including one at American University, which formed in the fall of 1996. COK organizes protests as a primary activity of the group, although some chapters may choose to expand into other areas if they wish.
COK's focus on direct-action protests and demonstrations is just one way that the animal rights movement has mobilized to end the fur trade. The larger animal rights organizations have conducted attention grabbing media blitzes with the help of stars like Paul McCartney, Melissa Etheridge, Rikki Lake, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. Lobbying efforts by animal advocacy groups have resulted in trapping restrictions in numerous states and an end to federal fur industry subsidies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has persuaded several fashion designers including Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to stop using fur in their clothing lines. In addition, anti-fur concerts, videos, compact discs, t-shirts, drag revues and award ceremonies have been used by animal rights groups to advance their cause.
Each side of the conflict over fur coats has an entirely different way of conceptualizing and talking about the issue. Animal rights groups bluntly describe fur as "dead...animal parts" and emphasize that animals are killed to produce a fur garment. Those involved in the fur industry consistently use agricultural metaphors and talk of a yearly "crop of fur" that must be "harvested." Manny Miller, the owner of Miller's Furs, refused to describe his business in terms of the individual animals; "I don't sell animals. I sell finished products. I sell fur coats." These linguistic differences extend to the manner in which both sides frame the debate over fur. COK refers to the industry in criminal terms; fur is directly equated with murder and those involved in the industry are labeled killers. Industry groups like the Fur Information Council of America (FICA) always describes fur garments as objects and clothing; it is "the ultimate cold weather fabric" that is "your fashion choice."
On Saturday, April 12th, Compassion Over Killing demonstrated outside the White House, protesting the Clinton administration's opposition to a European Community ban on the importation of fur coats made from animals caught in the wild. In addition, the demonstration called for the release of several Animal Liberation Front (ALF) members imprisoned for vandalizing property and liberating animals from research labs and factory farms. Several dozen high school and college students turned out for the event, but the protest attracted a handful of thirtysomethings and an elderly woman as well. Most of the young people there seemed to dress in a similar style; baggy pants, piercings and t-shirts advertising obscure "hard-core" rock bands adorned most of the activists. The organizers of the protest provided more than enough signs for everyone to carry. Each sign had a slogan stenciled on the cardboard in boxy black letters, including "Abolish the Fur Trade," "Fur is Murder," "Stop Promoting Vanity and Death," and "Fur is Dead- Get It In Your Head." Some of the signs displayed graphic photographs of skinned animal carcasses. In contrast to the dramatic messages they carried, most of the activists were subdued as they slowly trudged in a circle.
The inclement weather seemed to dampen their spirits a bit, as for most of the three hour protest it alternated between drizzle and half-hearted rain showers. The few passersby seemed intent on getting through the rain, and quickly walked past while giving the protesters wide berth. In periods when the precipitation was less intense, the majority of people passed by with expressions of studied indifference or disgust and seemed to have a visceral reaction to the bloody, explicit posters. It is not necessarily bad to show people what you are against; no one in COK likes to look at those photographs. At the same time, it's important to try to reach people at a level where your message can resonate. Using words like "murder" may attract attention, but it has just as much potential to turn people off. The fur industry is trying its hardest to paint groups like COK as a radical fringe; one FICA press release said, "the more bizarre the activists look, the better we look -- and what they had outside were freaks." COK's choice of words might just be playing right into the other side's hands.
Environmentalists would appear to be natural allies of animal rights groups; after all, they both profess concern for the Earth's varied inhabitants and passionately organize to protect ther-than-human species. But while animal advocates generally call themselves environmentalists, the reverse is not true. Jim Motavalli writes that "environmentalists tend to see the animal movement as hysterical, shrill and 'one note.' They're often embarrassed by the lab raids, the emotional picketing and the high-pitched hyperbole." If the rhetoric of groups like COK alienates groups with a natural affinity for animal issues, how can it change the mind of a 55 year old wealthy white woman who's always loved the look and feel of a fur coat?
Although the White House simply stood silently in response to COK's sidewalk activities, the scene was quite different when Compassion Over Killing picketed Miller's Furs in early April. Slightly less people turned out, but the makeup of the crowd was similar to the one at the Pennsylvania Avenue protest; many of the faces were the same at both events. However, a certain contrast was clear; this protest was targeting a finite business operation, while the White House demonstration seemed to address the entire United States legal system as well as foreign policy. COK's call for the release of ALF members convicted of various felonies had an air of futility about it, as the activists claimed the right to break all sorts of U.S. laws in the name of their cause. The Miller's Fur protest was more of an even fight. This time the activists seemed more powerful, as if they were in reach of their goal to close down the Bethesda fur salon. Their signs had a few more incendiary phrases than those at the presidential protest; "Boycott Murder- Don't Buy Fur" and "Stop the Killers Boycott Miller's" appeared in addition to those used at the White House protest. The activists excitedly talked about a recent ALF action; the underground group had recently spray painted animal right slogans over Miller's windows and canopy. As they circled the group broke into chants directed by COK leaders, which seemed to add energy to the protester's message. Passing cars beeped their horns as their drivers waved in support, in contrast to the tepid response from the pedestrian traffic at the protest downtown.
However, with one or two exceptions those who passed by the fur protest on foot in Bethesda seemed to be just as hostile as those in D.C. Some speculate that the entire concept of a fur salon picket is faulty, that COK just angers "people when [they] say, 'don't buy fur!'and makes them want to go and do it."
The women that dared to cross Miller's threshold attracted every protester's attention, as they shouted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in unison. As one customer left the store loud voices yelled out, "That's Disgusting!", "Shame!", "How'd They Get The Blood Out Of Your Coat?" and other slogans which were drowned out by others' hissing and boos. The effect was very much like that of an angry mob; tension and vitriolic energy filled the air. This atmosphere may release pent up emotion, and discourage people from buying fur in the short term, although in the long term it runs the risk of damaging the animal rights cause. A recent survey revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans strongly disapprove "of protesting fur coats in a harassing manner." Animal advocates certainly don't need their tactics compared to radical pro-life groups that make abortion clinics warzones.
As all the activity unfolded outside their door Miller's Furs taped a small sign to their window that read "Medical Research Saves Lives." This seemed off-topic at first glance, but after visiting the FICA web site and reading other pro-fur literature, it was apparent that the sign was part of a pattern. The fur industry initially ignored criticism from animal rights groups and relied on their product's glamorous image to state their case. As the column inches devoted to the animal rights movement's allegations of cruelty began to accumulate and sales began to drop; the industry's strategy shifted. Fur companies began to try to draw attention away from themselves by pointing out the most controversial parts of the animal rights agenda to the mainstream society. Arguably the animal rights issue with the least amount of public support is medical animal testing. Although this topic divides the animal rights community, many of the movement's leaders favor total abolition of any testing on animals. The fur industry is only too happy to point this out to anyone who'll listen.
Compassion Over Killing and other animal rights groups are actively trying to change the social "rules" that prevail in this country. While in the short term they may not be advocating a ban on fur coats, COK's protests are aimed at making it socially unacceptable to wear fur. This effort has shown signs of succeeding, as fur sales have fallen almost 50% below their peak volume in 1987. However, they have begun to creep upwards again in recent quarters. As with every social movement, animal advocacy groups need to pause and reevaluate their public relations strategies. Perhaps it's time for organizations like Compassion Over Killing to cut back on their use of emotionally charged phrases and tacit endorsement of felonious acts a la ALF. Without considering these issues, COK runs the risk of marginalizing the group and losing its battle against fur.
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