Animal Rights Protests

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