Undercover Video, Ag Gag and Where We Get It Wrong

28 Apr

How should the animal rights and environmental movement use undercover footage of illegal practices? This article argues that the current trend of using footage to prosecute individual workers may be taking blame and attention away from industries of abuse.

Cross posted from The Vegan Police:


image from opednews.com

I’ve followed the introduction of Ag Gag Bills – bills designed to criminalize undercover video of animal use industry – since they were in the dream phase in the wake of the Conklin Dairy Farm undercover video in 2010. That particular undercover investigation, I feel, is one of the most important undercover video investigations in the history of the “animal rights” movement and set the stage for the current battles around Ag Gag bills as well as our movements response.

The footage captured in that investigation was horrific and one particular character seemed to take pleasure in extreme violence against animals on the farm – Billy Joe Gregg Jr. It was nearly impossible to watch that footage and not dream of justice – whether you were a regular member of the public or a hardened animal liberationist. Animal agriculture – across the country – went into overdrive to recognize this particular weakness and exploited it. Billy Joe Gregg Jr. was the “bad apple,” the fall guy. The movement as a whole was so wrapped up in this character, in this horrific footage, that very few people questioned the structure of industrialized animal use or the precedent being set – the singling out and criminalization of individual workers as a movement strategy and measure of “success.”

In between then and now a different narrative has been presented – I would say popularly – with Timothy Pachirat’s undercover and critical take on the slaughter industry, “Every Twelve Seconds.” This work illustrated the connections in the machinations of industrialized animal use which renders other animals and fellow humans into commodities. The works focus is important in that it does not separate this – it is an undercover look at slaughter as well as exploitative labour and precarious employment with which the slaughter industry relies. Understood on these terms, the book provides a backdrop which can be used to coalition build with workers and understand common enemies – the ruling elite who profit off of these facilities. Ag gag bills would make Pachirat’s work illegal and is important as his work illustrates how Ag Gag bills not only effect animal use – but also the working conditions of these facilities which would also be criminalized. For an industry that relies on exploitative labour, marginalized populations, and which presents some of the greatest health and safety risks as well as a host of traumas – it is advantageous to them if “animal rights” activists do not make this connection and focus solely on the criminalization of undercover information regarding animal use. If “animal rights” activists, labour unions, and migrant justice advocacy organizations can be leveraged and wedged in order to fight this legislation in isolation the ability to resist it will be severely weakened.

Fast forward to 2013 and the idea that the criminalization of workers as a result of undercover video is a “victory” is now commonplace in the “animal rights” movement. Large non profit organizations like Mercy for Animals frequently send out donor pitches claiming “victory,” “success,” “take down,” etc. when referencing cruelty convictions for individual workers at industrial facilities. These organizations cannot control whether or not charges are laid in these cases – but they can manage and strategize around how effective their messaging and vision is. Cruelty convictions which focus on workers do little to nothing to effect the actual structure, process, or profit of animal agriculture – in fact they aid the messaging and strategy of animal agriculture. The inability of the “animal rights” movement to recognize this and change strategy has ensured that when designer legislation like Ag Gag bills were brought forward we were already behind – and not in anyway positioned to build strong strategic coalitions across movements. Organizers like Andy Stepanian have been trying to play catch up and new ag-gag focus which would also target anti-pipeline and anti-fracking documentation has provided some new outlets to organize with more familiar movements. However, as a movement we still continue to accept a strategy which keeps us from building relationships with communities which could strengthen not only our resistance to Ag Gag bills, but also provide our movement with a much needed understanding of whiteness, privilege and capitalism. Folks like Andy have also pointed out the Streisand effect that Ag Gag bills have had in the media – drawing more attention to the issue by the mere fact that the animal enterprise industry is attempting to legally hide practices – but these are only partial victories when considered against the coalitions we are refusing to build by reducing animal abuse to individual acts.

Prisons are not rehabilitative spaces – members of our own movement can attest to this. Criminalizing workers who work in one of the most dangerous industries on the planet, many with the threat of deportation hanging over their head, does absolutely nothing to effect or even slow down the systemic and structural abuse of animals in our industrialized societies. The longer we fight Ag Gag bills along these lines the more opportunity we give to the opposition to wedge, leverage and isolate those who stand between them and their profits. It’s three years late, but I hope it’s not too late to change our course and get it right.

It is time to stop celebrating the fall guy and refocus on the decision makers, owners and those who actually profit from these industries.

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