The Purpose and Privilege of Protest

Yesterday, along with Julian and two of our friends, I participated in my first-ever protest march.  It was the “March to Close All Slaughterhouses” and it not only took place in Toronto and Montreal but also in France, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, England, Turkey, Belgium, Scotland and the U.S.  It’s the third year for the march and approximately 500 people attended in Toronto.  It was well-organized, well-run and, the cause aside for one moment, the experience made me extremely grateful to live in a country where I am free to openly protest in the street.  We post our thoughts, feelings and opinions so automatically now that it’s easy to forget just how privileged we are to be able to do that without fear of arrest, prison or worse. Marching on behalf of animal rights made me aware of my own: I saw those civil liberties in action and it made me realize how important it is to exercise them, especially on behalf of those who have none. 

After the march, the four of us headed to Harvey’s for veggie burgers and fries and debriefed on the day.  As I was the only one who had never done any kind of protest before, I was curious to hear what the others thought.  We were all unanimous on two things: one, we were glad we did it and two, we all wondered if it made any difference.  I know we weren’t alone in that either. Prior to the march, the organizers had guest speaker and activist Paul Bali speak to the crowd.  He touched on this very thing, that trying to address the worldwide slaughter of animals “feels so big” and so by comparison, everything you try to do in response to it “feels so small”.  The sheer number of animals slaughtered each year is difficult for anyone to comprehend and it’s easy to feel outgunned and overpowered, especially when the current state of affairs isn’t in favour of sparing them.

I’m still processing yesterday’s march and the day continues to turn over in my mind like a gemstone I keep examining.  Despite my own feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, I have settled on at least two things: one, they are just feelings. Feeling powerless isn’t always the same as being powerless.  By using our voice and abilities to speak up, we immediately change the course of hopelessness to hope, of apathy to action, of silence to conversation.  Is one march going to make a difference? Not likely. But will thousands of marches over time and across countries make a difference?   Absolutely.  Look at the recent phasing out of elephants from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus – animal activists had a huge hand in that.  By camping outside of circuses and protesting the real treatment of these animals for nearly four decades, they gradually exposed the truth. Similarly, by being a presence and a voice that continually challenges the status quo, each of us has the potential to make a difference.

The second thing I discovered at yesterday’s march was the pleasure of solidarity.  I knew intellectually I wasn’t alone but seeing just how united I really was with others reminded me that any form of activism cannot – and should not for one’s own sanity – be done alone.  While the march was largely a somber occasion, I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to walk down the street in my own city and scream out what is so often just in my head, as the organizers led the protestors in a call-and-answer cry to the beat of a drum:

Empathy, Compassion – Animal Liberation!
Freedom for All – Justice for Animals!
Humans and Animals – We Are All Equal!
Meat is Murder – Stop the Slaughter!
No More Torture, No More Lies – How Many Animals Left to Die?

It was refreshing to be able to drown out the world’s message of killing animals for food as okay and force people to stop and listen and look at what that actually means.  Even if it was for only a few brief moments and even if people dismissed us as soon as they saw us, for that 90-minute march downtown it was the animals’ voices being heard.  It was images of them as whole and living beings capable of pain and fear instead of as a meal, ingredient or fashion accessory. For that moment, all attention was on them and the disconnect we have with animal flesh was revealed.  For once, they got to speak and be heard and be seen.

At the end of the day, none of us can really ever know the impact one march or one picture or one post or one response will have on others.  All we can do is keep going, keep trying and keep active.  We will have good days and bad, successes and failures.  But we must keep going for the animals who have no choice, no voice and who continue to suffer tremendously at the hands of humans. After all, if we don’t speak up for them, who will?

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