Regular ARO guest columnist, Dr. Steve Best, was
arrested on December 2nd during a protest at a fur store in El Paso. The
event was arranged by our local AR group, Voice For All Animals, to draw
attention to an annual Christmas fur sale and was intended to be
confrontational, but also lawful and peaceful.
But things got a bit out of control, not only because of
the actions of one of the more radical protesters, but also because of
verbal abuse and ridicule from the store's owners who taunted and
laughed at the protesters.
I can hardly say that Dr. Steve Best is a pillar of the
community, not in El Paso, Texas, a very animal unfriendly town. He is,
however, a friend of mine, chair of the Philosophy Department at Univ.
of Texas at El Paso, Vice President of the Vegetarian Society of El
Paso, President of Voice for All Animals, and a long-time fighter for
animal rights and welfare.
Last year, Steve's group was instrumental in exposing
the beating of Sissy the elephant, on orders from the El Paso Zoo
Director, and bringing about Sissy's subsequent retirement to The
Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Animal Rights Online seldom, practically never,
sanctions illegal actions, really, only in the very rarest of
We strongly recommend that activists use legal means to
achieve their goals. But Steve's arrest wasn't planned, it wasn't a
calculated act of civil disobedience, it was a risk fulfilled. While
Steve's arrest wasn't planned, it was designed to push the boundaries of
legitimacy and to move toward civil disobedience by defying police
orders and directly confronting the store owners near their front door.
CD is often needed in the movement, in the right time, in the right
place, with the right media coverage, and the right pro-bono lawyer
waiting in the wings.
Do protests really do that much good? This is a question
we all ask ourselves often. Steve thinks that they often don't and he
would rather focus on educational programs, but his heart led him to
this. He felt a weekend fur sale at a prominent store couldn't go by
If Steve could be arrested for using the phrase
"son-of-a-bitch" in public, why did George W. get away with "major
I wasn't surprised when I got the phone call that Steve
needed bail money, I was only surprised to learn later that this was his
first Animal Rights arrest. I wasn't surprised to learn that Steve was
arrested because he had used a naughty word to describe the store owner,
I was only surprised later when I learned that he used a speciesist
epitaph and had slandered dogs by calling the fur merchant a son of a
bitch. Shame on you, Steve, you know that phrase isn't nice to dogs.
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An Arresting Protest
by Steve Best -
"Ok, that's it," barked the angry cop, in the midst of my confrontation
with the owner of a prominent fur store in El Paso. Before I knew it, I
was surrounded by four burly officers who grabbed me firmly by the arms,
marched me rapidly toward a police car, wrapped cold steel handcuffs
tightly around my wrists, and shoved me into the back of a squad car. I
was on my way to jail.
Early in the afternoon of Saturday, December 2, a group
of 15 people representing Voice For All Animals assembled in front of
Tres Mariposas, an upscale clothing store well-known for its proudly
self-proclaimed right to sell fur coats. They were having their annual
fur sale. As leader of our group, my plan was to protest their
complicity with animal suffering on the public sidewalks outside their
store, and, more boldly, to attempt to enter the store at the end of the
demonstration to confront the owner and managers about their
questionable morals. But the energy and spontaneity of the protest took
us in a different direction toward civil disobedience that brought us
into face-to-face confrontations with the police. Responding to our fax
report, the white hot light of the media was there to cover it all.
Things got heated immediately, when Austin, one of our
young members, changed the words on the store's portable sign. Instead
of reading "fur sale," it now read "death sale." That seemed appropriate
to me, but the rented city cop watching from inside the store disagreed.
Storming outside, his bald head gleaming, he warned us not to touch
store property again or he would arrest us. So we stayed on the public
sidewalks, waving our anti-fur signs for the passing cars to read as the
media began taping. We received a few flying birds, but mainly honks of
Austin then brought out a furish-looking coat which to
the delight of the cameras he set afire. The burning coat blazed as a
symbol of animal suffering and death. Within ten minutes, in a spectacle
of over-reaction the local fire department arrived and doused with their
manly hoses the paltry embers still flickering harmlessly on the ground.
A few police cars arrived with the firemen and the tension at the scene
racheted up quite a few notches.
Despite the flurry of men in uniform, we decided it was
time to move to the front of the store. With our way blocked by the cop
inside, we asked to be let in as customers. He didn't buy that. So I
said, "I want to enter to see if I can find any morals inside this
store," and we wondered out loud if they were stocking piles of dead
animals in the storeroom. The cop inside the store grabbed one of our
signs and placed it against the store window; he wasn't astute enough to
realize he had placed it wrong-side out so that it read to all who
walked by, "fur is dead!"
But the cops outside had grown weary of our second
transgression of the rules and ordered us under the threat of arrest to
retreat to the sidewalks. We did so, satisfied we had made our point.
Upon resuming our sign waving, the owner of the store galloped toward us
and accosted us with brilliant retorts: "You're all losers! Get a life!
Get off my property!" To which we replied: "Quit taking lives! You're on
At this point, I must confess, I lost my temper, and I
called the son-of-a-bitch a son-of-a-bitch. Instantly, the sergeant
shouted, "That's it! Arrest him now!" I couldn't get off a complaint
before I was grabbed and taken away.
Once at the station, detained in a holding cell and kept
in exquisitely tight handcuffs, the sergeant told me I was being charged
with disorderly conduct, and that he was talking to the D.A. to inquire
about additional charges of inciting a riot. Two hours later, they
informed me they would not pursue the more serious offense, then drove
me downtown to the county jail, a huge and hellish warehouse. There I
was searched, fingerprinted, and photographed. Convinced my mug shot
would appear on the evening news (the scandal potential of a professor
being led away in handcuffs was great), I smiled broadly since I wanted
to look proud, not ashamed. The cop said "No smiling!" "Why?" I asked.
"This is not a glamour shot," he retorted. So I pulled off the best look
I could -- a smirk.
For the next six hours, I was detained in a small
concrete room with 20 or so other men. We were packed in like sardines,
and, in fact, the smell was about as pleasant. I was trapped in a
Kafakaesque bureaucracy along with an army of wife-beaters, drug-users,
robbers, and disenfranchised men. The evening meal was a carton of milk
and a ham sandwich. A long-time vegetarian, I passed as I watched the
hungry men devour their toxic food.
I was released in time to see the evening news. Not
surprisingly, none of the stations failed to mention the chair of the
philosophy department was arrested, and one station used it as its
lead-in ("details at ten!) and main story. This was sensationalism, pure
and simple, as I always make it a point to protest as a private citizen
and not a university professor. But the latter role, of course, would
attract more ratings. The coverage was biased and the reporting shoddy.
They seized on the charge that I used profanity (as if the real
profanity was not what was done to the animals killed for their fur!)
and uncritically allowed the fur store manager to make the ludicrous
claim that they only work with a "reputable" dealer who kills their
While I was in jail, I had plenty of time to reflect on
the day's events. Did I do any good, or did I only hurt our cause by
being arrested? Why did I, a seasoned protestor and a philosopher
supposedly governed by reason, lose my temper? Was I at fault, or did
the cops violate my rights? Should protests be calm and polite, or is
there a time and place for confrontational tactics? Are protests useful
at all, or should animal rights groups focus on positive educational
work that doesn't play into media-reinforced stereotypes that we are
radical and extreme?
As I myself think through these important questions, I
submit them to you for what I hope would be a dialogue and discussion.
Since my release, I've received mixed responses from friends and
acquaintances. The most negative comment was that I crossed the line and
discredited my cause. The most positive comment came from a woman I
barely know: her whole family watched the news and she said her kids
were appalled to learn how fur is made and would never support it, and
she thought it was inspiring to see someone with strong moral
convictions and right on their side being led off in handcuffs.
While I hope not to be inside a jail for a long while,
and I await to see how the university President and administration feels
about my actions, I feel more so than ever that Gandhi and Martin Luther
King were right when they said that the right place for a just person in
an unjust society is in the jails. The question remains, under what
conditions should I return?
Go on to
Friends of Animals Takes Strong
Stance Against "Chimp Act"
Return to 6 December 2000 Issue
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