Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
6 December 2000 Issue

by Greg Lawson

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 circumstances. Really.

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 uncontested.

If Steve could be arrested for using the phrase "son-of-a-bitch" in public, why did George W. get away with "major league asshole"?

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 - [email protected]

"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 support.

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 public property!"

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 animals "humanely."

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"
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