Activating the Wayback Machine: Revisiting the response to Sandy Hook, good and bad.
On strategy, timing, and allyship in response to a massacre.
I used to blog at a site named ShoutingLoudly. It was me and a few friends from grad school. The site shut down a few years ago, which means you can only find my old stuff if you look really hard through the Wayback Machine. (As Jonathan Zittrain has pointed out, the Internet is rotting.)
One of my long-term ideas for this Substack is to occasionally dust off an old blog post and repost it here with commentary. Partially this is just housekeeping — I’d like to be able to find old posts more easily, and revisit past themes and ideas. (It also fits with the broader trajectory of my research these days. I’m spending my workdays reading through old commentary about the intersection of the internet and politics, criticizing what other people said and thought at the time. Seems only appropriate that I unearth my own stuff and give it the same treatment.)
This week I’ve been thinking about a blog post I wrote on December 21, 2012. It was titled “Open Letter to PETA: Knock. It. Off.” I wrote this thing in a fit of absolute rage after coming back from a protest against the Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. This was in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, held outside the hotel where LaPierre gave that utter garbage-fire of a speech that I mentioned earlier this week. Some PETA activists showed up to the protest and tried to steal the spotlight by highlighting their issue instead.
I thought at the time that those PETA activists were being strategically inept assholes. And, in light of the elementary school shooting in Texas this week, I think it’s an incident worth revisiting.
In the intervening decade, a growing movement has pushed for gun reform at the local, state, and national level. They’ve had some victories, and they’ve had some losses. The movement is going to continue to expand, because the senseless tragedies show no sign of slowing down.
I don’t know how or when the movement for gun reform will finally break the NRA’s death-grip on our politics. But I am convinced that activism matters, and that the strategic choices we make can help bend the arc of history sooner rather than later.
So this post, republished below, is about designing tactics that respond to the moment. It’s also about the responsibility among activist networks to be a supportive ally, or at least wait a beat and shut the fuck up when the moment isn’t about you and your issue.
Here it is, an old one from the ShoutingLoudly archives…
Title: Open Letter to PETA: Knock. It. Off.
Date: December 21, 2012.
“Not funny. Not clever. Not your girlfriend.”
When Rupert Murdoch was forced to testify before the UK Parliament, a lone protester named Jonnie Marbles decided to engage in some “direct action,” interrupting the proceedings while delivering a pie to Murdoch’s face.
Moments before the act, Marbles tweeted “It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat.”
Marbles thought he was being clever. He thought he was standing up to the powerful and putting them in their place. Many progressives disagreed; his girlfriend among them. She reacted via twitter, changing her status to read “Not funny. Not clever. Not your girlfriend.” Good for her.
Jonnie Marbles was being childish and offensively anti-strategic that day. The eyes of the world were upon Murdoch. The conservative media mogul was wilting under the spotlight. The next day’s headlines were going to be focused on his misdeeds and the future of his media empire. Then some two-bit activist came along and changed the story. Rather than debating whether Rupert Murdoch’s quasi-senile defense was just an act, we instead debated just-how-awesome his young wife was. (Answer: She jumped across two rows of seats and smacked the hell out of Marbles. That’s pretty damn awesome.) Marbles let Murdoch off the hook by grabbing the spotlight. Why the hell would you want to do that?
Real activism isn’t about grandstanding. It’s about creatively applying pressure to force powerful people to do good things they otherwise wouldn’t choose to do. It requires reflection, planning, and deliberation. That’s why political organizers talk about having a “theory of change” behind all of their actions. If you don’t have a theory of change, you’re probably just grandstanding. And you might be making life easier on your opponents in the process. Don’t do that. Ever.
I mention all of this because it’s time we talked about PETA. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is synonymous with the animal rights movement. They specialize in grabbing media visibility by offending people whenever they can. Their model of activism is at best irrelevant and at worst toxic. And earlier today, it was downright toxic.
I attended an anti-NRA protest this morning, sponsored by CREDO action. CREDO has gathered over 200,000 petition signatures in the past few days, urging the NRA to “stand down” and stop blocking sensible regulations on assault weapons (regulations which the majority of NRA members support, incidentally). The theory-of-change behind the protest was simple enough. The NRA was holding its first press conference since the Sandy Hook tragedy. That press conference was going to be national news. Pushing back on their talking points and offering journalists a counter-narrative is the sensible thing to do. The NRA’s solution is that we ought to arm kindergarten teachers. Our solution is that we ought to regulate deadly weaponry as much as we regulate Sudafed. Let that be the story. That’s the debate I want Americans to witness.
CREDO’s protest was well-attended, particularly given the short notice and bitter cold weather. I’d estimate around 75 people showed up.
Across the street, there were about a dozen PETA activists, holding signs like this one:
Now, rather than a debate between “regulate guns like we regulate Sudafed” and “armed guards at recess,” we have a third entrant. “Ban Hunting.” That third entrant will be a foil for right-wing pundits (“liberals say they want to ban high-capacity magazines, but they really want to ban hunting!”) and will make its way into plenty of the reporting. It distracts from The Moment, instead of seizing The Moment.
It’ll also get PETA’s name in the paper. But what the hell is that good for, in this situation? How many legislators or everyday citizens are going to look at that sign and, while processing the massacre of an elementary school class, will conclude “huh. you’re right. Hunting is morally objectionable to me now.”
If your answer isn’t in the neighborhood of zero, you’re kidding yourself.
This is what PETA does. It’s what PETA has always done. Their theory-of-change is “1. make people uncomfortable. 2. Make them see our message. 3. ??? 4. social change!” That’s been their working theory for 32 years. And in that time, I challenge you to identify one single difference that they’ve made. Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have done a hell of a lot more to change Americans’ meat consumption habits than PETA’s aggro-veganism videos. PETA manages to offend, but they never manage to affect policy or convince anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to agree with them.
This childish “look at meeeeee” strategy is particularly noxious to the people who should be your allies. I’ve never been a gun control activist before. I’m primarily an environmentalist. I was invited to the CREDO event by a fellow Sierra Student Coalition alum. He and I could have gone to the protest with signs reading “climate change is the biggest unregulated weapon of all.” That would’ve attracted a tiny sliver of publicity for “our” issue. But we didn’t do that. We didn’t do it because we’re also American citizens who are appalled by the mass tragedy in Newtown. We didn’t do it because we realize that this is a Moment when we could pressure Congress to actually adopt some sensible gun regulations. We didn’t do it because we’d have to be total assholes to do something like that. And we’re not assholes. We’re allies.
Jonnie Marbles deserved to get dumped for his childish stunt. And for decades, those types of childish stunts have been the heart of PETA’s organizing philosophy. It’s toxic and pointless, and it makes organizing for social change harder for the rest of us. PETA doesn’t have allies in the progressive movement because PETA refuses to build alliances. That’s bad for the cause they believe in. They should be called out, repeatedly, until they do better.
So here I am, calling them out.
Knock it off, PETA. You can do better than this. Anyone can do better than this.