A couple of weeks ago, PETA touched off a racial firestorm when it bungled it's way into the Detroit water crisis. The city's water company is shutting off water to thousands of impoverished city residents who could not pay their bills in recent months and years, an act the United Nations has labeled a violation of basic human rights.
PETA shocked the city – and everyone else - by offering to pay the water bills of ten city residents if they would agree to accept a vegan diet basket and eat vegan food for free for one month. A PETA spokesperson was stunned by the uproar, she said the group had no regrets or apologies to make.
Author and activist Yasmin Nair wrote one of the gentler characterizations of PETA's idea, which sparked nearly universal outrage among the mostly African-American residents of the city. She said on her blog that it was an "ugly, vile, and meaningless gesture."
Nair asked the same basic question that underscores the animal rights movement in New York City and the controversy over the New York carriage horses.
"If we are to begin thinking about ending cruelty to animals, we need to ask how our economic and cultural structures enable us to be as cruel, even if in different ways, to humans." Or much crueler, in fact. We do need to think about that, it is the elephant in the room, the issue no one in progressive New York City wants to really face. It is unthinkable to me that people who are cruel and indifferent to one another can really help us find a way to be kinder to animals.
Nair's essay speaks directly to the race and class issues that PETA's tone deaf initiative raises. The story also relates very clearly to PETA's strong support of the move to ban the New York City carriage horses and put hundreds of people out of work. Can we really improve the lives of animals while ignoring, abusing and destroying the lives of the people who own and care for them? Does a movement so uncaring of people and so viscerally elitist really get to speak for the rights of animals?
The animals rights movement – always an upper class fringe culture viewed by most people as the social hobby of loopy, over-educated but curiously unknowing white kids – is viscerally and endemically cruel and insensitive to humans. It has, in direct and indirect ways, increasingly isolated and ignored minorities and the poor when it comes to animals, both in terms of civic priorities and resources.
"PETA's proposal," writes Nair, "is callous, short-sighted and ultimately meaningless. It does nothing to advance veganism or to get people to think about the systemic links between, say, poverty, race and the degradation of animals, for meat or pleasure." In the same way, the effort to ban the carriage horses in New York City does nothing to advance the life of one single animal, including the horses, or challenges the city – and it's millions of ethnic and racial minorities – to consider the role of animals in urban life, or the ways in which working animals like horses could help some of the city's neediest people, economically or in other ways.
If the horses are banned, one NAACP board member e-mailed me, "black children will never see a horse again for the rest of their lives. Can that be good for them or for animals? Do you have to be a rich white person with a farm to ever see a working horse? Why should black and hispanic children be the only children denied the opportunity to live with animals?"
Across the country, animals like horses and dogs are being used to help autistic and disabled children, sell vegetables and other foods in inner cities, to educate impoverished children in the ways of the animals world. Instead of banishing them from the city, why couldn't the mayor or PETA consider bringing them into the outer boroughs, where few children ever get to see animals, and where many could benefit from the amazing new therapy work being done with equines.
There are, of course, connections between race, poverty and the abuse and mistreatment of animals. Why not address them, rather than remove the animals from our lives and our worlds without due process or cause?
In the same way that PETA's profoundly insensitive vegan water campaign exploits and misunderstands the most vulnerable people in Detroit – fresh fruit and vegetables are rare in the city's devastated neighborhoods, where there are few markets left of any kind - the campaign against the carriage horses in New York is more of a class conflict than a genuine effort to help horses. Vegan dieting is the last thing on the minds of people surrounded by poverty and violence and who have no money or running water.
In New York, the issues echo Detroit in more ways than we might have imagined. The new animal rights movement pits the politicized and apartment-dwelling elites of Manhattan and Brooklyn against the blue-collar, mostly immigrant workers who make up the carriage trade and who drive the horse carriages. Imagine if the mayor tried to ban industries that employed people who went to Harvard and Yale – journalists or museum workers or actors - because some millionaire didn't like them for one reason or another and gave a lot of money to his campaign?
The new animal rights philosophy is centered on the newly fantasized and idealized notion of animals, work is now considered cruel. In the Irish and other cultures from which many of the carriage owners and drivers are descended, work with animals goes back a thousand years or more. Animals are not pets to be pitied but partners in the joys and travails of life, they have given sustenance, survival and purpose to countless working people over time.
This ancient tradition is now – and quite suddenly- seen as criminal in New York City. The animal rights movement has no history or understanding of domesticated or working animals, since few of the people in it have never worked with any – they do not believe in it - or been willing to grasp or explore the social or economic importance of working animals to so many people in the world. In the carriage trade culture, as in much of rural America and most of the world, working animals are valued, even sacred. I got an e-mail from a carter in New Delhi who is following the effort to ban the horses, and he was stunned, incredulous. "What kind of country are you?," he wondered, "where you could banish hundreds of healthy working horses to farms where they could never work again? Send them to us, there will be no controversy." I wasn't sure what to tell him.
All all the animals in the world to rescue, the carriage horses are an unlikely choice. Most have already been rescued from auction houses, and all are safe, healthy and well cared for.
PETA's quite shockingly insensitive proposal has underscored the elitism and privilege embedded in the animal rights culture, and the bizarre reasoning behind the carriage horse struggles. Without the carriage trade owners and drivers, most, if not all, of the New York carriage horses would already be dead, long sent to slaughter.
This enraged and self-righteous elitism has characterized the movement against the horses in New York – largely funded and supported by PETA and the animal rights group NYClass – since it's inception. But for the first time in the history of major American cities, the movement has a mayor who is so fervent supporter that he will not even meet with the carriage horse ownes or drivers. The horses may pay with their lives, the owners and drivers with their way of life.
If you go to New York City and observe the demonstrators who gather weekly in Central Park, you will rarely, if ever, see a face that is not white. Beyond that, the restrictions and campaigns launched by animal rights organizations seem targeted – consciously or not – at blacks and other minorities, the working-class and the poor. People with jobs are denied the right to rescue animals, as are those who cannot afford expensive fencing and expensive veterinary care. Do the poor have the same right to have dogs as everyone else?
The campaign against the carriage horses has had especially ugly class connotations, and has from the first. There is a millionaire real estate developer obsessed with banning the horses, working in close alliance with the city's new upper middle-class white mayor and legions of almost all upper middle-class white workers and volunteers targeting the blue-collar men and women who work in the carriage trade.
If the horses are banned, more than 300 people will lose their jobs, they are almost all blue-collar, immigrant or working class people. . From the first, the mayor and the animal rights organizations have treated these workers as sub-human, refusing to speak with them, meet with them, negotiate with them or even talk with them. When I think of the Detroit vegan initiative, I immediately think of the assumption of New York's mayor and the leaders of NYClass, the spearheading group of the ban, that the carriage drivers will be happy to drive vintage electric cars once the horses are gone. It is not clear why the city would permit greedy animal abusers to drive children and other tourists around in cars, but the arrogance and elitism of the idea are powerful: since the drivers are only interested in money, and less than moral human beings, why would they care what they drive through the park, or even know the difference?
The frequent demonstrations against the people in the carriage trade are vile, the drivers are regularly accused of being murderers, abusers, greedy thieves and uncaring thugs. Children and tourists riding in the carriages are insulted and shouted at, the horses are regularly taunted with placards shoved in their faces in the hopes of provoking them to spook or bolt.
In New York City, the mayor and the animal rights movement have demonstrated time and again that they operate in a political environment which, as Nair suggests, "often seems to care more about the animals left behind in hurricanes than the people whose lives are devastated…" In fact, the animal rights movement moved tens of thousands of animals out of New Orleans after Katrina, and in many cases refused to return the pets to their true owners, claiming they were abused and mistreated in their original homes. Animal owners in New Orleans were victimized, again and again, many spent years in court fighting to get their animals back.
Would the millions of dollars being spent by New York City and a number of animal rights organizations to banish the carriage horses who are by all accounts, healthy, well cared for and well fed, and replace them with $160,000 vintage carriage horses be better spent on helping the many thousands of New York City children – most of them black and Hispanic – who live in homeless shelters, and are neither well cared for or well fed, according to the city's own accounts?
Why is the city an unsafe environment only for horses, but not for poor children? Why would the mayor make removal of the horses his most urgent priority, but not the children?
What ties the Detroit water controversy to the New York Carriage Horse crisis are the same humanitarian and social concerns. People with no money or access to real political power are being victimized by exploitive, wealthy and callous political elites masquerading as defenders of animals.
If PETA really wanted to help the people of Detroit, they would of course offer to feed families (or their animals) there without condition – they have many millions of dollars to spend. Instead, they are spending millions in New York City to banish animals that are not in need or danger. If they really wanted to help horses in America, they would take their cash to the auction houses in Pennsylvania and elsewhere where more than 150,000 horses each year are taken over long distances to slaughter in cramped trailers to Mexico and Canada and transported and killed in the most brutal of ways, because PETA and other groups lobbied to close down the much more humane and close slaughterhouses in the United States.
In Detroit, PETA has revealed itself in stark and disturbing but familiar ways. It's vegan gesture was the ultimate expression of elitism and insensitivity. There is a backlash to PETA and the mayor's campaign against the horses in New York as well. The public is not buying the idea that the horses are being abused by working, 66 per cent of city residents want them to stay.
There is a growing revulsion at the tactics and inhumanity of the people who call themselves supporters of animal rights. A movement that has so little regard for human beings cannot ever be entrusted with the welfare of animals.
My new e-book, "Who Speaks For the Carriage Horses: The Future Of Animals In Our World," is available for $3.99 wherever digital books are sold.