We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Raffi Ciavatta and Lili Trenkova. Raffi is an “art director/graphic designer, immigrant, queer, activist, poet, and radical dreamer.” Lili is an “organizer, environmental designer, 3D artist, fabricator, and musician.” They are the co-founders of Collectively Free. The content of this post comes from two sources: (1) a conversation between Raffi Ciavatta and Toni Adleberg that took place on March 20, 2017, and (2) a piece written for ACE by Raffi and Lili.
Collectively Free (CF) engages in creative, non-violent protests, or “artivism.” Can you share the reasoning behind your approach?
Protesting is key for social change. Systemic change will not occur if we don’t “get out there” to make it happen. Protesting can take many forms, but we like street protests because they allow us to engage the public.
There are many artists involved with CF, and we find that using art brings down people’s walls. Street theatre, for example, can be used to invite people in and encourage them to engage with us. It breaks the barrier between “protester” and “observer.” One skit that we’ve performed is called “Swap Speciesism.” It uses costumes and storytelling, and it makes people laugh and question their feelings.
Other movements have also had success with street theatre, including the Workers’ Rights Movement, which used puppetry, and the Women’s Movement, which used role play.
How do you assess whether or not a particular action was successful?
The success of a protest isn’t about the immediate reactions of the audience. At a recent protest a man spit on one of our protesters, but that doesn’t mean the protest was unsuccessful. In fact, this protest was deliberately inflammatory; we sought to challenge the status quo. The man’s strong reaction means that he felt challenged.
A protest’s success can’t be directly measured by something like the number of leaflets distributed. It’s far less black and white. One default measure of success is the number of people we engage. One day, we would love to be able to use surveys to study the reactions of our audience.
Some of our successful actions include our protests at the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Chick-fil-A. The protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral drew attention because many activists don’t touch religion, especially the Catholic Church. The protest at Chick-fil-A was a success because there was a big media response. It put LGBTQI+ rights and animal rights in the same sentence in a positive way. There was no media distortion of the activists’ words and no disparaging of the activists’ goals. The way these two movements were linked was very positive. Many non-vegan LGBTQI+ people, for instance, had their perspective of animal liberation changed. They saw that it wasn’t necessarily divorced from human liberation movements, and that it wasn’t solely the preserve of stereotypical white, cisgendered, straight, privileged activists.
What factors do you think contribute to a successful protest rather than an unsuccessful one?
There is a lot of luck involved in organizing a successful protest, and it also requires a lot of persistence. A successful protest needs to have the right message delivered at the right time by the right person. Sometimes events outside our control take attention away from the protests. Alert the press to your actions, but only the best ones. Hot topics are much more likely to draw media attention. Also be sure to follow up with the press.
As an activist, have recent political events caused you to shift your priorities or otherwise change your approach to animal activism?
The recent spate of high profile protests and marches has had both positive and negative consequences for CF’s activism. When the CF Montreal chapter tried to enter the U.S. to attend a Trump protest, they were stopped at the border and had their phones confiscated. The police read their private Facebook messages, and the chapter was sent back to Canada. Some CF activists have gotten arrested.
The heightened police attention at protests is taking its toll on CF activists, particularly those with marginalized identities. Raffi grew up in Brazil and was granted political asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation. If she gets arrested, she could be deported. CF has made an effort to recruit members with more privileged identities—particularly in Washington D.C.—who are willing to take the risk of arrest and who have less to lose in doing so.
Protesting seems to provide an avenue for animal activists to support other social movements. Has Collectively Free engaged in multi-issue activism?
The animal rights movement tends to be very single-issue. Protests can provide an opportunity to support more than one cause at a time, though not all of them do.
CF actively engages with other social movements. For instance, a Black Lives Matter organizer spoke at one of our events. We also disrupted the NY State Fraternal Order of Police Pig Roast, participated in NYC Pride 2015 and NYC Pride 2016, and disrupted Chick-fil-A.
Collectively Free is a pro-intersectional organization. Can you explain what “intersectionality” means, for those who are unfamiliar with the term?
In the 1970s, black feminists who worked both for women’s rights and civil rights began to recognize that gender oppression and racial oppression are interconnected. They developed a theory and practice called “intersectionality,” a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
According to Crenshaw, discrimination based on gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, etc., are not separate and independent from one another. A black woman, for instance, experiences both racism and sexism, and each each amplifies the effects of the other. If she is also affected by disability or low-income, she experiences yet another layer of oppression that interacts with the others.
Why do you think it’s important for animal activists to be pro-intersectional?
The animal rights movement already has a number of brilliant scholars who write about exactly this: Dr. Amie Breeze Harper of The Sistah Vegan Project, Aph Ko and Syl Ko of Aphro-ism, and Christopher-Sebastian McJetters of Striving With Systems and Vegan Publishers, to name a few.
Animal rights activists are often accused of not caring about humans and/or placing nonhuman animals first. While we have every reason to feel pain and anger over how our nonhuman siblings are treated, as activists we are ambassadors of our movement. We need to be aware of and carefully monitor our potential for seemingly misanthropic statements and actions. Not only does this hurt us and our immediate environment, it also hurts animals and affects our activism. Since we are by definition an “ally” movement, the goal of our work is to convince other humans to care about nonhumans. How are we to convince them if we are using oppressive language? How are we to grow and diversify our movement if we don’t take into consideration the social oppressions our own activists face as humans?
Simply put, we cannot fight one system of oppression (speciesism) by supporting or perpetuating others (sexism, ageism, etc.). As animal rights activists, we love to point out moral inconsistencies such as claiming we care about equality but excluding certain species who are worthy of consideration. Yet it works the other way around too. It is morally inconsistent to claim that we care about the bodily autonomy of hens, but to oppose the bodily autonomy of women.
This does not mean that as activists we must attempt to dismantle all forms of oppression: that would be unrealistic. It’s fine (and most effective) to have a focus. But it’s also crucial that we remain supportive and inclusive of other social justice causes.
Movements can only benefit from building bridges between one another.
What are some common criticisms of your pro-intersectional approach? How do you respond to them?
Some people argue that advocating for multiple issues at once can cause people to disengage because of an overload of information. We don’t find this to be true. We think that connecting different issues gets more people engaged in the movement. Some people with marginalized identities may find it understandably difficult to engage with issues that do not affect them directly, since their top priority is staying alive. This is something a lot of animal rights activists don’t realize. The urgency that animal activists feel can sometimes obscure the fact that helping people connect the dots requires us doing our own homework and listening.
People also argue that advocating for human rights causes us to decenter animals. We agree; it may, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have no right to rank oppressions in order of importance; all oppressions are wrong and experienced differently by different individuals. Rather than center the oppression of animals, we highlight it within the context of other social oppressions. Presented this way, animal liberation is included in一rather than displacing一the larger fight for justice and liberation.
Do you have any advice for animal activists who want to be supportive of other movements?
Animal rights activists looking to get involved with other movements should, first of all, show up to actions because it’s the right thing to do, not out of expectation of reward or reciprocation for doing so. It takes a long time to build trust. CF has existed for three years it was only in January that we began to partner with other coalitions, because it took that long to build the necessary trust and break the stereotypes.
It is important to be open and genuine, to attend meetings, and to avoid shaming others for not focusing primarily on animal issues. Listen to how others organize their activism, and pay attention to the way they discuss the many different and interconnected forms of oppression. Discussing the connections between animal oppression and other systems of oppressions can cause backlash. It may be seen as a derailing or a betrayal. It takes some time for people to realize that speciesism too is part of that web of oppression.
At Collectively Free, we have made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we have also tried our hardest to remain humble enough to recognize our faults and implement prompt changes to repair them. Our community is not perfect (there’s no such thing!) and we will all surely continue to make mistakes and learn from them. But if we all stay open to ideas that challenge us, we’ll also make strides. And fear not! We can still be hard-core, progressive, envelope-pushers, but now with a bonus: our activism will no longer appear as a one-way street but as a lane on a highway—a highway shared with other fighters for justice, liberation, equality, and freedom.