Dr Anthony J. Nocella II Ph.D., award-winning author, community organizer, and professor is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Fort Lewis College. He is an Executive Director of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, National Co-coordinator of Save the Kids, and co-founder and Editor of the Peace Studies Journal.
Could you explain what critical animal studies is?
Critical animal studies founded in 2006 by myself and a few others is a field and movement that is rooted in putting theory to activism in a radical, revolutionary, critical and intersectional way for total liberation.
What role does your organization play in the field of animal advocacy?
ICAS was founded in 2001 by myself and Steve Best for the purpose of defending radical and revolutionary groups and to look at social justice and animal liberation from an intersectional perspective for total liberation. The concept of total liberation, which brings all movements together, was not founded until maybe 2003. This involves building alliances and relationships with other revolutionary and radical groups. While many groups are working in this way today, ICAS was one of the first animal advocacy groups to look at issues and politics from the perspective of those who are marginalized or oppressed. We were also among the first to place an emphasis on scholarly and analytical thinking around the issue of animal liberation. We created the first community around these ideas when we began hosting our conference, which was mostly for the first seven years centered on the Animal Liberation Front and other underground revolutionary groups. ICAS is unique because there are very few think-tanks in the radical left, which is not surprising, because think-tanks are a privilege, in that there is space, place, and time to reflect and examine social change, which many oppressed people do not have the luxury of doing because they are working, hustling, or struggling to live.
You said that ICAS was the first kind to work in an intersectional way. Is this “bridging” of scholarship with activism a recent trend?
Scholars have long been involved in activism since day one of activism, but theory to practice and the idea of praxis took off at least since critical theory developed out of the Frankfurt school. The Frankfurt school was not asking for reform, the Green Party, or working in or with the government. Rather, they were working for revolution. Critical theory was about revolution and overthrowing the dominant regime, ideology, and paradigm. What emerged out of critical theory was the radical student movement of the 1960s, which aided and assisted in the rise of the women’s liberation movement, Black power movement, anti-war movement, anti-imperialism movement, and right to free speech on campus.
However, today I am seeing fewer and fewer scholars participate in current rallies, protests, and acts of civil disobedience for causes such as the Black Lives Matter movement, animal rights, queer rights, trans rights, and environmental causes. Perhaps this is because scholarship is becoming more institutionalized, professor jobs are becoming harder to obtain, and academics are fearful that challenging the status quo and oppressive dominant ideologies will result in them losing their jobs. This of course develops a culture of fear. However, I think it is important to do what is right, rather than what is safe. What is safe, will foster careerists and opportunists.
How do the activists perceive scholars who are working on the ground with them? Is there any tension between the two groups?
Yes, there is definitely a battle between the two camps. It is rare to see people engaged in both radical politics and scholarship. People who are, run the risk of being alienated by activists because they are scholars, and alienated by scholars because they are activists. ICAS seeks to fill this void, and provide a place for people to be active both as scholars and activists. Scholar-activists, activists-scholars have to do twice the amount of work than a scholar and activist because to be taken serious as both they must hold up to the skills of both. This means that a scholar-activist, activist-scholar must organize and participate as much as other leading activists and community organizers thus daily for a number of hours a day and vis versa as a scholar one must write, publish, present, and facilitate scholarly forums. As a result there are very few true scholar-activists, activist-scholars that are top in both areas. Sure there are scholars that attend a protest a few times a year and post radical information via social media, but these are not notable people in each of these two arenas.
You have quite extensive experience working within multiple social justice movements. Have you witnessed any particular actions or strategies that are most effective in mobilizing activists?
I think transformative justice, which emerged out of the work of prison abolitionists and restorative justice mediators, is a concept that is important to scholars and activists in all movements. It’s important to have a holistic space where people can learn, but also be challenged, take accountability, acknowledge oppression, heal, and be called out.
Another type of activism that is effective across movement is creative education. Die-ins, sit-ins, hip hop dance, rap, and spoken word all allow space for expression and education. It’s artistic, liberating, and creative.
For example, I was at a Trayvon Martin rally with Save the Kids, an organization that I work with. We organized a huge march and closed off eleven blocks downtown. I tried to keep the march structured and organized, and get people to the police station downtown. However, people had stopped, and I realized there was a five-year old kid breakdancing with a huge boom box. Everyone was watching him. There were people crying, mothers, grandmothers, people of all kinds. They were moved by the sight of the five-year old kid dancing, at a time when they were sad about the shooting of another black kid in the United States.
I think that those moments are ones we need to embrace and provide space for. We can really be creative and help people in those spaces, if we don’t focus on dogmatic marching.
Recently, there’s been an increase in arguments, or at least increased visibility of arguments, among animal rights activists over “welfarist” vs. “abolitionist” strategies. Is this beneficial to the movement?
I think battling over tactics, strategies, ideas, and theories is great, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t consume all of our efforts. It’s important to not be locked into these activities, but to stay active and not become an “armchair activist”. There are some ground rules that have come out of the new Black Lives Matter movement that can be useful to animal activists in how to handle disagreements. Ground rule number one is “Don’t yuck on my yum”. Basically, it means that you don’t have to disrespect what I like, just to emphasize what you like. It’s easier to get caught up in these arguments in the animal rights movement, because those who are oppressed aren’t able to speak up for themselves in this case. However, we need to be able to respect each other’s position and not pull each other down. We can acknowledge each other’s differences in tactics and strategies. What I have learned from organizing is that it is important to find a handful of loyal people you get along with and trust, and who are honest and caring, and work with them for as long as you can.
How can animal activists build bridges with other movements?
To build bridges with other movements, you have to understand that when you’re there for them, then you’re there for them completely. You have to put your politics and morals aside, and not judge other people. You don’t have to agree with all of their politics, but you have to be genuine, and build honest, trustful relationships with people, and not come in with your own agenda. This is a principle of total liberation. For example, showing up to a rally with a “Vegans for Black Lives Matter” sign would be counterproductive, and will ruin bridges that could have been built. It’s important not to become an oppressor and dictate what others can do with their bodies. Only once you prove that you are involved in another movement to help people that are marginalized and oppressed can you start having honest conversations with people about your politics. That’s the only productive way to build bridges.