Animal Rights Protests: Is Radical Chic Still In Style?

Over the past fifteen years a powerfully charged drama has
unfolded in New York\'s Broadway venues and spread to the opera houses and
ballet productions of major cities across the country. Its characters
include angry college students, aging rock stars, flamboyant B-movie
queens, society matrons, and sophisticated fashion designers. You can\'t
buy tickets for this production, but you might catch a glimpse of it
while driving in Bethesda on particular Saturday afternoons. If you\'re
lucky, Compassion Over Killing (COK), an animal rights civil disobedience
group, will be picketing Miller\'s Furs, their enemy in the fight against
fur. These impassioned activists see the fur trade as nothing less than
wholesale, commercialized murder, and will go to great lengths to get
their point across. Such enthusiasm may do them in, as COK\'s often
divisive rhetoric and tacit endorsement of vandalism threaten to alienate
the very people it needs to reach in order to be successful.
The animal rights idealogy crystallized with the publication of
philosophy professor\'s exploration of the way humans use and abuse other
animals. Animal Liberation argued that animals have an intrinsic worth
in themselves and deserve to exist on their own terms, not just as means
to human ends. By 1985, ten years after Peter Singer\'s watershed
treatise was first published, dozens of animal rights groups had sprung
up and were starting to savor their first successes. In 1994 Paul
Shapiro, then a student at Georgetown Day School, didn\'t feel these
non-profits were agitating aggressively enough for the cause. He founded
Compassion Over Killing to mobilize animal rights activists in the
Washington metropolitan area and "throw animal exploiters out of
business." Since then, COK has expanded to over 300 members with
chapters across the country, including one at American University, which
formed in the fall of 1996. COK organizes protests as a primary activity
of the group, although some chapters may choose to expand into other
areas if they wish.
COK\'s focus on direct-action protests and demonstrations is just
one way that the animal rights movement has mobilized to end the fur
trade. The larger animal rights organizations have conducted attention
grabbing media blitzes with the help of stars like Paul McCartney,
Melissa Etheridge, Rikki Lake, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.
Lobbying efforts by animal advocacy groups have resulted in trapping
restrictions in numerous states and an end to federal fur industry
subsidies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has
persuaded several fashion designers including Calvin Klein and Donna
Karan to stop using fur in their clothing lines. In addition, anti-fur
concerts, videos, compact discs, t-shirts, drag revues and award
ceremonies have been used by animal rights groups to advance their cause.
Each side of the conflict over fur coats has an entirely
different way of conceptualizing and talking about the issue. Animal
rights groups bluntly describe fur as "dead...animal parts" and emphasize
that animals are killed to produce a fur garment. Those involved in the
fur industry consistently use agricultural metaphors and talk of a yearly
"crop of fur" that must be "harvested." Manny Miller, the owner of
Miller\'s Furs, refused to describe his business in terms of the
individual animals; "I don\'t sell animals. I sell finished products. I
sell fur coats." These linguistic differences extend to the manner in
which both sides frame the debate over fur. COK refers to the industry
in criminal terms; fur is directly equated with murder and those involved
in the industry are labeled killers. Industry groups like the Fur
Information Council of America (FICA) always describes fur garments as
objects and clothing; it is "the ultimate cold weather fabric" that is
"your fashion choice."
On Saturday, April 12th, Compassion Over Killing demonstrated
outside the White House, protesting the Clinton administration\'s
opposition to a European Community ban on the importation of fur coats
made from animals caught in the wild. In addition, the demonstration
called for the release of several Animal Liberation Front (ALF) members
imprisoned for vandalizing property and liberating animals from research
labs and factory farms. Several dozen high school and college students
turned out for the event, but the protest attracted a handful of
thirtysomethings and an elderly woman as well. Most of the young people
there seemed to dress in a similar