Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Social Change, Animal Rights, and Incarceration

Justin Marceau

Mass arrest of animal rights activists. Photo credit Direct Action Everywhere.

It is widely known that the American criminal justice system is uniquely punitive, and that the harsh carceral and collateral impacts of tough-on-crime policies have disproportionately burdened the poor and persons of color. Among progressive social movements, the animal rights movement stands as a notable exception to an overriding trend of advocacy against tough-on-crime policies. The movement continues to seek harsher criminal punishments as a promised antidote to the lacking status of animals in law. This is criminal law exceptionalism at its very worst.  Adhering by blind faith to the idea that the system is “different” when it comes to animal law prosecutions.

It is this paradox of pursuing radically progressive social reform through regressive social policies that underlies Beyond Cages.  In the book I provide a detailed critique of the movement’s fidelity to and support for a proven system of human oppression and suffering as an assumed vehicle for undermining the structural oppression of non-humans.  The book details for the first time the movement’s support for deportations, incarcerating minors, longer felony sentences, offender registries, privatized prosecutions, and many more of the failed tough-on-crime policies.  Like other tough-on-crime campaigns, a rhetoric designed to create a moral panic is deployed and the public is told that a non-carceral response is symptomatic of a system that tolerates or promotes violence against animals.  The book documents the fact that this strategy for social change entrenches a carceral logic that promotes rather than challenges dominant social practices. The criminal law targets individuals for blame and entirely exempts structural or corporate responsibility for widespread profit-driven abuse.

Beyond Cages explores the ways that the carceral approach to animal protection ignores the interdisciplinary insights, drawn from both social science and political theory, that treat oppression and suffering as linked across species.  The movement baldly assumes that more prosecutions and longer sentences will generate greater empathy, although the research documenting the impacts of tough-on-crime policies shows exactly the opposite.  According to many activists, if the movement can simply “train” judges and prosecutors to understand the failures to prosecute aggressively as “injustices of the highest degree,” as a recent fundraising email described them, then the lives of animals will be improved.   But this is either fanciful escapism in the form of ignoring the real legal problems facing animals (including exempting corporations for liability for factory farming practices), or malicious scapegoating that ignores the structural conditions that tolerate and even promote the sources of most animal suffering in the U.S.

Put differently, the carceral focus in animal law is a dead end.  If the task of animal law is to make all suffering visible and relevant, then a strategy that requires turning a blind eye to the suffering inherent in our justice system seems a poor investment.   Beyond Cages argues that the movement needs to focus more on addressing the root causes of violence, and identifies carceral and oppressive logic as one of the sources of such violence.

Beyond Cages also serves as a case study in the use of law to impede rather than achieve social change. The book critiques movement attorneys and advocates who dismiss the tactics of those engaged in civil disobedience as radical and irrelevant to grander law reform projects.  In the context of discussing social change around the issue of gay marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that evolving legal norms often “begin in pleas or protests.”  Yet, no doubt in service of its alliance with the prosecuting state and to resist the perception that its agenda is radical, the animal rights movement’s leading organizations have decried and distanced themselves from activists engaged in civil disobedience.  But an abhorrence for radical means could easily blur into tolerance for non-radical outcomes.  As Canadian author Charlotte Montgomery has documented in her account of the animal rights movement in Canada, it is the “outlaws” or the “small but important outlaw fringe” that create space for the rest of the movement to work more effectively within the law and “seem much less radical” by comparison.  The carceral focus of the American movement has actually made the movement less ambitious, less capable of forming necessary alliances, and less creative.  Strategies that appeal to the status quo will never yield long-term change.  A bumper sticker calling for an animal abuser to go to jail is decidedly mainstream in today’s culture, but a sticker calling for meatless Mondays, much less “Going Vegan” is still thought of as radical.

Perhaps the highest ambition for lawyers pursuing social change ought to be the defense against the strong hand of the state of activists deploying a wide variety of tactics in pursuit of fundamental shifts in social norms.  The lawyer empowers the activist with a set of practical tools with which to resist the oppressive, carceral state.   But many of the animal protection movement’s goals, and its very brand are now inextricably linked to the prosecuting state.  Defense of activists is often viewed as too radical, as is any legislative or policy campaign that conflicts with prosecutorial goals.  The movement is so deeply embedded in the carceral state, many in the public and throughout academia equate animal law with regressive carceral policies.  Beyond Cages is a call to critique those who would seek to end the caging and domination of animals by caging humans.  Oppression does not beget liberation.


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