I will be appearing on the “News and Views” program on WTUL New Olreans’ 91.5 fm station this Monday morning (1/10/10). Tune in from 9am to 10am, after the Democracy Now! broadcast, to hear me regale the airwaves with tales of my experiences over the course of my 30-day “performance art” project about vivisection happening at Tulane. Over Tulane’s own radio station, no less. (If you’re not in NOLA, or don’t have a chance to catch it live, click that link and listen to the recorded archive.)
Also — a retrospective of 30DFLA by yours truly was just published in Antigravity Magazine , on lucky page eight in the PDF document. (Click that link, son-ra.)
That PDF is a little hard to read, so for those struggling with vision clarity or simply internet laziness, below is the column (albeit without a few minor edits by AG and including some internet links) transcribed…
30 DAYS FOR LABORATORY ANIMALS RETROSPECTIVE: THE VITALITY OF RESISTANCE
As we stand in the meager block of lighted concrete, the afternoon sun’s rays reaching down onto us from only a tawdry glare in the neighboring hospital’s window, direct warmth shielded by a canopy of steel, I describe to a friend the evolution of my humble anti-vivisection project, 30 Days for Laboratory Animals, over the past weeks. “It almost feels like I work here,” I joke. Like a custodian’s behind-the-scenes and undervalued relationship to the stability of an academic institution, similarly, as the researchers perform experiments on animals on the 9th floor of the Tulane Health Sciences Center, I feel I in turn provide a service by calling their work into question on their way inside each day. I suspect many—if only begrudgingly—kind of respect me. And suspending disbelief for just a moment, maybe by some morbid stretch I even respect them. Without the vivisectors’ work, admittedly, I would not have my own, and without my efforts, they…Well, I like to think, at least for the most part, the relationship is not so much adversarial but symbiotic…
Ex-convicts say the world looks different after a “bid”; likewise, I can attest that after 120 hours in public space, the ground occupied for four hours each day comes to represent more than just “the sidewalk outside the School of Medicine.” Like an unused parking lot re-appropriated for a community garden, the space of a demonstration is reclaimed, transformed—a liberated territory, if you will. “Yeah,” replies my comrade, absorbing the sun’s brilliance with me. “We’re actually standing on The Beach”—the name it shall be known as henceforth. Oh, you may think that brown trash can, where Subway wrappers are deposited daily, is some unremarkable fixture of the urban landscape—but look closer, young padawan. “That’s the lifeguard stand,”notes S——, a true visionary of our time. My view from the picnic blanket commands not that of a downtown cluster of medical complexes but—why, yes, I see it now—a vast, shimmering ocean, teeming with life!
My creative writing teacher in high school used to give the instruction “Show me, don’t tell me.” But holed up beneath my covers, trying to pound this sucker out, I am at a loss for just how to judiciously portray the past month with mere prose. I could describe, inadequately, those most poignant moments: the Indian woman confiding to me that the unwanted animals she “sacrificed” with CO2 over her seven months as a lab tech caused her profound guilt and stress; the surgeon deconstructing his own speciesist conditioning right there before me with the realization that condemning intelligent pigs’ to death for “teaching purposes” is unethical (“Pretty hypocritical, huh, Derek?” he remarked a few minutes later, holding up the dog he’d just scooped off his ride’s passenger seat); or the Ukranian exchange student helping me hand out flyers and assuring me that she appreciated my work more than I could ever know. Such validation outweighed all the wrinkled noses or callous indifference I endured at the hands of some of those less compassionate staff, researchers, or students. It is the former vital connections, always, that remind me why I resist.
My field study also produced those humorous anecdotes. The man who stole my unattended phone and eventually returned it—but not before trying to hussle $40: a knee-slapper, indeed! Add to this the university policeman, having read said account on my blog, trying the next day to persuade me to provide a description of the thief, which I politely declined—an interaction more puzzling, but amusing all the same.
“Well, if it didn’t really happen,” the cop says after my courteous refusals, “just let me know.” Huh? “If it was just internet banter, I understand….” Cops: if anyone understands the art of fibbing, it’s them!
“Well, it did happen…,” I reply, a bit confused.
“Just tell me it didn’t happen,” he offers again, with a dismissive wave, “and I’ll leave you alone about it.”
In retrospect, I wish I would have explored some possible descriptive variations (“Oh, you know—white male, gray hair, wearing a suit and lab coat…”), but they say hindsight is 20/20. Assuming we reached some implied “understanding,” I finally retract, with a hint of sarcasm: “OK—it didn’t happen.” The cop then looks me in the eye and nods, squarely—“I appreciate your honesty.” Uhhh…? Wait, what’s going on?! Adding insult to injury, he then high-fives me and walks away before I can even retort! Manipulating me into “confessing” to a lie, and then thanking me for my “honesty”! I felt…just…well, dirty!
As my sociological experiment draws to its close, I sigh not with grateful relief but rather a modicum of sadness. I find it tragic that many perceive the practical applications of social struggle with a disdain they reserve for, say, panhandling: a pathetic display in which dehumanized crazies “beg for change.” Demonstrating can be humbling, I won’t disagree with that. Fact: more than once did a passerby offer food or money—after all, between my ragged cardboard signs and the sight of my frail, loitering form wrapped in a blanket on the chilliest days, such a misconception (“Aw, that poor orphan!”) is understandable. And when it involved a sweet med student girl I’d only just met insisting on treating me to a veggie sub, sometimes I even accepted “charity”! Besides, the “indigent”(i.e., the dudes who pass me on their way to the library) so scorned by society are in many ways more in touch with reality, I’ve learned, than some of its most “respectable” members (i.e., those holding PhDs and salary jobs). No, there are things far worse in this world than public vulnerability—on the contrary, this can be a healthy exercise. Honestly, I have never felt more ashamed, disempowered, or uncreative in my life as those days I sat at home, paralyzed by inaction.
Protesting—even for 30 days—isn’t going to set the animals inside that building free; it breaks my heart to say this, but Rome also wasn’t built in a day. Such an acknowledgment doesn’t, however, lead me (conveniently) to not act—and here emerges a deeper message I’ve been scratching at the surface of all along. Consider punk rock as a contextual parallel. Writing zines, playing in bands, booking shows…Few of us entertain the highfalutin expectations that any of these personal endeavors will “change the world,” yet we still undertake them. (Though take a gander at the evolutions of the riot grrrl movement, or straightedge, and maybe rethink what I just said!) We do so, I think it’s safe to say, because projects of this nature directly affect our individual lives and often influence those around us. Such pursuits teach us skills, grant us mediums for self-expression, and open up possibilities for connection and experience. In essence, they impregnate our lives with meaning and make us feel more fully alive.
Here’s my point: hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t been haunted by the horrors of vivisection and the animals caged inside laboratories like Tulane’s—which are fortified not only with locks and alarms but a cultural ideology of speciesism. If I would have continued internalizing the grief of the humiliations these animals suffer and remained an inactive vegan, I would have been doing a great disservice not only to them but to myself as well—and, inevitably, a service to those ordering their executions. The mother grizzly does not ponder the efficacy of charging the train that mauled her child; she simply acts how any one who loves would in the face of such tragedy. At the end of the day, I respect those who follow their hearts and act more than the defeatist utilitarians. As Chris Hedges writes, “Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for the larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative.” This is what 30 Days for Laboratory Animals has meant for me—and so much more…
Gazing out from The Beach of Tulane Avenue for the final hours, feeling all wistful, a metaphor takes form like a cloud on the horizon: that of a vast ocean, poisoned to such a degree that those sustained by it have begun to die. And we as individuals are moved to a monumental task: to perpetually filter living water back into this body. Each one of our struggles represents a droplet of clean water, and we hope beyond the last vestiges of hope that the disease overtaking cannot devour as much as we reintroduce. We work less with the expectation of ever again frolicking the pristine waters in our own lifetime, but because this beautiful ocean is an integral part of who we are—and the truest thing we possess.
And because to not do so, in essence, would be to succumb.
“All that I can give, everything that I am / Can so easily disappear, like grass blown by the wind/ But I cannot embrace that which kills all I love/ So draw the line and count me as an enemy”—Seven Generations, “Chimera”