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Intersectionality of Critical Animal Studies

A Historical Collection


Edited By Anthony J. Nocella II and Amber E. George

Intersectionality of Critical Animal Studies: A Historical Collection represents the very best that the internationally scholarly Journal for Critical Animal Studies (JCAS) has published in terms of articles that are written by public critical scholar-activists-organizers for public critical scholar-activists-organizers. This move toward publishing pieces about engaging social change, rather than high-theoretical detached analysis of nonhuman animals in society, is to regain focus for liberation at all costs. The essays in this collection focus on intersectionality scholarship within the realm of Critical Animal Studies, and discuss issues related to race, gender, disability, class, and queerness. Not only are these articles historically significant within the field of Critical Animal Studies, but they are integral to the overall social justice movement. Intersectionality of Critical Animal Studies: A Historical Collection should be read by anyone interested in the Critical Animal Studies field, as we consider them to be classic writings that should be respected as foundational texts. There are many interesting and innovative texts, but these are historical, not only because they were published in JCAS, but because they were among the first to publish on a particular intersectional issue.

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Chapter Ten: Animal Advocates for Prison and Slave Abolition: A Transformative Justice Approach to Movement Politics for an End to Racism (Anthony J. Nocella II)

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Animal Advocates for Prison and Slave Abolition

A Transformative Justice Approach to Movement Politics for an End to Racism



Introduction to Racism in the Animal Advocacy Movement

Within the animal advocacy movement and critical animal studies, there is frequent discussion of and engagement around concepts and terms such as intersectionality, total liberation, alliance politics, and solidarity. Despite this rhetoric, there is very little actual leadership participation by animal advocacy movements within other movements. I remember the first time I confronted pure deliberate racism in the animal advocacy movement. In early 2000, I had posted an e-mail on a listserve for action in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner and journalist in Pennsylvania (Abu-Jamal, 2009). A respondent was shocked and offended that I posted it. However, her issue was not that I was attempting to gather support for a convicted murderer (a murder of which many people think he is not guilty). No, she was offended because he is black. She also made a number of offensive racial comments against Abu-Jamal. Little did I consider that the animal advocacy movement is a microcosm of US society, and that animal advocacy has only recently been accepted as a social justice movement. Similarly, a few years ago on Facebook, I witnessed animal advocates argue that Michael Vick, a professional football player who was convicted in 2007 of conspiring to engage in competitive dog fighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting ← 203 | 204 → the enterprise across state lines, should be tortured just as his abused dogs were tortured. Such suggestions were followed by offensive remarks by white animal advocates. These white advocates stated that the African-American community supports gangs and dog fighting and that hip-hop promotes violence. These sweeping judgments and general maligning of African-Americans alerted me that the racism I had observed in the early 2000s still exists in the animal advocacy movement today. Moreover, just because animal advocates are working toward nonhuman animal liberation, does not mean they advocate for human liberation or a total liberation.

Even though Vick easily became the animal advocate’s public enemy number one, the animal liberation/rights movement has a pattern of accepting the leadership of former animal abusers. Former cattle ranchers and vivisectors (former animal abusers) who are white have become leaders of the animal advocacy movement. This is not to say it is inherently wrong for these former abusers to become leaders, but this would hardly happen with Michael Vick, although the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) did try to work with him, albeit with little success. In other words, we as a movement can be forgiving, but we must look at the selectivity of our forgiveness. Of course, it should be noted that Vick was convicted of a crime and the animal-abusers-turned-advocates were not. Further, the latter made a choice to walk away from their professions, while Vick was forced to stop engaging in dog fighting because of the criminal justice system and a lot of bad press.

Although he did his time and made an attempt to work with HSUS, people would not accept Vick as an animal advocate. This is somewhat understandable, for people in prison are rarely given the opportunity to personally transform, so the public assumes that the person who goes to incarceration is the same person who will come out, maybe even worse off. Again, prisoners are most often warehoused in the prison industrial complex to be punished, not provided resources, space, and place to transform. Alternatives can exist. Let us not forget Malcolm X. Although jailed for many crimes, he transformed himself in prison, and later became one of the most well respected social justice leaders in history (Haley & X, 1965). However, we must offer transformative resources to all people inside and outside of prisons, but first we, as animal activists and scholars, must accept that people do change.

For almost thirty years, the modern animal advocacy movement ignored issues of social justice such as racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, and disability. Only with the emergence of feminist theory and ecofeminism in the 1970s did animal advocates begin to theorize the linkages between speciesism, sexism and patriarchy (Adams, 1990). Of course, connections between women’s and animal’s oppression were being made as early as the nineteenth century through the work of Anna Kingsford and other suffragettes against vivisection. However, it was not until the latter ← 204 | 205 → part of the next millennium that these connections were made in a way that would have more lasting influence, which challenged sexism in society and the movement.

When animal advocates join other movements merely to convert others to veganism, this does not lead to total liberation, alliance politics, or solidarity; rather, it is a manipulative, coercive, and exploitive strategy that ignores the interconnected nature of oppressions. Simultaneously working to end both racism and speciesism is difficult, but it is essential that social justice activists and organizers do both because to eliminate one without the other, from an intersectional perspective, is impossible. All oppressions are interwoven and entangled in complex systems of domination which must each be eliminated. When one person or nonhuman animal is oppressed, all others are likewise oppressed. It is thus fruitless to engage in oppression Olympics (Martínez, 1993) politics, that is, claiming one oppression more real or worse than other. Doing so simply ends up marginalizing individuals and dividing the very movements that most need unity. Just as speciesism underlies the agricultural-industrial complex, racism underlies the US criminal justice system and prison–industrial complex. If the animal advocacy movement claims to be a social justice movement, it needs to begin addressing racism along with other forms of oppression. One easy way for animal advocates to challenge racism is to support prison abolition and engage in true total liberation and justice for all.

In a recent article entitled The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States, Sophia Kerby (2012) provides ten details that explain why the current criminal justice system is racist. They include:

  1. While people of color make up about 30% of the United States’ population, they account for 60% of those imprisoned.
  2. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
  3. Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.
  4. According to recent data by the Department of Education, African-American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates.
  5. African-American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
  6. As the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800% over the last three decades, women of color have been disproportionately represented.
  7. The war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses.
  8. Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. ← 205 | 206 →
  9. Voter laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting disproportionately impact men of color.
  10. Studies have shown that people of color face disparities in wage trajectory following release from prison (Kerby, 2012).

These ten facts exemplify the reality that discussions about race in the United States must address the criminal justice system. People who do not consider the criminal justice system when analyzing race avoid the topic for two reasons: (1) they are not aware or are not educated about the direct connection between the school system and the criminal justice system, and/or (2) they do not want to offend or cause conflict with their audience or those who fund their work and institutions. Moreover, many reformists do not speak the truth about racism for fear of losing the support of those in power (administrators, bureaucrats, politicians) who control our cultural systems. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against waiting for justice and taking the slow path toward equity in his book Why We Can’t Wait. King wrote, “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man. It tolls for you, for me, for all of us. Somehow God gave me the power to transform the resentments, the suspicions, the fears and the misunderstanding I found that week into faith and enthusiasm. I spoke from my heart, and out of each meeting came firm endorsements and pledges of participation and support” (Washington, 1991, p. 540). It has been through my relationships with prisoners and youth in detention that I have gained a true understanding of the reality of the interconnection between prisons and racism. The two issues must be dealt with together, regardless of format: event, lecture, writing project, or organization.

Prison Abolition = Slave Abolition

After hundreds of years, de jure slavery officially ended in 1865 with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. However, de facto slavery still exists because the Thirteenth Amendment allows for institutional slavery if an individual is duly convicted of a crime. The Thirteenth Amendment benefited Northern whites by removing slaves from plantations and putting them into factories. This neo-slavery afforded northern industrialists cheap/free labor within the prison system and allowed for the success of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, to suggest that the slave-free North of the nineteenth century was morally superior to the slavery—supporting South is fallacious. Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York was the first modern prison designed to hold many prisoner-slaves who were forced into factory work. Auburn—part prison, part factory—still exists today, and it was the first prison I worked in as a volunteer ← 206 | 207 → with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Although there were well-meaning slavery abolitionists in the North, the Union military and government wanted to defeat the South forces not to end slavery, but to foster industrial growth. Union leaders understood that free slaves would presumably move North. If their battle had been altruistic, they would have banned all forms of slavery rather than imbricate it into the Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore, individuals imprisoned in the United States have not been only stripped of their right to vote, but of their citizenship, as they are now recognized as slaves and are property of the State. Lest anyone wonder if slavery has really been abolished, they must surely see that it has simply been reframed as the prison–industrial complex.

Neo-slavery is profitable for many companies, including the private companies that imprison them. In 21st Century Chain Gangs, Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman (2012) note that today’s prisons are becoming privatized with the aid of the Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formally Wackenhut), who contract out prisoners for cheap labor (between 0.93 cents and 4.73 dollars per day) (Fraser & Freeman, 2012) to make computers, furniture, and clothing, to secure phone reservations, and run slaughterhouses and dairy farms. Many corporations contract labor with these private prisons including Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM (Fraser & Freeman, 2012). Consequently, any person who supports the current US criminal justice system also supports capitalism and slavery.

Anti-racist Animal Advocates for Prison Abolition

With the rise of animal advocacy as an intersectional social justice cause, advocates need to address what should be done with those who illegally abuse nonhuman animals. This question is critical for those anti-racist animal advocates because, as noted above, anyone who opposes racism and slavery must also oppose prisons and the current criminal justice system. Therefore, anti-racist animal advocates should not support the conviction, sentencing, and incarceration of those who abuse nonhuman animals. While many individuals and organizations advocate for harsh prison sentences for animal abusers, this in effect promotes slavery, a social injustice that is inherently connected to mainstream views of nonhuman animals as products and machinery. With so many organizations and individuals supporting the current criminal justice system, the same system that labels animal advocates as terrorists, it must be asked: Why do we support such an oppressive, repressive, violent structure?

The answer is simple. Many animal advocates fail to critique the criminal justice system because they do not understand that the criminal justice system and ← 207 | 208 → the oppression of nonhuman animals are interrelated. Just as nonhuman animals are cheap labor and are often property of the State, so too are human prisoners. Beyond just providing free labor to corporations, prisoners are also forced to work in slaughterhouses and on dairy farms. Finally, the criminal justice system protects the very corporations that animal advocates protest and boycott. Animal advocates’ protests and boycotts, once protected under the First Amendment, are now considered illegal and a domestic terrorist threat under laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) (Best & Nocella, 2006). Those activists who adopt such once-legal tactics now frequently find themselves arrested, charged, and convicted as criminals and sometimes even as terrorists. As a result, many animal advocates have begun to educate themselves about political repression and unjust laws such as the AETA, but many still support the current US justice system via their calls for the imprisonment of nonhuman animal abusers.

Building Alternatives

Actively renouncing and resisting racism, slavery, and the criminal justice system does make being an animal advocate that much more complex, but this is what is needed if we are to be effective critical animal studies scholars, social justice activists, and allies with people of color. Any person who is anti-racist has a duty to aid in the abolition of all prisons. Therefore, before advocates call for imprisonment of nonhuman animal abusers, they need to think about alternative justice systems rather than punitive retributive punishments. Transformative justice addresses social injustices, while advocates for education, healing, accountability, and responsibility (Nocella, 2011).

Anti-racists in the United States must target three major cultural institutions: (1) the criminal justice system, (2) the economic corporate capitalist system, and (3) the academic industrial complex. The social side effects of these two institutions are homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, hunger, illiteracy, public assistance, elevated high school dropout rates, gangs, and domestic violence. Too often people get caught up in addressing these issues from a reformist approach, while never addressing the larger systems of domination through which reform is instituted. It is important as good organizers to recognize and search for alternatives to these institutions that we critique. Hence, people should promote a transformative justice system rather than the punitive system that is currently in place, offering nothing more than prison sentences, probation, and the death penalty (Nocella, 2011). A transformative justice system is a holistic process that brings people together in a non-adversarial manner in the form of mediation, arbitration, or community circles (Morris, 2000). The process also addresses sociopolitical and ← 208 | 209 → economic injustices, while making sure that all people involved take responsibility and have decision-making power on the final resolution of the conflict.

The alternative to the current economic corporate capitalist structure is an economic system that promotes equity, social justice, mutual aid, collaboration, community-based interest, and protection of the individual. One such economic system is anarchist economics, about which I have co-edited The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics (Shannon, Nocella, & Asimakopoulos, 2012). Both alternative institutional models are embedded in a challenge to domination and a promotion of respect for all living beings. These models are not perfect, nor are they fully developed, but they are enlightened alternatives supported by many people in social justice communities around the world. Thus, when we see offenses such as animal abuse in our community, we should develop an opportunity to transform, heal, take accountability and responsibility, and address injustices, instead of looking to the government to convict, sentence, and punish offenders. Society must begin to look for more just, peaceful, and inclusive justice processes, rather than perpetuating a violent retributive justice system rooted in racism and structured to maintain modern day slavery.


Abu-Jamal, M. (2009). Jailhouse lawyers. Prisoners defending prisoners v. the U.S.A. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.

Adams, C. (1990). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum.

Best, S., & Nocella II, A. J. (2006). Igniting a revolution: Voices in defense of the Earth. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Fraser, S., & Freeman, J. B. (2012). 21st century chain gangs. Retrieved from

Haley, A., & X. M. (1965). The autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Kerby, S. (2012). The Top 10 most startling facts about people of color and criminal justice in the United States. Retrieved from

Martínez, E. (1993). Beyond black/white: The racisms of our times. Social Justice, 20(1/2), 22–34.

Morris, R. (2000). Stories of transformative justice. Toronto, CA: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Nocella II, A. J. (2011). An overview of the history and theory of transformative justice. Peace & Conflict Review, 6(1), 1–10.

Shannon, D., Nocella II, A. J., & Asimakopoulos, J. (2012). The accumulation of freedom: Writing on anarchist economics. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Washington, J. M. (1991). A testament of hope: The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ← 209 | 210 →