Fighting for Animal LIberation While Operating in a Production Line: How the Privileged Trigger Trauma and Dehumanize Immigrants

By Raffi Marhaba

TW: immigration, deportation, suicide, cutting, anorexia, violence

It was during the Day 3 of CF United that my silence was finally broken (even though I have the impression most people didn’t get it). Sitting through Steve Dawson’s talk on Vicarious Trauma in Animal Rights hurt. I had a repeated, visceral reaction to his storytelling on trauma. But perhaps the most painful part to hear was that he was actually offering solutions. Could it be that there was any hope for activists who are constantly reviving or experiencing trauma? Could it be that anyone actually gave a fuck?

Steve’s talk felt like a live reenactment of my depression, suicidal thoughts, and coping mechanisms like cutting and anorexia.

Having someone so carefully and thoughtfully describe exactly the way I feel/felt was my ultimatum to deal with it.

I’ve been doing a fantastic job at avoiding this open wound by either doing more activism or by simply denying my feelings.

Doing more and more activism feels very similar to cutting where the pain in a particular spot is substituted by exhausting yourself in another area, hoping that the initial pain would simply disappear. But cutting leaves scars. And it doesn’t make the pain go away.

As anti-speciesist animal rights activists, we focus on the violent emergency happening to animals at every second of everyday but have we ever stopped to consider that there are activists right now feeling like they are in an ER room where absolutely no one would like to help? Help you so you can continue to help nonhuman animals. Help you because, I don’t know, you’re worth being helped?

That’s exactly the point I’ve reached. After being incessantly involved in Animal Rights activism, even if for only 3 years as an organizer, I now see myself with a life-long hemorrhage, standing in an ER room, 24/7, with pseudo doctors and nurses. The staff tells me I’m fine, that I’ll get over it and constantly tries to put that goddamn megaphone in my hands.

I love the megaphone. I really do. But when I’m being pressured to hold it as soon as a few days after our dog passed,
I hate the megaphone.

When I sleep 3-4 hours a day and have to organize, coordinate, fit in freelance work, write/rewrite/call/beg/humiliate myself to my lawyer about my +9-year-long immigration case, think of how the hell I’m going to save money to pay for immigration fees, delegate, or when I constantly experience zero proactivity from others, the thought of resting is simply impossible, because workload is rarely fairly distributed in my community.

When I devoted a huge amount of time designing for Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), organizing and helping them grow and then I happened to express how their members were explicitly xenophobic and racist, I was told to check my own speciesism. I feel trapped in a space where egos devour souls and resolution doesn’t exist.

When, collectively, we challenged their racism and I made the personal decision to never associate myself with them again, no one made the extra effort to dissuade and keep me (even though they had until recently referred to me as a “valuable and indispensable member”.) It made me realize how disposable one can be in this movement.

When I join actions and people say Chinese immigrants should be deported because of the dog meat trade exists, it makes my stomach turn.

Or when I was actually planning on killing myself in March of 2015. I was so close to doing it that I actually checked myself into a hospital and spent a week there. But even in that facility I had no time to take a break. And let’s be honest: a psych ward is no place for rests. First, they were constantly trying to feed me lettuce or something with cow’s milk in it. It was only by the last few days that I got beans! Second, it’s kind of impossible to sleep when you have someone coming into your room every 10 minutes and flashing lights at you. Third, the things you see change you forever.

My early release happened because I had to continue dealing with my immigration crap and one can’t do that from the psych ward, can they? Let alone fight for animal liberation. Of course, my community didn’t notice I was gone, not even the closest people. So I just went straight back to activism.

And I don’t mean to try and sound special. I know people have over 2,000 friends on their list these days but not even the core folks noticed?

Activists praise me and my “bravery” on doing high-impact actions despite my very sensitive immigration status. They want me to keep pushing it further and further so they can continue to use me as a token to try and convince other people to take risks: “Raffi can be deported if they get arrested, but they still put themselves out there. What’s your excuse?”

Handcuffed_hands_(line_drawing)And do you know what I have never received in exchange for this tokenizing experience? Real support, or acknowledgment on the complexity and violence of immigrant oppression in this country, especially in regards to activists who are going through an immigration process. And I want to focus on immigration because, personally, there’s nothing more brutal to me than the idea of being forced to leave a country I started a new life in, just to be sent back out to a country that wants me dead.

There have been only two times I asked to stay in the sidelines of high-impact actions, and all I got was a half-assed support – “Oh, yes. Of course. You don’t need to be part of this. We totally understand.” Is this the best one can offer to people like me? And what kind of support would I have gotten if I had somehow been arrested?

I was handcuffed, along with all of my friends, during the St. Patrick’s disruption and I watched my entire life crumble before my eyes as the handcuffs kept on getting tighter. Even though we had a legal consultation prior to the action, we were not told that disrupting a religious service was actually a crime. I’m not trying to put the blame on anyone, but the privilege that American citizens experience is so supremacist that one can easily forget to point out such life-threatening details to people like me.

Let these statistics sink in:

  • People are rightfully scared of Trump, but do you know who I’ve been super scared of? Obama. Obama has deported more than any other president in history. “In 2014, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 Central Americans tried to emigrate to the United States without documentation. But the Obama government has been deporting them as fast as it can. Since coming to office in 2009, Obama’s government has deported more than 2.5 million people—up 23% from the George W. Bush years.“
  • Deportations also target political asylum seekers. Yes. Actually people who are fleeing from their countries because they are being persecuted. Cases like this one and this one are just a few examples of so many cases of children, adults and the elderly being sentenced to death. I myself first came here through a political asylum petition based on sexual orientation which was denied by an immigration officer who spent the first 20 minutes of our conversation trying to verify my sexual orientation by asking questions such as “so who was the man and who was the woman in the relationship?”
  • Activists who are immigrants are very much targeted by the government. Activists protesting the ICE raids have given up their “freedom” in this country to set a precedent to a better world for activists. “I’m doing this for one of my cousins who was deported twice in the same year after he tried to flee after being jumped by the Mara Salva Trucha [gang],” said 22-year-old Berkeley student Christopher Lopez, a chained protester who was arrested at the rally.
    And in the case of Animal Rights activists we also get to be treated as terrorists thanks to the AETA.
  • Undocumented immigrants pay local and state taxes. ”Collectively, undocumented immigrants in the United States pay an estimated total of $11.64 billion in state and local taxes a year. This includes more than $6.9 billion in sales and excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes, and just under $1.1 billion in personal income taxes.“
  • But when we need help… our eligibility for benefits is almost inexistent.
  • And please, don’t get me started on how the mainstream Animal Rights movement loves to focus on the persecution of immigrants who get caught in undercover investigations being abusive to animals. They should focus all their resources in criminalizing the rich, white dude sitting on his mansion, operating a million dollar bloody industry instead. They should be supporting immigration + labor groups so that immigrants are no longer forced to do the dirty job white folks don’t want to do. They shouldn’t be calling that a victory. And no, I don’t think people should ever get away with hurting animals. That is simply wrong. But our movement can do a much better job at framing what is wrong with animal agriculture so that people don’t think all that is wrong are “those damn violent immigrants.”


The shame and the stigma I would get from actually taking care of myself was something I did not want to experience from my “own people” so I forced myself to be in risky situations anyways. It’s already too much to have to reply to animal rights activists’ reactionary comments, or to those who make a living actually criticizing us, or to have to deal with people purposefully scheduling the 100th vegan potluck of the week right on the same day as an action which has been scheduled with 2 months in advance. And it is already too much to have to live in a world that no matter where you look at, animal death is everywhere.

shame1(Author of drawing unknown)

I’m not going to lie, I myself have asked tons of people, “What’s your damn excuse?” But I want to make a clear distinction going forward. “What’s your excuse” doesn’t go out to you, who struggle with the metro fare to get to and from an action, or to single mothers, or to anyone trying to survive. (I wrote about this topic in the article entitled Direct Action is for the Privileged.)

No, this goes out to you, the must-go-to-the-7th-potluck-of-the-week vegan, to the I-hate-your-activism-but-I-don’t-do-any vegan. It goes out to the countless armchair critics and consumerist vegans who go to great lengths to publicly bash others yet never make an effort to actually establish a dialogue.

I am so tired of sabotaging myself and denying that I have nothing left to offer at the moment. A few weeks ago Pax published this beautiful article entitled, Dear Marginalized Vegans: You Are Enough. When I read it my initial reaction was to reject it. But then I thought, I need to to realize the audience Pax is writing to. I can be completely wrong here, but I don’t think Pax wrote those words to the “happy”, cupcake-vegans who think animal liberation will come by way of vegan cheeses and who constantly use #AllLivesMatter hashtags.

I think Pax wrote that article for people like myself who are constantly pressured to engage in certain types of activism and who would experience a deep sense of shame and disappointment if they tried different actions, methods and ideas that could be a better fit to their limitations.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a very long time. In fact, I started to daily fantasize about writing a public letter of retirement from the Animal Rights movement I’m involved in and go devote my time to building a co-op micro-sanctuary/community garden/food justice/activist space/white supremacy repellent/queer-central, anything other than being in such toxic, destructive movement.

Free Hugs

And I say this with deep sadness because there is a handful of people who have been very supportive, even if they too only have a limited understanding. I would love to think that together we could make this movement more aware of how abusive we can be to one another and how to support each other’s struggles (and just each other in general!).

People like Steve are already practically thinking about how to make self-care accessible. No more overpriced restaurant dinners with the New York vegans. No more $1,000 yoga, raw retreats. Let’s rethink how we can start healing each other. Healing, not so we can quickly hold the megaphone again until the battery dies but so we can exist in a pluralistic way and stop being forced to exist in a monolithic way (well, maybe that’s cool with the white, straight, middle-class dude). To quote Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force:

“Leadership for me is tied to this question of vision… and a desire for wholeness… we can’t ask someone to be an undocumented immigrant one day, a lesbian the next, and a mom the third day… our vision is about… transforming society so that she can be all of those things every single day and that there would be a connectedness among social justice workers and among the organizations, and agendas, if you will, to make her life whole.”

Coming up with a model and structure to make this a reality is something I’d be interested in spending my time from now on.

We can start by:

  1. Acknowledging each other’s systems of oppression. Is it really that hard? I can’t say how thankful I am to folks like Laura Schleifer for her powerful talk at CF United entitled Bloodied Bodies, Slaughtered Souls: How the Animal Control and Exploitation Industries Capitalize on the Human Underclass to Satiate Society’s Compulsion to Kill. This was the first time ever (EVER!) that I have heard anyone in the Animal Rights movement devote their time to critically analyze immigration issues and to say “heeeey, we need to be addressing immigration issues! Outside our community and within our community.”
  2. Offering alternatives to activists. That can range from buddy systems to other forms of activism which don’t entail high-risk consequences. And if jail is something activists are willing to go through, set up a jail bail fund. Since our St. Patrick’s disruption we’ve been asking for folks to help with donations, but it’s interesting to notice how people who post “What can we do to help?!” magically disappear when we mention they could help us with a small donation to build this fund.
  3. Creating community: a community who gives a fuck. It’s easy to gather folks in a room and discuss things. But that’s not community. Community is knowing that if something happens to you, people will have your back. It’s knowing that you’re accepted no matter if you leaflet or if you throw a Starbucks cup full of blood on Howard Schultz (I’d love to do that!). It’s knowing that there is an ever-growing system in place to allow you to do the type of activism you choose.

    Like the structure of activism Ovarian Psycos have in place – and no, I don’t think they got it all figured it out but I love their structure as far as healing each other goes. My wife and I had the pleasure of not only watching the movie but also participating in a Q&A with members and the director. Xela de la X says she feels robbed – when describing the traumas she went through. I couldn’t agree more. I have felt so robbed from opportunities that would allow me to grow without having to experience pain at all times. One of the great things about activism to me was to be able to reclaim those opportunities. But here I am. Feeling so robbed again. Even in activism.
  4. Offering a model/structure of healing and “healing pods”. And I don’t mean we have to go back to college and earn a degree in psychology. I mean we can all do our best to get to know our community members, understand the risks they take and be ready to offer maximum support. Perhaps you know someone who knows someone who can offer legal advice. Or you may know someone who is going through similar issues as your comrade.

    By “healing pods” I mean we can start thinking of simple ways in which we can implement activities that decompress us or that allows us to simply voice how we feel.

    For example, Shon gave us a fantastic improv workshop at CF United, and the first activity we did was called “Mirror”. Something as simple as standing in a circle and mimicking each other until we explode into laughter can make a huge difference to folks experiencing stress and or trauma.

    Or when Autumn Marie simply asked us all how “we felt” after her talk. How I felt? For real…? That felt so good. And then we stood up, held hands and chanted as one, each time louder and louder:
    It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
    It is our duty to win.
    We must love each other and support each other.
    We have nothing to lose but our chains. (Words by Assata Shakur)
  5. Understanding that limitations are different than limits. Many activists have several limitations but many would say they have no limits. For example, I have strict immigration limitations but my limits on activism have been broken several times and are by no means tied to my limitations.

    I can say I’d like to spend my time focusing on artistic forms of actions because that translates well to my limitations. But artistic actions are not my limits.
  6. Knowing that superhumans don’t last. The volume of work I took on was excruciating. And no, don’t come with your “but XYZ does that too and XYZ is such a great leader because they never show how tired they are” argument. You know what? You should be legitimately concerned for that person because sooner or later they will have to actually breathe.

    And breathing is necessary. Breathing doesn’t make them more or less of a “leader”. It makes them human. So excuse me while I breathe.

In closing, I sincerely would like to thank you, for taking your time to experience this article. To anyone in this community who has had to deal with trauma on their own, to all my siblings – you are not alone. Let’s keep embracing each other and let’s redesign our system, always for the better. Let’s stop operating in a production line.

If you have suggestions, or would like to Skype and talk, send me a message. If you have nothing constructive to say, stay away.

“Personal healing is also resistance. Healing intergenerational trauma is resistance.” –Priviledge in Activism – Ego is not a Clan

What’s it going to be of Collectively Free now?
CF is going to continue to exist, continue to create new structures and evolve. A very powerful scene in the documentary about the Ovarian Psycos was when Xela simply decided to quit and focus on her child. Yes, the members experienced a sort of breakup feeling but they felt even more determined to continue and to make Ovarian Psycos even stronger.
Guess who’s now back at the core organizing team? Xela.

So you’re basically quitting CF?
No, I am quitting an old style of activism that was killing me. Right now I’d like to devote my time to artistic actions, rethinking self-healing in our community and focusing on the bridges with other social justice movement that we started building.
I will continue to provide resources to our community members, but I will certainly not be doing the monumental amount of tasks I’ve always done.

You sound very angry and you’re blaming your fuckups on the community.
Angry is right. And angry is good. But I’m also very sad. And no, I am not blaming everything that’s wrong on the community/movement and removing myself from it. I am too part of the problem for waiting so long to realize all of this. For not really thinking about self-care.

But when presented with the opportunity I decided to jump at it and I would love for people to join.

We have always paid attention to self-care and empowered our members to heal together.
If I’m allowed to join your community, I’d love to! I’m speaking about my experience in the areas of Animal Rights I’ve been involved with. I have never said there isn’t anyone out there doing amazing things and helping activists heal.

You think vegan potlucks are useless and your activism rocks. I feel hurt.
I don’t think vegan potlucks are useless. I think most of the types of vegan potlucks I experienced (which tend to be the most well-attended ones) are simply a vehicle to talk about how great we are doing and how wonderful everything is. And then it quickly becomes a place to bash other vegans who do activism.

In addition, any other type of “social event” is directly connected to monetary accessibility. Last year, for example, I was completely excluded from all of that because you know, little things such as the government denying you the ability to work legally just because they can, for a whole entire year. I didn’t even have the means to pay for 2 trips in the subway. And this type of community is not interested in chipping in for anyone else so they can actually enjoy a drink or a meal. So, not sorry you feel hurt.