If you've been out shopping at the local mall or mega-store lately, you may have seen quite a peculiar sight. That is, a group of people walking around shrouded in white sheets splattered with bright red paint. There's red paint on their faces, too, looking like blood. They walk around silently, not stopping, not saying a word or handing out any literature that would explain themselves. And what do they have on their upper lips? Are those...
Local animal-rights group Compassion for Farm Animals has been conducting these 'silent vigils” at shopping centers around San Diego for the past few weeks. And thousands of San Diegans saw the group's protest last Friday, when members unfurled a 36-foot-by-12-foot banner declaring, 'California Cows Are Tortured Cows,” over the Washington Street overpass on Highway 163 during morning rush hour. CFA was protesting the California Milk Advisory Board's 'Happy Cows” ad campaign. The activist group, which formed last August, says that the ads-yes, you know the ones-neglect to inform people that dairy cows are kept in squalid, overcrowded, tortuous conditions, and end up as a hamburger on someone's plate.
'This is our first demonstration,' said CFA co-founder David Agranoff on Friday, as three California Highway Patrol officers searched through a thick book of highway regulations, trying to discover if the protestors were breaking any laws. An officer from the San Diego Police Department had stopped earlier and said they couldn't drape anything directly over the traffic lanes, so the seven protestors-counting a young girl in a stroller-moved the banner over to the side of the overpass, where it was still visible to northbound traffic.
Then the CHP officers arrived. After a long consultation, they said the group's banner didn't violate any law as long as Compassion for Farm Animals wasn't selling anything. 'No, we give our information out for free,' Agranoff told the officers. But after the first group of CHP officers left, more arrived and told the protestors they had to leave or would be arrested. 'Apparently [they] had not heard of the Constitution of the United States,' Agranoff fumed afterward.
Agranoff is a veteran of the animal-liberation movement, having organized for animal-rights and social-justice issues in New York, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. 'I've been doing this for 10 years,' he said, 'and I've sued more than one police department.'
Agranoff recently moved to San Diego with his partner in activism, Cari Beltane. 'We just wanted to go somewhere different and had friends here,' he said. The two activists decided that San Diego needed an organization to advocate specifically for the welfare of farm animals, and formed Compassion for Farm Animals. 'We think although a few really great groups already exist [in San Diego], the farm-animal focus is worthy of our efforts,' Agranoff said.
He stressed that CFA was formed not because of a lack of other local animal-rights groups such as San Diego Animal Advocates or Last Chance for Animals. 'There is a vibrant and active vegetarian community that includes a co-op grocery store and vegetarian/vegan restaurants,' he said. 'We're here to support the vegan and vegetarian community here in San Diego.'
The group had a turkey-free Thanksgiving event, giving out meatless turkey dinners to passer-bys in Hillcrest, and CFA meets every Saturday at Lestat's Coffeehouse in Normal Heights. 'We're a relatively small grassroots organization just starting out, so I'm not really sure exactly how many people we have,' said Agranoff. But he's pleased with the reception his ideas have received. 'There is a lot of dedication from the people involved, which has been really great to see.'
Beltane, a performance artist, came up with the idea for the group's members to walk around in public places wearing bloody shrouds and milk mustaches. She felt that a dramatic statement would help get the group's anti-cruelty message across. 'That's one of the reasons we decided to do it,' she said, 'because it would stir public curiosity and bring attention to the dairy issue.'
Last weekend they brought this unique protest to Mission Valley Mall and then Fashion Valley, where they were escorted out by 'very rude' security guards. Beltane said the group plans to continue the protest on a regular basis.
Do Beltane and Agranoff think their group can change people's thinking by draping a banner over the expressway or walking around in paint-splattered sheets? Agranoff believes so. 'If we can just for one second get people to question or to see another point of view,' he said, 'then it's a good thing.'