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Guest Opinion: SF fur ban may spark larger social movement

by Rob Daroff

Dr. Rob Daroff stands outside San Francisco City Hall.
Dr. Rob Daroff stands outside San Francisco City Hall.  

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted to ban fur sales, making it the third and largest U.S. city to pass such a prohibition. Thousands of activists, like myself, who pushed for the ban view it as another key step toward the complete end of society's mistreatment of animals.

Introduced by the Berkeley-based animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere, the ban on fur draws a rather arbitrary line that continues to permit the mistreatment of animals for leather, food, and medical testing, among other uses. That line will likely continue to be redrawn, and the pace of change may surprise us all.

Our own city's fur ban is indicative of the increasingly mainstream embrace of animal rights - and it's not limited to the fringe issue of fur. A 2014 Gallup poll found that a surprising 32 percent support granting animals the "same rights as people," while another poll revealed that 47 percent of Americans support a ban on slaughterhouses - numbers that are likely even higher in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area.

Contrasting those figures with the relatively small numbers of vegetarians and vegans highlights a fundamental but encouraging misalignment of our collective behavior with our common values. We need only convince people to stand up for what they already believe - that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on other sentient beings. I feel we have not only public sentiment and a winning moral argument, but also the organizational capacity necessary to fundamentally shift society.

We also have history on our side.

In 1983, Evan Wolfson, then a third-year student at Harvard Law School, wrote a dissertation predicting that gay people would achieve marriage rights within a generation. Not surprisingly, Wolfson was decried as radical and foolish at the time. Yet, as we all know, Wolfson's prediction came true in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined marriage equality.

As a gay man in the 1980s and 1990s, the mere idea that I could ever legally marry another man was wholly unimaginable to me. This was an era when people like me were regularly fired, imprisoned, or even killed simply for being queer.

Instrumental in social progress for the LGBTQ community was the activist and legislative leadership of cities like San Francisco, Berkeley, and West Hollywood - each breaking new ground in the recognition of same-sex partnerships. Their models established a sense of momentum and inevitability around social change, which extended far beyond their jurisdictions.

It's fitting then, and not really coincidental, that the San Francisco fur ban follows similar ordinances previously passed only in West Hollywood and Berkeley. While there's perhaps reason to dismiss the earliest adopters - West Hollywood has a small population, and Berkeley, a radical reputation coupled with negligible fur sales - San Francisco's national prowess and powerful fur retailers like Neiman Marcus, Macy's, and Saks Fifth Avenue feels like something very different.

It feels like a revolution.

Like Wolfson and the gay rights community a generation prior, today's animal rights movement presents a bold vision of a world in which we respect others despite our differences. And we're similarly laying the kindling necessary to ignite a massive movement for change.

The first U.S. community center for animal rights opened in Berkeley in 2016 (https://www.berkeleyarc.com/). Bay Area activists are engaging in mass civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo. And hundreds are regularly taking to the streets to demand change, united behind truly transformative initiatives.

The animal rights community doesn't need to persuade others of some radical new ideal, but to bring to the surface a tension that already exists. In many ways like the once normalized discrimination of LGBTQ folks, society's violence toward animals is a product of apathy and misunderstanding, not active hatred. A ban of animal factory farming or even a ban on using animals for food and clothing altogether may no longer be so unimaginable. We don't need to ask if our violence toward animals will end, but why it's taking so damn long.

And we need to ask ourselves what more we can do to make it happen.

Dr. Rob Daroff is a clinical professor in psychiatry and activist with the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere living in San Francisco. For more information, visit https://www.directactioneverywhere.com/.

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