On the eve of February 26th the Masovian town of Skaryszew saw preparation for “Wstępy”, its annual horse trading fare. Hundreds of horse breeders gathered alongside a country road near the town’s center to exhibit their signature commodity. A significant proportion of the latter was destined for Polish slaughterhouses, their flesh to be exported to Italy and consumed as a “local” delicacy.
The freezing cold didn’t discourage a group of animal protectionists who arrived from around the country and beyond to protest the event. We spent the evening and night taking turns on patrols and sheltering ourselves from the gushing wind in cars when we could take not more. With eyes wide open, we took pains to document the whole event. As the horse traders noticed cameras hanging on straps from our necks, they swiftly reloaded the more visibly abused horses back into the trailers. A sober move to avoid possible bad publicity.
And make no mistake: photos and video footage does not convey the paradox of normalized oppression which goes unnoticed in the light of day among masses of locals gathered to take time off their daily routine. It struck me as an eerie combination of watered-down Polish country tradition of the most vulgar sort with a sheer manifestation of the exploitation-driving profit motive. Picture cheerful consumption of meat dripping with fat, backstage vodka drinking, and explicit horse neglect, all in a barren landscape of a field in the vicinity of the local cemetery. The setting fittingly underscores the bizarre spectacle; a disquieting mix of blatant indifference and silent despair. Are the locals really happy about this? One can only wonder.
After a long, dark, and busy night, a hundred tired human bodies now regrouped at 10 a.m. for a general protest against the event. We’d been ready to put ourselves through an ankle-high layer of mud in the field near our stations. We needn’t have. The soil is frozen fast. Instead, and quite expectedly, we find ourselves drowning in a crowd of the local townsfolk gathered for a celebration of what they consider their loving connection to horses. But when horses are regarded as commodities, things bought and sold, all talk of true welfare becomes vacuous. The farmers’ exhortations of their love for “their” horses sound grotesque to our ears. Maybe on this particular day it’s just their excuse to feast on fatty flesh and booze. I see a father carrying a child on his back and a plastic beer cup in his hand. He came in to have some fun. Strange. We look around and fail to see much fun to be had there. We’re too busy forming a block for the demo.
We end up being situated behind a barrier and a ditch, all that separates us from the rest off the crowd. So much for conciliatory dialogue, it seems. But such is struggle sometimes. There is some police close by in case things go wrong. As usual, though, not enough to really help out if something truly does. And, as usual, we cannot be sure it is us they would help out. After all, we are the ones who disrupt the status quo. Everyone else seems to be happy to numb themselves to what is happening there. The farmers too thoughtless to see , the horses too exhausted and used to being smacked around to rebel. We still remember some of them being punched with fists and beaten with sticks the night before. Now they are tied on short leashes to trucks all around us, unable to lie down.
So we try to drive the wedge between the exploiter and the exploited, straight into the normalcy of the situation. However, our capacity to deliver a coherent message is curtailed. After all, we stand as the usual mix of various organizations, from single-issue reformists to abolitionist animal liberationists. We pay for our relatively large numbers with ideological inconsistency. Engaging in discussion with our opponents proves troublesome, if only for the reason that we give different answers to the same questions asked by the same people. We disagree amongst ourselves and lack discipline. We must come off as a pretty schizophrenic bunch at times. I am both and an observer and a participant to several such exchanges.
I witness moderates – those who are far from openly posing a struggle for animal liberation – having the usual problems defending their positions. They cannot convincingly say why they are here to protest horse slaughter but have no problem eating pig flesh. Were it not for the export and turning the horses into portions of consumable flesh, I’m quite sure that most of the activists who have showed up in Skaryszew would be absent today. This is just one thing which shows how crucial ideological coherence and a carefully thought-out stance is in political struggle. But there is more to our confusion.
As the farmers oppose us, some fire and brimstone, some with disgusted grins, some raise reasonable points. The shortcomings of our near-exclusive focus on other than-human-animals is clearly problematic to them. They say “why don’t you help people, why don’t you help the workers and farmers?” As we reply that “we do! We go to strikes, we support you, too! We support our common interests,” they seem to soften up. Now it’s just some of the drunken ones that carry on in pointless ridicule. Too bad in truth all too few of us are class-conscious enough to actively support workers’ struggles.
Fortunately, this time we can manage as this uncomfortable coalition. If there is a goal to the protest, it is to show that opposition is growing to the gruesome practices of horse commodification and the mistreatment and killing that go with it. This is a problem. This much we successfully carry across, and we make clear that we will return like haunting ghosts until it is done away with. Some of us may be uncomfortable with the slogans raised by others, moderates with radical ones and vice versa. Still, we rip our throats shouting together in unison. Regrettably, the organizers of the protest are mostly absent from the front rows during the demonstration. Surely, interviews are important, but there is time for them after the protest is wrapped up. While it lasts, the thing to do is to focus strength of the collective into a disciplined whole.
Horse breeders, traders, and consumers defend what amounts to their way of life. No doubt they are right in saying that overall some of them know horses more intimately than do we – mostly urban dwellers. But their rapport with them is overwhelmingly underpinned by a drive to turn them into disposable units. One cannot know another until one sees them through the lens of freedom, until one allows them to be what they are. Many animal protectionists at least implicitly share this conviction. Therefore we resist unfreedom. We have come to assume perspectives, diverse as they may be, that make it difficult, indeed quite impossible, to adapt to society whose pleasant façade we managed to penetrate to reveal its terrible truth. These insights come at a high price to us; painful experiences of witnessing suffering without flinching and of patient study of society’s dark side are our daily bread. We are not social recluses or parasites as some farmers wished to paint us. Indeed, overwhelmingly we are workers. The younger among us will soon become workers. We cannot be dismissed as a bunch of minors from the big city who have no idea about the strain of hard work. It is we who take days off, often without pay, to show up in the freezing cold and voice our concerns on behalf of tortured horses. As we work to reproduce society, we come to understand it better through penetrating flashes of critique. We are of this society, even though, to quote Adorno, “the better one understands society, the more difficult it is to make oneself useful within it.” Perhaps we opened our eyes at the wrong moment, or maybe we looked the wrong way. But now we have no choice but to share what we have seen – the suffering and unfreedom overlooked in the plain light of day, existing in our midst. So rather than follow our normal routines on a Sunday night on Monday morning, we show up in places where we are needed more. Even if that detracts social affairs from following their usual course. Indeed, we do our hard work precisely in order to shed light on the unseen aspects of the Normal and transform its social perception into that of a Problem.
In Skaryszew, exploitation and neglect were made viscerally real with a single glimpse into the eyes of a suffering animal. As she returned one’s gaze, there was no denying that something was terribly wrong. One may only wonder where she is now, where all of them are. Scattered throughout the country. Their legs frostbitten, their wounds infected, their lives close to worthless apart from the value of monetary return on investment. Bodies still graceful but degraded through horror and trembling with fear; to be discarded when no longer useful for this or that form of labor, or to be dismembered without haste for the whim of someone’s palate. Therefore let us continue contesting, criticizing, and building a movement to challenge and overturn the oppressive matrix of social relationships that tears us out of our interspecies kinship with other animals. Without certainty or guarantees, steeped in the insoluble ambiguities of social and political life, let us proceed with ever more insight, discipline, and efficiency. And with better judgement.
(photo credit to Adam Gac; I will upload video footage as soon as I edit it)