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Employees of the People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are revolting against the organization’s plan to “speak up for animal issues while honoring MLK Day,” emails obtained by The Daily Beast show.
And PETA President Ingrid Newkirk isn’t taking it well—defending her idea in an unhinged response that referenced Harriet Tubman and the Holocaust.
The controversy began unfolding at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, when Newkirk—in an email to every PETA employee in the country—attempted to address internal staffer concerns, calling them “extremely saddening.”
“We are against ALL exploitation, discrimination, needless violence, abuse, theft, and slaughter. All of it,” she wrote in an email.
“Our mission is to get people to think about the harm caused by any form of discrimination, and how all forms of it are one thing. The ‘who you are’ is not important.”
In the nearly 800-word email, sent under the subject line “Please absorb this,” Newkirk went on to claim that “using race as a reason to be quiet is actually racist,” and to suggest that her critics simply found it “too awkward” to advance her cause of “understanding for all.”
“You don't have to be Japanese to know internment camps were wrong; you don't have to be a hippopotamus to protest captivity; men must fight sexism and racial injustice must be decried by people of every race,” she wrote.
Newkirk then launched into a game of historical revisionism, suggesting that Harriet Tubman would not have freed any slaves if she had not accepted the help of white landowners, and wondering about the fate of Jews in the Holocaust if they had not accepted the shelter of German Christians.
“White, black, brown, yellow, striped or polka dots, who cares?” she wrote, in the kind of “colorblind” language that racial justice advocates have long decried as unhelpful. “Gay, straight, transgender, whatever, who cares? Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, who cares? The only divide is between those who want liberty and justice for ALL and those who want it only for the few. We must UNITE for what's right!”
It was unclear which Martin Luther King Day-related events, exactly, had raised employee’s concerns, but the organization has previously written multiple blog posts on and around the holiday, attempting to connect Dr. King’s civil rights work to the fight for animal liberation. (A search for “Martin Luther King” on PETA’s website turns up more than 100 results.)
Last year, the organization published a blog post directed at teachers, suggesting they celebrate the holiday in their classrooms by “following compassionate activities that will help foster kindness to animals and help students remember that all sentient beings deserve rights.” It also previously attempted to erect a billboard in Dallas, Texas, featuring a photo of Dr. King alongside his famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In 2014, the group sparked backlash by tweeting on MLK Day: “We must continue 2 seek justice for EVERYONE who is disadvantaged,” as well as the Dr. King quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
Apparently, not everyone at PETA was convinced by Newkirk’s argument. On Jan. 15, a junior staffer replied-all to her email, expressing their deep appreciation for Newkirk’s work before meticulously dissecting her points.
“Though your email makes clear the fact that all lives matter, on MLK day it is a Black life that is being celebrated,” the staffer wrote. “For PETA to connect MLK to the animal rights movement projects an image that we use Black people for our cause's gain. This is wrong.”
While acknowledging Dr. King’s legacy was important, the staffer continued, tying his legacy to the animal rights movement would take space away from the Black community. MLK Day, the staffer wrote, should be “a chance to demonstrate that PETA knows how to give space to other movements that are important partners in our cause.”
The staffer also took issue with Newkirk’s “white, black, brown, yellow, striped or polka dots” line, writing: “Listing out identities and following it with "who cares" is insensitive. We should care about our identities that make us uniquely ourselves and celebrate them. A color-blind perspective will not get anyone in this organization to unify and if anything only makes divisions more apparent.”
“The intersectionality, differences, and nuance to our identities matter,” the staffer added. “To be truly diverse and inclusive PETA's President should not suggest that they do not.”
A second staffer, who identified themselves as a “Hispanic and Latinx vegan animal rights activist,” responded shortly thereafter to thank the first staffer for their email. “As a community of animal rights activists it’s very important that we learn how to adapt, evolve and be tactful about the way that we spread our message in the fight for animal liberation.”
In a response sent to the entire listserv, Newkirk appeared to ignore the second staffer, thanking the first staffer for their input before chastising them for replying-all to her email.
“It is unusual to send this to the whole organization, and not something that is done by staff on any issue without their supervisor's permission, but I'm sure you didn't know that,” she wrote. “ I apologize to everyone for having to send this out to the whole organization, but that is now what protocol requires.” (In her original email, Newkirk had invited anyone who disagreed with her to “let us know.”)
She then went on to defend herself as a member of Dr. King’s generation who was “marching in the '60s for racial justice,” adding that “no-one then was so divisive as to lock out white voices in the struggle.” (The 60s, she added, were “actually a time when going vegetarian was very much a Black value.”)
“In case it helps, I've attached a picture of Dr Spock marching arm-in-arm with MLK,” she said, referencing the late pediatrician known for recommending an all-vegetarian diet for children. “MLK III came to (vegan) Dr Spock's memorial service to pay his respects, to me that is intersectionality in action, and a recognition of the unity, collaboration and friendship that's needed between movements for justice.”
At several points, Newkirk specifically cited PETA’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights and suggested the staffer should be “pleased” about that. She also claimed there was “probably nowhere ‘safer’ than PETA” to work, before saying that she had heard the staffer was criticizing her for having a “white savior complex” over her Harriet Tubman comments. (It was unclear how she had heard this, as it was not mentioned in the staffer’s email.)
“I can't quite understand that definition given that it is just a plain old fact and harkens back to the other point I made about Christians safeguarding Jews at the risk of their own lives: that was hardly Christian savior complex either,” she wrote. “It is just people helping people, and the point I was making (or trying to make) was that those of us of like minds will always work together to save lives and stop harm.”
“We will never be silent, not for an hour of a day, on the need for animal liberation,” she added, before concluding on a slightly less radical note: “I must ask you to write to your supervisor, going forward, and not the whole organization.”
In an email to the Daily Beast, Newkirk said she would be posting the entire conversation on PETA’s website, to “encourag[e] similar conversations in households over the long weekend,” and claimed that there were “many supportive staff who are behind the call for recognizing MLK as our hero.”
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