by Guest Contributor Dany Sigwalt
Rumors are flying about Michael Vick’s future in the NFL. He has been conditionally reinstated to the NFL, and is now looking for a new home team.
Michael Vick, of course, was the NFL superstar quarterback who was charged as a “key figure” in April of 2007 of an extensive illegal interstate dog fighting ring. He was released from federal prison after serving 23 months. Although the Atlanta Falcons, the team he was with when he was lifted to celebrity ,dropped his contract after multiple attempts to trade him to another team in the NFL, many are still encouraging teams to “forgive him” for his actions. The NFL is now considering reinstating Vick into the NFL, with a possible four game suspension at the beginning of the 2009 season.
Last night, I got into my first conversation about Vick and really even dog fighting since this fiasco broke into the media two years ago. Up until a few weeks ago, I was convinced that single issue animal rights activism (like anti-fur or boycotting KFC until they improve their treatment of animals they eventually kill) was ineffective and merely helping people feel comfortable about choices that don’t address my core concerns regarding animal rights. We live in a world where 10 billion land animals are reared and murdered for consumption in the US alone to support an unsustainable lifestyle that harms everyone involved. I have a hard time believing that throwing red paint on a person wearing fur would create the shift in our collective consciousness to end human exploitation of nonhuman animals. Vegans often locate the root of our projection of power and violence onto animals in speciesm. Speciesm, like racism, sexism and other “-isms” involve an analysis of privilege and oppression, wherein humans project unwarranted power over nonhuman animals, simply because of the availability of exploitable bodies.
Holding both anti-racist and anti-speciest ideologies, I frequently find myself disagreeing with the majority of what I have heard and read regarding the Michael Vick Case. As much as I hate single issue campaigns, I do think that if people are unable to acknowledge the person-ness and worthiness of a good life of animals we have accepted as a species to be members of our families, there is little hope of breaking down the cognitive processes that allow us to forget that the cow on our plate was a sister and a daughter, who I think are as deserving of life as you or me. My intersectional anti-oppression ideologies force me to realize that dog fighting circles are frequently located in low income communities and communities of color where the practice has provided a resource for financial survival. Taking this into consideration, I think that the real question is how those of us who are invested in ending dog fighting rings can create a campaign, or a movement, that takes these issues into consideration, a long with the larger issues of the policing of of black bodies, economic alienation, and the powerlessness that living in an oppressive world that leads violence against human and nonhuman animals alike.
First, we must understand that the legal system is still extraordinarily racist and classist. Vick was raised in an environment where he was not taught that it is a moral “wrong” to breed and train dogs to exist for the sole purpose of fighting them. Not only that, but as mentioned above, dog fighting frequently offers an alternate source of income. The whole issue of dog fighting, to my mind, presently speaks to the overt ways in which the law exists to serve particular groups of peoples’ moral compasses. Just as the war on drugs largely exists to strengthen the prison industrial complex, and serves the unique few who are privileged enough to own stock in the corporations that are making a profit off of the incarceration of bodies of color.
Both of these laws, and their sensationalist media coverage, maintain a culture of fear of the “other,” for harming their own bodies and those of the dogs they are fighting. Vick did not hurt another human, and yet, the media swarm around him, fueled by his celebrity as well as his wealth, and yet, is vilified and presented as a monster to be feared and punished — not at all dissimilar from the ways in which black men at large are regarded in our society.
The way I see it, there is really no innocence or guilt in this case. There are, of course, notes to be made about the differences between Vick’s crime and the laws that poor inner city folks of color are committing.
For starters, the majority of those locked up in this country are behind bars because of non-violent crimes. This, more often than not, is code used for drug dealing. Remember, in a country holding 5000 grams of cocaine in powder form is on par within the judicial system as 50 grams of crack cocaine, the criminal justice system is founded on, and frequently slants to the moral and social mores of those in power. When it comes to black and white bodies, the former is too frequently on the right side of the law for me to be able to sleep comfortably at night with a police car sitting parked next to my house in what used to be inner-city (now heavily gentrified) DC. Although, to my mind, Vick’s crimes were clearly violent (have you seen pictures of post-fight dogs?), our legal system only understands violence as being both physical and against humans.
Like drug laws and mandatory curfews, the color of the law is evident to anyone wishing to open their eyes to it. But, unlike Vick, the culture of “non-violent” crime is frequently linked to material want. Located in our capitalist system, folks of color are, understandably enough, bitter about their alienation from consumer culture solely because of lack of dollars and seek to forgo the system laid out for them (that they likely would not be granted access into because of the realities of institutionalized racism), and seek to create new pathways for wealth for themselves outside of that racist system. Dog fighting is one of the venues offered to these folks.
But Vick had access to wealth through his football career. His dog-fighting was tied to a desire for power and an adrenaline rush. We have to remember that dog-fighting, and arrests for them, happen every day, and that the frenzy around Vick is due to his celebrity status. Now there is a question about whether or not he “should be” reinstated to the NFL. This seems to hinge on the question of whether or not the man has “learned his lesson.” There is, of course, an implication in this, from the cultural majority, that Vick has in fact committed a moral wrong with his actions, and that he must repent for his sins before he is again granted access to wealth and celebrity.
But, what if he legitimately doesn’t believe that what he has done is wrong? People don’t eagerly create widespread economies and subcultures around things they themselves believe to be morally reprehensible, and this was the world that Michael Vick grew up in. Considering the fact that dog-fighting is commonly a phenomenon that takes place in low income/communities of color, widespread media campaigns with pictures and slogans, like Vick is scheduled to do, as part of his repentance, don’t strike me as a viable solution.
With little racial diversity within the organization itself, the Humane Society of the United States will have free reign over Michael Vick’s image to push their agenda. I’m really interested to see how they use his image to appeal to young men of color to stop dog fighting, but have little faith that it will make a dent in the number of dog fighting circles in the country.
The real irony in all of this is the idea that prisons exist in order to reform criminals who have wavered from the social contract. Prisons are cages for people, just like farms become cages for people. There is no restorative justice in either of these situations. The Prison Industrial Complex in invested in maintaining the highest number of inmates within their system as is possible. “Restorative” justice doesn’t factor into this; they are invested in prisoner recidivism, or return to incarceration after being released.
If we want to begin to create a world where animal exploitation AND racial/class based injustices are things of the past, and we wish to create a focus, or have a leg in the anti-dog fighting sphere, it can’t be left up to a white dominated animal welfare organization like the Human Society of the US, even if Michael Vick himself is the new face behind the movement. I don’t have much faith in messages on television to do anything. Dog fighting rings are always in flux, they are constantly being shut down by police raids, and reopening in new locations. If we want to put an end to them, we need to look to alternatives which exist outside of the so-called criminal “justice” system.