Do movements own their crazies?

Meredith Lowell, a self-styled animal rights activist, was arrested Tuesday in Cleveland for contracting the murder of someone (almost anyone!) wearing fur.

Ms. Lowell made the initial solicitation on Facebook, offering somewhat less than $1,000 for a murder that would lead to her trial, an opportunity to make a public indictment of the fur industry, and the chance to move out of her family home, where parents and siblings ate meat and wore wool.  Apparently, she thought prison would be more congenial.

The FBI, which has directed some of the “war on terror” at direct action environmentalists and animal rights activists (see here and here), investigated a tip about the Facebook posting, and assigned an agent to follow up.  In a series of email exchanges, the agent negotiated payment for the murder.  Police arrested Lowell and she was charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

These events are not good news for animal rights activists.  At ABC News, Alyssa Newcomb reports:

Jennifer Kaden, co-founder of the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance, said she checked her membership records and found that no one in her organization had ever dealt with Lowell, who she called “misguided” and “dangerous.”

“We’re all about advocating for peace and nonviolence,” she said. “We extend that to humans and animals.”

The energy, passion, and possibility of a vital social movement draws all kinds of people up in its wake, including troubled people who are using the cause to work out other issues.  Ms. Kaden and other animal activists don’t want to be discredited by an individual claiming identification while engaging in heinous acts.  Opponents of animal rights activism, however, have found their new poster child.

The problem isn’t peculiar to animal rights activism.  Tea Partiers saw people bringing guns and racist signs to their rallies.  Occupiers watched a picture of a self-identified Occupier pooping on a police car go viral.  Their opponents saw guns and racism were integral to the Tea Party appeal, and public defecation a clear expression of Occupy values.

And it gets even worse: Anti-abortion activists have been forced to explain how their efforts to preserve life have inspired a few men to bomb clinics or shoot doctors.

Social movements in America have a hard time exercising internal control.  The name and cause aren’t trademarked and solo actors can try to appropriate them–and movement rhetoric–to justify their choices.  Political opponents will hang the radical fringe on movements, and activists face the difficult task of disowning the crazies while promoting the cause.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Do movements own their crazies?

  1. Maryann Barakso says:

    Even when a movement isn’t dealing with serious extremists, they will always struggle to provide activists with tangible purposive payoffs and reasons to continue sacrificing. I always think about Jenny Mansbridge’s brilliant analysis of the ERA’s failure in this regard – the movement needed the most committed activists, but they were also the ones who radicalized its politics, helping derail its momentum. It’s tough to fire rogue volunteers…or, in the case you are discussing, manage to convincingly distance yourself from dangerous ones.

    • Absolutely! A successful campaign has to incorporate people with different skills, beliefs, and levels of commitment, giving them enough to keep them engaged, while managing to keep people from doing much damage.

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