Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (1)


Rather than donning the jersey of her favorite team, Sasha Zemmel wore a referee’s uniform to an NBA playoff game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies. Her plan was to run on the court, stop the game, and call a technical foul on the owner, Glen Taylor, for cruelty to animals.

She didn’t get a chance to pull off her jacket or call the foul. Arena security, on heightened alert from days of animal rights protests, watched her every move, and when she bolted to the Court, they moved in to tackle and arrest her. The proximate cause, an egg farm owned by Taylor destroying millions of chickens during an avian flu epidemic, got attention mostly through social media run by activists and Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an animal rights group. The video of Zemmel being tackled and escorted from the arena went viral.

Activists know that their progress is always too slow, and that it takes extraordinary efforts to get anywhere. After you write the letter, and then attend a demonstration, and then speak to a school board and still don’t see the world you want, you think about next steps.

It might mean taking the cause somewhere else, reaching newer–and larger–audiences. It could mean doing something more dramatic, disruptive, or even destructive. It often involves more risk and more cost, and all of your allies won’t necessarily join you.

Movements, made up of lots of different people and groups doing different things in the service of roughly similar goals, don’t make these decisions–individuals and groups do. But whenever anyone escalates, it affects the rest of the campaign–and not always for the good of the cause. Mainstream groups are often quick to disavow people who take up arms, for example–killing doctors who perform abortions, storming the Capitol, or busting up storefront windows. Moves like these can make their allies look bad, discredit the cause, and invite repression.

But, sometimes, well-timed escalation–even at greater cost and risk–can bring visibility and sympathy to the cause. In the next few posts, I’m going to consider efforts at escalation in a few different movements, and ask whether they help the cause or not.


Glen Taylor, a billionaire whose assets include the Timberwolves and an egg farm, provided a great target for DxE, and the playoff game a great site, stuffed with fans and broadcast on television. Animal rights activists made repeated efforts to use the NBA audience to promote their concerns: one chained herself to the basket; another glued her hand to the court. You can find pictures on the Internet, but the protesters were managed and evacuated pretty quickly. The games went on, played to an audience more interested– at least this night–in basketball than animal rights.

The protesters paid a price to stage their performances–starting with playoff tickets and props (chains, glue), risked physical harm, arrest, and fines. Some viewers might be impressed with their ingenuity and commitment; some might think they’re crazy.

I don’t know whether their efforts advanced or undermined the larger cause. (I do know that the playoff series continues, and that the Timberwolves are trailing.)

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (1)

  1. Pingback: Sports are a platform for politics | Politics Outdoors

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