Berkeley recently became the second city in the United States to ban fur sales, following the lead of West Hollywood. The city council passed the motion by a vote of 6-3, with the only ‘no’ votes coming from those who believed the ban should be more robust — according to Berkeleyside, a local news site. Zach Groff, a Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) activist, was involved in the grassroots push for the ban. In this exclusive interview, he discusses the activism which inspired the motion, exemptions to the ban, and what comes next.
JON HOCHSCHARTNER: How did this fur ban come to be?
ZACH GROFF: The fur ban was a spontaneous idea that coupled well with a growing strategy to change institutions on the ground in the Bay Area. DxE started in the Bay Area, and based on our research, we’ve been putting lots of resources into building up a thriving animal rights community here in Berkeley. We opened the first community center for animal rights last year, we have a half-dozen houses filled with activists here, and we’re making animal rights an issue that’s regularly discussed here.
This past year, activists formed a political group called Berkeley Coalition for Animals that seeks to build alliances between relevant stakeholders to work for animal rights, building off the vibrant grassroots energy here. A friend and activist with our network, Rocky Schwartz, mentioned to me the possibility of banning fur as an easy win with important value both symbolically within Berkeley and as precedent for outside of Berkeley. I brought this to Berkeley Coalition for Animals, where I’m sort of a liaison with DxE organizers, and BCA thought the idea had the same potent emotional and precedential value Rocky and I saw.
JH: I’ve heard there are some exemptions to the ban that you’re trying to get removed. What are those?
ZG: At the last minute, a city councilmember pulled the fur ban from the consent agenda (it had been uncontroversial) and proposed to amend the ban to exempt “sheepskin and cowhide” from the ban. She expressed two concerns. First, she was concerned that these were byproducts of animals who were already murdered for meat. Second, she had a nostalgic attachment to some sheepskin childhood blanket, a sentiment that the councilmember next to her apparently shared (even though the ban only covers apparel). The first concern besides being morally wrong (we should just not objectify animals, period) makes a mistake in that selling an animal’s skin increases profits considerably, and therefore increases the number of animals put through the horrors that the city council itself condemned. We’re hopeful that these exemptions will be struck in the final version of the bill, though, as we believe we have the votes for the full ban.
JH: Were you inspired by the 2013 ban in West Hollywood? Was that the first of its kind?
ZG: We were inspired by and in touch with the creators of that ban. It was the first of its kind in the United States, although whole countries like New Zealand and India have banned the fur trade, and many countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, have banned fur production.
JH: Perhaps this is obvious, but why did you choose to target fur as opposed to, say, leather?
ZG: Fur has a massive amount of social stigma behind it; many people are surprised it’s not illegal already! Leather, by contrast, has a lot less support. The idea with this bill was to cement a social consensus and therein create this idea that animal rights is a movement happening now and a political movement rather than one that is all about individual habits.
JH: I’ve heard there’s actually no fur currently sold in Berkeley. Is that true? And, if so, why was working for this ban necessary?
ZG: There are a few items sold, and there are of course uggs depending on what happens with the exemptions. More importantly, though, we see this ban as serving two direct functions for animals. First, within Berkeley proper, it prevents a comeback by the fur industry. There have been signs around the country of a fur comeback from its late-90s infamy through things like fur trim. This law makes sure that the social consensus sticks. Second, it builds on the West Hollywood precedent so that people in other cities can ban fur. If San Francisco banned fur, for instance, it would be huge. San Francisco often follows Berkeley’s precedent.
JH: Do you hope this ban can serve as a model for other activists in other locations?
ZG: Absolutely! We hope to see San Francisco take this up, as I said. DxE activists in other chapters could form political arms to work on this. We could imagine a range of other cities working on this, ideally building up to state bans and some day a national one.
JH: What else can be achieved for animals at the local level of government?
ZG: Come back to me in ten years and I can give you a better answer! It broadly depends on the state since different states have different laws, but we are exploring lots of things we’d love to see others consider. I’d tell advocates to just explore what can get traction at the local level and let’s learn from each other’s success and failure!