The American Dream of Freedom Should Include Animals

America has never been truly free.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. Native Americans were massacred, pushed off their lands, and forced to live on reservations. When our nation was born, the few rights women had were legally controlled by their husbands; and it took more than a hundred more years for women to get the right to vote. After the Civil War there was a hundred years of Jim Crow.

Today, the United States makes up five percent of the world’s population but has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners – with Black men and women incarcerated five times more than whites. You can still be fired from your job just for being LGBTQ+ in more than 25 states. As I write this, there are refugees being held in detention centers at our southern border in horrifying conditions. Children have been separated from their parents. Children have died.

As someone who was educated in the United States and as a white-presenting man, I didn’t comprehend (and certainly wasn’t taught) the varying levels of freedom this country has granted or denied people since Jefferson put pen to paper 243 years ago. It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I learned from speaking with people who didn’t look like me and from reading books and watching documentaries that were never a part of my formal education. And I am still learning.

The fight for human freedom in America has been waged for centuries – it’s a dream that’s clearly still far from being realized. But as we contemplate the idea of freedom this Independence Day, I’d like to encourage us all to also consider those among us who we rarely think about on this occasion – but with whom we share the experience of life: Non-human animals.

I say “non-human” animals because human beings are animals. Whether you like it or not, humans evolved on this planet just like dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, etc. Though not like us in many respects, animals are similar to us in all the ways that truly matter. They experience joy and pain, they have rich emotional lives, they have families, and if they could speak, they would tell us they want to be free.

Since the dawn of humanity, there has been an undeclared war on animals and their freedom. Every atrocity imaginable has been inflicted upon them by us. We cage them, mutilate them, and violently kill them. We burn them, boil them, and skin them. We steal them away from their families and away from their homes. We hunt them and beat them. We eat them. We annihilate them.

There is an unattributed quote that’s stayed with me over the years. It says, “No one is free when others are oppressed.” To me this articulates a very simple truth: That if human freedom is ever achieved, we will never be truly free as long as animals are still being exploited.

As an animal rights activist, I’ve received some criticism over the years from colleagues who work in other areas of social justice. I’ve been told that focusing on animals when there are so many issues facing humans is absurd, even insulting.

So if that’s what you’re thinking, I’d like to counter with this: You don’t have to work for an organization or go to a protest or give up all your current activism to fight for animal liberation (though if you want to attend a protest with me, let me know). All you have to do is stop funding the industries and the people who exploit animals.

I’ve always seen my veganism as a boycott. It’s me telling the world that I won’t support the commodification of animals; and that I won’t partake in their subjugation. It’s me standing up for their freedom. And here’s the beautiful thing: It hasn’t curtailed my activism in other areas of social justice one bit. If anything, it’s strengthened my conviction.

I’m not alone. Social justice activists from Coretta Scott King and Dick Gregory to Angela Davis and Dolores Huerta have all eschewed animal products for similar reasons.

The last words of The Pledge of Allegiance are “with liberty and justice for all.” For far too long that last word “all” has fallen woefully short. When we say all, let’s mean all. And let that include animals.