How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

By Zach Groff

A year or two ago, I was a lonely, wavering vegan. I held my few vegan acquaintances at arm's length and jokingly called myself a "demi-flexi-freegan" because of my constant willingness, indeed compunction, to adapt to any situation and avoid making demands of others. When the subject of animal rights came up in conversation, it was because someone else brought it up and forced it upon me. The only form of activism I would engage in was leafleting, and only after I was repeatedly prodded.

Given all of this, you might be surprised to learn that I fully believed in animal liberation. As a child, I thought it was weird that we killed animals for food. In high school, when we read an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, I adamantly defended Costello's question about why it was wrong for the Nazis to send Jews like sheep to the slaughter but okay to send actual sheep to the slaughter. I figured there had to be some reason it was okay to kill animals that I just didn't know. When I got to college and realized there was no such reason - that everyone thinking seriously about it had concluded that animal agriculture was problematic - I quickly went vegetarian, and vegan a year later, after reading Animal Liberation.

The lesson I absorbed from the general culture was that I should be subtle and minimally demanding in my advocacy for animals. I should not go out and preach, but if someone asked why I was eating chickpeas, I should answer honestly. I should avoid associating with the one angry vegan in my residential college. I should hang out mostly with non-vegans, where I had the chance to change others for the better.

Despite how meek and timid I was, I got my fair share of grief. Though we hear a lot about angry vegans in our culture, we rarely hear about the all-too-common angry meat eater who, enraged by my answer to his own question about eating chickpeas, proceeds to fire argument after argument my way and take offense at my responses. I put up with it, adjusted, and occasionally leafleted.

Through a variety of experiences, I started to feel this dispersed, one-on-one conversational approach was lacking. I looked around and saw activists who, focused on maximizing their effectiveness, looked at a limited subset of the evidence on persuasion and touted the so-called concrete impact of leafleting, but ignored the more diffuse effects that come from acting as a group. When people come together to protest, one rarely knows the impact the protest had, and one certainly cannot tease out individual impact (though there is rigorous evidence that protests have a sizeable overall impact). Yet by participating in a protest, an individual can expect to make that protest more powerful, and I suspected activists were overlooking this to the detriment of our cause.

In August of 2014, one of my Facebook friends shared Priya's #DisruptSpeciesism video. I saw it, and I knew this was what our movement needed. I knew our arguments were strong, even irrefutable, and Priya walked right into a store and made her demands confidently. I shyly commented on her video "Anyone in New Haven want to organize an action?" She immediately responded, linked me to animal rights groups in the area, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting at a table talking people into disrupting a T.G.I. Friday's.

Walking into that T.G.I. Friday's, my whole body trembled. As the leader of this ragtag group, I had to project an air of calm and confidence, but on the inside I was terrified. We gathered in the parking lot. People were running late, and I needed money for our bullhorn, so I ran to the supermarket. When I came back, the whole group was there. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach and wanted to put it off, but I knew that putting it off would do nothing.

In we walked. Gulp.

We walked past the manager, not asking for a table or responding to his questions, and I remember thinking, "I wonder what he thinks." I went to the center of the store, told people to spread out, held up my sign, and began. The whole restaurant's eyes were on me as I began to do what I had always feared: say what I felt in the face of violence.

DxE gets a lot of attention for our disruptions, and there's no denying they're controversial. What is clear to me, though, is this: there is no more empowering experience for an activist than to speak the truth where the truth is hidden. There is no experience more uniting for a community.

Amid emails from Wayne, Priya, and Brian, I hardly even noticed when we seamlessly eased into planning our second action, a funeral action. January came, and in order to launch the Whole Foods campaign, we had an action each week (rather than one for the month). We formed an organizing team, started holding open meetings, and geared up for social events and sanctuary work. Amid all of this, I hardly even noticed that something radical had happened: I had ceased to be a lonely vegan. I started spending much of my time - virtually or in person - with others who rejected speciesism.

Cut to this past Monday. I received a notification from a fellow activist that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, would be speaking at Yale the next morning at 10:00 a.m.; would I be interested in attending? I had met Vilsack a few years earlier. When I met him, I already knew that the USDA was in bed with animal agriculture, but the possibility of bringing this up - even politely - did not even cross my mind. I remembered him as almost suspiciously charming and, it seemed, quite comfortable with his fairly hidden but powerful position.

This time, I knew I had to disrupt that comfort. I had to greet Vilsack, respectfully, with the truth. The notion that animals matter - that animal agriculture is not about producing things but about exploiting innocents - never even appears on the USDA's radar. If there is debate over animal agriculture, it is over food safety, the environment, and health - not over the farmed animals who outnumber the American population by a factor of more than 30. Here was the man most responsible for animal agriculture in the U.S. today, and he would be there the next morning.

I quickly pulled together my organizers. Matt DeLucia and his wife, Lorin LeBlanc, took off work to come down. Jared Hunter, Allan Brison, Lauri MacLean, Minh Nguyen, and Hanh Nguyen, all delayed their commitments so they could make it. I consulted with Brian and devised a plan to ask a question and unfurl a banner with the simple message: "Stop subsidizing violence."

The morning of our disruption was easily one of the most terrifying of my entire life. I came into work early to get work done before I stepped out for the talk. My arms and legs were shaking. My stomach churned incessantly. I wondered if I'd made a mistake.

Ten minutes before the talk, I arrived to find a distraught Lorin and Matt. No bags allowed, and the banner was too big to get in otherwise. We huddled outside for far longer that we should have to avoid suspicion and decided to call it off. The others, who had come all this way, would listen anyway. On my way back to work, I got a text. There would be a Q&A. I turned back around and raced in late, knowing I would be able to make my point and we could follow up with a chant to hammer it in. 



Politicians are known for filling speeches with populist half-truths, but it's perhaps most difficult to hear such a speech when the half-truths completely ignore outrageous violence against innocents. I had a quote rehearsed, but I threw it out as soon as I heard the word "efficiency," a euphemism in animal agriculture for the most brutal forms of abuse. I knew I had to tell the story of Paprika, a hen who I'd met that week at Pepper's Place, an animal sanctuary in Massachusetts.

Vilsack's speech ended. Every inch of my body trembled. I've rarely ever asked a question before of a public figure, and when I do, I always wait to be the very last question. This time was different. I was nervous, but I knew that I was here for something more than myself. I was not even here for something - I was here for billions of someones victimized by the industry the USDA supports. I knew I had support in the room and friends around the world watching the livestream.

So I got up, first to the microphone, and I started. It's hard to describe what happened next, but it felt like years of hiding the truth - years of being silent in the face of a system I knew to be violent - came to an end. Here I was, with perhaps the most powerful man in the country if not the world on farmed animal issues, and I could deliver the plain truth straight to him. I took my time, made my point, and finished by asking,  "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?"

Unlike when I was a lonely vegan years ago, when his response to my question ended, we rose as a community, not an individual. Together, we chanted, "It's Not Food, It's Violence!" The eyes of the room and those watching the livestream around the country were on us. Most importantly, the man responsible for the supervision and support of animal agriculture was forced to confront the perspective of the beautiful individuals farmed for food, perhaps for the first time in his tenure.

As I left, I felt triumphant, but this will not be a triumph unless it is one of many.  This confrontation must be the beginning of a new normal, in which we constantly challenge public figures and those around us with the truth. If everywhere they went, public figures had to face the simple question, "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?" mass violence against animals could no longer be ignored. Public officials tend to perceive the most vocal opinions as the most representative. To get our issue on the table, we must speak the unadulterated truth wherever and to whomever we can force to listen.