By Matt Johnson
On August 22, 2015, a group of Direct Action Everywhere activists questioned presidential candidate and Big Ag ally Chris Christie during a Q & A session at the Iowa State Fair. Their question: Why torture and kill some animals, such as pigs, while respecting others as family, such as dogs? The activists then took to the stage with a banner and a message of animal liberation, and were promptly removed by state patrol officers. The action received nationwide press and has breathed life into an area not known for animal activism. Below, one of the activists, Matt Johnson, shares his story.
I vividly remember the sinking realization that I was eating the body of an animal at age four. I left that sandwich on my plate, one bite consumed. I later told my family that I didn’t want to eat animals— not “meat” or “venison,” but individuals who wanted to live.
With the best of intentions, people around me consistently reinforced notions that God gave us animals for food and that not consuming animals leads to both physical weakness and generalized poor health. It seems Big Ag’s insidious misinformation was even more pervasive before the Internet came along.
I settled on vegetarianism, without knowing of such a word. I was unsure of how to explain my unusual dietary choice, or even if my motivations ultimately made sense. I felt ashamed, and took major steps to keep this secret. I attended the same school district from kindergarten through high school, yet even my closest friends never knew.
As an adult, I came to recognize the grasp of conformity and propaganda. By consuming eggs and breast milk, I was supporting the same ugly, oppressive machine that fuels the consumption of animals’ bodies. 20+ years a vegetarian, I finally cut out the rest of the injustice. As I did more research, I quickly concluded that mere non-participation was not enough. Action is what’s required.
Organizing in Iowa with DxE has been a rewarding learning experience. Animal agriculture is widely regarded as a wholesome and noble pursuit, with its ugly reality kept comfortably out-of-sight. There are those who side with the victims, yet it is challenging to inspire confident dissent in a setting in which most have family and/or friend ties to animal exploitation.
I was intrigued when I saw Zach Groff’s disruption of US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He had been governor in Iowa and is a major ally of Big Ag. Zach and I stayed in contact, weighing the idea of a similar disruption in Iowa, which sees lots of political traffic during presidential campaigns. Chris Christie, also a high-profile villain to animals, was to speak at the Iowa State Fair, which is basically a giant celebration of animal exploitation.
We decided we had to act, and we quickly hammered out a plan. In the days prior to the event, I had trouble sleeping, feeling both worry and excitement. Vanessa Hilst stepped up to help, but we had no other activists to work with locally. We then resorted to activists from greater distances: Araceli Rodriguez, Aaron Feigen, and Darla Juergens dropped everything at the last minute and drove through the night to make this happen. Their dedication is a true inspiration.
We arrived at the fair around 7:00 AM in advance of Christie’s 11:00 speech. We secured our front-row seats. Over the next few anxious hours, we stayed in constant contact via text messaging, working out every detail. When Christie finally came out, he surprised us by forgoing a speech in favor of a question-and-answer session. I immediately thought back to Zach's questioning of Tom Vilsack. Similarly, I was presented a great opportunity to make a connection by telling an animal’s story before the disruption and inevitable hostility.
When the time was right, I took a deep breath and raised my hand. Per Zach’s insight, I had prepared a “Christie 2016” sign, which I proudly presented with the pleasant smile of a loyal supporter to call on. (In the video, you see Christie hesitate when he first looks at me, then points to me.)
As I confronted this violent person, my voice shook a bit, and I initially had to avoid eye contact to keep my bearings. I delivered my lines, which I had rehearsed hundreds of times. I was actually a bit relieved when he cut me off, as I didn’t really have a coherent question in mind. Then the others joined me flawlessly as we followed through with the disruption. The officers seemed confused at our satisfaction as they walked us out of the fair. (One accused us of “trying to wrap (Christie) up with the banner”. We couldn’t help but drop the “respectfully decline to answer questions” script, and laughed involuntarily. We informed them that such was not our objective and that we have plenty of cameras to back us up.)
With the support of this network and determined fellow activists, the Christie disruption has grabbed massive media attention, bringing our message to tens of millions around the world. I know that we will use this momentum to fuel bigger and bolder things.
Looking back, I consider the four year-old version of myself a personal hero. Doing a public demonstration in an unwelcoming setting is made much easier with the unwavering knowledge that you are on the side of justice, and of history. Knowledge I lacked for many years.
We can all find our voice.