DxE at the Animal and Vegan Advocacy Summit
Back in October, DxE's Lead Organizer Almira Tanner spoke at the inaugural AVA Summit. Check out her talk: Building a Mass Movement for Animals.
Back in October, I had the incredible opportunity to speak at the inaugural Animal and Vegan Advocacy Summit in Washington, DC. DxE also had a table in the exhibitor hall, where we were able to talk to many of the 700 or so people that attended the event from all parts of the world and all parts of the movement ecology. The DxE crew had a wonderful time learning, networking, seeing old friends and making new ones, and we left inspired (and exhausted).
It slipped my mind to consider asking someone to record my talk, so I’ve turned some of my notes and talking points into a post. For context, I presented with Esther Salomon from Animal Think Tank on “Building a Mass Movement for Animals.” Our panel was moderated by Yvette Baker from Liberation 360, who was so fun and positive and made us both at feel completely at ease. Esther went first and spoke primarily about theory, so I built on that with some practical applications. Enjoy!
Building a Mass Movement for Animals
Less than two weeks ago, I didn’t know whetherI’d be speaking here today with two of my friends and co-organizers in prison or speaking here today on the heels of a massive victory in a David vs. Goliath fight. By all accounts, it was predicted to be the former.
The Smithfield Trial that just took place in Utah is the culmination of a 5-year-long saga that started with DxE’s 2017 investigation into Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms. A team of investigators went to see if Smithfield Foods was upholding their promise to have phased out gestation crates by then - they hadn’t. With a 360-degree camera, they documented the horrendous cruelty found inside, rescued two piglets, named Lily and Lizzie, in desperate need of help, and then shared their findings with the New York Times. Smithfield, being very unhappy with the bad PR, sent the FBI on a multi-state hunt for the piglets - who are fine and still alive to this day - and the investigators ended up with serious felony charges totaling up to 60 years in prison. By the time the trial finally started on October 3rd, the charges had been reduced to “just” two felonies and a misdemeanour, and only two defendants (Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklemsimer) were left in the case. The trial was better than any courtroom drama - with limited media access, several mistrial threats, an anonymous jury, and significant gagging of what we could present - but on Saturday, October 8th, after 7.5 hours of deliberation, a Utah jury (pulled from a county that voted 75% for Trump) delivered a unanimous verdict of not guilty on all counts.
Sometimes, I still don’t really believe it happened. We thought we’d have to lose so many more times before we got that win - and we were okay with that. So instead of focusing this talk on how mass movements can harness the power of repression and make the most of situations like our co-organizers being in prison, I get to talk about how a grassroots movement can take on a multi-billion-dollar company and win, and how those lessons can translate across our entire movement. But first, I want to tell you my story.
Growing up, I always loved animals and this eventually led me to stop eating them at the age of 10. Fast-forward 13 years, with the power of the internet and a desire to recover from many years of a university diet, I learned about the dairy and egg industries and realized that I really needed to stop eating all animal products if I wanted to live my life in alignment with my values. So then I became an angry vegan - it was SO OBVIOUS that people should just go vegan, so why the heck wouldn’t they? I had no vision for how animal liberation would actually come about, no understanding of social change, and I really felt like the best I could hope for in my lifetime was to convince a few of my family members and friends to go vegan, too. But in 2014, I found myself traveling to California to the first-ever DxE Forum - a very scrappy, very grassroots conference of this relatively new group, and my mind was blown. Here was a plan for how the world could change, taken from social science literature and history and past movements. Obviously there were a lot of questions and predictions, but for the first time, I felt like real change was possible. And from there, the rest is kind of history... I helped build a DxE chapter in Vancouver, eventually moved to Berkeley, and now for over 3 years, I have been leading this incredible network, through the ups and the downs of trying to change the world for animals.
I don’t think I am unique; a lot of people can be mobilized to take action when presented with a compelling, beautiful vision of the future and a path to get there. And that’s the first key point I want to make on building a mass movement: the need to have and hold this vision. A vision of a world where every animal is treated with respect and dignity and is seen as the person they are. A world where a little baby piglet like Lizzie isn’t stuck on the floor of a factory farm but is actually living her best life, basking in the sun at a sanctuary.
People have always told us that change for animals is not possible, that there’s no point, that these corporations have too much power. And this creates a sense of futility and hopelessness for the average person. And futility only helps the oppressor! Instead, when we’re united by a shared vision, with thousands of people taking action, we have so much more power than we ever could imagine. Time and time again, we see that change is possible and that it happens much faster than expected.
Take the example of Evan Wolfson, who in 1983 wrote a thesis at Harvard Law School that argued that marriage equality was a constitutional right and that it should and would be enshrined in the constitution. This made everyone dismiss him as unrealistic, maybe even delusional. People said it would never happen. But it did. In 30 years. Faster than anyone would have predicted.
When we think about how long the world has existed and how much change has happened in just the last few hundred years, it seems absurd to think things will not change in the future. Of course, things can change for good and things can change for bad, as we have seen with recent Supreme Court decisions that have overturned or threatened to overturn rights that people fought long and hard for. But one thing is for certain: Change is possible. So if you want to build a movement - if you want to mobilize ordinary people to get out of the rut of hopelessness and inactivity, paint that picture of the future and draw a roadmap of how you’re going to get there.
And that’s what we have done at DxE. In consultation with people like Evan Wolfson, we created a roadmap - a guide - to our ultimate end goal: Rose’s Law: An Animal Bill of Rights. This bill of rights would guarantee animals legal personhood, the right to be rescued, and more. We will have numerous campaigns and tactics and narratives and wins and losses along the way, but having that North Star keeps us focused and keeps us motivated.
I don’t have time to get into the whole roadmap, but I’ll tell you that one of those milestones that we had set for 2025 was to have a groundbreaking victory in court -- and it still puts a smile on my face that we’re a few years early.
When you’re facing off against a ruthless corporation, FBI agents, the entire state of Utah - you better know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And I know that the reason Paul and Wayne took that gamble and placed their fate in the hands of the jury is because they had that beautiful vision in their minds, and they knew this case could get us one step closer down that road to an animal bill of rights. And learning about that vision and that roadmap pulled other people in, too. We had over 100 people come to St. George, Utah, to offer their support at the trial -- people who I had never met before -- people who were messaging me halfway through trial and saying, hey I’m hopping in my car and driving to Utah tomorrow, how can I help? That’s the power of having a bold, unapologetic vision.
But there’s no reason really that having this bold vision and a roadmap to get there is limited to the grassroots (loosely defined as a group where the main body is made up of “ordinary people” and not professionals or staff members, and whereby those people are actively participating in the organizing and campaigning); any organization or corporation could have this. So why focus on the grassroots? Because I believe it’s not only incredibly effective but a neglected and undervalued part of this movement.
One of the best known researchers in this field is Erica Chenoweth, who has extensively studied social movements and what makes them succeed or fail. And if you’ve been around this world for a bit, you know what point I am going to make here... which is the “rule” of 3.5%. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan did an extensive study of over 300 movements across the world to analyze what led to successes and failure. In their research, they found that -- with only two exceptions -- every single movement that mobilized 3.5% of the population ultimately succeeded – that’s a 99% success rate. Many succeeded with less than 3.5% - but it seems that once you hit that sweet spot, you’re basically guaranteed to win.
Sometimes, I think our movement acts like we need 51% - a majority - to hit a tipping point, and other times, I think our movement acts like we just need a small group of highly-trained professionals and experts, lobbyists and attorneys and corporate outreachers, when it fact, it seems the answer is neither - we need a tiny percent of ordinary people taking action.
And while there certainly is nuance with Chenoweth’s research, the overarching point remains that if you can get enough people out on the streets, you’re basically guaranteed to win.
Looking at a couple examples that have similarities to our movement, we see that, at their peak, the gay rights movement mobilized 0.2% of the population, the civil rights movement mobilized 0.13%, and the women’s suffrage movement mobilized 0.08%. From those examples, we see an average of 0.1% or 1 in 1000. In the United States, that’s over 300,000 people, which is nothing to sneeze at. Are we going to have 300,000 professionals working in the animal rights movement in the US? No, we’re not. That is why it is essential that we have a volunteer-based, grassroots component to this movement.
So how do you do it? When you’re not motivating people through employment, you need to inspire people with purpose and vision, as discussed earlier, and support them with connection, community, and leadership development. That is something that is often forgotten when people look at mass movements or at organizations like DxE, because community building is typically not as flashy or press worthy or interesting on social media. But community building is at the heart of what we do, and I think it needs to be at the heart of what you do too if you want to build a mass movement. And there’s evidence for its impact.
Doug McAdam is a sociology professor who has studied the civil rights movement extensively. One of the campaigns he studied was the Freedom Summer campaign - a risky campaign where people traveled to Mississippi to register Black people to vote. McAdam wanted to know what motivated people to join, when they knew the risks were so high; were there trends based on age, race, gender, education, etc...? And when he analyzed the data, he found that the biggest factor determining whether or not someone would participate was a strong personal connection. If you knew someone who was involved in the campaign, you were 60% more likely to also participate. In contrast, if you had a strong tie to someone who withdrew from the campaign, that was associated with about a 40% decrease in participation. By and large, personal connection was the single most important factor in recruiting participants for the movement. This is why it is so important that we have a strong community to both bring people in and keep people in the movement. The actions are what you see, but the community is the foundation.
The Smithfield trial was a perfect example of how “ordinary” people can come together to do extraordinary things. The trial was a serious team effort, from jury research, to people cooking for all the convergence attendees, to the press team sending out pitches and writing op-eds, to musicians singing at demonstrations, to volunteers transcribing the entire trial almost word for word so our legal team could have a transcript ready each night. And some people stayed home and ran onto the field at Monday Night Football, driving over 100,000 people to visit the RightToRescue.com website in under 48 hours. Together, we pulled it off - that’s the power of the grassroots.
And there’s one final main point I want to make, which is to have these big wins, you need to take big risks. If we hadn’t been willing to take risks, we wouldn’t have gone to Smithfield’s Circle Four in the first place, let alone filmed ourselves rescuing the piglets, and published the whole thing in the New York Times. If we hadn’t been willing to take risks, everyone would have accepted plea bargains, or would have taken the MANY mistrial opportunities that were handed to us. Or Paul would have taken the increasingly sweet deals that were being offered to them literally as the trial was progressing. But Paul knew that with big risks comes big rewards, and they were down to gamble. In this case, the risk was obviously worth it. But it could have turned out differently. And we would have been okay with that; both Paul and Wayne had made peace with the possibility of going to prison, even for a long time. Taking these big risks also means losing sometimes, or making mistakes. Sometimes, we do actions that don’t land well. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we anger a lot of people. And while of course that is not our intention, I think it’s important for people to acknowledge that protest and disruption is inherently unpleasant and disliked by the public.
For example, during the civil rights movement’s sit-in campaigns in 1960, the public was surveyed and asked whether they thought sit-ins and other similar actions would help or hurt the cause of racial equality; 57% thought they would hurt, and barely over 25% thought they would help. It actually got worse in terms of public perception and support in the 60s. By the time the March on Washington happened in 1963, which was this groundbreaking event and site of the famous I Have a Dream speech, we’re now up to 60% saying mass demonstrations would hurt the cause. By 1964 it was up to 74%. In May 1964 only 16% of the public surveyed thought such actions would help the cause for racial equality. It’s important to remember that just because the public doesn’t like protests doesn’t mean they are not effective.
There is also contemporary research showing that the very disruptive and controversial actions of Just Stop Oil, despite being not very well liked by parts of the public, did not decrease support for climate friendly policies and actually increased the percentage of people who would consider taking climate action in the future. Additionally, if we believe that getting our message out in the media is important to public awareness, I implore you to compare the press coverage for standing quietly outside a sports stadium with a sign versus running right onto the court and gluing yourself to it.
I’m not saying that everyone in the movement should take this role. In fact, that would probably be ineffective. And I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t think carefully about our actions or just take whatever risky idea comes into our mind. But I do think that it’s important for people to understand why some people and some organizations need to do this, and to support these actions when you can, or at the very least, not condemn them.
I see these risky or bold or radical actions as a service to the movement. We are shifting the Overton Window, which is the range of what is considered acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. And when we do this, we make the demands of those who are “less extreme” seem reasonable to the public. If we unite as a movement, understanding that we all have our roles to play, we can make the best use of this movement ecology and these phenomena like the radical flank effect, and drive change much faster than when we are fighting each other.
So I would ask people who are in different parts of the movement ecology to not shy away from these bold, direct actions, and to understand the vital role the grassroots plays in the movement. We will not succeed without a mass amount of people in the streets. And for those who are trying to build a mass movement or wanting to get involved, I remind you of the importance of having a bold vision, a roadmap to get there, the need for community, getting to that 1-2-3-ish% active participation, and taking risks to shift the Overton Window.
Trying to build a grassroots movement is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is sometimes hard to work with volunteers, people from all walks of life; it’s hard to get criticized constantly, and investigated by the FBI; it’s hard to have such an unpredictable life. But then I get the opportunity to sit in that courtroom and listen to the clerk read out a not guilty verdict and try not to scream – because you’re supposed to be quiet in the courtroom – and rush out and give some of the best people I’ve ever known a giant group hug, and then go see Lizzie and Lily at a sanctuary, and it all feels worth it.