Why I Disrupted Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
Our signs read “Expose Smithfield’s Deathstar” referring to Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, the largest pig farm in the country. While many criticized the tackiness and absurdity of the action, it garnered much needed media attention.
It's time to stop being polite. Powerful corporate interests are harming humans, animals and our environment while our media unquestioningly celebrates them as American icons. Frustrated with the charade, I and fellow activists donned a Darth Vadar mask and disrupted the highly publicized Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. Nathan’s, owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group worth $24 billion dollars, continues to devastate marginalized communities of color, harm workers, animals and our environment.
Activists repeatedly tried to address the harms of Smithfield through normal channels: Writing officials, and reporting animal cruelty–but this got us nowhere. It was time to start taking action. History has shown, the best tool we have to create change is nonviolent direct action. And no industry highlights the entrenched and unjust power structures that harm humans, animals and our planet more than animal agriculture.
Our signs read “Expose Smithfield’s Deathstar” referring to Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, the largest pig farm in the country. While many criticized the tackiness and absurdity of the action, it garnered much needed media attention to highlight the upcoming trial of fellow Direct Action Everywhere activists facing felony charges for documenting illness and horrible conditions of the pigs housed in that facility.
The contest’s victor Joey Chestnut put protestor Scott Gilbertson in a chokehold, which he ‘felt bad’ about, and security shoved him to the ground before police escorted him off to jail. I was lifted through the air and then slammed to the ground by a security guard, and more anger was directed at us on social media. These aggressive responses are a pretty standard outcome for activist disruptions. But, those who rage against protesters instead of corporate and government oppression should really start to question whether their anger is appropriately placed. Those who expect justice without protest, want strength without sweat, while the freedom of our democratic press is lost to the silent influence of corporate power, while those who condemn the act of protest are their willing accomplices.
Without our presence, the plight of the animals, workers and communities affected by Smithfield Foods would be ignored by a public happily celebrating Nathan’s as an American icon. The media dutifully spotlighted the brand while ignoring Smithfield’s victims. In the shadows are the residents of Duplin County, North Carolina. Home to generations of Black families, many of whom are descendants of freed slaves, they live in family homes passed down through generations. This was their sanctuary and only escape from oppression, but that semblance of peace was destroyed when Smithfield Foods came to town and brought their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As hog production became more systematized and mechanized, pigs were treated like machines–gentle, intelligent, sentient beings packed tightly into barns and treated like units of production.
Thousands of pigs on one farm produce massive amounts of feces, which is stored in football field-sized open-air lagoons then sprayed into the air. The stench is literally breathtaking. With hog farm lagoons only a few hundred yards away, residents inhale the fumes containing methane, ammonia and hydrogen and suffer higher rates of respiratory illness, heart problems and headaches. In a single year, 89 people died prematurely in Duplin County as a direct result of the effects of hog farming.
And while Smithfield executives make millions from a business model dependent on animal and human suffering, they extract millions from us in taxpayer subsidies: $1.5 million to produce biogas from hog waste, funding from Trump’s farm bailout, and even more to increase slaughter capacity.
Is celebrating the overindulgence of a product made from animals who never knew freedom and justice really how we want to be celebrating Independence Day? ESPN attempted to keep the cameras off the protesters, a standard move to avoid giving activists attention and encouraging more protesters. But, fortunately, the action did get ample press and public attention focused on criticisms of Smithfield. On Independence day, the true meaning of justice for all should include the victims of Smithfield too.
Josh Marxen is a software engineer and volunteer activist with Direct Action Everywhere, Extinction Rebellion and Treaty People Gathering. Residing in Palo Alto, CA, he helps organize with the Alphabet Workers Union to empower workers to increase Google’s accountability.