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Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

By Michael Goldberg


Following Perdue’s purchase of Niman Ranch, and McDonald’s move to “cage-free,” it’s time for us to ask: what does “humane” actually mean?

With his thinning white hair and black Polo-style short-sleeved shirt with a Niman Ranch “Raised With Care” logo over his heart, Paul Willis looks like a kindly grandfather. This soft-spoken man certainly isn’t my idea of a pig killer.

But that’s exactly what he is.

Willis, a high-profile spokesman for the “humane meat” movement, co-founded and manages the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a division of Niman Ranch.

This week it was announced that Perdue Farms, the third biggest U.S. factory farm company raising chickens, has purchased Niman Ranch.

In addition to running the Niman Ranch Pork Company, in years past Willis has raised between 2500-to-3000 pigs a year on his Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, two hours north of Des Moines. He still raises 100s of pigs each year.

At about six months of age, Willis’s pigs are driven to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, a slaughterhouse in Sioux Center, Iowa, where they are gassed and their throats slit.

Willis is responsible for the deaths of far more pigs than the ones he raises on his own farm.The Niman Ranch Pork Company is a network of over 500 farms that provide a total of over 150,000 pigs each year, who are slaughtered and sold under the Niman Ranch brand. The company’s reputation is based on raising pigs in what is alleged to be a humane way, and its operation is considered the gold standard for compassionate animal agriculture. Companies whose success is based on their “compassion” and “values,” including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Whole Foods, are supplied by Niman Ranch.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

Willis, who refers to the dead body parts of pigs that Niman sells as “product,” told the New York Times in early 2014 that Niman oversees the raising and killing of about half of the pigs in America that are considered pasture-raised, or “humanely” raised, though most of those pigs are actually raised indoors.

Though in his early seventies, Willis has become the poster boy for Niman Ranch, the human face of a system that doesn’t value the lives of nonhuman animals. He’s the subject of an eight-minute video created and funded by Chipotle, one of Niman’s biggest customers.

The video tells a folksy story about Willis growing up on the farm in Thornton, and shows him wearing denim overalls, petting pigs who are hanging out in a large pasture, and letting his granddaughter’s chickens out of a barn. Willis has been favorably written up in numerous publications, including Fast Company, and has been quoted in both the New York Times and the New Yorker.

In the video, Willis speaks of himself as an “activist” fighting the good fight against factory farming. It’s a good story, and it’s helped assuage the guilt of upscale meat eaters who think they have a humane alternative to the violence that goes on at factory farms.

We do the best we can with raising the animals as humanely as we can,” Willis said while hanging out at a Berkeley, CA butcher shop, Magnani's Poultry, one afternoon in early June. Willis was there to promote Niman Ranch “product,” and the event was billed as “Demo and Q&A.”

I was there with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). We wanted to question Willis about Niman farming protocol, which is, in fact, anything but humane. But even if they did raise the pigs with care, there is nothing humane about killing an animal that wants to live. There were about 30 of us, and at least a half-dozen DxE members fired off questions at Willis for about 15 minutes before he abruptly ended the conversation.

DxE fights for animal liberation and against speciesism, which is similar to racism and sexism. Only where racism and sexism describe privileged humans discrimination against humans of color or the female sex, speciesism describes humans discriminating against other species.

Just as there is no moral justification for racism or sexism, there is no moral justification for speciesism. There is no moral justification for humans to exploit and torture and kill animals because they “like the taste of meat,” as more than one carnist has said. Yet that’s what humans do. More than nine billion land animals are killed each year in the U.S. alone for food. It’s mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

“I’ve always raised outdoor pigs, pasture pigs. Ok?” Willis continued. “Factory farming started coming in on us big time [in the early ’90s]. I wanted no part of that.”

Willis’s words are misleading. While he may actually raise his own pigs outdoors when the weather allows, most Niman pigs live their entire short six-month lives inside warehouse-style buildings with as little as 14 square feet allotted per pig – equivalent to the footprint of a small desk and approximately the size of a gestation crate, which are now illegal in California.

David Marin of Tendergrass Farms wrote in a June 11, 2013 post on the “Mark’s Daily Apple” blog that he considered raising pigs for Niman before founding Tendergrass. He changed his mind when he learned from a Niman “field representative” that “only a small percentage of Niman Ranch pigs are actually raised on pasture. In the whole east coast region he [the Niman rep] said that there are virtually no pasture-based Niman producers.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

“In preparation for this blog post,” Marin continued, “I sent him [the Niman rep] an email this week to make sure that this was still true. He confirmed just yesterday that by his estimate well over 75% of Niman Ranch pig farms utilize warehouse-style buildings with straw for bedding, referred to [on the Niman website] as ‘deeply bedded barns.’”

Willis talks quietly and calmly. While conversing with him he never raised his voice, though when challenged about the morality of killing pigs and calling it humane meat, he seemed to become agitated. At one point in the Q&A he skirted the issue of whether there is a difference between a plant and an animal.

Me: You’re saying a carrot is no different than a pig?

Willis: It’s a living thing.

Me: Mr. Willis, you don’t really believe there’s no difference between a carrot and a pig, do you?

Willis: What I believe is we eat living things. Whether it’s a plant or an animal. Some people prefer to eat just plant material, some people have a more varied diet and they eat animals and plants.

F: You’re not equating an animal life to a plant life?

Willis: I’m just saying people eat different things.

Thanks to numerous undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughter houses by PETA, Mercy For Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and others, films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Speciesism” and books like John Robbin’s “Diet For A New America,” many people have learned about the cruelty that goes on at the factory farms where most land animals are raised for food. A 2015 Gallup Poll showed the vast majority of Americans believe that the welfare of farmed animals deserves considerable protection, with almost a third claiming animals warrant as much protection as humans.

However, the public doesn’t yet know of the cruelty inherent in raising animals at so-called ‘humane’ farms, and there is an upscale market for ‘humane meat’ sold by companies such as Niman Ranch.

This is why DxE investigated a humane-certified farm last year that supplies Whole Foods with eggs. That investigation, the first of its kind, produced a video documenting horrendous conditions at Petaluma Farms in Northern California. DxE has mounted on-going campaigns, protesting at Chipotle restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores – companies whose success is based on perpetuating the humane lie.

A fourth generation farmer, Willis grew up on the Thornton farm. For Willis, raising animals for food has always been what psychologist and author Melanie Joy calls “normal, natural and necessary.” Those are the “Three Ns” of Carnism, “the invisible belief system, or ideology,” Joy writes, “that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Most Americans are carnists, and have chosen this ideology without even realizing that they have made a choice.

After conversing with Willis at the butcher shop, my sense was that he knows there’s something wrong with killing pigs. He told us “my contention is, if people raised dogs the way factory farm animals are raised, there would be an outrage.”

There would also be an outrage if dogs were raised the way pigs are raised at Niman-approved farms. More importantly, there should be an outrage over the fact that they’re killed, given that pigs, like dogs, are sentient beings.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns, who was standing in front of the butcher shop display window, behind which lay numerous cuts of dead meat, confronted Willis: “How about a Niman Ranch dog farm? You’d make a lot of money…”

Willis turned to face Burns. “Are you advocating this?”

“What I’m saying is you’re advocating this,” Burns said.

“No, I’m not advocating this at all,” Willis said.

“What if we were to take baby dogs, [make them live in] five square feet of space for their whole lives [it ranges from five square feet to 14 square feet depending on the weight of the pig], castrate them two weeks after they are born as you do [with pigs], shove metal rings in their noses…,” Burns said. “Just as you do with pigs [sows], and at the end of six months, even though dogs can live 15 years, just like pigs, why not kill them? You can make a lot of money. And I see no difference between what you’re doing [with the pigs you raise] and the idea I’m proposing right now.”

Losing his cool briefly, Willis said, “Well, I’m not doing this. I’m not interested in doing this. I don’t advocate this. You’re comparing one species with another.”

There it was: speciesism, alive and well at Magnani's Poultry, coming out of Niman Ranch poster boy Paul Willis’s mouth.

Paul Willis served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria for three years after graduating with a BA in psychology from the University of Iowa in 1966. As Willis tells it, by the early Nineties, factory farming, with its economies of scale and cheap but grossly inhumane ways of raising pigs, was driving him and other smalltime Iowa farmers out of business. So he contacted Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman in 1994 and after Niman tasted Willis’s pig corpses, Niman wanted to do business with Willis. In 1998, Willis and Niman created the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a network of farms that raise pigs according to Niman’s ‘humane’ protocol.

The Niman Ranch Pork Company is half owned by Niman Ranch, and half owned by the farmers in the network. Niman supplies pieces of dead pigs, in Willis’s words, “product,” to upscale restaurants including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, grocery stores including Whole Foods, the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, Dodger Stadium, the Google campus, and Chipotle.

In July 2006, Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings, owner of the Sioux-Preme slaughterhouse, purchased a major stake in Niman Ranch, which was losing money at the time, and was nearly $3 million in debt; a new management team was put in place, according to San Francisco Business Times. The following year, 2007, Bill Niman left Niman Ranch after fighting with the new owners over changes in how Niman animals are treated.

Bill Niman and his family.

Bill Niman and his family.

“I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys, as opposed to ranching guys,” Bill Niman told Business Insider in 2014. “You can't really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now].”

In 2009 Natural Food Holdings took over Niman Ranch. At the time Natural Food Holdings was a subsidiary of billion-plus dollar Hilco Global, one of the largest distressed investment and advisory companies in the world. Two years later, in late 2011, Hilco sold National Food Holdings to the private equity company, LNK Partners.

In early 2014, the Nebraska newspaper Kearney Hub reported that the Niman Ranch Pork Company “generates $200 million annually.”

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

In mid-August of this year, The Street reported that there were multiple companies interested in purchasing Natural Food Holdings, after Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel purchased Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate for $775 million, more than double that companies annual revenue of $340 million. This week (early September 2015), Perdue Farms purchased Natural Food Holdings, including Niman Ranch and the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, from LNK for an undisclosed price. Perdue Farms has $6 billion in annual revenue.

While Paul Willis is willingly used by Niman to portray its operation as a downhome family farm (along with the images on the Niman website and other marketing), Niman Ranch is now owned by one of the biggest factory farms in the country. Since Niman became part of Natural Food Holdings six years ago, it’s also been under the corporate umbrella of a company that makes money murdering as many 4000 pigs a day at its own slaughterhouse.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Perdue was accused in two lawsuits (one in 2010, the other in 2013) filed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) of false advertising. HSUS claimed that Perdue was using the phrase “humanely raised” on it’s Harvestland chicken packaging labels even though the chickens were from factory farms. "Perdue has simply slapped 'humanely raised' stickers on its factory farmed products, hoping consumers won't know the difference," an HSUS lawyer said in 2010. Last October HSUS agreed to drop the lawsuits and Perdue agreed to remove “humanely raised” from the labels, although they ”vigorously” denied HSUS’s claims. In December 2014 this video showing how Perdue Chickens are raised was released by Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare organization.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

This year, Niman Ranch client Whole Foods is spending $15 million to $20 million on its “Values Matter” campaign in which they bizarrely proclaim: “PICK A CHICKEN, COOK A CHICKEN, KNOW YOUR CHICKEN,” and “CHOOSE A FISH, COOK A FISH, SAVE A FISH.”  In June of this year, PETA filed a false advertisement complaint against Whole Foods for claiming to be selling “humane meat,” and wrapping the meat it sells in paper printed with the slogan, “Thanks for Caring about Animals.” Chipotle Mexican Grill has had great success with its own “humane meat” campaign, in which it has marketed itself as “Pro-Chicken” and said that the animals it murders and sells were “raised with care.”

During the past year groups of DxE activists, sometimes numbering over 100 people, have entered Whole Foods stores around the country (and in Europe too), lining up in the meat department, speaking out against the “humane lie,” and chanting “It’s not food, it’s violence!” DxE has also mounted a national campaign against Chipotle.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

Along with DxE, other animal rights activists including writer James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University who contributes to the New York Times Op/Ed page, don’t believe there is such a thing as “humane meat.”

Examples of why the pigs that become Niman’s “humane meat” aren’t humanely raised:

Niman pigs are castrated within two weeks of birth with no anesthesia, a painful procedure. In European countries including Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Germany anesthesia or pain killers are now used when the pigs are castrated, and a handful of countries have voluntarily agreed to end all surgical castration of pigs by 2018, according to Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare organization.

As previously mentioned, about 75% of Niman pigs live their cut-short lives indoors with about as much room as the footprint of a small desk.

Although a pig can live as long as 20 years, Niman pigs are killed at six months.

Niman protocol allows for nose rings to be inserted through the septums of sows’ noses without anesthesia. This is excruciating for the pigs and numerous animal welfare groups oppose it. The nose rings are both physically and psychologically distressing. Nose rings prevent pigs from doing one of their favorite things: rooting around in the dirt.

On the Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, Willis himself has maintained 200-to-300 nose-ringed sows, according to a 2008 report from Compassion In World Farming.

In his 2015 book, “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals,” James McWilliams wrote that there now exists “academic research showing nose ringing to be a serious welfare violation,” and, he continued, “…there’s no doubt about the impact of nose rings on pigs: it causes them pain every time they put their snout to the ground.” He quotes the RSPCA: “As well as pain when the ring is inserted … this practice leads to chronic pain.”

In fact, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), which McWilliams calls a “comparatively rigorous welfare label," prohibits nose ringing. Niman Ranch is no longer certified by AWA. Instead, it is certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a questionable industry organization whose board includes Willis and Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, and whose funding is mostly provided by Whole Foods.

GAP has a “5-Step Program.” Farms must meet the minimum “step one” standards to be certified. During an interview on Katy Keiffer’s “What Doesn’t Kill You’ internet radio show in mid-2013, Willis admitted that Niman farms do not meet step four or five certification.  

“The very highest steps are non-castration and slaughter on the farm and things like that,” Willis told Keiffer. “Now for us that’s not going to happen, it’s not practical. Most of our farmers fall into steps one, two and three.”

And of course there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal. Niman pigs are trucked to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company – itself a harrowing experience for animals who, until then, have typically never been in a truck – where they are gassed in a process known as CO2 stunning, and then their throats are slit.

It takes as long as 45 seconds after the gas is released for the pigs to pass out. And during that time some pigs panic. Animal expert Temple Grandin has observed pigs that, on first contact with the gas, “reared up and violently attempted to escape.” Grandin has written that this is “not acceptable.”

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

In the butcher shop, I said as much to Willis and he responded, “Well if you have better ideas about the slaughter process and everything, please let me know.”

A DxE activist said to Willis,  “There’s no way to kindly, compassionately, exploit anybody, confine anybody, put metal rings through their noses…”

“I encourage you to pursue your options, whatever they might be,” Willis said.

“It’s not about our options,” she said. “It’s about their lives. These animals have the right to live their lives.”

“What we’re trying to do is do right by the animals that are raised for food,” Willis said.

“There is no correct moral ethical kind way to confine, exploit and murder somebody,” she said. “You’re claiming you can do something you despise about factory farms in a way that’s kind and compassionate. Can you do the wrong thing in a nice way?”

“Ummm,” Willis said. “I guess I don’t know the answer to that question.”

“How can you not know the answer to that question?” she said. “Your entire marketing depends on you knowing the answer to that question.” 

To see full transcript click here


Michael Goldberg is a former Rolling Stone Senior Writer. He is an animal rights activist and a member of DxE. His first novel, True Love Scars, was published in 2014; his second, The Flowers Lied, will be published in October. His wife Leslie Goldberg, also a DxE member, blogs about animal rights at

Why Disrupt? (Video)

DxE's Araceli Rodriguez dragged off of stage after disrupting Chris Christie's talk in Iowa. 

DxE's Araceli Rodriguez dragged off of stage after disrupting Chris Christie's talk in Iowa. 

Why Disrupt? (Video)

In light of the recent Chris Christie disruption, many people are asking, "Why disrupt?" 

DxE Organizer Wayne Hsiung sets out reasons that disruption has been key to every effective movement for social justice. This talk will show how disruption provokes attention, reshapes norms, and ultimately helps us build a stronger movement for animals.

Note: This talk was recorded in 2014. 

Confronting Chris Christie for the Animals

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 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.

Francione and Hsiung debate Direct Action Everywhere (Audio)


Last Sunday, Bob Linden from Go Vegan Radio invited Hsiung and Francione to discuss the tactics of Direct Action Everywhere. Did you miss the show? Want to listen to it again for good measure? We've attached an audio file below:

Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

In the aftermath of the Francione debate, DxE’s cofounder explains why veganism is not enough.

by Wayne Hsiung 

In yesterday’s discussion, Gary Francione repeatedly stated that DxE is “anti-vegan” – implying that we condone the use of animals. This is false. At DxE, we believe that it’s important to avoid personal contributions to animal exploitation, and we have strong norms against using animal products within our community. (Indeed, many of our organizers – including me – take this a step further and refuse to eat with others who are eating animals. Here’s Lauren Gazzola explaining why at last year’s AR conference.)

The difference between DxE and Gary is that, at DxE, we also believe that our personal actions are not enough. That if veganism is a political principle and not a personal choice, we must live out that difference in action.

Let’s use a hypothetical to explain the difference.  

Suppose you come across a mob of people beating a child with a stick.

In the face of nightmarish violence, a global movement for animals grows. #LightThePath to liberation.

“Join us,” they say. “It’s fun.”

The first response to the mob is, “Everyone else is doing it, so I might as well, too. And who knows, maybe they’re right that it’s fun.” This is the unthinking reaction that most people give to the brutal violence raging against animals. While we often condemn them for this choice, moreover, it’s important to note that most people don’t make a real choice. They never say to themselves, “Between torturing and slaughtering billions of gentle baby animals, or not torturing and killing… I choose torture.” As with other historical participants in atrocity, they simply accept the way things are; they are products of the system to which they were born.

Our most basic perceptions of the world – even something as simple as the length of a line – can be hugely distorted by cultural or social influence. And it’s difficult for ordinary people to see atrocity as atrocity, when it has been “made normal.” So yes, participating in mass violence is a shameful and unethical choice, but let’s always keep in mind that, ultimately, this participation is a systemic and not individual problem. (See the recent talk we gave at Northwestern for more on this distinction.)

The second response to the mob is, “I’m not comfortable with beating a child. It’s wrong. So I’m not going to join you.” This is veganism – non-participation in a violent practice. And while it’s certainly preferable to beating the child ourselves, it still falls far short of the moral baseline. Because where we have the power to take some action to help someone who is being abused – whether a human or non-human child (and note that virtually all animals killed by humans are, in fact, children) – we have a duty to do so. Indeed, many jurisdictions make it a crime when we fail to act to assist a helpless person in need.

This is especially true when we have benefitted in some way from the victim’s abuse. For example, while ordinary citizens do not have a duty to intervene in or report violence, if someone joins and partakes in the benefits of such a criminal conspiracy, the law requires them to take action to stop that conspiracy.  For example, suppose that you have been paid to be the getaway driver in an armed robbery. It’s not enough to say, “I won’t participate” after you’ve already been paid. After all, if you have benefitted from the crime, you have a responsibility to stop it.

As beneficiaries of 10,000+ years of human supremacy, and of continuing violence against animals both in captivity and the wild, we are all in this position. We are beneficiaries of a violent conspiracy. Our homes, our gadgets, our streets, and, yes, even our vegan food are products of violence against animals.  (For every animal humans kill for food, there are perhaps 1,000 who suffer and die to habitat loss and climate change.) And simply attempting to remove ourselves, when we continue to benefit from this system of violence, falls far short of our moral duty. So yes, participation in violence is shameful and unethical, but so too is inaction in the face of violence. So too is veganism without action.

But then what is the moral baseline? This brings us to our third response to the mob: action.  “Hey, stop what you are doing!” we might say to the men who are beating the child. Those of us who can muster the courage might try to physically shield the child from the blows. We might call 911, or try to rally other neighbors to help us save the child. We might even use physical force to defend the child and take away the stick. But if we truly seek to fulfill our moral duty in the face of the largest atrocity in history, we must do something beyond inaction.

But if activism is the moral baseline, why do so few vegans take action? There are at least three important reasons. The first is that they have not been taught to do so. Partly due to pseudo-scientific research, our movement is so focused on personal consumer behavior that it loses sight of its reason for existence: not vegan food, but the animals. I’m distressed by the number of conversations among AR activists that start with the tone and color of justice, and end with the tone and color of a vegan cupcake. But this is not a personal but a movement flaw. We need to collectively stop talking about where we can get vegan French fries, and start talking about animals and their lives. We need to make action for animals, not vegan consumerism, the unrelenting focus of our movement.  If people are not taught to act, they will not.

The second reason is that people have no idea what action to take. There is extensive research showing that, if people are presented with too many options, and those options have uncertain effects, they will often be paralyzed by indecision. “I want to help animals, but how?” Anyone who says they have a 100% clear answer to this question “What action?” is deceiving us, but there are big picture insights, from both the practice and scholarship of social movements, that should inform our decisions. One of those big picture insights is that movements rise or fall on the basis of their ability to mobilize and sustain nonviolent direct action. It turns out doing so is rather hard because early movement adopters face ridicule, rejection, or even repression. But it’s not nearly as hard as one might think. In fact, all you need is 3.5% (and probably far less). If you can mobilize 3.5% of the population in sustained and nonviolent civil resistance, you win. Every single time.

DxE's model in one simple infographic. 

This is the reason for DxE’s existence. We don’t need to convince 100% of the public to “go vegan.” We need to inspire those who are already vegan to take action. To give people the mentorship and support they need to speak and act strongly and publicly for animals. To build the organizing capacity, the social institutions, and perhaps most importantly, the culture that our movement needs to change the world in one generation. To create activists, connect them in networks, and inspire those networks to take nonviolent direct action.  

But can we actually succeed? This brings us to the third reason for vegan passivity: hopelessness. Recall the hypothetical we started this discussion with, of a mob attacking a child. While morality requires us to intervene, where we can, it does not and cannot require us to intervene if there is no way to actually stop the violence. Morality cannot require the impossible.

If the raging atrocities against animals are unstoppable, then, we have no obligation to take action. Action requires hope. And hope, in our movement, is seemingly in short supply. Many advocates suggest that the end of animal exploitation might occur hundreds, if not thousands of years from now. They say, with confident regret, that people will most likely always exploit animals. We’ll never get to 3.5%.

But this is nonsense. Indeed, it is a cognitive bias that a distinguished psychologist at Harvard calls “The End of History Fallacy.” Because it turns out, change does happen, and it happens far faster than any one of us can predict. Just a few decades ago, marriage equality would have been unthinkable. Only 1 in 4 supported it, and even progressive politicians rallied to “defend marriage” against the insidious influence of “the homosexual agenda.” A professor of mine in law school, one of the most distinguished progressives in the legal academy, said that, when he started as a professor decades ago, the term “gay rights” sounded like a criminal conspiracy. Yet 20 years later, the tides have turned. Over 60% of the population now supports marriage equality (and a much higher percentage of young people), and it has been enshrined as a constitutional right. Gay rights is no longer a criminal conspiracy. It’s what every upstanding American citizen believes.

We will achieve the same progress for animal rights. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll showed that 32% of the populationhigher than the percentage who supported LGBTQ equality in 1996 – currently believe that animals should have the “same rights as people.” Moreover, this percentage is increasing quickly…. while animal exploiting industries get smaller. (Agriculture, for example, is a vanishingly small percentage of the American economy, and our calculations show that it would take a mere 1-2% of US GDP to rescue every single animal currently in captivity and place them in a sanctuary for the rest of their lives.) Further, animal issues are blowing up in our broader culture. The Dodo founders have pointed out that animals are among the most shared subjects on social media, and an astonishing 79% of people in America say they must be protected from “all suffering and harm.” As Frank Bruni of The New York Times points out, windows into the world of animals are growing, both big and little. And the more we see of animals, the more we realize: they are us. They are our family members, our children, our friends. And when we see they are us, we see, too, our duty to defend.

In the face of all these incredible reasons for optimism, it’s time for us to discard our cynicism and doubt. It’s time for us to be inspired, not to lonely inaction, but empowered activism. And it’s time for our movement to take a new and more confident tone: That we are strong. That we are smart. And that we are inspired.

And we will succeed. 



Why Beyoncé Going Vegan is Bad for Animals

Why Beyoncé Going Vegan is Bad for Animals

By Brian Burns

This Monday, Beyoncé announced a vegan diet as her key to weight loss on Good Morning America. And while her fans rushed to the blogosphere to voice their disappointment, animal rights groups proclaimed victory. This announcement, along with many others this week - including Ben and Jerry’s soon-to-come vegan ice cream and Miley Cyrus’ similar dietary change – is hailed as strong evidence that the animal rights movement is winning.

But it isn't. Why? Because veganism for its own sake is not good for animals. Instead, the promotion of the vegan diet without animal rights messaging actively harms the animal rights movement. Moreover, the movement’s focus on mass consumer dietary change has little historical or empirical basis, despite being our movement's main strategy.

To be clear, both I and DxE believe nothing short of a vegan diet is morally permissible, because killing and eating others is wrong. But we must acknowledge that focusing on getting people to go vegan, rather than other tactics to help animals - such as protest, community building, or simply encouraging people to talk to their friends about animal rights - is a deliberate choice by the animal rights movement, and this choice is not optimal.  We can do different and do better than hailing celebrities such as Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. Below are a few reasons why we should consider other options for advocacy rather than simply focusing on consumer change.

1. Veganism frames society’s conversation about animals suffering as one of consumerism and dietary choice rather than justice and equality.

When presenting any issue, framing is extremely important. Is climate change about saving people and the planet, or do-good liberals interfering with productive industry? Is high defense spending about imperialism and killing, or ensuring defense for a strong America? We should ask ourselves, then, how we are framing the suffering of animals - and the answer is that veganism and dietary choice frames animal rights in favor of our enemy.

If you've ever argued with someone who eats or kills animals, you must have heard, "it's my personal choice to eat meat!". Why then, are we making this argument for them? By framing animal rights as an issue of dietary change - titling animal rights leaflets "Your Choice", for example - rather than one of justice and equality, we set ourselves up for failure.

2. This framing disempowers vegans from speaking strongly for animals.

By focusing on creating individual dietary change rather than communities for activism, we create a dispersed nation of lonely vegans. This loneliness is extraordinarily disempowering, and causes vegans in best case to remain silent on animal rights, and in the worst case to go back to eating animals again (84% of the time, in fact).

Moreover, consumer vegan messaging induces complacency and stops vegans from helping animals. Because the central focus of our movement is to "go vegan", many get the sense that once they change their diet, they're done, and need to do no more for animals. But animal rights, as we all know, only begins with our diets. We need to inspire people to do more for animals by not just believing in animal rights themselves, but by bringing animal rights to their family, their friends, and the world.

Finally, say they decide to do just that. With a focus on veganism for veganism's sake, animals' lives often get lost in the message. For example, consider an interchange of which I myself have been very often guilty: you're eating with a friend, and they ask why you ordered the veggie burger rather than the steak. "I'm vegan", you respond. Not, "Animals deserve to live, they are not our food". Not, "In all ways that matter, animals are like us - and violence against sentient beings is wrong". A serious opportunity for dialogue and change is missed, and the personal choice framing is reinforced.

3. Veganism as a strategy has no basis.

Simply put, the vegan boycott as a tactic for helping animals - in place of others, such as protest and community building - is failing. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2012, the number of vegetarians has declined in the last decade, and "Vegetarianism in the US remains quite uncommon and a lifestyle that is neither growing or waning in popularity".

Perhaps then we're just not there yet. Perhaps with continued efforts at vegan advocacy we will reach some critical mass of vegans, which will in turn create a social cascade for animal rights in society. Unfortunately, this model is tried and tested - look at the nation of India. Some regions report as high as a 40% vegetarian population, yet animal rights is fading as violent western habits spread into the country. Vegetarianism, historically framed as a personal or religious choice, is an outdated fad. And while enormous change is beginning to happen for animals, this is due to grassroots animal rights organizing in contrast to - rather than in support of - the consumer vegan messaging so present in the movement today.

Finally, boycotts on their own have not succeeded in other social justice movements without the accompaniment of direct action campaigns. The best possible example of this is the Free Produce Movement in the early 1800s, which sought to fight the American slave trade by boycotting all goods made by slaves. The boycott was tried, then decried as a failure by the leaders of the antislavery movement, who moved on to much greater success by building chapters across the country that held meetings, debates, and protests centered on the lives of slaves in the US, and not the quality of their cotton coats or tobacco cigars. We should think about what we can learn from these past efforts.


In summary, the centering of veganism for its own sake - exemplified by our movement's universal hailing of Beyoncé, Miley, Ben, and Jerry, despite little to no words from them on the subject of animal rights - is a stumbling block for our movement. What, then, do we propose instead? Simply: treat animal rights as an issue of social justice. Focus on creating activists instead of consumers. Build community centers for animal rights rather than making dispersed, lonely vegans. And most importantly, stay on message: animals and their lives, rather than humans and their diets. In doing so, we can create enormous positive change for animals. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for an updated strategy piece with much more information on this issue.


EDIT: It was pointed out that using Beyoncé’s name and image in the title of the piece comes in the context of the movement’s history targeting and policing black women, of which I was sorely unaware as a white man. 

While the intention of the article was to discuss strategic problems with consumer framing in the animal rights movement (using news items such as the movement’s recent hailing of Ben and Jerry’s, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé as lead-ins), the choice of Beyoncé as a title and image is indicative of implicit bias on my part, and certainly has aggravated much of the already existing hate towards black women (or all women) in the movement.  I seriously apologize for some of the horrifying comments that others made after the blog was published, either as a consequence of the article or as a consequence of the context in which the article occurred - for example, the selective targeting of women wearing fur rather than men wearing leather with hateful language such as “fur hag”, or some of Gary Yourofsky’s violent statements towards women and people of color.

In that respect, I hope that people can discuss the substance of the post - that vegan celebrities are not our messiahs, and more importantly that the animal rights movement must think seriously about consumer veganism as a strategy to help animals  - rather than selectively target certain individuals, especially when that targeting is selective on the basis of race, sex, or other group membership. Not only is it factually inaccurate to say that animals are suffering as a result of individuals rather than systems and social norms, but it is harmful in a very real way to people, and makes our movement weaker and less inclusive.



Interview with DxE Lisbon's Andreia Carvalho Mota

Interview with DxE Lisbon's Andreia Carvalho Mota

By Saryta Rodriguez


Andreia Carvalho Mota is one of the founding organizers of DxE Lisbon, and she and others at Acção Directa have been doing some phenomenal work. Learn about the group’s founding, its goals, and upcoming events below!  Thank you so much, Andreia, for taking the time to share your experience with The Liberationist.

Andreia Carvalho Mota participating in Disrupt Speciesism, DxE's September 2014 Day of Action, in front of a McDonald's in Lisbon, Portugal.   

Andreia Carvalho Mota participating in Disrupt Speciesism, DxE's September 2014 Day of Action, in front of a McDonald's in Lisbon, Portugal.  

DxE: Please tell us a bit about how you first became involved in veganism and animal liberation.

ACM: At the age of 20, I started thinking about going vegetarian, but I was not well informed about animal exploitation so I comfortably kept to my lifestyle. I was pretty sensitive, since I was a little girl, to all those animals issues (like bullfights) and to every social injustice. I used to think about a lot of questions all of the time. “Why should animals die to fill my plate? There are vegetarians in the world; if they can do it, so can I!” Unfortunately, thinking this way wasn’t enough at that time for me to change.

When I turned 26, I started attending bullfights protests almost every week. Then I met several activists and I made the connection between the cruel entertainment I was ferociously against and the food industry. So I cut the animals out of my meals, started doing volunteer work and, gradually, I cultivated myself: reading, watching documentaries, learning from my fellow activist friends, and understanding how easy and positive turning to veganism really is.

Once I realized that nonhuman animals are not ours to be used for any purpose, I became vegan. Melanie Joy was also an important influence to me, even if I was already vegan for a while before I learned about her work. I learnt from her how to better deal with carnists or nonvegans, which is definitely the biggest challenge for me. I also realized how environmental and other human issues are connected to veganism, so it was like the perfect change in my life.

I found myself really inspired by some activists along this path. I’m very honored to know such greats activists, most of whom are also my friends.

I reached veganism through activism and became a more solid and strong activist since I went vegan. I used to say that first of all, I’m an activist, and then I am a vegan. You can be a vegan without doing anything more. Being an activist means everything to me. Veganism is clearly not enough.

In the last five years, animal liberation has become a clear goal. I realized that no one is free until all are free and this is a question of social justice. I understand how tough it is to break an oppressive system, but it is possible and there is good news: we are getting there!

DxE: How did you hear about DxE? What factor(s) caused you to identify with the group and inspired you to start your own chapter?

ACM: I heard about DxE through my friend Vítor Magalhães, who has ‘liked’ a DxE publication and then Priya got in touch with him, asking if we would like to make a DxE chapter in Portugal. At that time, I was in an activist group called actiVismo along with Vítor and he put us in contact with Priya, who explained what DxE does and asked if there were any of us who wanted to be a main organizer. I watched the videos about DxE and I accepted to be the main organizer and, along with Vítor, we have created the DxE core in Lisbon.

I left actiVismo and I started a new group, Acção Directa, along with Vítor, and a new chapter in my activism life. I was strongly inspired by DxE actions, it was a sort of a strange feeling because it was like: “Well…maybe that will not work…maybe that’s too much,” along with ‘That’s the thing!’ I didn’t think I was able to do those kinds of actions. I was definitely inspired by the coherence, the assertiveness, the passion, the brilliant attitude of Wayne and Priya, but I doubted at the same time that I would be capable. However, they raised my confidence.

As the movement grew, I felt inspired by all the other DxE activists and I was totally sure that we were trying a different approach but a valid one.  Since then, Acção Directa has grown and now we are a five-member group! We were so lucky to find such amazing and motivated activists. Besides me and Vítor, Ana Maria Santos, Anne Matias and Sandra Marina belong to AD.

I read a lot about nonviolent direct action and when it has been applied in the past. The Animal Liberation Movement needs different ways and tactics. There is no magical formula to do the best activism. So it is important to recognize that we are always learning. Honestly, the movement calls for a revolutionary approach, never forgetting to focus on the victims we defend.

DxE: Tell us a bit about your first action.  How many people showed up? What was your game plan? Did things go as expected, or were there any surprises in store for you?

ACM: The first action was in February 2014. We were six people doing the action, plus another two recording it. We heard about DxE only the week before, so we were unsure of what were supposed to do. We went to McDonalds and, in silence, we showed our signs saying “Não é Comida, É Violência!” (“It’s not Food, Its Violence!”). We didn’t have a plan. We spent about half an hour sitting in a nearby shopping mall and talking about what to do. So it was a pretty spontaneous action. A customer called the manager, but by then we were already leaving. The other actions have been different. We started speaking and trying to involve more activists as speakers. In the beginning, we were really trying to find ourselves.

DxE: What is the AR scene like in Lisbon, and do you collaborate with other groups for certain events/campaigns?

ACM: The AR scene in Lisbon is growing and winning its own identity. Nowadays we are finding more activism groups proliferating throughout the country. Until recently, it was only the biggest organization for animal rights, ANIMAL, that was responsible for driving actions. Now I feel people more aware of their abilities and power as activists and that they can’t always expecting ANIMAL to organize everything. Each of us can and should be active, and inspire others.

Before I create Acção Directa, I use to collaborate as a volunteer in ANIMAL and now in Acção Directa we establish partnerships with other groups. For instance, we organized a protest against a movie which used animals, along with the platform “Cidadãos pelos Circos sem Animais” and now we will synchronize an international action called Empty the Tanks in June, with Porto Pelos Animais e Algarve Pelos Animais.

We are also working in the organization of Veganario, an annual vegan festival. Last year we heard that this festival was not going to happen and then we encouraged them to do it with our help.  We joint strengths and now we are working hard.

DxE: What are some of the challenges DxE Lisbon faces? How are you typically received by consumers, restaurant and market owners, and/or the police in your home city? In other parts of Portugal?

ACM: I think the main challenges are still the development of our actions, how we film them since filming people is forbidden by law in our country, it is consider a crime.

We have so much to learn yet but with no doubt that we are facing a troubled speciesist reality that has a more prominent focus in a country like Portugal. We still deal with strong discrimination against so many social groups that animal rights are seen as a minor problem. However, we are seeing people grow more concerned and conscious about nonhuman animals, day by day, step by step.

Consumers don’t usually behave aggressively towards us. Sometimes we hear some unpleasant stuff, but nothing that bothers us too much.  Market owners and managers politely ask us to leave. Police never appear, which is great. We organize two different actions every month: one is an external one with a public event and the other is an internal one where we protect ourselves and don’t post our event publicly in order to avoid problems with authority.

In the externals ones, we try to create visually appealing demos and deliver leaflets with assertive information. Being straight to the point in those flyers could be really useful. We don’t yet have other DxE chapters in Portugal, only in Lisbon, but we strongly encourage people to make them!

DxE: Please share with us one truly inspiring moment you’ve experienced as an organizer with DxE Lisbon.

ACM: I would not say there was a specific moment, but I was really happy to know from a person I interact in an action, that he became vegan after knowing us and talking with me. Now he is attending our protests and supports the Animal Liberation Movement. Also, after my Disrupt Speciesism challenge, I received a message in my inbox from another person asking me to help with his transition to veganism and declaring that he felt truly inspired by my action. That was so awesome!

DxE: How do you and other organizers go about strengthening the DxE Lisbon community? What are some events you organize and attend together, besides nonviolent direct actions?

ACM: We founded the Lisbon DxE but we also organize other kind of actions. We don’t restrict our domain areas to food campaigns. Whenever we have resources and availability, we organize other awareness actions. We started with anti-captivity demonstrations simultaneously with our first DxE actions: protests against zoos, against whale and dolphin massacre, against wild and companion animals treated like objects, and, as I mentioned before, we held a demonstration against the shooting in Portugal of the movie, O Grande Circo Místico.

This movie used animals in a circus and was funded with taxpayer money. It was amazing because we were received by the Culture Secretary and allowed to share our position. We are also developing campaigns to boycott the movie. Also, we have the snail’s awareness campaign, when we ask people a simple question: “Would you like to be boiled alive?” We are trying to bring people together in these kinds of ideas because the impact we will be larger.

We welcome other activists’ actions, and we are happy to attend and support it, whenever we agree with them.

DxE: Aside from our common goal of achieving animal liberation, what are some of DxE Lisbon’s short-term goals? Are there any actions, publications, or community events coming up about which you’re particularly excited?

ACM: We are always trying to be update and working hard to spread veganism. In a short-term we emphasize the importance of being more connected, to strengthen our community and to inspire people to join us and do it more for the animals. Even if they don’t identify with our actions but at a certain point they feel inspired to build their own group, would be great. In a minor scale, we want to create our own site or blog. I always thought of creating something different about “why you must go vegan.” I have a structure on my mind, it just takes some time and effort.

Well, we are organizing next 22th and 23th of May a Vegan Fair, an event of Veganario, the festival I mentioned above. Our Empty the Tanks synchronized action is also taking our attention. We are planning to host a demonstration with kids, where they will be with their parents staging an animal’s released from captivity to oceans. It’s a different thing and will compromise several other details.

DxE: I’m sure you are familiar with DxE’s Five Organizing Principles. Will you share with us briefly what one of them means to you? Why do you think that principle is important, and what steps can activists take to truly uphold it?

ACM: The first one, TOTAL ANIMAL LIBERATION, is clearly the root of our abolitionist movement, we are fighting against discrimination and this affects human and nonhuman animals alike. Speciesism mentally blocks people in such an anthropocentric way that they are unable to see the obvious: we are speaking about fundamental rights, respect and non-exploitation.

About DIRECT ACTION, I think everyone could do something for the animals, could proudly and confident says what is right and what is wrong, especially inside places who sell violence. We must be original and brave whenever we take a stance for animals, the movement is thrusting for new approaches.

TELLING STORIES increases empathy and lets people put themselves in the animal’s position.

COMMUNITY is quite important when you are trying to build something different and strong. You don’t get anything if you don’t have support and whatever is the way you choose to spread the message, the tides are changing.

If we don’t have a clear DREAM of what we are fighting for, what is the purpose of fighting?

DxE: Based on your experience organizing, do you have advice for other animal rights organizers in the DxE network or the animal rights movement at large?

ACM: For the animal rights movement at large, I would like to say that there is no magical formula to do activism. People use to be so critical about certain approaches when they don’t really know the impacts of each of them at all. The most important thing is to be confident and assertive whenever we speak and fight for the animals. Remember that we are on the “right side of the river” and this should give you security and peace. Try to be gentle, yet firm, when you deal with non-vegans. Focus on what you can do and not on what you can’t; no matter what, you are planting seeds.

Focus on the animals— you are doing this for them, not for you. It is easy to lose control, to personalize any fight, to not empathize with every animal right activists, but this is not about you. I am also gradually learning. I think Dr. Melanie Joy is a great activist who has taught me a lot and who could guide us better in some emotional ups and downs.

For all the animal lovers, DxE organizers and activists who have doing a great job, keep going, dreaming and inspiring. Things are clearly changing.

The Power of Provocation

The Power of Provocation

By Brian Burns


A Life Disrupted

When I first walked in, I felt very…disrupted. Shook to the very core of my person. Things that I took for granted – the ability to breathe, the right to one’s limbs – were not given here.

I saw the bloody wing torn off of a hen who was ripped from her cage. The stench of months of compacted and rotting feces filled my nose and mixed with my blood. Worst of all, my eyes met with the despondent eyes of Sephy, standing over the body of her dead sister. She was weak, starving, and had given up hope. Sephy had lived her life in a state of constant disruption--not just for a few minutes. Never given a moment of security or safety, her friends or family - or her own existence - could be taken away in an instant.

Sephy was starving and on the brink of death when we found her on top of her dead sister.

Sephy was starving and on the brink of death when we found her on top of her dead sister.

So when asked, “Why provoke? Why disrupt?” I think back to the words of one of the wisest activists who ever lived, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” With this investigation and series of international protests, we are doing nothing more than bringing the truth to the public. It is our duty to do so – the moral obligation we have, given our relative safety as humans.

A Terrified Math Geek

Hiding in the world of math,  Calculus on Manifolds  was my closest companion in my junior year of high school.

Hiding in the world of math, Calculus on Manifolds was my closest companion in my junior year of high school.

Despite my conviction, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, for the majority of my childhood, I was a terrified math geek. Mockery from popular or strong kids, when I struggled to catch a football or stammered while constructing a sentence, was the only confrontation I knew – and I hated it. I took solace in the world of mathematics: one not governed by emotion, chance, or social standing. Perhaps my closest friend in high school was a series of textbooks on calculus and geometry that I read on my own time.

This experience also turned out to be my entryway into animal rights. While I had a relatively privileged upbringing, and never had animals in the home, I knew what it was like to be alone. When I first saw a baby calf being torn from his mother, I was consumed with an anger I had never felt before. I stammered as my eyes filled with tears: “Why - Why him? What did he do to deserve this?!” I learned, sadly, that these incidents are not isolated, but are widespread results of our systematic exploitation of other animals.

So I decided to do something, and looked to the most famous organizations and biggest figures in the animal rights scene; but the same fear that had plagued me was also plaguing the movement. We’re simply afraid of saying what we mean. The reality is too harsh, and our families and friends too close, to bring the truth to the public.  So I took the mainstream advice of promoting Meatless Mondays, and when my friends were not so inclined, would encourage them to buy from the very same humane facilities that DxE exposed.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, I was met with the same ridicule that brought me to the movement itself. I became the pandering vegan who everyone prodded with bacon jokes. Yet again, my experience mirrored that of the movement as a whole: the animal rights movement is an orphan of the left, subject to ridicule by even the most famous progressives. To date, the movement is known by the public as a strange fringe issue – more of a consumer fad than a social justice movement; more of a personal choice than a moral problem.

Throughout this entire process, I never questioned the anti-confrontation approach. I never dared to touch the unexamined question: What if we could change all of this by simply saying what we mean? What if, instead of honesty being our biggest obstacle, honesty was our strongest weapon?

 The Power of Provocation

When I saw a DxE-orchestrated protest for the first time, it made me very angry. These people are making vegans look bad! I wished that these people would put down their signs, quit the chanting, and return to polite, quiet advocacy. It turns out that this sentiment is widespread: Americans don’t like protests. A meta-study by Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro found that 70% of Americans thought the level of dissent in American society was “dangerous,” and that 74% unconditionally “disapproved” of sit-ins and other public demonstrations.

Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro says, "Americans don't like protests. But protests may work anyway."

Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro says, "Americans don't like protests. But protests may work anyway."

Why, then, is this evidence in support of provocative tactics? Because the data was recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the US. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an almost universally revered American hero in the twenty-first century, was almost universally reviled in the twentieth; yet in just a few years, as a result of massive nonviolent protest campaigns, people became much more sympathetic to the very causes they decried. The point: provocative protests challenge the status quo, and change the hearts and minds of people – even if they hate the protesters. Dr. Shapiro writes as summarizing his study, Americans don’t like protests. But protests may work anyway.”

This phenomenon is one of many ways in which provocation works. Sydney Tarrow, a distinguished social scientist at Cornell, has identified three main mechanisms through which disruption and public protest create social change, in ways that non-provocative forms of advocacy do not:

1. Disruption obstructs routine, and forces attention to the issue. Living in a speciesist society, the exploitation of animals is always present and too often unquestioned. Extreme violence – such as mass shooting and mutilation followed by the ripping up and eating of corpses – is completely normal when done in appropriate places (slaughterhouses, restaurants, and grocery stores). We must change this. We must create a world in which murdering anyone is wrong. Nonviolent direct action disrupts this violent routine and forces people to reconsider what is normal.

Many people, including animal rights activists, become angry when these places are protested, because DxE is doing the absurd: protesting what most accept as okay. But is precisely the normalcy of murdering feeling beings and eating their bodies that demands us to protest - the source of this objection is the very social norm that we have to destabilize. And In order to create a world in which extreme violence is not normal, we must disrupt the places where it is.

2. Disruption provides evidence of determination. The animal rights movement, especially with its consumer-centric framing of veganism, is often perceived as a diet fad. By disrupting routine and condemning the deep convictions of close family and friends, we demonstrate that animal rights is a serious issue for which we are willing to take significant social risk. This evidence of determination in turn flags animal rights as an issue to which the public should pay attention.

3. Disruption broadens the circle of debate to outside the affected and activist community. We live in the world of the 140-character tweet. People are overloaded with information, in addition to their commitments to their work and routine. Often, the only people who care about animal rights issues are animal rights activists themselves. Disruption calls attention to an issue that otherwise would be lost or ignored in today’s sea of information.

Note that none of these mechanisms can be triggered without social cost on our part. In order to disrupt normalcy, we must stand out. While a non-confrontational approach certainly has its merits, and often works well once the issue is a subject of discussion, provocative demonstrations are necessary to bring the issue to the table in the first place.

We must go further. We must provoke our close friends and disrupt places we have accepted as normal from birth. We must accept ridicule, abandonment, and shame for standing out and challenging normalcy. While this is profoundly difficult – as I can attest, as a shy and trembling math geek – we may take some reassurance in the fact that history, social science, and most importantly, morality are on our side.

On the Importance of Open Rescue: Four Reasons to Get Serious about Liberation

On the Importance of Open Rescue: Four Reasons to Get Serious about Liberation

by Wayne Hsiung

Mei Hua never knew her mother.

From the moment she entered this world, she was on her own – pressed up against masses of strangers in a desperate struggle for survival. Less than half of them would live through the first few days. They were killed in gruesome fashion – stomped to death, buried alive, or torn to pieces in an industrial grinder.  

But in many ways, those who survived (like Mei) had it worse. Confined to a dark, filthy shed with barely enough room to move, forced to stand and sleep in her own excrement, suffering from all manner of injury and disease, and denied even the most basic freedoms (e.g. the right to look up into the sky), Mei’s life was a nightmare. Perhaps it was an ironic kindness, then, when one of her masters struck the back of her head and left her to die in a pile of filth. Delirious from head trauma, trampled by the other prisoners, and wasting away from dehydration and starvation, she lay there for untold days, surviving only by desperately feeding on the filth that surrounded her. 

No one bothered to help her. No one offered her a word of kindness. No one even remembered that she existed. If DxE investigators had not arrived on the scene, she would have died within hours. 

But to the industry that held her captive, that’s all fine and good. Because, according to them, Mei’s life was “Certified Humane.”

Mei’s tragic story is merely one example of a bigger problem. 

Powerful corporations have tricked us into thinking that animals can be “used” with compassion. They know that concern for animals is growing, as science, ethics, and empathy are pushing us toward a new frontier of social justice: species. The New York Times' Frank Bruni writes that there is a “broadening, deepening concern about animals that’s no longer s