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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. 

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

In recent weeks, DxE has been bullied, bludgeoned, and even betrayed. But the Chinese word for crisis shares a common character -- ji or  -- with the Chinese word for opportunity. Following that ancient parallel, here’s how we can transform crisis into opportunity.   

by Wayne Hsiung

Punched in the face at a demonstration in May 2014, but still smiling! 

Nearly one year ago to the day, I was slugged in the face by an angry man at a Chipotle protest in San Francisco.

The man was not initially violent, laughing and yelling “Meat! Meat! Meat!’ as he passed our #ItsNotFoodItsViolence protest. But when one of my co-organizers, Priya, began to film him, he became irate.

“Turn that camera off!” he screamed. Priya ignored him.

The man then proceeded to shout at virtually everyone around him that he wanted the camera off. He yelled at passers-by, who scurried away from him. He yelled at the building security guard, who had until that point been quite hostile toward the protest. He even went inside the Chipotle and yelled at store employees, apparently failing to realize that Chipotle management would have no control over…. protesters.

And so he came back outside and proceeded to scream his head off at Priya. But Priya continued to quietly record the man. And before we knew it, he charged her head first, tackling her and throwing her against the plate glass wall of the Chipotle as he fought to get his hands on her iPhone.

I had been talking to a group of 3 passers-by about Chipotle’s humanewashing when it happened. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the incident was about to escalate. And when things went bad, I was immediately ready to rush forward, as one of the individuals at our protest who was designated to nonviolently defend our protesters. I pulled the man off of Priya, and did my best to secure her iPhone, which the man had seized from her hand.

“You can’t do this, friend,” I repeatedly said.

But he was in no mood to listen, so after a brief tussle, he threw the phone at me, shattering it when it hit the ground. As I reached down to pick the phone up, he slugged me in the face. He then ran off down the street.

Astonishingly, the first person to run up to me was the Chipotle security guard.

“You want me to go after the guy?” he asked.

“No, no. It’s all right,” I replied.

For the rest of the protest, the security guard, who had been aggressively harassing us and demanding that we leave, became our defender, patrolling back and forth along the protest line with a watchful eye on any potentially violent passers-by. “Is everyone ok?” he asked.

Our adversary became our protector.

Priya, who was unscathed from the incident other than a shattered phone, went right back to protesting. As for me, other than a fat lip and a little blood, I was good to go. I walked back to the three people I had been talking to before the incident and said, “Where were we again?” Mouths agape, they listened even more intently than they had before.

While crisis poses three serious challenges to our network, it also offers 3 important opportunities.

There have recently been far more serious incidents of violence, misconduct, and even betrayal in the DxE network. Activists have been attacked, deceived, and harassed by employees or the police (and, more distressingly, by one another). At moments like these, it’s important to step back and ask, as we asked after the Chipotle incident last May, “How do we handle a crisis?” While crisis poses three serious challenges to our network, it also offers 3 important opportunities.  Let’s break things down.

Challenge #1: Keeping activists safe.

Whether violence at a protest, or misconduct by a member of the community, crisis threatens to cause immediate harm. The first challenge we face, therefore, is to protect those who have been, or will be, victimized. At DxE, we recommend that all chapters have activists trained to be legal observers/representatives, lawyers in place in case something goes wrong, and nonviolence-trained “defenders” in the unlikely event that a protest becomes dangerous. (It's important to point out that, out of hundreds of protests across the world, only a tiny handful, significantly less than 1%, have resulted in violence.) We also have a conflict resolution team, including two members designated to receive misconduct concerns, to immediately intervene in the event a conflict between community members takes a downturn.

The truth is that no matter how good your culture and policies are, crisis will still erupt. When our activists in Southern California were attacked (twice in the past two months), all of them were following standard protocol that we at DxE have been using for over two years without incident. When one of our organizers admitted to a serious breach of trust, even those closest to him were stunned by the confession. In such cases, all we can do is move quickly to ensure that those who are harmed are immediately given support and defense.

Challenge #2: Maintaining confidence in the network.

Crisis also threatens a network’s culture and integrity. As grassroots activists, we rely entirely on the faith that activists hold in the network, and one another, to sustain our commitments. When activists feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or distrustful, we lose our movement’s most important asset: confidence. The key to maintaining this confidence, in turn, is integrity and transparency.

At DxE, we focus on integrity by asking all of our organizers to sign a strong statement of values. These values, along with a clear conflict resolution process, help us ensure that our public faces and voices maintain the honesty, responsibility, empathy, and humility -- the integrity --  that are so key to maintaining confidence within a network.  

We further insist on transparency in all our decisions. Every week, we check in with our community members and ask them for critical feedback at our DxE Meetup. We do the same on an international basis on monthly strategy calls. We open ourselves up to private feedback. And when we become aware of conflict, we do our best to directly and openly address it (while respecting privacy concerns), rather than let it fester in rumor and innuendo.

Challenge #3: Mitigating conflict.

Crisis, because it involves pain and emotional intensity, often leads to conflict even among once close allies. Because we are vulnerable in a moment of crisis, we look for support from our community and friends. And if they do not respond as we would like them to respond, the hurt caused can be both significant and difficult to overcome. Disagreement quickly becomes perceived betrayal.

Did my friends respond swiftly enough? Did they respond strongly enough? Could they have done something to prevent the crisis from happening? These questions naturally go through our heads. And the discord sown by such thoughts can be fatal to a movement.

Jacob Ferguson was an informant who incited his fellow activists... then turned them over to the FBI. 

Worse yet, crisis is a moment of opportunism for those who seek to bring a network or movement down. The classic example is infiltrators. Whether on the payroll of a corporation or the government, a few rumors by a well-positioned activist can send a conflict spiraling out of control. (One of Cointelpro’s specialties in the 1960s was sexual innuendo, e.g. claiming that various activists were gay, which was seen as a mark of shame in that time period.) Others may use crisis to defend or deflect from their own behavior. It’s notable that, in recent controversies involving sexual misconduct, many of the loudest voices condemning other activists have been those who have something to hide, e.g. prior histories of misconduct. (We know this because community members have privately raised concerns about some of the most ostentatious critics.) Finally, even the most well-intentioned activists can sometimes devolve into hatefulness when caught up in a fit of righteous indignation. The New York Times wrote a wonderful piece on this phenomenon just a few days ago, When the Cyber Bully is You.

Some of the greatest activists in history have noted that their movements rose or fell largely on the basis of their ability, not to confront the oppressor, but to productively resolve conflict. (King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a response to an attack, not by opponents of civil rights, but allies in the anti-racist struggle!) The beauty of grassroots movements -- their ability to scale up by attracting ordinary people from all walks of life-- becomes their curse when the lack of centralized authority allows conflict to rage throughout the network. Instead of focusing on collective action against systems of oppression, activists devote their time and energy to trying to destroy one another, whether due to real or perceived slights. A large nonprofit, of course, can simply fire discontented employees and force everyone else to get back to work. Grassroots movements have no such power.

So how do we prevent in-fighting from destroying us? There are at least three important mechanisms we use at DxE. First, we focus on creating a culture of nonviolent communication and restorative (rather than retributive) justice. Instead of assigning blame and “calling out,” we focus on restoring harm and “calling in.” No matter how terrible the transgression, we always offer to sit down and talk. Second, we ask our organizers to use private dispute resolution, pursuant to pre-agreed polices, as a first step in managing any conflict. When they deviate from this, we ask them to look to the values they’ve agreed to, and ask them whether they’ve lived up to those values. Third and finally, we always emphasize our shared purpose. The truth is that some conflict cannot be resolved. Whenever you bring together a large group of people, many will have tactical, strategic, or even ethical disagreements that endure despite our best efforts. Learning to live with conflict, by emphasizing shared purpose and opportunities for collaboration despite conflict, is key to effective organizing in the grassroots. (Sometimes, this means stepping apart from one another and working in parallel, rather than as part of the same network or team.)

Rising up to these three challenges -- keeping activists safe, maintaining confidence, and mitigating conflict -- is absolutely crucial to a movement’s vitality. But while the work we do to overcome these challenges can often seem frustrating, depressing, or pointless, it’s important to also see that crisis can also provide opportunities that, in the long term, benefit a movement’s strength and growth.  

Opportunity #1: Crisis teaches us.

One of the most famous mantras of the startup world is that you have to fail to succeed. The idea is quite simple -- that the only way to avoid mistakes is to avoid doing anything at all. The key, then, is whether you learn from a mistake. Indeed, some of the greatest success stories in history, e.g. Steve Jobs and Apple Computer (which was brought to its knees in the 1990s by Microsoft before being revitalized in the 2000s with the iPod and iPhone) were grounded in terrible mistakes.

Crisis presents a powerful teaching moment for us, both individually and collectively. Our attention is paid to an issue. We can look back through time and ask if we could have done anything better. And we have the energy and willpower to change our practices and policies. The physical attacks on activists, for example, have induced us at DxE to make knowing your rights and security culture a more prominent and accessible part of our activist resource database. We’ve made concerted efforts to develop a network of volunteer lawyers across the country. Sexual harassment in the network, in turn, has caused us to put together a clear and visible process for handling sexual misconduct. We’re also offering training and resources for both women and men in handling such difficult situations. Perhaps most importantly, crisis offers a moment for all of us, individually and as communities, to reflect on our own behavior. In the long term, the learning from these moments will help us build a stronger movement.

Opportunity #2: Crisis tests us.

When I was a child, I played basketball on a five foot hoop across the street. While scoring was incredibly easy, it also provided no challenge -- and no proof that I was actually any good as a basketball player. (It turns out I wasn’t any good. I never made the basketball team.)

In times of difficulty, it’s important to remember this. If we don’t face challenges, then we won’t have any opportunity to prove that we can rise to the challenge. This is important not just for the learning function a challenge provides, but because it builds our internal confidence and our external credibility. After recent incidents with violence and police misconduct, for example, my hope is that our activists in Southern California and Tucson feel even more confidence in our ability to swiftly provide support in the event that something goes wrong. Similarly, Priya, who took the lead in handling recent sexual misconduct within the network, has heard countless encouraging stories from women who feel empowered by the fact that DxE took action when we learned of sexual misconduct. While crisis hurts in the short run, then, it also presents an opportunity to test our mettle, and bolster our confidence and credibility, if we can rise to the challenge.  

Remember, if movement building were easy, it would have already been done!

Opportunity #3: Crisis ties us in bonds of solidarity.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, who has reported on war zones across the world, makes a startling observation that individuals who go through horrendous episodes of violence (leading to depression, anxiety and PTSD) often enthusiastically return to the war zone even in the face of debilitating fears. The reason? The shared experience of facing crisis together creates powerful bonds of solidarity. Individuals who have experienced war together feel compelled and even inspired to return, because they care so much for their team that they are prepared to risk their own lives to support their friends.

The attack on DxE activists in Southern California helped us build our confidence, perseverance, and solidarity. 

This is, in fact, one of the most powerful mechanisms of nonviolent direct action. Enduring a difficult situation with fellow activists ties us together in a way that less challenging activism simply does not accomplish. When we collectively speak in difficult social environments, we feel we’ve accomplished something that we would not have been able to do on our own. That empowers us, and our community. And, in a movement that suffers from astonishing rates of burnout, this is a powerful and important effect.

The support shown for Abraham (the gay person of color who was assaulted with homophobic slurs and targeted by the police)  in the wake of the physical violence in Southern California has been absolutely inspiring. We’ve united against a common adversary -- animal abusers -- and offered our moral, physical, and economic support for activists who have been wrongly targeted in a time of crisis. These ties will hold us together as we face even more difficult challenges in the future. And while the road is bumpy -- and some may even drop out on the way there -- taking the difficult road together will ultimately make all of us stronger and more committed to the movement, to the animals, and, yes, to one another.


The first time I was attacked a protest about a decade ago (by a police officer, no less), I was shaken to the core. I was at a one-person demonstration on a cold Chicago street, outside of a fur store. And when my face was shoved down onto the cement, I could hardly even believe what had just happened. When I sat in an isolated jail cell afterwards, nursing my scratches and wounds, I could hardly hold myself back from breaking down into tears. I was uncertain about what I would be charged with, stunned by the seeming corruption in the police department, and hopeless about the prospect of continuing as an activist in the face of overwhelming odds.

When I was slugged in the face last year at Chipotle, however, things could not have been any more different. Both Priya and I received immense support and comfort, not just from fellow activists at the demonstration but from the entire DxE network. We talked openly within the community about what we could do to prevent such a future occurrence, or at least ensure that those attacked would be prepared in the face of violence. And instead of pointing fingers at one another -- “Why did you incite him?” or “Why didn’t you move to help more quickly?” -- we focused on our shared purpose, even as we discussed what steps each of us could have taken to ensure that such an incident would not repeat itself.

In the long run, getting slugged in the face in May 2014 became one of the most positive experiences of my activist history.

The Chinese word for crisis shares a common character — ji or 机 — with the Chinese word for opportunity.

This is a more general principle. The Chinese word for crisis shares a common character -- ji or -- with the Chinese word for opportunity. And there is truth to this ancient parallel. If we can rise up to the challenges of crisis, and see them as opportunities to teach us, to test us, and to create ties of solidarity, we can transform even the most painful moments into opportunities to learn, grow, and flourish. 

The Backlash Effect: How to Transform Violence into Justice


The Backlash Effect: How to Transform Violence into Justice

Nonviolent direct action induces annoyance, hatred, and violence by our opponents. Here are 3 keys to channeling the backlash into progress for social justice. 

by Wayne Hsiung

Nicholas is not an obvious “social justice warrior.” He’s a Star Wars geek with a minimal social media profile. He’s soft-spoken and refuses any sort of attention. At protests or parties, you’ll almost always find him hovering somewhere in the background -- usually with a camera. And when he joined the DxE Southwest Speaking Tour last fall, he was commonly mistaken, even by other DxE actvists, as “some random tech guy.” You might not know, then, that Nick is one of the most high-impact activists In DxE’s network.

And yet that is exactly what he is.

Video of the attack in Palm Springs. 

When this unassuming Star Wars geek was viciously assaulted by Omar Haddedou, a manager of the high-end, foie-gras-serving restaurant Le Vallauris. Mr. Haddedou was so enraged by the protest that he rampaged through the activists with a large wooden club, menacing a pregnant woman and children. Nick, Abraham, and many others jumped forward to defend the activists, but Nick’s face and camera took the brunt of the attack. The latter did not survive. But the remarkable thing is that, even as his face was being clubbed, Nick directly confronted the violence with camera in hand. He did not run. He did not strike back. He did not even curse. He calmly continued recording, while literally being beaten in the face, and even followed the man as he walked back into the building after the attack.

You can see in the video that the other protesters are stunned. They stare at Nick’s face, bruised by the assault, and wonder what to do next. But Nick simply says, “I’m ok,” and continues filming the demo. And the protest goes on.

In so many ways, Nick -- quiet, unassuming, geeky Nick -- perfectly distilled what DxE is all about: strength in nonviolence.

But the media uproar after the attack illustrates another important phenomenon in the history of social justice: the backlash effect. And understanding how this crucial effect works, and how we can deploy it, is vital to strategic use of nonviolence -- and the growth of our movement. But let’s step back for some historical context.


In 1954, in one of the most radical decisions in the Supreme Court’s history, Chief Justice Earl Warren held in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. What the public often remembers as a resounding victory for civil rights, however, was actually a barely-noticeable hiccup in an engine of racial oppression. Harvard historian Michael Klarman writes that the decision’s “direct impact on school desegregation was limited.” State governments in both the North and the South, it turns out, had no interest in actually upholding the ruling. The public was similarly dismissive, as the case had little to no impact on swaying popular opinion against the hateful system known as Jim Crow. Even communities of color seemed indifferent to Brown. Indeed, it was not until almost a decade later that the mass uprising we call the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeded in capturing the public imagination with Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington.

But then was Brown just a waste of time? In fact, historians now believe that Brown was a crucial point in the struggle for racial equality. But Brown is not seen as important because it did anything to directly alleviate racism, or build support for an anti-racist movement. Rather, Brown worked because it triggered a massive and violent reaction by the South -- a backlash. This backlash provoked and polarized the issue of racial discrimination, made the tiny handful of nonviolent activists appear as heroes, and forced fence-sitters across the country to finally take a stand on civil rights. And when so forced, the public eventually sided with the nonviolent protesters fighting for equality over the violent racists assaulting those same protesters with batons, fire hoses, and police dogs.

Attention to economic inequality was repeatedly triggered by incidents of violence against protesters. 

The backlash effect of Brown, it turns out, is not a historical anomaly. Backlash has been vital to the growth of virtually every important movement for social justice. The violent reactions against Emmeline Pankhurt’s disruptions of Parliament and other important political institutions were crucial to the global movement for women’s suffrage. (Pankhurt’s bravery earned her a place as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century.) LGBTQ liberation was utterly stalled until police beatings during the Stonewall Riots finally put issue onto the table. (The number of gay groups nationwide increased from 50 to 2500 within two years of the riot.) And most recently, Occupy Wall Street’s sudden and massive growth was triggered almost entirely by brutal clashes with the police

It’s not surprising, then, that important moments in DxE’s growth have been triggered by clashes. Our first viral video, which inspired copycat actions in 6 cities, involved an over-the-top hostile response by the employees at a Sprouts grocery store. Our first notable press hit was triggered by a disruption of the film American Meat at Stanford that induced a violent and angry response by the audience (including one audience member shrieking, “You’re about to face some violence!”). And the #DisruptSpeciesism videos that exploded last fall were catalyzed by an initial speakout by Priya that contrasted her calm strength and confidence with the restaurant’s violent response.

The recent clash involving Nick, then, is simply the latest example of the power of the backlash effect to provoke attention and mobilize support. The resulting press coverage, which has been universally positive, has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the debate over animal rights. We have received dozens of comments, emails, and messages from new activists asking how they can get involved with the #ItsNotFoodItsViolence campaign.

There are three important strategic points to make, however, if we are to channel the energy created by the backlash effect into progress.

First, nonviolence is key. Gandhi believed in refusing to back down in the face of violence (nonviolence, he said, is very different from cowardice), but he believed just as strongly in refusing to strike back. And a century of historical analysis and social scientific research supports Gandhi’s approach. Cornell’s Sidney Tarrow identifies nonviolent disruption as “the strongest weapon of social movements” because it provokes attention, broadens the circle of debate, and serves as inspiring evidence of determination. It allows movements with limited resources to leverage small initial support to create massive impacts. More recently, political scientist Erica Chenowith’s work on civil resistance, noted by the American Political Science Association as the most important research published in 2012, shows why nonviolent disruption has been so effective.  When disruption diminishes into so-called “contained” activism (i.e. working for reforms within the system), it loses its ability to provoke or inspire. When it devolves into violence, it loses public support, depresses activist participation, and gives both corporations and government the cover they need to violently suppress a movement before it can take hold. Nonviolent direct action is the sweet spot that fosters a movement’s strength and growth.  

The fact that Nick and the other activists did not strike back, then, was absolutely vital to maintaining not just the moral but the strategic high ground. We probably would not have been able to share the video with the press, after all, if Nick had fought back, as we would have to worry about Nick also facing criminal charges for assault.

Nonviolence asks us to confront, not avoid, injustice and violence. 

Second, true nonviolence requires us to confront, not avoid, injustice and violence. Many people confuse nonviolence with the mere avoidance of violence. But this is the opposite of what nonviolent direct action asks of us. Powerful movements from antislavery in the United States (William Lloyd Garrison burning the US Constitution in the face of a mob of Bostonians threatening to lynch him) to the pro-democracy movement in China (the Unknown Protester, who charged in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square) have encouraged activists to aggressively seek out and challenge, not avoid, violence. To confront violence with the power of protest. To place our own comfort, safety, and even lives at stake to protect those who cannot protect themselves. 

Nick did not run from the conflict. Far from it, you see him rushing up to defend his fellow activists when the initial tussle beings. And he continues to film and follow the violent man, even as he is being battered across the face. Other activists at the demo, notably Abraham Santamaria and Missy Freeland, similarly jumped forward to protect Nick when the violent man turns his ire on the camera. This is the sort of bravery, confidence, and strength we must find in ourselves if we are going to change a violent system.   

Third, the energy created by nonviolence and backlash must be channeled into community to create long-term change. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized that nonviolent direct action was the product not of individual fortitude but the “Beloved Community.” One of the founders of ACT UP (the groundbreaking LGBTQ advocacy and AIDS awareness network), whom I have had extensive personal discussions with, emphasized to me that the provocative demonstrations that drove progress on LGBTQ rights would not have been possible without a burgeoning community of gay community centers. The community offered activists legal, financial, and moral support as they took greater risks to confront prejudice and hate. And movement scholars across many disciplines have shown the crucial importance of social ties in motivating widespread participation in movements for change. Nonviolent direct action -- and, specifically, the backlash effect -- is the generator that creates energy, but community is the battery that stores that energy to perform the hard work of social change over the long term. 

Nick (along with his fellow organizers in the Inland Empire) has done an incredible job of building not just a movement for protest, but a community for activists to rest, reminisce, and recharge in the days after a difficult action. In fact, just one day after the attack, Nick and the other Inland Empire activists had a wonderful potluck that I had the pleasure to briefly Skype into. I could see the friendship and camaraderie that was spreading through the community. This is not only good for sustaining activism. It’s good for Nick, who needs our support to see that the struggles and obstacles he faces -- including, in this case, violence -- are worth it. 

The community at DxE - Inland Empire. 

And our movement will surely face more obstacles and struggles. With powerful corporations, institutions, and traditions beginning to recognize the threat posed by the animal rights movement, tension is inevitable. But as King himself said, “[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.” Facing this tension is a necessary element to our movement’s progress and growth. But we can find solace in the fact that modern movements for justice have not required the same sacrifices that were made by activists 200 years ago. It took a violent war that decimated an entire nation to end antebellum slavery, but the LGBTQ liberation movement and Occupy Wall Street surged forward with comparatively little loss of life. Perhaps our society has learned lessons from 200 years of struggle… most importantly, that progress requires agitation.

We should take on the challenge of nonviolence, then, with pride. Violent responses are a measure of the work that needs to be done -- a measure of the widespread apathy and even hostility toward the cause of animal rights. But they are also an opportunity for us to prove our moral strength. If we can maintain the moral/strategic high ground, confront rather than avoid violence, and tap into the power of community to fuel our movement’s inspiration and growth, we can transform brutal attacks like the Palm Springs incident into forces for justice.

And when we have an entire movement which has steeled itself, as Nick did, to take nonviolent direct action -- to bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive -- we will change the world.