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Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

By Saryta Rodriguez


Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Brenda Sanders, an amazing activist based in Baltimore, MD.  Brenda runs a successful vegan mentoring program called Vegan Living and works with Open Cages Alliance.  Below, she shares her extremely valuable insights on race challenges in the AR community as well as details about the incredible work she's doing.  Thank you so much, Brenda!


SR:  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to DxE.

BNS: Thanks, Saryta.

SR:  Please share with us how you two first became involved in the Animal Liberation Movement.  Were you inspired by a particular event or person in your life, or in the liberationist community?

Brenda Sanders.

Brenda Sanders.

BNS: A few years ago I realized that I was starting to feel a connection with animals. It was a strange experience for me, since I had never thought much about animals prior to that. I was suddenly seeing them as individuals and becoming concerned about the way humans were choosing to treat them. When I tried to express these thoughts to other people they laughed. So I began looking for like-minded people and I was fortunate enough to stumble across Open the Cages Alliance, an organization with a strong animal liberation message.

SR:  While some claim that we are living in a “post-racial” society, recent court cases regarding police brutality coupled with the dominant faces of many social movements tell a different story.  Animal liberation is one such movement, perceived by many to be a “white people thing.”

How has being POCs (persons of color) impacted your experiences as animal liberationists?

BNS: It’s interesting because as an African-American, I’m extremely motivated to educate other African-Americans about the horrible exploitation animals are experiencing at the hands of humans. The problem is that I’ve been witnessing so much racial bias within the Animal Liberation movement that I’ve found that I’m sometimes reluctant to even associate myself with the movement – especially in my outreach to marginalized communities.

SR:  What advice might you offer to other liberationist POCs who may be struggling to gain acceptance of their values in their racial communities, or who would like to encourage other POCs to join the movement?

BNS: That’s a really tough question, one that I struggle with everyday. I think I would say, “Blaze Your Own Path.” It’s possible to be a part of a movement while not embodying every single thing that movement represents. Yes, there is a lot of racism, sexism and classism within the Animal Liberation movement but that doesn’t make the work of freeing animals from human tyranny any less important.

SR:  What might recent instances of nonviolent direct action that have occurred as a result of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions teach us about the intersectionality of racism and speciesism?  To what extent do you think liberationists should be cautious in drawing parallels between the two, and how might such parallels be illustrated most effectively?

BNS: The marches and demonstrations that have been sweeping across the country - and the world - in response to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions show us that people from different ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses, age groups, and cultural identities can all come together to speak out against inequality. There is no more effective way to create change in the world than for people from all walks of life to speak as one voice to demand justice. It’s important that animal liberationists make the connections between the oppression of animals and all other systems of oppression but animal liberationists have to be careful not to appropriate other people’s struggle for justice merely for the purpose of highlighting animal suffering. Making a sincere effort to reach out and ally themselves to others who are engaged in similar struggles would be a great first step.

SR: I understand you are heavily involved with the Open Cages Alliance (OTCA). Can you please tell us a bit about this organization and how you came to be involved with it?

BNS: As I mentioned before, I found Open the Cages Alliance in my search for others who were working to stop the exploitation of animals – and I’m so glad I did! OTCA’s strong message of animal liberation combined with the drive to connect these issues with other social justice issues was exactly what I was looking for. I started out as a volunteer in 2013 and have since stepped up as one of the directors of the organization.

SR:  How is the Open Cages Alliance organized, and what are some of its short-term and long-term goals?

BNS: Open the Cages Alliance is an all-volunteer organization run at this time by three women who are dedicated to animal liberation and raising awareness of the connection between the different systems of oppression. One of our goals is to educate the public about the systemic exploitation of non-human animals while offering everyday alternatives to these oppressive actions. We also work to build coalitions with other social justice activists, including those activists in Baltimore involved in the Blacklivesmatter movement.

SR:  Please tell us about one of your favorite actions, lectures or other events in which you’ve taken part since joining the alliance.

BNS: One of my favorite actions with Open the Cages Alliance was the lecture and discussion we conducted on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in conjunction with the Week of Action Against the AETA. It was so rewarding to engage in a discussion with other activists about the implications of this legislation and how we can affectively move forward with our activism in spite of the pushback from the animal exploitation industries.

SR:  You are also an active member of a vegan mentoring program. What is the program called, and what are some of the core values that you and other mentors impart to its mentees?

BNS: The Vegan Living Program is a yearly five-week-long vegan educational program run by Open the Cages Alliance. The purpose of this program is to teach people the ins and outs of the vegan lifestyle, including an understanding of what veganism actually is (a lifestyle that avoids the exploitation of animals) and how veganism can benefit our personal health, the animals we share the planet with and the planet itself.

SR: How does the Vegan Living Program impart the liberationist message, beyond promoting a vegan lifestyle?

BNS: The Open the Cages Alliance directors are, first and foremost, animal liberationists. The total liberation of animals from human tyranny is the foundation that our activism is built on and our programming ALWAYS reflects that. We see the vegan lifestyle as one of the vehicles through which animal liberation can be actualized, therefore we feel perfectly comfortable promoting veganism. We do, however, understand that veganism is only a small step towards bringing an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression.

SR:  How do you ensure, or at least increase the likelihood, that mentees remain committed to animal liberation after they have completed the program? Do you often engage in follow-up conversations or activities with former mentees?

BNS: The purpose of the program is to educate and inspire. Once Vegan Living Program participants know why it’s wrong to exploit animals and what a lifestyle free of exploitation looks like, we stay engaged with program participants through the numerous protests, demonstrations and events that we have throughout the year. Many of our former vegan pledges come back to serve as vegan coaches in the VLP, participate in our demonstrations and stay actively engaged in the vegan community that we’re growing here in Baltimore.

SR: Please tell our readers a bit about your involvement with DxE.

BNS: I first became aware of DxE when I heard about the campaign against Chipotle’s “humane meat” marketing. I was inspired to get involved in that campaign because I was so disgusted at Chipotle’s attempts to woo more customers with deceptive marketing. After Wayne and Ronnie visited Baltimore in August 2014 for the East Coast tour, I was motivated to keep the momentum going with the disruptions and began organizing with other people in Baltimore to do regular disruptions.

SR:  Thank you so much, again for sharing your insights and experiences with us!

One last question: What is your spirit animal?

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

BNS: If I had a spirit animal it would be the hawk because of it’s superb vision and ability to follow through once it sets out on a course of action.

Interview with Marie and Butterfly, Founders of Solfood Catering and Cafe Caravan

Interview with Marie and Butterfly, Founders of Solfood Catering and Cafe Caravan

By Natalie Blanton

I grew up in a sleepy, conservative, violence- and hunter-centric Utah mountain town. Unintended teen pregnancy and deer-skinnings in the front yard were visible and rampant. It was this environment that cultivated my awe, wonder, and full alignment with ecofeminism, veganism, liberationism, and the diverse feminist fights occurring across society today.

A few weeks back, I was contacted by a pair of women identifying as Marie and Butterfly of Solfood Catering, hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas. They spoke my language. They were working directly with Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, the mother goddess of all my ecofeminist ideologies; and shared my passion for the inextricable ties between plant-based diets, animal liberation and women’s liberation.

Marie and Butterfly are currently on tour as Café Caravan, with their remarkable ability of creating delectable vegan food, bringing people together with a liberationist message, and bridging the divide between human and nonhuman animal rights.

Interviewer Natalie Blanton (far right), her partner Harold (far left) and the Solfood Catering team (center).

Interviewer Natalie Blanton (far right), her partner Harold (far left) and the Solfood Catering team (center).

I had a chance to interviewing these two wonderful women about their tour, their involvement in the Animal Liberation Movement, and their stories:

NB: What made you originally go vegan?

Both: Health reasons, initially; but then, personal research and experience led us to other avenues of vegan outreach and activism.

Marie: I was in Egypt when I encountered a horse in a cramped corner market. It was harnessed with blinders on, undernourished, and looked generally miserable. I could feel its presence, though—more than animals ever before. I remember thinking, “What is your name?” to the horse, and the response came back overwhelmingly: “I don’t know.” I decided right then and there that we do not have to treat other beings like this.

NB: What did you think when you first heard of veganism?

Marie: I thought it was so extreme and only raw foods.

Butterfly: I thought it sounded like something I wanted to try—but just couldn’t because it would be too expensive or too hard. When I gave it a try, my joint problems, insomnia…everything just stopped. It heals the body.

NB: How did this vegan outreach come out of Little Rock?

Butterfly: It began with the raw food movement and public support at farmer’s markets on the weekends. People would smell our food and not believe it was vegan.

NB: How do you equate feminism with veganism?

Marie: Read The Sexual Politics of Meat—once you have read that, you cannot forget it. People think that dairy products are “so humane,” but this could not be less true. Kept constantly pregnant and lactating sounds worse to me than death. By making a slave of the cow and then killing the body once it can no longer produce—that is how you get your dairy.

Patriarchy couldn’t survive without this enslavement and cooption of female bodies. People no longer have to do that work—these creatures are simply fed into the machine and forgotten.

Butterfly: The humane meat movement is ridiculous. You think it’s better to treat someone nicely and then kill them?

NB: What are some ways in which your business has supported, or seeks to support, feminist groups, actions and initiatives?

Both: Our business supports feminist actions by offering plant-based nutrition workshops to populations of underserved mothers and women, thus sharing with them the ideals of how their tation in life is connected to the liberation of other species.

We give workshops on women's health, for example—fibroid elimination and cancer prevention. That workshop gives them a plethora of information, from how to eliminate the actual fibroid to how to heal themselves mentally and spiritually. We reiterate that diseases that affect women aren't just physical ailments—they are often self-esteem driven and/or environmentally driven.

Focusing on what things in our lives are no longer valid and hold us back, making us feel less than, and then taking steps to rid ourselves of them helps us to become viable, contributing forces in the world and for ourselves. Self-care is important, and most women have not a clue. To be a feminist/activist, you have to first love yourself. Otherwise, you won't be around to make a difference for women—or anybody. 

NB: I have received many critiques of animal rights activism as being a classist, white, privileged movement. Can you comment on this for me?

Marie: Go ask 500 million Hindus and the rest of the world who does this all of their lives. Some of the world’s poorest are thriving off of this lifestyle. If meat is eaten in these communities, it is a fraction of their intake. Everybody in the village can be fed off of a few grains for weeks. Take a look at tofu’s protein and nutrient make-up and compare that to the same amount of ground beef. Then we can have this conversation of price comparisons.

NB: Do you have any advice to offer to liberationists organizations regarding how they can better embrace communities of color, and/or how to reach across classes, here in the US?

Both: Yes, and in fact we were just discussing this challenge a few days ago!  These liberation organizations need to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, with the topic of police brutality having its day in the sun in national media. There are so many disaffected young people of color with no purpose, calling or motivation that have so much energy that can be channeled in a positive direction. There should be outreach programs that specifically target these communities. Take it to the schools, take it to the corners, take it to the churches.

Everyone wants to talk about there is no food, there are no jobs, etc. Taking time with young people to teach them and engage them in the arts, including gardening, gives them direction, focus and something to do.

We ran a program a couple of years ago called Fresh Start, where we worked with a group of young women of color to plant a garden in the yards of people from our community. We had two volunteers who allowed us to come into their homes and lay out plans for a garden. The girls not only dug the gardens and planted seeds with us, but they were also responsible for the filming of this process.  Teaching theses two skills has given them something that they can take and make their own. We can't just sit by and say, “The youth are causing problems; they have no direction.” We have to be bold enough to seek them out and give them something worthwhile and productive to do. If we don't, someone else will.

NB:  I am curious as to how the South of the United States responds to veganism?

Marie: We have been keen and aware of this as well. We have been showing low-income parents these “Cooking Matters” classes.

Butterfly: We explain to them that if they live in a resource or food “desert”—an environment or city that does not have walk-able resources (within 1 mile), such as fresh fruits, vegetables, or grocery stores—like many of us do in the South, by grabbing bulk non-perishable legumes you can have meals for weeks. Try your local Mexican or ethnic markets for legumes (dried beans, etc.) they are inexpensive and last forever. Try twp bags of lentils, seasoned; put some grain and lettuce in with them, and you have meals for days.

Marie: In areas with high minority concentrations, farming and gardening continues to be connected to slavery. There is stigma against growing your own food, and it is almost a status symbol to be able to go to the grocery store or through the fast food drive-thru. In Little Rock, there is a center for Urban Farming and Ecology with different organizations doing outreach regarding how to grow for yourself and your family; but there is such a resistance. You cannot be an outsider who thinks they can make a change—you need to be there for years.

Butterfly: Teach your kids to play in the dirt. They need that tactile connection to the earth. We need to teach new generations of people to live off of the land and be willing to work in urban farms.

Marie: Once young people get to high school, it is too late. Arkansas has a summer program called Learning through the Arts. I teach the culinary arts and 95% of my students, from low-income and rougher pasts, do not understand what average vegetables look like or where they come from. They couldn’t identify anything beyond green beans.

NB: How do you think veganism and your movement can aid in combating hunger?

Marie: We get this “escapism” mentality in November and December. We allow ourselves to indulge and escape from the humdrum everyday reality and world.

Butterfly: Everything gets all glossy this time of year—but come January 1st we are right back to where we were.

Marie: There is a stigma attached to being poor, and a lot of people will not ask for help; but just like there is no shame in helping others, there is no shame in being poor. People across the spectrum are working equally as hard; there needs to be redistribution of wealth. Businesses, corporations, and farms need to be a part of this redistribution, and not just write it off.

Butterfly: Empathy and compassion are lost when there is this solution—making everything a tax write off. It is hard to think about people in your own community being hungry when there is a new iPhone coming out. This is escapism; this is what consumerism and capitalism is built around. Got to give them something, right?

NB: The Internet world would have it known that these are all currents of influence that will eventually and inevitably fade. Is this all a fad? Feminism? Veganism?

Marie: Well, you know feminism isn’t a fad.

Butterfly: Veganism is not a fad; but there is always going to be somebody who wants it to remain unpopular because it is trying to change their ideas. It works; healing our bodies and our planet is not a fad.

NB: What do you want to say to feminists who are not vegan, or who refuse to equate animal rights with human rights?

Butterfly: I have two words for these people: Rape Racks.

Marie: Yeah, tell them about the Rape Racks—the dairy farmer slang for the mechanism used to artificially inseminate and perpetually impregnate mother cows. Also, encourage them to read The Sexual Politics of Meat and then see where they stand. Simply observe your environment. Where did that milk and cheese come from? How do we have this constant supply of milk? Why are we the only animals that drink milk into our later life?

We also need to encourage empathy for all animals. If you can have empathy for your dog or your cat, you can have it for a cow or a chicken. 


Here’s to you, Marie and Butterfly of Solfood Catering and Café Caravan. Thank you for sharing social justice and vegan love in such a unique way. These remarkable ladies are currently on tour, and may very well be coming to a city near you. I could not encourage you more to take this opportunity to catch up with them in person, or on their Facebook page. You can also donate to their initiatives here

Interview with John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Interview with John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

By Saryta Rodriguez


SR: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Direct Action Everywhere.

JS:  Thanks for asking me. 

John Sanbonmatsu

John Sanbonmatsu

SR: In your book, The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy and the Making of a New Political Subject, you discuss the philosophical and social transition from prioritizing the development of a “common language of politics” (as advocated by Marx, Engels and others) to the current “deconstruction of discourse” prevailing in various social movements today—including the AR movement. 

Would you care to elaborate on how such deconstruction challenges the progress of the AR movement, from your perspective?

JS:  The problem is not so much deconstruction, as such, but what became known as the "postmodern turn" in scholarship in the humanities under the influence of French poststructuralist philosophers like Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on.   There are insights to be gotten out of some of these theorists (though some more than others).  The trouble is, poststructuralism is an exceedingly poor basis for formulating a substantive politics of any kind.  First, because poststructuralists want to distance themselves from humanism and Marxism, they are positively averse to normativity.  That is, they equivocate on important values, particularly in the realm of ethics, e.g. eschewing language of liberation or oppression (because their theory of language and power essentially implicates all of us in complex discourses rather than in responsibilities).

Postmodernist critical animal studies scholars insist that we all have “blood on our hands”—which is both true and beside the point, because such statements obscure the sociological dimensions of power, i.e. which groups have more of it than others, and why.  Some such theorists even warn us not to use the language of “animal rights” at all—objecting, on recondite theoretical grounds, that in talking about “rights” we end up reproducing “humanism” and the repressive apparatus of the State.  Others, like Donna Haraway, essentially defend the instrumental domination, use and killing of other animals. (Incidentally, Haraway has been invited to give the keynote address at animal studies conferences, where she has attacked vegans and veganism.)

In addition to this fuzziness or equivocation around values, poststructuralism occludes social phenomena, muddying the waters of theory by imposing abstract metaphysical concepts on empirical reality—e.g., “biopolitics,” “cyborgs,” “hybrids,” “memes,” “differance,” “actants,” “bodies that matter,” etc.  These terms bear about them the aura of de nouveau, the New, “the cool.”  They shine and have the allure of newly minted knowledge commodities—discursive coinage that bestows upon its bearer an aura of respectability and sophistication, within an economic structure of scarcity within the university system: scarce jobs, and even scarcer intellectual courage.

The responsibility of theory is in fact not to complicate our understanding of the world—which is already complicated and confusing enough—but to simplify it, to make it easier to grasp its essential or underlying features.  Theory should not make the world more complicated than it already is. 

Read full response here. 

SR: It’s no secret that ours is a movement wrought with semantic differences, with objections flying left and right to this or that term (as one also often encounters in discussions of gender and sexual orientation).  Do you see any potential benefit or value to semantic hairsplitting within the AR movement? Or is it a mere distraction, a waste of time?

JS:  If you mean the debate between welfarism and liberationism, I think that that debate, that distinction, does matter—and all the more so today, when the "humane meat" movement has taken over so much of the welfare wing of the movement.  I also think that arguments over tactics, particularly the problem of violence, are worth having.  That said, there's no doubt that we need to find a way to engage in debates without falling into ad hominem attacks and becoming so obsessed with definitions that we lose sight of what matters—other animals.  There are outsized egos in our movement, particular male egos; and as a consequence there is also a great deal of aggression in some of these debates (I have to cop to this one myself). 

One of the false dilemmas currently being bandied about is the old chestnut that reform and revolution are at odds with one another; but the question is how to go about seeking reforms of the current system without compromising our long-term goal of abolition.  What is key is that our campaigns chip away at the foundations of speciesism as a system and the only way that can happen is to show how single-issue reforms or campaigns are expressions of a deeper liberationist framework, rather than not from a welfarist one.  But welfarism and reformism are not the same.  One can consistently hold the position that Seaworld should be shut down, say, without along the way contrasting its immoral policies to so-called "better run" marine parks.  (There is an excellent Master's thesis on this, by the way, by Elizabeth Smith, a recent graduate of the Brock University animal studies program.)  Whatever we do, we always have to be challenging the core ideology of speciesism. 

SR:  Thank you for that insight.  I agree that this distinction is valuable; however, do you have any thoughts on other common semantic arguments in the AR movement, such as whether or not it's "okay" to employ the term vegan? I know a lot of activists have mixed feelings about whether using this term in particular is positive, negative, or neutral/inconsequential.

JS:  The word “vegan” is rather unavoidable, I think—at least in the context of eating.  At the same time, “veganism” is often a weak substitute or placeholder for the broader theme of animal liberation or animal rights.  “Veganism,” as you know, is associated in many people’s minds with one’s food preferences, even one’s “lifestyle.” Being vegan is seen as akin to being gluten intolerant, diabetic, or merely a finicky eater (as in, “Oh, I forgot—you’re vegan!  Where should we go where you can find something to eat?”). 

More radical or political “vegans,” of course, view veganism more broadly than this, encompassing a variety of other animal rights concerns with that term; but even to me, it is unclear why being a “vegan” as such should commit me to a public stance against vivisection, aquariums, or habitat destruction.  To answer your question, then, I would say that the animal rights movement would be wise to emphasize concepts of universal citizenship—as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, the authors of Zoopolis, have argued—or otherwise develop a language and movement of general emancipation—one that takes the emphasis away from “diet.” 

Some years ago, I coined the term “metahumanism” to describe an ideology and praxis of universal freedom for humans and nonhumans: a democratic, feminist, socialist praxis that would include animal liberation at its center.  Apparently, though, it was a non-starter; so someone else should think of a way of representing our project to the broader public!  It needs to be clear to people that what is at stake is not simply a set of eating guidelines, but a total critique of society—of a way of life that has become inimical to life.

SR: Much of your work centers on the notion of critical theory: applying knowledge of social sciences to assess and critique society and culture.  Many readers may have encountered this term in Sociology 101 courses; but what insight does critical theory lend to AR activism today? Would you say it is being implemented efficiently, relative to its use in past social justice movements?

JS:  What makes critical theory "critical" is that it sets out from a point of view of social critique—a rejection of the dominant values and institutions of our culture (in this case, the rejection of speciesism as a mode of producing human life).  The purpose of critical theory is twofold.  At minimum, first, its function is to give us a clearer sense of what the "problem" actually is.  This is crucial.  How can we form campaigns, tactics or strategies, to solve a social problem without first understanding it?  For example, some animal rights activists seem to think that convincing people to become vegan will end animal agriculture; but the main force driving our exploitation of nonhuman beings today is capitalism as a world system. Evidently, then, changing people's dietary habits, while important, is not going to be enough.  Buying vegan burgers, for instance, may actually be reinforcing the system of speciesism because, in many cases, it profits the very same companies who are marketing meat products, such as Whole Foods.  So what may at first appear to be an unproblematic intervention may in reality subtly strengthen the system as a whole.  Hence the role of the intellectual (whether the astute grassroots activist or the professional sociologist or philosopher)—which is, first of all, to acquaint us with the facts—becomes crucial. 

But "facts" are fluid, cultural, and semiotic:  they include our use of language, representations of animals in literature and media, the political economies of the meat system, and so on. And they cannot be stumbled across by accident.  We have to be out looking for them, using the tools of theory.

In addition to illuminating the nature of the problem (or rather, problems, because speciesism is merely one key spoke on a giant wheel of interconnected systems of oppression and violence), critical theory can also help us think strategically about social change, by identifying points of weakness or contradiction in the current system. The history of critical theory actually succeeding at this is not terrible encouraging.  Marx and Engels were brilliant at diagnosing the contradictions of capitalism, but not very good at theorizing revolution.  (Most of the revolutions of the 20th century occurred in peasant-based societies, not highly industrialized ones, and most of them ended up being steeped in blood, before dissolving altogether.)  That said, at its best, critical theory can serve as a kind of compass, or as "map-making.” Even if the "map" we have is incomplete and in constant need of revision, it's better than not having any sense of direction at all.

SR: One of the primary goals of Direct Action Everywhere is to dispel the Humane Myth: the notion that there is a kind, “humane” way to enslave and ultimately murder a sentient being.  We understand this is also of the utmost importance to you; care to tell us why?

JS:  It is clear that the meat system is in crisis.  This could be an occasion for radical change.  As a species, we could seize this opportunity to embark on a new form of human life: one that would not be organized around the perpetual sexual reproduction and mass murder of billions of our biological kin.  Instead, we find sectors of the capitalist economy working very hard to prevent this from happening.  The system is doing everything it can to protect itself, by creating the illusion that one can "care" about animals while still wanting them to die violently at our own hands. Unfortunately, the strategy has been succeeding.

The reason why has to do with speciesism's "mode of legitimation," or characteristic way of defending itself as an idea and social practice.  Speciesism rests on a single pillar—the idea that human beings are superior to all of the other beings on earth, and that this superiority grants us a natural right to make use of the other beings however we like (a notion I have called "human species right").  As an ideology, this mode of legitimation obviously doesn't work quite as well as it once did.  The animal rights movement has raised consciousness about the brutal realities of animal agriculture.  Meanwhile, the global warming crisis has heightened awareness of the ecologically unsustainable nature of factory farming.  In other words, "meat" as an idea—or perhaps I should say as an ideal (as the preferred way for human beings to get their sustenance)—has become unstable, in direct proportion to the deepening of the ecological and moral contradictions at the heart of the system.  As a consequence, the animal industrial complex, as Kim Stallwood and others have called it, needs to be legitimated or justified in novel ways. 

Enter Michael Pollan and critics like him, who are essentially stabilizing the meat economy by telling consumers that they can have their meat and their consciences too. As we all know, middle class, mostly white consumers are buying into the "humane" myth.  Unfortunately, their strategy has been succeeding remarkably well, thanks to the pro-meat intelligentsia and the organic farming movement.  (I'm told that even the new Cowspiracy film focuses narrowly on the question of ecological sustainability, and entirely circumvents the real problem with animal agriculture, which is that it is mass violence and wholly unjust.)  Ironically, but perhaps by design, the new consumption regime is helping to stabilize factory farming, by reinforcing the bedrock ideological principle of speciesism, which is that the lives of other animals are without any intrinsic value—which means that we can exterminate billions of them without having to suffer any moral pangs.  Buying "pasture-raised" beef or organic eggs is like casting a vote for perpetual human dominion.

SR: What barriers have you encountered, or do you perhaps foresee, with respect to confronting the Humane Myth? How might it have become so thoroughly embedded in our culture that even those who label themselves “animal-lovers” or “anti-cruelty” nevertheless remain under its sway? I know this is a loaded question; but any insights or opinions you might have on the matter would be most appreciated.

JS:  Well, it already is embedded, I'm afraid.  There are probably two main reasons for it.  First, people are "interpellated" or conditioned by their culture to think selfishly and in terms of their own material comforts.  Consumer capitalism fragments society, isolates us as individuals, and leads us away from collective moral and spiritual reflection.  No one wants to reflect seriously on the meaning of their lives, let alone to soberly face their complicity in what amount to crimes and atrocities.  Eating animal products is convenient and aesthetically pleasing for many, which primes people to want to dismiss animal rights activists as lunatics or extremists. 

French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre.

French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre.

Second, and relatedly, we human beings often exist in a state of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith."  That is, we continually make excuses for behavior we know is not really justified, deep down, so that we won't have to take responsibility for the choices we make as free beings.  This is why, when meat-eaters are challenged to reexamine their beliefs by vegetarians or vegans, they spontaneously invent the same fallacious arguments that everyone else does:  "plants are alive, too," "as long as we treat the animals respectfully, it's okay to harvest them," "lions eat gazelles, so it must be okay for us to eat animals," and so on.  We simply don't want to acknowledge what we are doing.   There is even anecdotal evidence in the news media that many former vegetarians are eating meat again, now that animals are supposedly being raised "sustainably" and "ethically."  Of course, such individuals probably never really cared about the animals, deep down, anyway:  they perhaps became vegetarians or vegans to demonstrate to themselves and others that they were progressive-minded, that they were properly concerned about "the environment" or what have you.  Bad faith, through and through.

None of us in the animal rights movement are innocent of bad faith, either.  There are plenty of vegans who think they are ethically pure, even though they consume products that are made with sweatshop labor in Asia, or indirectly cause animal suffering and death.  We can't entirely escape bad faith.  The question Sartre posed is how we might live more "authentically," by being vigilant to our propensity to escape our freedom.  All that we can do as activists is to point out the contradictions and hypocrisies in people's attitudes toward the other beings, and to show them what is really happening.

SR: In a letter to Aaron Gross of Farm Forward, you made a brilliant case against the Humane Myth while defending previous comments comparing the meat industry to the Holocaust.  This comparison is almost as common as it is controversial; but I admired your ability to dissect the issue. How did he respond? Was the interaction ultimately constructive, from your perspective?

JS:  The letter I wrote, which was published on Robert Grillo's Free From Harm website, was my response to an email Aaron sent to me after I contacted Farm Forward and told them what I thought of their morally repugnant work. Gross never responded to my critique; not a single word—even though Robert invited him to write a reply for the website.  Frankly, I don't see how he could have replied.  He must know, deep down, that I and others are right about this—that Farm Forward and other groups are colluding with evil.

In terms of the comparison between our treatment of animals to the Shoah or Nazi extermination of European Jewry and Roma, there are simply too many similarities to ignore.  At the same time, we should take care to note that our treatment of animals resembles genocide as such, slavery as such.  It isn't just the Holocaust that we should be talking about, but slavery in the ancient world and in the Americas, the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese, and so on. 

SR:  Critical theorists are captivated by the nature, meaning, and significance of power. How do you think the discourse and practice of animal agriculture—particularly "humane" meat—influence the pervasive power imbalance between humans and non-humans? How is that power imbalance related to other systems of power, and how might we most effectively challenge it? 

JS:  Unfortunately, the problem of "power" has largely disappeared in critical theory, thanks to the outsized influence of Michel Foucault and other poststructuralists, who drew attention away from classical conceptions of power as ideological hegemony to focus on "micro" power—power dwelling exclusively in the interstices of discourse, language, the comportment of our bodies, and so on.  This is not to say that Foucault and others didn't make a contribution to our understanding of power, because they did; however, with the exception of Marxists, a few remaining radical feminists, many sociologists, and some critical race theorists, theorists have otherwise ceased to be interested in power as a relational concept—as the dominance of one group over another.  Symptomatically, Judith Butler, the poststructuralist feminist, has essentially removed the term "patriarchy" from the lexicon of feminism, making it very difficult, as a consequence, to "name" the problem of male domination.

In terms of "humane meat," as I said, the entire discourse reinvigorates speciesism as a mode of domination, by providing ideological cover for the underlying principle of domination and violence, which it utterly fails to examine.  In this sense, the sustainable meat and locavore movements can be seen as a rearguard action by the intelligentsia and Western middle class to secure their right to appropriate the bodies of other beings, in the face of the animal rights critique.

You ask how this system of dominance is related to others, and how to challenge it.  Many fine scholars have shown the ways that speciesism reinforces and is reinforced by other systems of power and inequality, including capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and so on.  The only thing I would say as a caveat to such analyses is that we shouldn't succumb to the metaphysical presumption that all systems of oppression are equal in strategic or political significance, even though we must agree that they are all of equal moral importance.  In my opinion, capitalism and patriarchy pose the two greatest challenges to animal liberation today:  capitalism because it drives animal exploitation economically, ideologically and politically ("politically" insofar as the state is effectively controlled by big business); and male dominance because it propagates a value structure of objectification, domination, and violence.  Militarized masculinity and misogyny are also at fault—think of the recent "Gamer Gate" controversy—because patriarchy is antithetical to the development of an ethic of care, one that would place compassion toward other beings at its center.

SR: Your work also refers to intersectionality: the study of the intersections of various forms of oppression and abuse. This is paramount to Direct Action Everywhere, as we often host lectures and discussions about the relationships between speciesism, racism and sexism.  However, while opponents to any of these systems should naturally oppose the others, many do not.  How might we build bridges between groups who share the AR passion for justice and equality, but who may themselves persist in engaging in speciesist behavior?

JS:  I think that what DxE is doing to bring these issues together is admirable and important and timely.  I don't have a solution to this important problem, however, other than to say that we who constitute the left-wing sector of the AR movement need to keep showing up at protests and conferences of the political Left to insist that our voices and those of the animals be heard.  I think sometimes of the efforts of feminists within the US antiwar movement in the late 1960s, who tried to introduce questions of women's equality to the movement but were initially greeted by their male comrades with rape jokes.  The women eventually won!  However, the problem for the AR movement is that, unlike feminism, which spoke on behalf of one of the most sizable human constituencies there is—women as a class—we in the AR movement represent only a tiny sliver of the human population.  So unless we press our points and become something of a nuisance, we will continue to be ignored by the wider Left.  The challenge is to be insistent and unbending, without, however, lapsing into self-righteous indignation and shaming behaviors, which historically have been poisonous to building and sustaining large-scale social movements.

SR:  Aside from encouraging one anti-hatred group, such as a group of feminists, to live a more non-human-friendly lifestyle (by illustrating that “bovine women” are raped repeatedly to promote pregnancy and, in turn, milk production, for instance), how might animal liberationists—who ultimately fight for the freedom and equality of all species, including homo sapiens—effectively support and embrace other movements without jeopardizing our own? As an AR advocate, is taking a firm public stance on sexism, racism or any other –ism too risky?

JS:  I'm very ambivalent, actually, about the strategy of asking feminists to take animal rights seriously by emphasizing milk production and pregnancy, i.e. the oppression of their "sisters."  Gender is simply a meaningless concept when applied to nonhuman beings—a human projection.  As Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, and other ecofeminists have shown, speciesist discourse often "animalizes" women and correspondingly depicts farm animals like cows and chickens as "feminine."  Our job is to deconstruct this fraudulent way of conceiving of gender and power, not to subtly reinforce it by suggesting that a cow is a "woman," which is absurd.  It is certainly true that women who choose to give birth, who have had that experience, may more keenly appreciate the heart-wrenching cruelty involved in, say, tearing a newborn calf away from his mother's side and throwing him into a veal crate; but many women don't have children, and don't want to.  And we musn't forget that many of the most outspoken proponents of killing animals in the carno-locavore movement are women—many of them, like Barbara Kingsolver, with children of their own.  In fact, the so-called "femivore" discourse of meat deploys "maternal" metaphors of "caring" for infant animals—before killing them!  So emphasizing the supposed natural solidarity between women and animals seems like a mistake to me.  Moreover, men are just as capable of empathizing with cows and calves as women are, and half of the victims of animal agriculture (not to mention scientific experiments, zoos, etc.) are male animals.

To the substance of your question, though, I always go back to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s point that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  The reason we have to support the movement for gender equality for women and members of the LGBTQ is not simply that animal liberationism ultimately depends to some degree on human social liberation—which it does—but because it is the right thing to do.  How we do that will always be complicated and difficult, and I don't have anything to add to what DxE and a few others are already doing.

SR:  In your opinion, how should AR groups navigate the waters of being inclusive and welcoming while remaining committed to ending oppression? For instance, what is to be done with a potential AR advocate who wants to work with an AR coalition, but makes plain that he or she is sexist or racist? Should such individuals be excluded entirely, or might they still be of some value to the movement?

JS:  This is a certainly tough question.  The Left, including feminism, has historically had a very hard time building sustainable movement cultures, in part because of our tendency as human beings to want everyone to see the world as we do.  On the one hand, if we're serious about so-called "intersectionality"—or universal justice, which is how I would prefer to describe it—then we obviously want to build a movement that is as "prefigurative" as possible. We want to build, here and now in our movement, in a concrete way, a mini-version of the idealized society of the future that we are striving towards.  However, human beings are imperfect, and always will be.  No matter how sure I am that I'm right and you're wrong, I need to acknowledge my capacity for error and poor judgment.  So we need to approach our activism with a generous dose of humility and humor.  This means being vigilant to self-righteousness, to "purges" of those who waver from an intellectual or political orthodoxy, to public shaming of those who disagree with us, whom we perceive as possessing "less evolved" opinions or attitudes than we do. 

This isn't to say that we should ignore sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc., within our movement.  The question, rather, is how do we confront them?  When someone makes a sexist remark, say—and inevitably somebody will, because none of us are innocent of these structures—do we jump on them and tell them to leave the room, or even the movement?  Or do we firmly but respectfully tell them how we feel about their remark, and explain why we think it's inappropriate or damaging? 

I don't think the question should ever be whether this or that person has "some value to the movement," which strikes me as an instrumental conception of other persons.  Rather, the question is whether the individual can be "reached" or not.  Some people don't play well with others, and they aren't able or willing to change.  If someone within an organization, therefore, is disruptive, or repeatedly saying hurtful or ignorant things, and isn't open to an honest dialogue about their attitudes, then clearly they don't belong there.  But that's different from turning on a well-meaning white person, say, who enters a movement naively, without having been asked before to reflect on his or her race privilege, and faulting them for not already having a graduate-level comprehension of racism.  I do think it's possible to have these difficult conversations, so long as it's handled compassionately and in as non-judgmental a fashion as possible.  All this said, I should say that we need to have to have a zero tolerance policy for people who actually commit sexual assaults or other improprieties (so-called "predatorial" heterosexual men), or who are obstinately racist, etc.

SR: Please tell our readers a bit about your involvement with DxE. 

JS:  To be honest, my involvement in DxE is peripheral, besides these interviews and my participation in a single action at a Chipotle's here in the Boston area.  But I am very sympathetic, obviously, to DxE and what it is trying to achieve. 

SR:  Thank you so much for your time, John.  Before we sign off, is there any remaining advice you’d like to offer to Direct Action Everywhere and other AR coalitions around the world?

JS:  I think the only piece of advice I can give as an "armchair general" (take what I say, therefore, with some skepticism), is that direct action is a tactic, not a strategy, and it should only be used to leverage specific objectives.  I agree with Kim Stallwood that the AR movement globally has been a disappointment in any number of ways, and that we need to get smarter, politically, about how we go about translating an ethical campaign into a political one.  Protesting is not enough, and it can even be counterproductive if it is not done the right way and is not calculated to broaden the movement and push things forward.  The challenge we all face, emotionally and even "existentially," is how to keep advocating radical social change in the face of a pervasive and deep-seated global culture of terrible violence.  We want just to just get out there and "do something;" but we have to think very carefully about what to do, and we have to be careful not to further isolate the movement. 

This is why I am against the use of violence in our movement, or even using violent language.  Quite apart from the ethical contradiction of using violence against animals (i.e. human animals) to protect animals, it's clear that the general human population is not ready to sympathize with violence or even property destruction--for example, arson and the like.  Some theorists have compared destructive, anonymous forms of direct action to the actions of Resistance fighters in France and other occupied areas of Europe under the Nazis.  But that analogy fails, it seems to me, because in the Nazi case, most members of the occupied population sympathized with the saboteurs already.  Also, there was an "outside" to the occupation (the Allied forces trying to defeat Germany), whereas today, by contrast, the vast majority of people are either indifferent to animal rights or hostile to the movement.  In our context, militant tactics that involve property destruction or threats to researchers will probably backfire.  For this reason, I support nonviolent campaigns like Open Rescue, Animal Equality, DxE, and others which have embraced the nonviolent tradition—which is the harder but surer path to follow.

SR:  One last question: What is your spirit animal?

JS:  I am not familiar with the term; but, if pressed, I'd say that my spirit animal is my 12-year-old son.

RGB Vegan Interviews Ronnie Rose on DxE's Origins, the Dangers of Corporate "Values Integration," and Advice for New Vegans

Ronnie (on the right) at a recent It's not Food, It's Violence demonstration. 

Ronnie (on the right) at a recent It's not Food, It's Violence demonstration. 

Ronnie Rose on RGB Vegan

by DxE

Ronnie Rose, co-founding organizer of DxE, is not a name you'll necessarily know. But he did the remarkable video work that launched DxE into the world, with a splash, in early 2013. And it was conversations with Ronnie that shaped, and created the momentum for, the formation of our grassroots network. 

Since that time, Ronnie has been, in many ways, the theoretical voice of DxE. You might have read his powerful piece, The Soul of the Animal Rights Movement is Up for Grabs, or heard about DxE's graphic images study, which we commissioned in part because of a relationship Ronnie struck up with the brilliant political scientist Tim Pachirat. But in more ways than one, Ronnie has continued to be a key contributor to not just DxE's growth but, perhaps even more important, its anti-speciesist integrity. Ronnie has helped us maintain our strong commitment to animal liberation -- in our words, in our practices, and (especially) in our tactics and strategy. 

Ronnie recently had the opportunity to give a wonderful talk about the It's not Food, It's Violence campaign with our Phoenix chapter, PALS. And afterwards, one of the attendees, Joshua at RGB Vegan, was so impressed that he interviewed him for his podcast. In the interview, you'll hear about: 

- DxE's founding story
- the sinister marketing strategy -- "values integration" -- used by Chipotle and other humane washers to twist popular values in favor of eating animals
- some simple advice for new vegans. 

Check it out, and make sure you subscribe to RGB Vegan on iTunes

Voices: Mathias Madsen (Denmark) on the Humane Myth, Boycotting Veganism, and Marius the Giraffe

Mathias speaking out against the Humane Myth in Denmark. It's not food. It's violence. 

Mathias speaking out against the Humane Myth in Denmark. It's not food. It's violence. 

Today marks the first in a series of interviews that we are calling Voices from the Movement. Some will be famous names with global influence and reach. Others will be less well known activists who, while not as prominent, have made a big difference in their local communities. Many of the voices featured in our interview series will be from grassroots activists who have been inspired to participate in DxE's campaigns, but we'll also feature activists from other organizations with completely different (and even conflicting) perspectives. By doing so, we hope to both improve our own understanding of social change and build bridges with activists all over the world. 

Mathias Madsen, our first interviewee, is a sociology student, animal rights activist, and resident of Copenhagen. He is also an organizer on our "It's not Food, It's Violence" campaign. First exposed to Direct Action Everywhere while on an academic visit to Arizona State University, Mathias has since become an organizer of grassroots protests in his native Denmark. 

Mathias sat down to talk with us about the state of animal rights in Denmark, the prominence of the Humane Myth, and the recent scandal involving Marius the Giraffe. 

Tell us about how you got involved in Animal Rights Activism. When did you make the transition to becoming an activist? Who were the influential figures? What were the influential books, movies, or other media?

 I went vegan in 2010 after travelling the States for a month with a couple of friends while reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I think for about a year, I was just a vegan consumer, and I had not really heard of the term speciesism. But my consciousness was expanding and at some point my mother told me about a new Danish organization, Go Vegan, that she had encountered on Facebook (by then both of my parents had followed in my footsteps and gone vegan, which I am very proud of). It was the founders of Go Vegan who introduced me to the concept of speciesism and the framing of animal rights as an issue of social justice. I think I’ve only recently started to really identify myself as an activist.  

What is the current environment in Denmark around Animal Rights? Is there a prominent activist community?

Denmark is a small country. On one hand there is definitely a growing vegan community, but most people are not yet engaged in organized activism. The largest animal rights organization in Denmark, Anima, corresponds more or less to PETA. However, they are way more abolitionist as they never advocate welfarism or contribute to the reproduction of The Humane Myth. They have successfully campaigned against fur for many years leading among other things to a ban on fox fur farms in Denmark. The last couple of years several groups and organizations promoting veganism have sprung up, and a strong network has been built across the country. This is very inspiring to be a part of but I believe there is a need for more people to advocate animal liberation and not just veganism. 

You recently visited Phoenix, and got in touch with the Phoenix chapter of DxE – the Phoenix Animal Liberation Squad (PALS).