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Is there a way to execute "humanely"?

Nearly as many prisoners are killed at this location in Texas than the rest of the country combined. 

Nearly as many prisoners are killed at this location in Texas than the rest of the country combined. 

Is there a way to execute "humanely"? 

by Wayne Hsiung

I got my start as an activist many years ago as an anti-racism and capital punishment activist. Journalism students at Northwestern University had identified multiple prisoners on death row in Illinois who, after cursory examination, were plainly innocent of their crimes. And Illinois ultimately issued a moratorium on executions because of the outcry. (The moratorium has subsequently turned into complete abolition.) My participation was relatively trivial -- attending rallies, workshops, and protests -- but I was struck by the moral confidence of the movement's message. There was no discussion of compromise or reform in our campaigns. Innocents were about to be killed, after all, so we were not afraid to demand what we believed was right: the absolute end to a brutal and bigoted practice. 

One of the things that strikes me about the debate on capital punishment, even looking on things 15 years later, is that defenders of the status quo use the same tactics that they always have in the face of progressive activists. Defenders suggest that a fundamentally corrupt practice or institution can be reformed. This is as true of human rights causes as animal rights, as the recent uproar over a terribly botched execution in Oklahoma shows. A blown line caused the prisoner to writhe and gasp as poisons flowed through his body. He woke up from what was supposed to be an unconscious state and moaned "Oh man" while doctors struggled to kill him. (What ever happened to the Hippocratic Oath? "First, do no harm.") And yet defenders of state killing gave the same line: "The problem is not the practice. It's the way it was implemented!" While deceptively appealing to many members of the public, the New York Times also shows us the result of accepting this dialogue: the ruthless efficiency of Texas's killing machine. Administrators from other states literally travel to Texas to learn how to kill. 

What this example shows me is that movements that succeed must frame the debate strongly on their own terms. Getting sucked into the dialogue of reform can reinforce the legitimacy of oppression and violence. And while particularly graphic examples of "botched" implementation can be powerful, as in the case of the wrongly convicted Illinois inmates, those examples have to be used on behalf of a strong demand and message if we are to achieve robust and long-term change. We can't lose the forest for the trees. We can't forget about strategy as we refine our tactics. 

That is precisely what DxE hopes to do for the animal rights movement. And while our It's not Food, It's Violence campaign is the most prominent example, to date, of our attempts to reinvigorate our movement behind a stronger message, we -- and the other remarkable activists in our network -- have many more things to come. Stay tuned.... 

What a Little Hen's Bloody, Deformed Leg Can Teach Us About "Humane" Farming

A band embedded into a hen’s deformed and crippled leg is just one brutal example of so-called “humane” farming. (Left: normal leg of a chicken rescued from a battery cage facility. Right: swollen and deformed leg of a hen rescued from a "humane" and pasture raised facility.) 

A band embedded into a hen’s deformed and crippled leg is just one brutal example of so-called “humane” farming. (Left: normal leg of a chicken rescued from a battery cage facility. Right: swollen and deformed leg of a hen rescued from a "humane" and pasture raised facility.) 

What a Little Hen's Deformed Leg Can Teach Us About "Humane" Farming

by Wayne Hsiung


Chipotle and the “meat” industry want the world to believe that there’s a kind way to raise and kill animals.

But the reality is that the animals Chipotle kills are often raised and tormented in exactly the same conditions as every other fast food chain. The company admits in its own regulatory filings that it sources from “conventional” farms (search for “conventional” here) -- code speak for factory farms -- and that its brand is vulnerable to damage by activist groups. And even its so-called “responsibly raised” nonconventional suppliers offer little more than a window dressing difference from a factory farm. For example, Bob Comis, a pig farmer who has been haunted by the screams of the animals he raised and killed, discussed recently how a “deeply bedded pen” facility is an industrial, concrete shed with disgusting conditions and brutal crowding -- an industry average of 4 x 2.75 feet of living space for a 250 pound animal that is 4 feet long. (Imagine a 250 pound man living his entire life in a bathtub.) The only difference from a CAFO is that the farmer throws in some straw…. and, of course, charges a huge price premium.

Even on "humane" farms, pigs are intensively confined in as little as 5 square feet of space. 

Even on "humane" farms, pigs are intensively confined in as little as 5 square feet of space. 

But there are a small number of farms that genuinely raise their animals in pastures. Small scale and exorbitantly expensive, these farms are, in fact, growing in number, as niche foodie products of all types have exploded in the past 10 years. Does pasture raised farming present a reasonable alternative to conventional factory farms?  

Resoundingly, no.

First, we have no land. One illustrative example: giving a reasonable living standard to a single pig requires more than 2000 square feet of land (the size of a large-ish apartment), according to pig farmer Comis. This would require devoting almost 200 times more space than even a so-called “humane”, "free-range" farm, where the pigs (on average) receive 10.7 square feet of space. That's not feasible in a world where 30% of all land mass is already devoted to animal agriculture. Truly humane farming, in other words, is a physical impossibility.

Second, even pasture raised suppliers are horrifically cruel. Exploitation of animals, it turns out, necessarily requires… exploitation.

DxE activists saw one vivid example of this at a chicken rescue over this past weekend. Two hundred fifty gentle souls, depleted by three years of egg production, were about to be rewarded with a violent death, for the years of toil on behalf of a cruel master. Taken from a truly small scale farm that raised its chickens on pastures, you might think that they would be in good health.

A hen with a bloody, deformed, and crippled leg due to a band embedded into her by a callous master. 

But you would be wrong. Afflicted with all manner of ailments, from vent blockages to respiratory infections to parasites, the chickens were far from happy and healthy. But perhaps most disturbingly, dozens of the hens were limping severely or completely crippled because, it turns out, their master never bothered to remove the leg bands from their young feet. As the chickens grew, the bands constricted their legs, causing bloody and grotesque deformities, swelling, and permanently crippling many of them. We spent hours grooming, cleaning, and carefully clipping the leg band off of these poor souls, hours that a farmer at ANY scale simply would not have. Because caring for an animal properly, it turns out, requires…. well, time and care. Time and care that a for-profit business of any size simply does not have.

At this point it seems almost unnecessary to offer a third reason that “humane” animal farming is simply an impossibility: the inevitability of killing. We have noted previously that almost all of the animals killed in animal agriculture are killed as children -- babies, in some cases. A “broiler chicken” that might have a natural lifespan of 8 years, for example, is typically killed at 6 or so weeks. Pigs that can live for over a decade are murdered at 6 months, when their still juvenile bodies are young and supple. Even dairy cows, whom farmers have an incentive to keep alive longer as milk producers, are typically slaughtered at 5 years of age, a mere one fourth of their natural lifespan.

Each of these animals did not want to die. They were welcomed into the universe of stimulation and experience, meaning and fulfillment, that we all call life. And by killing them, we take that from them -- we take everything from them -- for the sake of a juicy piece of flesh.

And when an individual animal -- scared and alone -- sees that her life is about to be taken, as Bob Comis notes, she completely loses it. Scrambling desperately to free herself from her tormentors, wailing in terror at her impending doom, and even engaging in self harm in a desperate attempt to escape her fate… this (and not Chipotle’s Orwellian happy meat fantasy) is the reality of humane farming.

And this is why DxE’s campaign to bust the humane myth is so absolutely vital. We cannot allow violent corporations to take everything from the weakest and most vulnerable among us… and pretend they are doing the oppressed a kindness. 

With 37 cities, increasing public attention, and a shift even in the largest animal non-profits (PETA and COK, for example, have recently taken a stand against "humane" farming), our story is finally gaining the traction that the animals desperately need. But we need your help in keeping our momentum going. So join us, and activists all over the world, in speaking clearly and loudly

Pastured raised or battery caged. Free range or factory farmed. Small scale or industrial-sized. It matters not a bit. Because it's not Food. It's Violence. 

When a Hero Joins You

Activists in Australia with the message: It's not Food. It's Violence. Photo courtesy of Patty Mark and  Animal Liberation Victoria .

Activists in Australia with the message: It's not Food. It's Violence. Photo courtesy of Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria.

When a Hero Joins You

by Wayne Hsiung

It's odd and a little awkward when one of your inspirations as an activist joins a campaign you are an organizer for. Part of me thinks that we should all just step out of the way and let Patty Mark run the show! 

But this is how movements grow. We see the horrors, and we crawl into a dark corner to cry. We pick ourselves up, wipe away the tears, and decide to take action: "No more tears. No more shame. No more lies, and no more pain. It's time to take a stand." We find guides and teachers, who show us tactics, strategy -- and, perhaps most important, ideas -- that we can... that we MUST.... spread far and wide. And if our movement is as strong as I know it to be, we see those ideas blossom even in the most unexpected of places. 

Patty Mark performing an open rescue. 

Patty Mark performing an open rescue. 

Patty has been a guide and inspiration to DxE, from afar, in more ways than one. And her words are well worth heeding

I left the United States in 1973 and traveled the world with my Australian husband. It was during this time, and especially during the past 30 years, that I have been stepping across the line that humans draw to separate us from other animals. I routinely enter the barren and dismal world we give to farmed animals. I hear their screams and witness their fear and suffering in hundreds of places including slaughterhouses, industrialized farms, darkened sheds, open paddocks, feedlots and inside transport trucks/ships on four continents. There is nothing humane on their side of the line. [emphasis added]

It's not about how we 'care for' or treat the billions of animals we mass produce to keep in line, it's about erasing the line altogether. Humans are incredible animals, but we can also be a very selfish species--we so often put ourselves first. We can and must open our minds and hearts. Promoting and/or consuming animal products deepens the rut that is grinding down our humanity, our health and the future of the planet.

Help us step across the line that separates human from non-human animals, and erase it all together. Dog or cat, human or rat, we are all equal. We love our mothers. We miss our friends. And we are desperate when we are alone or in pain.

And we all have the basic right to be free from violence. 

Thank you ALV and Patty. And thank you to all the activists all over the world who fight for the rights of animals. It is because of you that, some day soon, our animal friends, who have for millennia lived in downtrodden communities that lie underneath -- broken down and brutalized by misguided traditions and bloodthirsty corporations -- finally see the light and freedom that they have always deserved. 

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

Rescuing Hens with Animal Place


Last Friday, Organizers Kelly and Brian helped Animal Place rescue 755 hens from a concentration camp in California's central valley. The next day, several of our activists went to Animal Place's Rescue Ranch in Vacaville, to assist with the girls' health checks.

Working one-on-one with real rescued individuals is very important, first and foremost to the people we're helping, but also because it motivates us in our activism for their cousins. Feeling their little heartbeats and the warmth of their bodies, watching them explore and socialize, hearing them talk to you, and looking them in the eyes turns this abstract, removed idea of "chickens who are suffering" into a much more tangible and powerful conception of real, breathing, living individuals. They are the reason we fight, they are the real faces we fight for.

The "free range" prisons where they had spent their lives were large, crammed, stifling, stale, ammonia-filled sheds, hot in the summer, full of feces and the noise of the hens' calls. Many of the girls had respiratory problems. Every hen had part of her beak cut off as an infant, and was completely covered in lice, many with large colonies of egg clusters the size of my fingernails. And though they were young, because they are forced to lay more eggs than their bodies can handle for long, several were suffering prolapses. Like most hens exploited for their eggs, all were to be gassed once "spent."

At least, those are the external conditions we observed being imposed on them. Internally, on account of my human privilege, I can hardly begin to imagine what they experienced. In their position, I would have felt terribly trapped, not just by the spatial restrictions and the physical immobility of being so tightly packed into that space with other people, but how maddening would it be to not be able to escape the smell or the noise either? How frustrating would it be to have difficulty picking up food, and to not be able to feel the world as I do now with intact fingertips? How infuriatingly irritating would it be to have lice crawling all over me, day in and day out, my whole life? And to never get a deep breath in? How exasperating.

When we were at the sanctuary after the rescue, I found that time and time again, when I picked up one girl after another for a health check, many would lie calmly in my lap, and turn their head around to look me straight in the eye, then quirkily cock their head -- as birds do -- and cluck curiously, as though to ask me what I, this strange giant, was doing to them. But most of them trusted me and let me go about examining them. They were all very eager to explore every inch of the barn, and some would come stand beside the humans doing health checks (and in some instances perch on a shoulder), just watching what we were doing to their sisters. While I held them in my lap, some of them would gently grab my thumb with their little feet, and it flooded me with protective feelings, just as an infant human grabbing your finger does.

I cannot stop seeing this one little girl who didn't want to be caught and checked, but when I turned her on her side and placed her in my lap, she calmed right down, and just looked up at me so casually and by her delicate little cluck I could swear she was just saying, "Oh, hello there, how are you today?" My heart skipped a beat and the moment nearly drew a tear out of my eye, because she was just so sweet, so pure, so totally and completely without hatred or anger or any of these nasty emotions we humans get so hung up on. She's just a youthful child, who wants to explore and play and love. She had just spent her life in a cramped, filthy concentration camp, and here she was just happily moving on with her life three hours later. Though I insist that offensive violence is wrong no matter who the victim, her incredible innocence just made me feel the atrocity that much more intensely.

I am very relieved that they are now almost all -- excepting a few girls in critical condition -- safe and cared for, most adopted out to new homes and some remaining at the sanctuary. But while I smile at the thought of their safety, I cannot help but think of and grieve deeply for the millions who were taken to a kill floor today.

Fight for them, until every animal is free.


Friday Rescue at the Concentration Camp:

Saturday Health Checks at Animal Place's Vacaville Rescue Ranch:

Why Are Animal Rights Activists Protesting a Veg-friendly Chain?

Activists in San Francisco protesting Chipotle. 

Why Are Animal Rights Activists Protesting a Veg-friendly Chain? 

by Wayne Hsiung

(Repost with permission from an article last week at BeyondChron. )

San Francisco is a city of animal lovers. It was one of the first cities in the nation, along with progressive bastions such as Boulder, Berkeley, and Amherst, to legally recast “pet owners” as “guardians.” Dogs now outnumber human children in the city. And it was the birthplace of the no-kill movement in animal shelters.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that vegetarian eating is a big part of the city’s culture. Even fast food chains that cater to the Bay Area are starting to move in an animal-friendly direction. That is exactly what happened two weeks ago, when Chipotle announced the introduction of a vegan option. Chipotle, the third largest publicly traded restaurant company, has experienced explosive growth in recent years that outpaces even industry behemoths such as its former owner McDonald’s. Introduction of its vegan “sofritas” therefore portends a significant expansion in options for animal-friendly eating.

So why are Bay Area animal rights activists protesting the chain?

That is the issue taken up by a Salon article asked last week in a scathing review of the company’s marketing and practices. And, as a Bay Area organizer for the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere, which is leading the international “It’s not Food, It’s Violence” campaign against Chipotle, it is a question that I am well-equipped to answer.


Chipotle is one of the leaders in what animal rights activists describe as “humane washing” – attempts to disguise the brutal reality of animal agriculture as “humane,” “responsible,” or even “compassionate.” The company’s website, for example, is littered with beautiful pictures of happy animals in green pastures (often baby animals to maximize the cuteness factor). It distinguishes its animals products from competitors’ with the marketing moniker “Responsibly Raised”–and charges a hefty premium for the distinction. And its CEO Steve Ells made a public promise to “run our business in a way that doesn’t exploit animals.”  

Yet even meat industry publications have noted that the company sources from factory farms, where animals often go insane from confinement in dark, terrifying cages. The company uses marketing language – such as “natural” – that has no regulatory significance. And, as the pig farmer Bob Comis has pointed out, standard practices at even “humane farms” involve brutal mistreatment of animals. It is because of these discrepancies that consumer fraud attorneys, with no connection to the animal rights movement, have filed class action litigation to challenge Chipotle’s deceptive practices.

But the problem with humane washing is even more fundamental than a mislabeled burrito. Because the basic question our campaign asks is not whether we have been duped by a single company… but, rather, whether we, as an animal loving society, have been duped by an entire industry that wants us to believe its violent lies. After all, even McDonald’s now trumpets its commitment to animal welfare. And nearly three out of four people believe that we should “eliminate all forms of animal cruelty.” But how can we say we love animals, and that we oppose cruelty against them, when we are cutting their throats (in necessarily violent and frightening fashion) for our financial or gustatory benefit?

Chipotle’s fraud, in other words, is problematic, first and foremost, because it reinforces the violent lie that our dominant industries and culture are already telling us: that animals are merely things for us to (responsibly) use, kill, and eat.  But, as the New York Times columnist and one-time food critic Frank Bruni recently discussed, there is increasing understanding, both morally and scientifically, that animals are beings who deserve the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves.


Still, many even within the animal rights movement question the strategy behind focusing on a “good” company such as Chipotle. “Aren’t they at least getting a conversation started? Their CEO promised to be kind to animals. And don’t forget they have a vegan option!”

But praising corporations as a strategy for social change is doomed for failure. Using the example of electoral politics, the prominent social justice activist Randy Shaw (founder and director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic) explains that activsts must make powerful interests fear the consequences of breaking promises. From Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook (2013):

“[A]ctivists often view elected officials as allies without their having done anything to earn the moniker. Politicians need only agree to take certain positions in the future to earn the support of many progressive organizations. This makes strategic sense for politicians but not for advocates of social change…. Adopting a ‘fear and loathing’ approach toward elected officials, particularly self-identified progressives, is essential for achieving social change. Activists most focus on results, not promises; they must pursue their agenda, not the politician’s.”

What is true of politicians is even more true of profit-seeking corporations, whether in housing, banking, or food. They do not have our movement’s agenda at heart. And, as Shaw points out, it takes pressure – not just praise – to ensure that progress is achieved and sustained. Moreover, corporations such as Chipotle, whose brand and profits are so heavily linked to progressive issues, are precisely the ones that should be pressured because they seek to appeal to (and therefore profit from) the progressive market. They, and not their more oblivious competitors, are the parties most likely to take action in response to pressure.

In short, even supposing that some of Chipotle’s actions are indications of real progress, a strong campaign is the best way to ensure that those baby steps are sustained.


The third and perhaps most important reason for our campaign against Chipotle, however, is that it presents an opportunity to create an empowered network against animal abuse. It takes on industry’s strongest argument, and one of its biggest and most popular players… with the confidence that it can win. This change in strategy – focusing on the industry’s strongest arguments and biggest players—is absolutely vital because, despite widespread sympathy for animals and compelling arguments by the most distinguished scholars of our age, the animal rights movement has made little progress in recent decades. Activists too often feel the need to appeal to flawed conventional wisdoms and accommodate to a false neutrality, even to achieve the most toothless reforms.

Why Chipotle? This infographic sets out the reasons. 

In this regard, the animal rights movement is not unique.   Paul Krugman has written for years about how conventional discourse on fiscal austerity has been deluded by popular acceptance that so-called “Very Serious People” (such as the deficit hawks of the Simpson-Bowles Commission) must have merit to their views—no matter the lack of evidence. Concerted action against climate change has been stalled by the public’s acceptance of false neutrality on the causes of climate change, and activists’ unwillingness to push back hard against this narrative. What these examples show us is that, to achieve success, social movements cannot concede to a problematic conventional wisdom; they must challenge it and attack the monolithic institutions that hold it up.

The Very Serious People of the animal rights movement – even seemingly radical organizations such as PETA – believe that we cannot push the animals’ agenda with the strength, confidence, and honesty that the issue deserves. They believe that we have to compromise with conventional understandings of animals – and offer support for even the most deceptive and violent multinational corporations – in order to be heard. But, as with the debate on fiscal austerity and climate change, this is a false compromise that inhibits growth of a truly empowered network.

Chipotle, in other words, is a platform for us to test, strengthen, and expand our movement’s message. When a movement is confident in the need for fundamental change, there is no need to apologize, or accommodate, or beg for the smallest of concessions from supposedly good corporations. Successful movements – such as Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring – assert themselves confidently even against the most powerful opponents.

Animal lovers are, in fact, everywhere. The trick, as with so many other progressive issues, is to politically realize the public’s latent sympathy into an empowered network for change. And that is exactly what we plan to do with the “It’s not Food, It’s Violence” campaign – take on our most powerful and wealthy opponents, have confidence in the integrity of our message, and have faith that the arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice. 

Pork Network: "We love Chipotle, and you should too!"

Pork Network: "We love Chipotle, and you should too!" 

by Wayne Hsiung


The Pork Network, the "business leader" of the pig killing industry, condemns DxE's campaign in a recent editorial and calls the piece BeyondChron published on our campaign a "savage screed." The Pork Network editorial discusses the supposedly humane conditions at Chipotle's farms, the CEO's "widely recognized.... pledge to 'run our business in a way that doesn’t exploit animals' ", and even the famed vegan option. And it concludes that, rather than protesting, the animal rights movement ought to be supporting "one of the acknowledged leaders in the humane husbandry movement."

What the Pork Network does not realize, however is that the grassroots animal rights movement does not take advice on effective activism... from, well, the Pork Network. And while animal killing industries (particularly the big players) are falling over themselves to get a piece of Chipotle's explosive profit, the grassroots movement is not so easily duped or corrupted. 

The greatest irony of the piece? The Pork Network understands our campaign's approach and objectives quite clearly.

There’s no “promise” in “compromise.” [The DxE activists are saying] [e]ither go all the way and abolish the entire business of animal husbandry, or don’t come around seeking activist approval.

For once, the people at the Pork Network may have gotten something right. The industry should not "come around seeking activist approval." Because we will never approve of an industry that kills even a single one of our non-human brethren. 

Join our campaign on March 29

"Humane" Slaughter? It's not just Violence. It's an Atrocity.

When you see the fear in her eyes, and in all of her sisters', you begin to realize that the problem of animal exploitation is not just a Saturday hobby. It is not even just violence. It is an atrocity that justifies the strongest action to stop. 

When you see the fear in her eyes, and in all of her sisters', you begin to realize that the problem of animal exploitation is not just a Saturday hobby. It is not even just violence. It is an atrocity that justifies the strongest action to stop. 

"Humane" Slaughter? It's not just Violence. It's an Atrocity.

by Wayne Hsiung

Words from Professor John Sanbonmatsu have been resonating in my mind for the past two weeks. I was speaking with John about how our mission, with DxE, is to transform what most people consider meat (even "humane" meat) into the horrific violence that it actually is. But Prof. Sanbonmatsu corrected me. "It's not just violence. It's an atrocity." 

And he is right. Violence suggests random cruelty enacted upon an unsuspecting and unplanned victim. Atrocity is something very different. It is the deliberate targeting of an entire group that one deems inferior, disgusting, and otherwise deserving of abuse. It is the enactment of such violent prejudice on mass scale. And it requires a different sort of response from those who choose to fight it. Not just minor reforms or friendly education... but full-throated and even desperate opposition. 

Our movement's message and rhetoric must rise to the magnitude of the evils we are trying to contest. It is hard for me to even imagine, but as I write this, thousands of gentle and innocent beings -- just children -- are having their throats slit, one by one, for the crime of being born to a weaker species. When we speak about this, we should never forget how cataclysmically evil that actually is.

It's not just violence. It's an atrocity. And it's time for us to bring that atrocity to an end. 

The Soul of the Animal Rights Movement is Up For Grabs

Screen shot 2014-03-06 at 12.25.42 AM.png

The Soul of the Animal Rights Movement is Up For Grabs

by Ronnie Rose


This past weekend activists with DxE met (virtually) with philosophy professor and critical theorist John Sanbonmatsu to discuss animal rights, the importance of building an inclusive community, and why we—as a movement—must organize against the myth of “humane” animal enslavement and killing. Sanbonmatsu is a leading intellectual figure on issues such as animal liberation and speciesism, the political Left’s broad refusal to acknowledge the oppression and rights of other animals (Sanbonmatsu’s speech begins at the 6 minute mark), and the connections between fascism and “humane meat” discourse. Over the course of our conversation, we found strong connections between our campaign against Chipotle and Sanbonmatsu’s groundbreaking work. Most importantly, both show how the humane myth has been used to hold up the entire edifice of animal exploitation, and threaten our movement’s very soul.

Our campaign against Chipotle, “It’s Not Food. It’s Violence,” often receives bewildered stares and sometimes outright hostility from people within the animal rights movement, as they bend over backwards to defend a multi-billion dollar corporation that brutally kills tens of millions of animals every year. Why, it is asked, do we target a company that is “trying to do the right thing?” Why, they question, would we want to topple a food corporation that at least “cares about animals?” To put it simply: neither of these statements represents Chipotle’s actual motivations. Chipotle uses “humane” and “responsibly raised” rhetoric to make a massive profit by encouraging people to pay more—and feel good about—eating animals. This profit, in turn, allows the company and broader culture to enslave and kill even more individuals.

In the face of such criticism, I asked John Sanbonmatsu why he has written so often and fiercely against the notion of “humane meat,” instead of focusing on what some people consider the more egregious and widespread forms of cruelty, like factory farming. He explained how, right now, we are at an important historical juncture: “In recent years . . . meat has for the first time in history lost its self-evident status as a necessary and natural good.” Throughout the history of civilization, violence against other animals has been justified through a variety of myths, which turned the violence into something natural and normal. It has not been until recently, largely through the work of committed animal rights activists, that these justifications have started to crumble. The way we treat other animals finally has revealed itself for what it always has been: not just violence, Sanbonmatsu explained, but atrocity. No one can now credibly defend factory farming. The immorality of it is all too apparent. So in order to justify the continued enslavement and killing of animals, the culture has to seek other ways to rationalize atrocity.

Sanbonmatsu explained that we are now at a crucial stage in history where our culture is forced to confront these issues; yet, the dominant mainstream response (undoubtedly propelled by companies like Chipotle) has shifted away from the central question of, should we be using and killing other animals? To, how “kindly” can we use and kill them? This perversely ignores the fact that, like us, non-human animals have a desire and fundamental right to live—regardless of how “humanely raised” they were before someone slits their throat. The idea of “humanely raised meat,” Sanbonmatsu continued, has become the prevailing justification for eating animals among the middle and upper classes, which has resulted in profoundly disturbing and inconsistent behaviors. For example, companies, like Chipotle, can claim with a straight face to treat the animals they are enslaving, sexually exploiting, and murdering “with dignity and respect.” Moreover, the problem with using “humane treatment” as the moral standard to end someone’s life, is that in the US, 99 percent of animals killed for their flesh come from factory farms.  Therefore, Sanbonmatsu astutely observed, “humane meat” discourse is not only used to justify the meager 1 percent of non-factory farm animal exploitation, but in fact is used to prop up the entire system of animal agriculture itself. Without the deceptive, dominant discourse surrounding “humane” killing, the cultural practice of consuming animals would have few places to retreat before starting to collapse. “Humane meat” is the wobbly linchpin holding together the whole system of “meat.”  

Chipotle’s masterful marketing is deeply attuned to this prevailing attitude, and is actively invested in maintaining the animals-as-food-objects status quo, rather than treating them as individuals to be respected. The company’s only true commitment is not to “cultivating a better world,” but to perpetually increasing the stock prices for its shareholders—at any moral cost.

The upshot is that the soul of the animal rights movement is up for grabs. Are we going to let it be hijacked and stolen from us by mega-corporations like Chipotle, that only want to see more animals killed to fatten their executives’ pockets? Companies that are fighting so desperately to keep the current system of mass murder in place and stable? Or are we—from the grassroots—going to seize this crucial moment in our history, stopping the death machine on its destructive course, and open up the path to a beautiful and compassionate world? I choose the latter and hope you will too.

Social Change is a Sticky Staircase

Social Change is a Sticky Staircase (and Other Reflections on the Chipotle Campaign)

by Wayne Hsiung

Activists at a recent Chipotle protest in San Francisco. 

We set out the case for the Chipotle campaign in a recent talk: Chipotle's Seven Deadly Sins. But for those of you who want to dig a little deeper, here is a Q&A with some information about our campaign's strategy and goals. Enjoy! 


What do you think of efforts to increase humane treatment of animals and increase vegan options, as compared to an overall strategy for achieving animal liberation?

Incremental reforms are necessary, but they should be sustainable and part of a long term movement strategy. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Consider the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958. The Act, which is far more ambitious in scale and scope than any animal welfare legislation considered by Congress since, was passed with widespread public support, so much that President Eisenhower is reported to have said, "If I went by mail, I'd think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter." But, without a broader liberation movement behind it, the Act has had little effect in stopping violence against animals. Violations of the HSA are routine, inspectors often feel powerless to enforce it, and there has been a massive increase in animal abuse since its passage.

The difficulty is that the world we face, as animal advocates, is like a sticky staircase rather than a slippery slope. Incremental reforms are easily reversed or ignored -- the strands of the sticky staircase pull you back to the last step -- because prevailing norms and structures undermine a reform's continued relevance. Whenever we consider a reform, we have to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Is this reform sustainable in a speciesist world (or, instead, does it depend on institutions and actors -- such as the USDA or Chipotle -- that have an interest in undermining our movement's momentum)?
  2. Does this reform help build a movement for animals that will foster new progress (or, instead, does it pacify outrage about animal abuse and lead to institutional backsliding)?

When we ask these two questions, I think we'll find that conventional efforts to improve treatment and increase vegan options are problematic precisely because they lack any strategic long-term mooring. The two efforts, incremental reform and long-term strategy, must go hand in hand for either to be effective.


What is your response to Chipotle's claim that the company shares some "common ground with your group"?

The classic distinction between direct action and other forms of activism is the distinction between confrontation and compromise. As advocates of nonviolent direct action for animals, we have to be vigilant about compromising our values to the status quo. We have to, as William Lloyd Garrison put it, be as "harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice." The truth is there is little common ground between animal advocates and a multinational corporation that murders millions of animals. We want the world to someday see animal abuse as equivalent to human abuse, and we can only do that by calling out corporations such as Chipotle for what they truly are: engines of violence.


What is your response to those who say that animal rights activists should not protest companies like Chipotle because it is making an effort and has vegan options--in short, that activists should protest the bad/worse companies and that Chipotle is better?

The first response to this question is that Chipotle is not a better company. Indeed, that is exactly the point of the campaign! Chipotle is the third largest publicly traded restaurant company in the world. It is increasing its violence against animals faster than virtually any other corporation on the planet. And it profits immensely off of claims of humane treatment. For example, it instantly doubled its sales of carnitas after it switched to a supposedly "natural" supplier, and began marketing its meat as "responsibly raised." 

But as industry reports, mainstream media, and even independent class action lawyers have found, Chipotle's marketing claims are a fraud. In fact, brutally violent acts such as debeaking and castration are standard practice in "natural" or "humane" farming. The company still sources from so-called factory farms, which drive animals insane from confinement. And, most importantly, killing can never be a "responsible" or "humane" act. Killing is not a kindness; it's horrific and brutal violence. 

When you look at Chipotle's cultural impact (i.e. its effect on memes), the picture gets even worse. Chipotle is leading the world in spreading pro-meat propaganda -- financing a documentary called American Meat, putting up billboards that simply say "MEAT MEAT MEAT", and hosting huge festivals with hundreds of thousands of attendees who hear about how we can cultivate a better world by killing animals. Fifty years of research in psychology and social change has shown us that ideas matter. And Chipotle, perhaps more than any other company, is laying the ideological foundation for the mass murder of animals. In short, even if all of the marketing claims were true -- and they're not -- that would not make Chipotle a "good corporation." It would still make Chipotle one of the worst.

The second response to this question goes to a fundamental question as to what the animal rights movement is about: is it about helping vegans perpetuate a consumer lifestyle? Or is it a social justice movement focused on stopping violence against animals? If the latter, the vegan options at Chipotle are irrelevant. Chipotle is one of the largest and fastest growing animal killers in the world, regardless of whether it has vegan or humane options. Indeed, if the so-called humane options are offered as part of the prevailing "What we eat is a personal choice" narrative, then those options can actively undermine our momentum. Instead of being inspired to protest companies like Chipotle, potential activists and allies are pacified by the vegan bribe. "You choose meat. I choose tofu," they say to themselves. Left unspoken, however, is the stolen choice of the individual whose body was violently and involuntarily taken to sustain that compromise.

There is a long history of corporate interests attempting to co-opt a movement with false concessions, and it is often the companies that engage in moral posturing (the Enrons and BPs of the world) that have the most to hide. We can't allow our movement to be co-opted or deceived by cheap marketing tricks. If all it takes to convince us to put down our signs and our bullhorns is a cheap vegan burrito, then our movement will never muster the mettle it needs to succeed. But the momentum behind our campaign, in a very short period of time, tells me that our movement does have what it takes. We're tired of apologizing and compromising and begging for even the most meaningless reforms. We're ready to speak and act directly for what we believe: the right of every animal, human or non-human, to live a life free from violence.

Third and finally, it's important to note that campaigns are not collaborations. They are adversarial in nature. You would not stop to praise your opponent in an election campaign, the moment you scored a political point. Neither would you back down in an important lawsuit , simply because your opponent made a minor concession or change. There is this quite admirable notion in the progressive left that all activism (indeed, all politics) should be done with a friendly face. But this has little basis in the science or history of social change. Indeed, it is contradicted by the example of successful animal rights movements such as Israel's, which has jolted an entire nation and tripled the population of vegans in merely one year. To succeed, we have to be, not meek and accommodating, but strong, confident, and unrelenting in pursuit of our goals. (Bill McKibben makes a similar point about climate change activism. The plague of the climate change movement is that it has never, until now, had an enemy.) 

Corporations are not sensitive souls that need constant praise to continue on the right path. They are ruthless, profit maximizing engines that are legally obligated to focus only on shareholder returns. To sustain any concessions -- and even more importantly, to sustain public dialogue -- we have to keep their feet to the fire. Indeed, if you are concerned about the vegan option, then our campaign is perhaps the best way to ensure that it stays on the menu


Some people say that protesting against companies like Chipotle -- i.e. companies who have embraced humane treatment of animals and offer vegan options -- will confuse the public.  What is your response?

The truth is that our entire movement's message is too often confused. We say that we believe in animal rights, but we are not confident enough to say that we believe in a world where every animal -- even those that are traditionally ignored such as farm animals -- is safe and happy and free. We yell and scream when defending one species that is cute and cuddly, but smile and apologize when advocating for another species that is even more brutally abused. And, too often, we compromise our mission and our values for the sake of temporary and superficial victories.

The irony is that, if we stick to our basic values, the message is powerfully clear. "It's not food. It's violence." That's not a difficult message to appreciate. And in the context of human oppression, no one would argue that being opposed, for example, to Apple's sweatshops is "confusing" because Apple also sometimes sources from non-sweatshop conditions. (In fact, Apple is one of the most responsible corporations on ethical sourcing.) Doing one good deed, for manipulative marketing reasons, does not absolve a company from responsibility for doing many other bad ones.

In short, the confusion over the Chipotle campaign is a product of our lack of presence and confidence. But if we can develop a real presence in progressive politics -- by saying clearly and strongly and constantly that violence is wrong, period -- the message of our movement suddenly becomes very clear. Indeed, inspiring that dialogue within our movement is one of the most important (albeit unstated) objectives of our campaign. As a movement, let's take on our opponent's strongest case and still be confident that we can win. Let's be absolutely clear about what we believe: that violence against animals is always wrong.


Are you calling for people to boycott Chipotle?  Why or why not?

Boycotts are a tactic and not a value, and they are a tactic that is only effective when you have sufficient support to either affect a company's bottom line, or trigger public dialogue.

We did some preliminary estimates that suggested that, even in a best case scenario, a boycott would affect less than 0.05% of the company's revenue. There are simply too few animal rights activists to make any dent, via boycott, on a company this big. And while passively deciding not to buy from a store can be a meaningful symbolic action (I personally do not eat at Chipotle, or any other restaurant that serves dead animals, for this reason), it's a small part of what makes a great campaign great. As a tactic, it lacks the emotional impact, drama, and energy of a truly inspirational campaign. 

So I would much prefer that supporters speak or act against the company. Organize a protest. Tell your friends about humane washing. Or even just mention to the manager that you're an aggrieved customer, if and when you buy a burrito. Staining the company's reputation in the public sphere -- through creative and nonviolent protest -- can affect not just the tiny handful of activist consumers but the millions of non-animal rights activists who shop at Chipotle all over the world and, more importantly, trigger a much-needed dialogue on the status of non-human animals.