My adventures in animal rights activism
Last week, vegan feminist author and activist Carol J. Adams posted a blog entry entitled “Why I am Boycotting Events if DxE is also an Invited Speaker”. DxE is the abbreviation for the Berkeley-based (but globally active) animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere. Adams consulted with numerous former DxE activists while researching this blog entry. She is, not surprisingly, taking a lot of heat now for stating that she believes that DxE “works like a cult”.
Having been involved with DxE myself and spoken with former members, including lead organizers, who left the group more recently than I did, I support Adams’ writing and decision. (Adams has also posted numerous recent blog entries about abusive men in the animal rights movement.) Here in my own blog, I’d like to talk not just about DxE but my experience with animal rights and vegan activism in general.
I went vegetarian in 1992, largely as a consequence of an existential crisis during my senior year of college, during which I abandoned my Objectivist beliefs and declared myself a Buddhist.* While I only avoided eating animal flesh at that time, I knew that I should ultimately go vegan, especially after reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. But I didn’t have sufficient motivation or social support to do so.
I wavered between an ovo-lacto vegetarian and vegan diet for the next 19 years, finally giving up dairy and eggs for good in 2011. However, as discussed in my blog entry on vegan definitions and retention, I did not get involved in vegan or animal rights activism until 2014, at which time I also stopped eating honey and using (to the extent possible) animal-derived clothing and other products.
When researching vegan authors in 2014, I came across law professor and philosopher Gary Francione. I read and enjoyed his books Eat Like You Care and Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, and got involved in discussions on his Facebook page, “Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights”.
I was very excited by Francione’s rights-based philosophy, which shunned welfare reform in favor of exclusively advocating veganism, which entailed the abolition of all animal exploitation. I felt this approach was sound and rational. I began posting about veganism frequently on my blog. I described the treatment of farmed animals, and consumption of their bodies and secretions, as rape, slavery, and murder, and lost some friends in the process.
To further spread the word, I got involved in a group that was then known as The Abolitionist Vegan Society, founded and directed by Sarah K. Woodcock. While not formally affiliated with Francione, TAVS also advocated a rights-based and grassroots approach to animal rights activism. They produced free colorful flyers (in multiple languages), which I handed out along with materials from Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary at a vegan information station I set up at the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco, where I was doing volunteer work in food distribution at the time.
That summer, I also read and enjoyed The World Peace Diet by vegan author Will Tuttle. I mentioned that book on Francione’s page, as I was about to attend a talk by Tuttle. I got very negative responses from Francione and his moderators. The atmosphere on his page had grown seriously toxic, cult-like, and hostile to anyone who didn’t agree with Francione 100%. Fearing I’d be banned, I started taking screenshots to document what was going on. I soon left the page of my own accord, and wrote a detailed blog entry about what had transpired.
Not long after, Sarah Woodcock formally unaffiliated her group from Francione, revealing how she was also treated poorly by him. The following year, she also changed the name of TAVS to The Advocacy of Veganism Society, as after consulting with black vegans (including myself) she decided that using the word “abolitionist” in animal rights terms was appropriative. No longer actively running TAVS, Woodcock is now raising funds to open a primarily PoC-owned vegan restaurant in Minneapolis; check it out.
Direct Action Everywhere
Having extricated myself from Francionist influence, I went to explore one of the many groups that he and his followers frequently criticized: Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). The SF Bay Area core team was then located in Oakland, just across the Bay from me, so I began attending their events frequently.
I was hesitant to participate in DxE’s disruptions of stores and restaurants, but at the time I was getting frustrated with my perceived lack of results at tabling. Aside from the Free Farm Stand’s founder, Tree, none of our regular volunteers were vegan, and few showed interest in reading the materials I was distributing. They were also resistant to making small changes like not distributing breads that contained animal products, or not recommending flesh foods to go along with the produce we gave away.
DxE’s leaders stated that activism, not veganism, was the moral baseline. So I decided to come along to an action at the Berkeley Bowl — a funeral for one of the chicken bodies the store was selling — in October 2014. I had only intended to stay outside and take photos, but ended up going in with the others; though I was not pressured to do so, I wanted to stay with the group.
I felt nervous and awkward standing around the store, pretending to shop and waiting for things to start. Once we began, some store employees jeered and yelled at us; others watched quietly. Some customers filmed us on their cell phones. I knew we would be roundly mocked for holding a funeral for a chicken in a grocery store, but I felt we were bringing attention to the plight of animals, so it was worth it.
After ten minutes or so, we left the store (leaving the chicken behind so there would be no charge of shoplifting), and stayed outside holding signs and chanting for awhile. It felt good being with a group of people who cared enough about animals to hold a demonstration, but it wasn’t something I was used to. Aside from a few marriage equality rallies and anti-war marches, I hadn’t really been involved in protests much.
I continued to attend actions, usually staying behind the camera, but occasionally holding a sign and chanting as well. I drew the line at entering restaurants; I really didn’t want to face the hostility of people being interrupted while eating, no matter how much I might object to the contents of their meals. I saw lots of negative press and hostile comments from fellow vegans on social media, but continued to be assured that our message was getting out there.
Regardless, my main interest in being in DxE was the community. Between my gender transition in 2013 and my vegan activist “awakening” in 2014, I had lost a number of friends. I became one of those “lonely vegans” who DxE has posted flyers trying to attract.
While there is no shortage of vegans in the SF Bay Area, most members of my previous social circles didn’t care about veganism or animal rights. They were usually happy to provide vegan-friendly options at parties, but they saw doing so as equivalent to providing gluten-free or paleo-friendly options. But once I came to see animals as people rather than products, it became increasingly awkward hanging around other people while they were eating flesh, dairy, and eggs.
DxE provided a ready-made social outlet, where I knew I could hang out with people who weren’t directly exploiting animals. They later encouraged their members to take a “Liberation Pledge” to not sit with others who were eating animals. While I understood the motivation behind this, seeing people with bent forks around their wrists to signify this action was a bit creepy.
Early 2015 saw the start of “DxE Connections”, one of the cult-like warning signs that Adams mentioned in her blog post. At first I was assigned to spend time with two activists that I already knew. I didn’t really get the point of this, but I enjoyed their company, so didn’t complain. Then I was added, without my consent, to a spreadsheet and assigned two other people, one who I knew and one I didn’t, to spend time with. I objected to this, and was removed from the list.
I still continued attending DxE functions, but was less involved in direct action, as gender dysphoria along with a growing awareness of anti-black racism and police oppression made me feel vulnerable in such situations. I was also concerned that the group was becoming increasingly friendly with PETA, an organization I despise for its history of sexist and racist campaigns. I once saw a photo posted on Facebook of two DxE core members participating in a PETA action that featured a nearly naked woman lying outside a store.
I objected to this action in a private DxE Facebook group, and was swiftly asked by a core member to remove my post. (The same core member had previously messaged me urging me to defend another on her team when he was criticized elsewhere on Facebook.) I countered that I had not posted my objection publicly, but to a group for DxE activists only, and that this should be a valid topic for discussion. My post was grudgingly allowed to remain, but I saw the writing on the wall.
I also saw concerns about anti-black oppression and tokenizing deflected by core members pointing out that several of them were people of color. But as my quote in Adams’ blog said, while all PoC are subjected to white supremacy, black and brown folks have a very different experience of racism in the U.S., and those differences need to be listened to and respected. While I did not personally feel tokenized, I felt the core organizers were not responding adequately to the concerns of their black and Latinx activists.
That summer, a group of former DxE activists called to “Dismantle DxE”, accusing group members of sexual abuse, racism, and a host of other oppressive acts. DxE core members denied most of the charges. However, if someone claims they were sexually abused I am inclined to believe them, and one of the accused activists had confessed to sexual oppression of numerous women. (That same abuser had nagged me constantly to accept his Facebook friend request, even though I explained I had a policy of not friending people until I met them in person, with rare exceptions. I’ve seen numerous reasons to be glad of that policy.)
But I wasn’t sure the accusers were acting entirely in good faith. DxE core members claimed they were harassed by the dismantlers, and even filed a lawsuit against them. One or more of the dismantlers also disrupted the DxE Wikipedia page I had started, and misused a photo I had taken at the DxE Forum.
Even if some questioned the dismantlers’ tactics, however, that didn’t mean their accusations were false, or that they deserved to be sued. I just felt torn, not wanting to lose another vegan community after already feeling betrayed by the Francione faction. In September 2015 I posted a blog entry, “Where I stand on DxE”, explaining that I had already stopped participating in their actions, but refusing to condemn the group outright.
As more and more activists, particularly women/of color and black folks, left the group and told their stories, I increasingly distanced myself from DxE. Eventually I annotated all of my blog entries mentioning DxE to clarify that I was no longer with that group. Once DxE opened the Berkeley Animal Rights Center and started encouraging all of their activists to move to Berkeley (another cult-like warning sign), staying clear of their group members became more difficult. Some local organizers began to ban DxE core members from their events at the request of former members who felt unsafe in their presence.
A few months ago I met in person with two former DxE organizers, one of whom I’d participated in actions with and one who moved from out of state to the new headquarters in Berkeley. Both women’s stories corroborate what is written in Adams’ blog post. You can read public Facebook posts about DxE from former black organizers in particular here (posted in December 2015) and here (posted this week).
Back in December 2014, one DxE event I was grateful to participate in was an afternoon of short presentations and panel discussion by queer and trans vegans of color on LGBTQ issues and animal rights. I won’t link to it here because I’m not happy with some of the language about gender I used in my talk, as my understanding in that area was still evolving (and continues to evolve today). But that was my first opportunity to give a presentation on animal rights, even though it was basically “preaching to the choir”. (Three of the four presenters from that event have since left DxE.)
In March 2016, I gave a talk on gender diversity and led a discussion group on that subject at the Intersectional Justice Conference at the Whidbey Institute in Washington State. This was a wonderful conference featuring many great vegan speakers whose anti-oppression work I respect, including Dr. A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan, Aph Ko of Aphro-ism and Black Vegans Rock, lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project, pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary, and Carol Adams, who also attended and participated in my discussion section.
I presented an expanded and updated version of my gender diversity talk in September 2016 at the Vegan Soul Wellness Fest in Oakland. I’ve given other presentations on gender issues since then, but those are the talks I’ve given to date that have made explicit connections to animal rights.
Since leaving DxE, I have not felt a pressing need to seek out another vegan or animal rights group to join. After the experiences described here, I prefer to remain independent. I’m currently maintaining the Instagram page for Black Vegans Rock, and I support the work of the Food Empowerment Project and vegan animal sanctuaries including Preetirang Sanctuary, VINE Sanctuary, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, and Hen Harbor. But I am not participating in any boots-on-the-ground vegan/AR activism at this time, and I feel no shame about that.
Those who decry constructive criticism of DxE or any other animal rights groups or gurus as being “divisive” or “helping carnists win” really ought to examine their privileges and priorities. I’ve heard numerous excuses for downplaying human oppression in vegan and animal rights movements, and I am not swayed by them. A vegan world that oppresses or excludes women/of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, fat people, or any other marginalized group is not a world I want to be part of. I’d rather be a lonely vegan than a willing accomplice in the oppression of my fellow human animals.
*While I identified as a Buddhist for about 20 years, I have been an atheist for even longer (since 1986, age 16). I still strive to live by the Buddhist/Jainist/Hindu value of ahimsa, which translates to “do no harm” (hence my middle name, which I changed legally as part of my gender transition), but I do not currently identify as a member of any religion.