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The animal rights protesters disrupting Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders rallies, explained

Animal rights activists interrupted Biden’s Super Tuesday speech in Los Angeles. Here’s what they want.

One of the Direct Action Everywhere activists interrupts Biden’s victory speech.
David McNew/Getty Images

On an otherwise triumphant Super Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory speech in Los Angeles was interrupted by two protesters (Sarah Segal and Ashley Froud) wielding signs reading “Let Dairy Die.” Security escorted them out. But they’d accomplished their mission of getting on nationwide TV on the biggest night of the presidential primaries.

The protest followed similar direct actions at recent Bernie Sanders rallies, where topless protesters have interrupted the events, among them two women with “Let Dairy Die” written on their chests.

It’s been a primary season with a lot of twists and turns, to the point where little feels surprising anymore. But leading Democratic candidates being plagued by militant animal rights protesters still seems odd. Who were these people, and why were they protesting Biden and Sanders?

The answer is that they are demonstrating for a group Vox has covered before: the aggressive animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere, which believes in combating factory farming with undercover investigations on farms, civil disobedience of laws against the rescue of dying animals from factory farms, protests in grocery stores, and, yes, flashy interruptions of campaign rallies. DxE, as the group is called, explains that they targeted Biden and Bernie because of their support of bills propping up the dairy industry.

“The Biden campaign has prominently touted appearances by former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who now receives a million-dollar salary as CEO and President of U.S. Dairy Export Council,” DxE stated in a press release after the Super Tuesday action. “Biden has also historically supported the Farm Bill, which has authorized hundreds of billions in animal ag subsidies while rejecting activist requests to prevent handouts to millionaires and billionaires.”

The group has previously protested other candidates, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Direct Action Everywhere’s tactics put them at odds with much of the rest of the animal activism movement. Many of the leading organizations have increasingly focused on changing the underlying economics of animal farming, focusing on lobbying corporations to pledge to go cage-free or on introducing plant-based alternatives to meat.

Direct Action Everywhere, explained

DxE was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013. The group’s co-founder, Wayne Hsiung, was a law professor at Northwestern University when he decided to instead dedicate himself to the fight against factory farming. Since then, the group has staged undercover investigations of farms to reveal cruel and illegal practices, risked prison time by rescuing dying animals from factory farms (this is considered theft), protested at grocery stores and restaurants, and drawn national attention with a few higher-profile stunts, like smuggling dogs out of China’s dog meat festival and the Sanders protests last month.

The movement’s core claim is that animal rights should be advanced through nonviolent direct action; its adherents take the view that provocative, unusual, and confrontational tactics are acceptable as long as they don’t cross the line into violence. At a DxE brunch event a year ago, a member told Vox that at these events, they “yell but don’t yell at people” — a distinction that might be lost on the people in whose presence they’re yelling, but still the product of a principled belief that you should make a lot of noise but not put people in fear of harm.

At a recent Sanders rally, one woman ran up to him and grabbed a mic, saying, “Bernie, I’m your biggest supporter, and I’m here to ask you to stop propping up the dairy industry and to stop propping up animal agriculture. I believe in you.” Other protesters joined her onstage, including at least two who were topless (three women were eventually arrested for indecent exposure).

Why go after Sanders and Biden? A majority of DxE activists are Sanders supporters, DxE representative Matt Johnson told Vox; he even canvassed for Sanders. But they blame Sanders for supporting legislation that would subsidize the struggling dairy industry, for hiring Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen as a campaign co-chair while DxE has criticized practices at Ben & Jerry’s farms, and for brushing off requests for a platform that addresses animal agriculture.

DxE uses events like these to draw attention to the rest of their work, much of which is less controversial. While feeding dying animals is technically illegal, most people find it sympathetic; undercover investigations are illegal in some states, but courts have increasingly found that those laws unconstitutionally burden speech. And DxE has fought in court to establish the precedent that rescuing animals should be legal, too.

The animal rights movement is at odds over tactics like this one

Suffice it to say, many leading organizations that work on combating factory farming do not do things like topless rally interruptions. It’s more common to focus on working with corporations on pledges to cut out inhumane practices, with meat producers on plant-based alternatives to meat, or on legislation prohibiting specific abuses. Animal advocates tell me they worry that stunts alienate people, make them look out of touch and unreasonable, and make the average person think of vegans as very different from them.

“While both PETA and Direct Action Everywhere consider media coverage of any sort a victory in itself, research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology indicates that media coverage of activists who fit the stereotype for their cause is ineffective at gaining support,” animal activist Alex Felsinger has argued.

Then there are concerns about sexism and objectification of women. The use of topless women for protests to get attention is objectifying — and that, DxE told Vox, is the point. “We’re drawing attention to the objectification of cows,” Cassie King said.

Charities have hotly debated the merits of shock tactics like these, which have been a staple of the animal rights movement at least since PETA’s anti-fur campaign began 30 years ago. Do topless protesters draw attention to objectification or just draw attention? A few small studies of PETA advertisements have compared sexualized or non-sexualized images of women and found that the sexualized images produced less intention to support PETA.

DxE’s team, though, argues that they tried less attention-grabbing tactics and got nowhere. “We have a message that is right, that is common sense, that is in alignment with the values of normal people, and the reason we resort to these kinds of tactics is that all the traditional approaches have failed us,” DxE’s Johnson told Vox. “We’ve been reaching out to the Sanders campaign for years. We were never given a substantive answer or a substantive conversation.”

The topless Sanders protests, on the other hand, got extensive coverage from Fox, Newsweek, Business Insider, and the New York Post, among other outlets, and hundreds of thousands of people watched clips of the protests. Have any of those outlets covered the work on cage-free pledges by animal groups like Mercy for Animals and the Humane League? No. (In Vox’s defense, we have covered both.) If you think media coverage is important, you may think you have to be a little outlandish to get it.

“We were ignored. Now, hundreds of thousands or millions of people have seen this,” Johnson said.

And while there’s not a lot of evidence that public stunts change minds, there’s also not a lot of evidence that they don’t. Social science research on the subject focuses on either surveys in labs (which might not reflect minds changed down the road, or ideas seeded which later take root), or on real-life social movements, which are highly variable and hard to generalize from. Animal activists have wrestled with the question of how much can be learned from evidence that disruptive tactics were bad for the anti-abortion movement, say, or good for the civil rights movement.

DxE thinks the evidence is on its side and history will prove it. “Protesters are unpopular, but protests are effective nonetheless,” Johnson said.

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