By now everyone has heard disturbing reports about Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) in connection with farm protests, trespassing, illegal break-ins, as well as stealing livestock during interventions disguised as animal “rescues”. Many of these demonstrations have resulted in damage to farm fences, broken doors, and other property as well as caused possible bio-contamination introduced to animals in Northern California and elsewhere.
On August 8, Wayne Hsiung, co-founder and leader of DxE, announced plans to step down as head of this militant, controversial animal rights organization in advance of multiple criminal
trials where he could face from 85 to 100 years in prison for illegal activities in connection with DxE’s extremist techniques. He said he has turned over his leadership position to DxE
member Almira Tanner.
After more than six years of so-called direct actions, the tide appears to be turning against DxE as law enforcement charges, private lawsuits and the prospect of facing long prison sentences are replacing misdemeanors and community service as probable outcomes resulting from unauthorized intrusions.
DxE’s disruptive activities have not been confined to farms alone. Food retailers (Costco, Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market, Norbest, Farmer Johns — a Hormel subsidiary and supplier to Costco and Safeway and others) have been targets. Restaurants like Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, Chipotle Mexican Grill and other establishments have been entered by DxE activists as a tactic designed to disrupt conventional social norms when others are eating and to push people out of their comfort zones. Clothing stores, zoos, circuses and labs have also been targeted.
Demonstrators have also taken their protests to conferences, state farm shows and LA Dodgers baseball games, as well as to speaking engagements featuring corporate executives and during election campaign appearances by candidates for public offices.
Who are these people, and what do they want?
Co-founded in Berkeley in 2013 by Hsiung, age 38, this radical animal rights group has grown from a local organization including a number of social science students to become a global social justice movement. It achieved this by establishing and empowering a growing number of animal liberation networks totaling 235 cities and 48 countries, based on DxE data.
Other DxE leaders mentioned in news reports over the years include spokesperson Matt Johnson and key organizers Cassie King, Chris Van Breen, Priya Sawhney, Brian Burns, Ronnie Rose, Paul
Darwin Picklesimer and Aidan Cook.
Their published intent is to build a movement that can ultimately shift culture and change social and political institutions toward “total animal liberation” leading to laws mandating species equality.
Before DxE, Hsiung was an attorney with the DLA Piper law firm focusing on consumer fraud and animal cruelty. Prior to this, he was a visiting assistant professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied economics.
He took a leave of absence after his first year at MIT to pursue JD/Ph.D. degrees and later attended the University of Chicago where he graduated in 2001. As a lawyer, Hsiung became an environmental advocate partnering with behavioral law and economics scholar Cass Sunstein to author an analysis of climate change on nonhuman animals.
For ten years, Hsiung investigated conditions at slaughterhouses with the goal of accelerating open rescue along with additional forms of non-violent direct action. In 2015, DxE became a supporter of the “Liberation Pledge” (www.liberationpledge.com) defined in three statements: To publicly refuse to eat animals – live vegan; to publicly refuse to sit where people are eating animals and to encourage others to take the pledge. Hsiung later stated that “Activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline” for DxE. At times DxE has also been associated with those in the fur-ban movement.
The mission of DxE is taken from its name — to inspire direct action everywhere — and achieve revolutionary social and political change for animals within just a generation. (www.
directactioneverywhere.com/core-values). DxE’s strategy is to use its 40-year roadmap for animal liberation as a guide to end what it believes is a “violent system and create a world where all animals are viewed and treated with respect and have autonomy over their own bodies.”
One of the organization’s five core values is a commitment to being “fiercely” nonviolent. Hsiung has said animal rights activists should use the same peaceful, nonviolent tactics deployed by
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, based on its track record, DxE has frequently disregarded this mandate and has been accused of disturbing the peace, instigating riot, trespassing on private posted property, climbing over barbed-wire fences, forced entry, pushing its way through farm employees, breaking locked doors to burglarize barns, violating bio-security rules, using false evidence (such as blood at the San Francisco Costco) and stealing a few animals that appear to be sick or injured to make publicity videos claiming these conditions are widespread.
In the beginning, DxE protesters were arrested, held for a while and released on misdemeanor charges, required to perform community service or forced to abide by restraining orders, as was the
case with the Whole Foods store in Berkeley.
In recent encounters, DxE activists have been charged with felonies, including felony commercial burglary, trespassing, felony criminal conspiracy, attempted theft of livestock and theft of livestock. Felony theft charges alone can carry possible prison terms of five years.
Some break-ins have resulted in property owner claims of large-scale animal losses (through depopulating 45,000 chickens, for example, at Pleasant Valley Farms in Farmington, CA) due to
the potential threat of outside contamination. A lawsuit filed by the property owners against those involved claimed $331,991.60 in damages.
The rationale behind DxE animal “rescues” is to justify burglaries using an indirect method, by supplying evidence of abuse or neglect after a break-in, instead of before.
This premise is based in part on a decision by the California Court of Appeal in the People v. Keith Chung that applied the protection of animals as an important exception to the requirement for a search warrant. Defendants are relying on an untested legal argument they say entitles them to enter a private facility where they believe an animal is being mistreated if the intent is to assist the animal.
For more than two centuries, the U.S. Bill of Rights and related constitutional provisions in the states have required that before a search or seizure can be made by government officials, a search warrant must be obtained from a judge. The issuance of a warrant is predicated on the fact that it takes “probable cause” that a crime has been (or is being) committed to obtain a warrant.
According to the appellate court, exigent circumstances (an urgent need or demand) is an exception to the 4th Amendment which is now being defined by some to include an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property – like seeing a child or pet locked in a car on a hot day with the windows closed.
With reference to farms, there is no true test for determining whether such circumstances exist, and in each case, the claim of an extraordinary situation must be measured by the facts known or discovered by investigating officers.
As in the Chung case, for example, if a complaint comes to police that loud continuous barking and high-pitched crying of a dog in pain is coming from a condominium near the caller — a situation the caller had heard before, but now sounded more serious. Officers went to the residence, but Chung said he did not own any dogs. However, police heard faint whimpering sounds coming from inside his dwelling.
Believing a dog was in distress, officers entered without a warrant and found one injured dog on the patio and another dead in a refrigerator freezer – both with evidence of head trauma. In this case, the court ruled that the officers had a right to enter without a warrant, upholding Chung’s cruelty conviction.
To justify DxE’s actions, Hsiung has often referred to an opinion letter from an unidentified person he calls a “scholar” asserting that a section of California Law allowing people to rescue
animals trapped in a dangerous environment also allows DxE to legally break into farms it believes are mistreating animals.
DxE’s claim that what it is doing is, or should be, “lawful” is based on the California Appeal Court’s decision, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling (United States v. Stevens) criminalizing the abuse of animals. They also believe they have the right to conduct open rescues under California’s penal code, statute 597E, citing the “doctrine of necessity,” and when they “suspect” animal cruelty.
Again, this defense has not been tested in court in connection with DxE’s actions. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision did uphold California’s constitutional power to punish conduct such as Chung’s when there was validation of the claim from neighbors in addition to the crying dog officers heard.
The key difference between these points of view is that without advance proof (only suspicions or vague generalities), DxE continues to break into farms. The organization has gone on record
stating that it is not possible to raise and slaughter animals in a humane way supporting its goal of attempting to eliminate all meat production for food in the U.S. by 2040.
The purpose behind “rescuing” and filming animals ostensibly in danger is to provide evidence to substantiate direct action’s claims without producing proof of alleged animal abuse or cruelty
in advance. Using whistleblower videos from former farm employees has also been used as “evidence,” and simulated virtual reality productions have been made in an attempt to validate the
Recently, DxE has increased the frequency of its protests in Sonoma County and other parts of California, the nation and the world. On May 29, 2018, more than two hundred DxE followers
protested outside Webber Family Farms in Petaluma, an event that included illegal entry to a barn and “freeing” hens. Forty were arrested for misdemeanor trespassing.
In September 2018, DxE came to Petaluma Farms, a supplier to Amazon and Whole Foods, and 67 were arrested. DxE activists had also been there in 2016. On June 3, 2019, over 600 DxE activists chained themselves together in front of the Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma. Ninety-eight demonstrators were arrested.
The day after the duck farm incident, Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma-Marin Farm Bureau, was interviewed on KSRO radio in Santa Rosa by talk show host Pat Kerrigan.
“I don’t have a problem with protests – but I do have a problem with this protest,” said Tesconi. “This was really about promoting a vegan lifestyle. While everyone has a right to their opinions, I believe DxE is using Sonoma County agriculture in an unfair way while trying to promote its messages. Our county is about an hour drive from DxE’s headquarters in Berkeley where they just held an international conference. We have become a nearby venue of opportunity where they continue to seek media hype by protesting against our local farms and throwing stores like Whole Foods under the bus.”
She said Sonoma County farmers believe in quality and supply several of the largest and most famous stores. These food chains know products from our farmers deliver the quality they are
According to Tesconi, Sonoma County is one of the most humane counties in America, certainly in California. “We appreciate our agricultural heritage. The effort to make what we consume as healthy as possible is top of mind here.”
Tesconi noted that dozens of local farmers from Sonoma County went to the City of Paradise last year to rescue animals during the wildfire and later when floods occurred. There were no DxE
“If Wayne Hsiung has a concern, I have already shared my contact information with him and he – or his successors — could call, but he has never reached out to me. I would definitely be willing to sit down, talk and find common ground.”
Our farmers work with a number of local government and state agencies that address concerns related to farming. It doesn’t take bringing 300 people by bus to have a discussion. Working through
channels without staging a public spectacle — as DxE has done — is much more effective when it comes to getting where they want to go.”
DxE says it has gone through these government channels and has presented “evidence,” but claims these agencies haven’t done anything about it.
“I wouldn’t say government agencies haven’t done anything, they just haven’t agreed with DxE and its alleged findings. There is a difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Our
industry has many, many regulations and requirements related to animal welfare – are animals being fed and taken care of, and is their housing adequate, for examples.”
She said it may be that DxE does not have the same opinion of legal standards when it comes to what government regulations say.
“I’m sure that if anything was presented officially as an investigation to one of these agencies, such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture, those issues probably have been investigated and it was determined that there wasn’t a concern.”
Tesconi said, “I feel like DxE is using propaganda tactics, and I’ve called them out on this in the past. In my view, what they are doing is bordering on terrorism involving the use of illegal practices to push their points of view.”
One way to resolve this, Tesconi offered, is for the public to visit farms and see for themselves how animals are treated.
“I’ve had conversations with farmers and they want people to come to visit them in an organized way by making an appointment when they are available to share their animal practices. Many of our farms offer this today, and the Farm Bureau is looking at ways to develop more opportunities for people to participate.”
She said those interested should call the Farm Bureau to arrange a tour and let the staff know if there is a specific commodity they wish to see.
“Our farmers are proud and amazing. They love what they do, are focused on sustainability and quality and want to share their stories. I’m very proud of them.”