- Wayne Hsiungco-founder and lead organizer for Direct Action Everywhere and a former law professor. He is facing 17 felony charges in jurisdictions around the country for his animal rescue actions.
- Priya Sawhneyco-founder and a lead investigator of Direct Action Everywhere.
Following the release of nearly 100 animal rights activists who were arrested for carrying out a rescue mission and protest at a Northern California duck farm this week, we speak with the founders of the group that coordinated the protest, Direct Action Everywhere. Priya Sawhney and Wayne Hsiung are both facing years of jail time for conducting a series of actions protesting animal torture in recent years. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie Klapper writes, “When law enforcement has become aware of the existence of animal cruelty, its response has not been to address [it]. To the contrary, the response has been to hunt down and arrest the rescuers and even attempt to return the injured, sick, dying animals to the agricultural facility.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our discussion about animal rights actions, known as rescues, that have been taking place around the country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nearly a hundred animal rights activists are free today after being arrested for carrying out a rescue mission and protest at Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma, which they accuse of animal torture. More than 600 activists with Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, stormed the slaughterhouse Monday, fanning out in teams to chain themselves together at the entrance, freeing dozens of ducks and in some cases locking themselves by the neck to the slaughter line.
AMY GOODMAN: This is just the latest in a series of direct actions by the group. In 2017, DxE went to Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Utah, one of the world’s largest pig farms, to expose conditions at the facility. Investigators report finding piglets feeding on their own mother’s blood, pregnant pigs held in gestational crates too small for them to turn around in, and sick and feverish piglets left to die of starvation or be trampled.
This is Wayne Hsiung at Smithfield’s Circle Farms.
WAYNE HSIUNG: So, we’ve got a little baby here who’s literally starving to death, because her mom’s nipples are so torn up, she can’t feed on milk. So, she’s about half the size of the piglets. And like the one-third of the piglets who are born into farms like this, she’s going to die. She’ll probably starve to death. Her face is covered in blood, and we’ve got to take her out. So that’s what we’re going to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Utah officials filed felony burglary and rioting charges against Wayne Hsiung and four other members of Direct Action Everywhere, accusing them of removing a pair of piglets, named Lucy and Ethel. The activists could face 60 years in prison.
We’re still with our guests, Priya Sawhney and Wayen Hsiung, co-founders of Direct Action Everywhere, both facing prison time for their activism.
Wayne, we just looked once again at the video at the Smithfield farms. And before we move on to talk about what happened to the piglets that you took from the Smithfield farms, I wanted to ask a question about Smithfield. In Part 1 of our discussion, you explained that it ultimately has been bought by the Chinese government. These are farms. And as President Trump imposes tariffs on China and says he will relieve farmers of the economic strain of these tariffs by paying out $16 billion, does that mean that Smithfield farms, which is owned by the Chinese government, gets also bailed out by President Trump?
WAYNE HSIUNG: It’s one of the perversities of our current political system, that the president, who claims to be fighting on behalf of the American farmers, fails to realize that American farmers pretty much have disappeared from the landscape. The vast majority of our farms are owned by huge agribusiness conglomerates, including agribusiness conglomerates that are run by the Chinese government.
And Smithfield Foods is the best example of this. They have systematically not only kind of denied animal rights, but human rights. They have damaged the environment. They have done all sorts of things that ordinary Americans, including most Trump supporters, would say are just unconscionable. And yet the Trump bailout of the pork industry largely went to companies like Smithfield and other agribusiness conglomerates.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Priya, can you talk about what the difference is—I mean, are there particular kinds of farming of animals—pigs and ducks and so on—that are particularly egregious, particularly guilty of animal cruelty? And also speak specifically about Sonoma County, where a lot of these protests have been taking place.
PRIYA SAWHNEY: So, Sonoma County has multiple farms, hundreds of farms. And the farms that we have been to have, like you said, egregious animal cruelty. And what we’ve seen is that all farms and all slaughterhouses have suffering animals, have animals who are subjected to, you know, criminal animal cruelty. And I’ve seen this with my own eyes at Sunrise Farms, at Petaluma Poultry, chickens who are collapsed, they can’t even stand, and chickens who can’t access food and water. And I’ve been to pig farms, as well, and I’ve seen the conditions that Wayne was talking about at Smithfield.
And, you know, these are standard industry practices that are present at farms across the world, frankly. And these are things that are not only things that you will see at Sonoma County, but in Utah and even farms across the world. Like, in Australia and other countries, we are now seeing activists who are going inside and documenting very similar conditions. And so you can see that these practices exist across the world. And the reason for that is because these animals are seen as property instead of as the individuals that you and I know that they are.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a quote from former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie Klapper, who has reviewed Direct Action Everywhere’s undercover footage and veterinarian reports regarding the Reichardt Duck Farm facility in Sonoma County. In a Direct Action Everywhere press release, Klapper says, quote, “The conditions are not normal, accepted industry practice. There is evidence of severe neglect and lack of treatment rising to the level of animal cruelty.” Klapper goes on to say, “When law enforcement has become aware of the existence of animal cruelty, its response has not been to address [it]. To the contrary, the response has been to hunt down and arrest the rescuers and even attempt to return the injured, sick, dying animals to the agricultural facility.” The significance of who she is, Wayne Hsiung?
WAYNE HSIUNG: Yeah. I mean, one of the most shocking things over the past year, Sonoma County continues to escalate its fight and battle against animal rights activists, despite the fact that even former prosecutors, criminal law professors, very distinguished legal intellectuals and folks who really understand the laws of the state of California understand that the criminals here are the factory farms, not the nonviolent activists, who are just trying to get some aid to the animals.
And the reason is quite simple: It’s money in politics, that the supervisors of the board of Sonoma County, the prosecutors and the sheriff in Sonoma County receive donations from a lot of the big factory farms, and therefore they have political connections. They have political influence over the legal system, and ordinary citizen does not. Again, if you or I tortured an individual dog, we would clearly be subject to the criminal laws of the state of California. Yet, when a factory farm does this on massive scale, on a scale a million times larger than an individual person abusing a single animal, it’s seen as industry standard, and therefore completely immune from prosecution.
And worse yet, now, when citizens are exposing, filing complaints and trying to do something, pursuant to the Good Samaritan laws that exist in the state of California, to give the animals aid, they systematically have been rounding people up and using terms like “cut the head off the snake,” “collateral damage”—the terms of a militarized police force, that we’re seeing used not just against, you know, foreign peoples who are being attacked by kind of the American military, but now against our own people, who are engaged in dissenting activities within our own borders.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Wayne, can you talk about where some of these animals from these factory farms are sold? I mean, you, yourself, have been banned from Whole Foods, Whole Foods which was bought by Amazon in 2017. Explain why you were banned and what Whole Foods’ role is in this, what kinds of—which of these animals they’re buying, and the claims they make about the food that they sell, saying that it’s organic or the source is cage-free animals, whereas in fact what you found and exposed is that that’s not the case.
WAYNE HSIUNG: One of the most troubling things about the story that’s unfolding in Sonoma County is, Sonoma County is one of the world’s largest suppliers of organic poultry. Most consumers, when they go and buy a pound of chicken from a Whole Foods or Costco, and they see it marketed as organic or free-range or humane, they’re doing this because they’re compassionate, because they’re trying to do the right thing. And these corporations are twisting and exploiting people’s good and moral sentiments, their praiseworthy sentiments of trying to help animals and the environment, and using that money, using that good sentiment, to inflict even more cruelty to animals and to the environment.
And I think what’s happened is, over the past 10 years, more and more Americans are upset about what happens in factory farms. They understand the environmental damage, the abuse of the animals that’s happening in factory farms. They’re trying to change. They’re demanding change. But instead of actually changing, what factory farms and big food retailers are doing is putting up the appearance of change. And if the government doesn’t hold these corporations accountable, they will continue to do that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Wayne Hsiung, explain why you were banned from Whole Foods, from all Whole Foods stores across the U.S., and whether other animal rights activists have also been similarly banned.
WAYNE HSIUNG: Whole Foods is one of these companies that has a surprisingly good reputation among environmentalists and folks on the left, yet when you look at kind of the practices of the corporation and the statements by their CEO, you could not be farther from a progressive company than what Whole Foods has done over the past 10 years. This is a company that has systematically deceived the public, greenwashed the meat industry. This is a company that’s systematically deceived consumers who believe they’re supporting animal welfare by buying their meat, their eggs and their milk. Yet, when we actually investigate and look behind closed doors about what’s actually happening to the animals, to the workers, to the planet, at the farms where Whole Foods is supplying its meat products, they’re using exactly the same factory farms as everyone else.
And I think what’s important here is that consumers need to have the right to know. Frankly, citizens need to have the right to know what’s actually happening. In a well-functioning democracy, we can’t actually make good decisions if we don’t have true and accurate information. And this is actually something I heard from Amy just a couple days ago. Democracy is something you have to fight for; it’s not just something you achieve. And for us to achieve democracy, for us to fight for democracy, we have to have good and accurate information. There has to be accountability not just for the little guy, but also for big corporations. And we’re not seeing that right now happening within the agricultural industry.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But explain why Whole Foods has banned you from entering any of its stores across the U.S.
WAYNE HSIUNG: What we’ve done over the past 10 years is try to point out what we call the humane lie, that in so many occasions when you see a product that’s being marketed as free-range, humane, grass-fed, it’s actually from just a traditional factory farm. And what we’ve done is we tried to point out to the company—we’ve gone to the CEO, we’ve gone to upper management, we’ve gone to the stores—to try and point out to consumers and the company that there are systematic fraudulent practices happening in their marketing of meat products.
But instead of responding and starting a dialogue about our findings, which have been reported on in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, biggest newspapers in the world—law professors and investigators have looked at our documents and our evidence, and basically said this is legitimate stuff—but instead of responding and starting a dialogue, the company has tried to crush us. They’ve sued us. They’ve prosecuted us. They’ve basically done everything they can to destroy this movement, that is just trying to point out the company’s violations of its own standards and values. So, I’m hopeful that as we get more media coverage and as more people learn what’s actually happening in these suppliers, that the company will eventually sit down and talk to us. But sometimes corporate power is not that willing to respond to criticism. This might be one of those cases.
AMY GOODMAN: Priya Sawhney, can you talk about the workers in these plants? Whether we’re talking about Smithfield in Utah or the plants in Petaluma, in Sonoma, who is working in these plants? How are they treated?
PRIYA SAWHNEY: Yeah. So, the workers in these facilities we’ve seen are usually workers who are paid minimum wage. They have no other options of getting jobs anywhere else. And one of the reasons we go to these facilities, that we go to these farms and these slaughterhouses, is not only to expose violence against nonhuman animals, against these pigs and cows and chickens, but also to expose what these workers are subjected to. And, you know, on Monday’s action, we saw that one of our activists was basically trapped in the slaughterhouse machinery, but that’s not something that’s uncommon for workers to face on a daily basis. And there are stories of workers getting trapped and killed in machineries, getting severely injured.
And the reason that we protest these facilities, whether it’s duck farms or Smithfield farms or any of these slaughterhouses that exist on this planet, is because no one deserves to be killed inside of a slaughterhouse, but also these places don’t need to exist. No one should have to earn a living where they have to slit someone’s throat and be subjected to, you know, so much violence. And we know that these workers do, themselves, suffer severe trauma from having to work in these conditions, these facilities. And I personally have spoken to slaughterhouse workers. Wayne has talked to people who have worked in farms. And we know that if they—that most of these people, if they had a choice to do something else, that they would take it. And that’s why we target the entire industry of animal agriculture, as opposed to these workers, who we know don’t—in many cases, don’t have any other options but to be working a minimum-wage job inside of a slaughterhouse killing 2,000 animals every single day.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Wayne Hsiung, the issue of undocumented immigrants who are working in these plants and also whistleblowers within the plants?
WAYNE HSIUNG: Yeah, the irony is, some of the whistleblowers I’ve met, at companies like Petaluma Poultry and Reichardt Duck Farm, have actually been in jail with me. You know, so many of these folks are folks who have no privilege whatsoever, have had no educational or economic opportunities in their lives. They’re undocumented, so maybe they can’t get a job anywhere else. And when they try and unionize and fight back for themselves, frankly, not just for the animals, they’re viciously crushed, as well. Smithfield, Reichardt Duck Farm, Petaluma Poultry, all of them have faced class-action litigation regarding the abuse of workers and their efforts to try and prevent these workers from unionizing.
And there’s a clear connection between the abuse of the animals and the workers. In both these cases, they’re treating living creatures, living beings, as mere commodities. They don’t see these individuals, whether it’s the workers or animals, as living creatures who deserve respect and have some intrinsic value. And it’s just part of the industry. If you are systematically torturing and abusing billions of animals, if you’re systematically ignoring the cries of animals who are screaming out in agony as their bodies are being torn to pieces, when your workers complain, you’re probably not going to be too concerned, either.
AMY GOODMAN: Priya Sawhney, something I don’t think people understand around the United States are what are called ag-gag laws. Can you explain what they are and what that means?
PRIYA SAWHNEY: Ag-gag laws are laws that prevent ordinary people, and especially activists, from going and even documenting or taking a photograph in these farms, in these slaughterhouses. And the reason that these ag-gag laws exist is not to protect animals, not to protect anyone but the industry and their profits. And the reason that we at DxE challenge these industries and challenge the—go to these facilities is because we want to challenge these unconstitutional laws, which are preventing ordinary people, preventing the public, from knowing what’s happening inside of these facilities, which means that people don’t know how animals are being raised for the food that they’re consuming on a daily basis, and, more importantly, how animals are treated, so that companies like Whole Foods and these other—and Smithfield can lie about their practices. Meanwhile, consumers think that they’re consuming so-called humane products.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Wayne Hsiung, if you can specifically say, what do the laws say?
WAYNE HSIUNG: Well, the laws against cruelty very clearly indicate you cannot subject an animal to unnecessary suffering. Yet the ag-gag laws, when you point out that a factory farm is subjecting an animal to unnecessary suffering, can put you in prison for merely taking a photograph, for exposing the animal cruelty that’s happening inside these facilities. And in Utah and North Carolina, where I’m being prosecuted, animal rights cruelty investigations basically stopped when the ag-gag laws started being passed, because the animal rights movement is not a movement that has decades of sophistication and the ability to kind of withstand repression the way the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement developed a repertoire of contention and the ability to understand the political dynamics of powerful institutions trying to crush nonviolent movements.
But we’re seeing a newfound sophistication developing in the animal rights movement, where people are learning from the climate movement, they’re learning from the civil rights movement, about how dangerous it is to challenge power. And the ag-gag laws are a great example of this, where, a decade ago, when these laws first started getting passed, investigations basically stopped, but now, 10 years later, frankly, many activists are particularly excited to go the states and the counties where ag-gag laws have been passed, because we want to bring this fight into court.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Priya, in 2008, nearly two-thirds of California voters approved Proposition 2, known as the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which expands the minimum size for confinement pens used by factory farms to hold calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs. Is this law going far enough?
PRIYA SAWHNEY: Well, we know that one of the things that Prop 2 has done is shown, you know, residents of California, but also people across the world, that everyone—that citizens really care about what’s happening to animals. But what it’s not doing is showing people that there’s so much more suffering happening inside of these farms. And even, you know, we’ve investigated farms that have committed to getting rid of gestation crates, getting rid of battery cages, and we’ve seen, time and time again, that the farms themselves don’t comply with these practices, which goes to show that they don’t really care about these animals, and they also don’t care about the laws, and they don’t care about what the citizens want, and which is very clear. People in California don’t want to see animals being hurt. And despite that fact, we still see that farms, some of these farms across the world—across the state, are still confining animals in crates, in battery cages.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us, Priya Sawhney and Wayne Hsiung, co-founders of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE. They both face prison time, years in prison, for their animal rights activism.
To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.