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‘The Next Frontier’: Conviction of leading animal activist could ignite a populist revolution

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The conviction of Wayne Hsiung could be a flashpoint in the 'next frontier' of animal rights because it shows just how broken the legal system is. His story could help advance the development of a grassroots movement to liberate nonhuman animals. It also presents us with a choice: Live in a system where the government ignores animal cruelty laws or save the animals those laws were meant to protect. Grassroots activism is a systemic reaction to this corruption, a refusal to just rely on the consumerism of veganism as a band-aid solution to a political system that allows the torture of animals because the industry is above the law.

CARTER DILLARD: Here’s a disturbing fact: Prosecutors in the United States charge more penalties for the activists who reveal animal cruelty crimes than they do for the factory farms that commit them. This trend is a glaring miscarriage of justice, and it must be reversed.

And here’s the latest miscarriage, involving a high-profile activist: On November 2, 2023, Wayne Hsiung, an attorney, animal rights activist, and founder of the animal rights nonprofit Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), was found guilty of felony conspiracy and two misdemeanor charges for rescuing mistreated animals from Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm, two factory farms in Sonoma County, California, known to activists for breaking animal cruelty laws for many years.

Hsiung and his fellow activists at DxE use a well-known tactic known as “open rescue,” in which concerned citizens enter farms and physically remove animals who show signs of injury or distress in order to save their lives. The tactic is used in businesses that operate in blatant violation of animal cruelty laws. This is a story that can compel good people who respect the rule of law and true justice over the power of money to do the right thing.

Hsiung’s trial and conviction are part of a crucial story within the animal rights movement. This story ranges back well before his recent acquittal in Utah, covered in a New York Times op-ed. But what happened in Sonoma—and also in stories about other animal abuse cases in the county showing local corruption—are part of a much bigger story about corruption, social justice, and the rule of law as bottom-up justice over top-down power.

Knowing that what activists are doing to help animals is just, juries in cases such as Hsiung’s will often acquit. Most people recognize that nonhuman animals are not mere property; if a business or other owner mistreats them, good-hearted individuals may feel that they have a right—perhaps even a duty—to rescue them. This legal concept is known as the “doctrine of necessity.”

In a 2014 paper published in the Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy, attorney and animal rights advocate Jenni James explains the doctrine: “The necessity defense encourages citizens faced with untenable options to choose the action that generates the greatest social utility, even when that act is illegal.”

In Hsiung’s trial, the judge kept crucial evidence from the jury and made other questionable decisions, such as preventing a discussion of Hsiung’s belief that the doctrine of necessity permitted his conduct. The jury did not acquit. Hsiung faces up to three years in prison.

If true justice prevails and a broken system is exposed, then “official” authority is undermined. This lack of legal enforcement of animal welfare and cruelty laws would create a vacuum, inviting animal activists to step in to fill the gap. These actions could develop into a populist revolution meant to protect a truly voiceless segment of individuals who feel pain: nonhuman animals.

In 2019, Emily Atkin of the New Republic wrote the excellent article “Why Animal Rights Is the Next Frontier for the Left,” in which she explained that “as the left hardens its commitment to fighting climate change, social injustice, and rampant capitalism, the question of what to do about animals will become inescapable.”

The conviction of Hsiung could be a flashpoint in this “next frontier.” Because it shows just how broken the legal system is, his story could help advance the development of a grassroots movement to liberate nonhuman animals. It also presents us with a choice: Live in a system where the government ignores animal cruelty laws or save the animals those laws were meant to protect

This is an area ripe for populism because it confronts an industry that has significant influence over governmental regulations, politics, and the legal system—an influence that results in billions of animals being tortured and killed yearly, as well as a poisoned environment…

This is a systemic problem, proven by the pivot of the animal rights movement toward veganism, toward market-based solutions to a problem the law cannot fix. It’s a problem the law may exacerbate, creating an illusion of protection that forestalls change.

In 2021, I made the conscious decision to abandon the systems of “top-down power” to instead support organizations of “bottom-up justice,” like DxE and other organizations that further intergenerational justice for the most numerous and vulnerable entities of all.

Grassroots activism is a systemic reaction to this corruption — a refusal to just rely on the consumerism of veganism as a band-aid solution to a political system that allows the torture of animals because the industry is above the law. SOURCE…

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