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DxE is many things, but it’s not Terrorism

How VICE threw non-violent protesters under the bus for clicks

Feb. 16, 2019, 9:28 a.m.

Earlier this week VICE released a video special on the Berkely-based animal rights group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). Framed next to a picture of a threatening hand with a shotgun, the video asks the question, “Terrorism or Protest?”… and then attempts to lead the viewer to the answer.

They’re terrorizing us,” a meek farmer tells the reporter, “they’re terrorizing our local farmers”.

Screenshot of VICE’s description of their video

But VICE should be ashamed of this reporting, which is only the latest in a long history of attempting to frame animal rights activists as domestic terrorists. The 18 minute documentary uses the words “terrorist”, or “terrorism” at least nine times (four times in the first 30 seconds), yet goes the entire length of the video without stating what might be perhaps the most important fact in this discussion: DxE’s tactics are entirely non-violent.

There are certainly valid criticisms of DxE. I know — in 2017 after organizing with them for two years, I resigned my leadership positions over these criticisms. DxE is many things; they are radical, extremist, and their short lifespan of 5 years has already been marred by multiple accusations of sexism, racism, and psychological manipulation within the highest ranks of the organization. Yet, DxE is not, and has never been, violent.

Terrorism requires violence, or the threat of violence. In the United States legal code terrorism is defined as, “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” A search of VICE’s website for “domestic terrorism” reveals stories about the Charlottesville attacker who ran over peaceful protesters, a homegrown ISIS sting by the FBI, and the Florida Nightclub shooting which killed 49 people.

DxE activists, on the other hand, receive Kingian non-violence training and are following in the civil disobedience footsteps of some of the most impactful civil rights movements of our time. Non-violence is a core tenant of every one of their actions, and there are always trained individuals on hand ready to deescalate any conflict. So how did DxE, a group based in the same principals of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi, end up included under the same label as mass murderers?

Screenshot of VICE’s description of their video

There is a long history to the labeling of animal rights activists, particularly those who take part in direct action or civil disobedience, as domestic terrorists. The argument usually relies on the occurrence of property destruction or the release of animals (“theft”) during the action. Yet animal activists do not commit violence — arguably, they prevent violence by saving animals who are being tortured, abused, and killed.

While there are laws in many states that allow individuals who see animals that are being abused to intervene without concern as to the necessary destruction of property in the process (such as a dog locked in a hot car), the animal agriculture, vivisection, and fur industries have done an exceptional job framing their circumstance as different: We’re not abusing animals! We just kill them!

Massive lobbying campaigns to this effect have been largely effective, and the expansion of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act(AETA) in 2006 allowed nearly all animal rights activism to be labeled as terrorism by criminalizing acts which are, “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” That this is a clear violation of the First Amendment (despite its own “Savings Clause” which attempts to claim otherwise), has been largely disregarded by courts.

The AETA first gained notoriety for its use in the SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty) prosecutions, when seven anti-vivisection activists were charged under the conspiracy clause. One defendant was convicted simply for providing technical assistance to the SHAC website, which prosecutors claimed facilitated illegal acts such as “black faxing” — a prank where black pages are faxed to a recipient to waste resources and time. The court was unable to demonstrate the defendants’ connection to any real acts of violence, yet six of the seven were convicted as terrorists.

In 2014 two activists were charged under the AETA for releasing 2,000 minks from an Illinois fur farm, an act in which no violence or threats of such were used.

Lawyer Dara Lovitz, author the book “Muzzling a Movement”, describes the legal environment that has been created by the AETA:

“This is the legal landscape at the moment: nonviolent animal rights activists are branded as terrorists under a law that was pushed through by the power and money of Big Ag and Big Pharma. Before the AETA, these activists were mostly called “extremists” and “radicals” by animal-abusive industries. Now these industries have legal substantiation in labeling them as “terrorists.””

When asked if there there is any legal merit to the accusations of domestic terrorism in response to DxE’s actions at Petaluma, Dara replied:

“Yes, DxE is breaking the law by trespassing and stealing property and “intimidating” the workers. It’s in direct violation of the AETA. The law is unconstitutional and unjust, of course.”

She explains that when looking at the facts of the situation it becomes clear that the law is not about what is right or wrong, but protecting profit:

“It’s simple logic: if you are against animal suffering, then you must be against animals being bred, raised, exploited, and murdered for food. This logic also helps answer the questions, who is the terrorist? and who is extreme?”

So where does the VICE documentary fit into this?

The actions taken by DxE during their Petaluma rescue and highlighted in VICE’s video may certainly be illegal, however there was nothing “aggressive” about it, as VICE claims in their summary of the events. Activists entered the facility by simply sliding past employees, and every single one of the activists who was arrested for trespassing over the property line did so walking slowly, holding an outstretched flower in the face of police with guns, and quietly accepting their arrest. No one was harmed, and no violence was committed or threatened by the activists. Like every other DxE action, the protest was entirely peaceful.

DxE Activist March on Petaluma

VICE claims that the labels of domestic terrorism come from past similar rescues, where activists have entered “humane” factory farms. These actions involved documenting the horrendous conditions in which animals were kept and rescuing some of the most at-risk survivors, such as two piglets who’s rescue prompted an FBI hunt. Activists are currently being tried for felonies in these cases in which no violence or threats thereof were present (except, of course, the immense violence being inflicted against the non-human animals in these facilities).

Yet VICE’s sensationalized framing of the Petaluma rescue is no surprise. The media outlet has long been criticized for being more entertainment than journalism, and has no known journalistic code of ethics. VICE’s co-founder, Shane Smith, seems to have a very loose relationship with the truth, which some claim has impacted the entire culture. Presenting their click-bait sensationalism as serious journalism is negligent at best, and dangerous at worst. The suggestion that non-violent activists engaging in civil disobedience is even tangental to domestic terrorism probably falls closer to the latter. Toeing the dangerous line into what Jason Del Gandio calls “The Terrorization of Dissent” — a ploy to maintain corporate profit at the risk of individual liberty, VICE has chosen to throw conscientious dissenters under the bus just for some clicks (read: profit).

In 2017 when I resigned from multiple leadership roles in DxE and signed a petition calling for the resignation of the current DxE leadership, I did not expect that I would be publicly defending them only two years later. Yet despite the serious critiques of DxE which exist, the normalization of labeling non-violent activists as terrorists is a threat not just to the non-humans whose lives are at stake in this debate, but also the very core of a free nation. While the drastic polarization of our nation has led to threats against free speech from both the left and right, the press remains one of the few havens for dissent. VICE certainly has the right to share their own opinions, but presenting as legitimate journalism while sensationalizing stories to support a corporate fear-mongering narrative should be raising some serious eyebrows — and it’s time for us, as the consumers of their product, to hold them accountable.

At least, that’s my opinion.

For further reading:

Muzzling a Movement: The Effects of Anti-Terrorism Law, Money, and Politics on Animal Activism” by Dara Lovitz

The Terrorization of Dissent: Corporate Repression, Legal Corruption, and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” by Jason Del Gandio