The funeral was supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m., but the mourners didn’t show up until closer to 8. They came dressed all in black except for their sneakers. None of them had been to this kind of funeral before, and they were nervous. “I haven’t memorized my speech,” a young woman named Bianca told me. The procession was going to begin at the New Haven Green. Bianca shuffled around the flagpole, trying to get warm. With nightfall, the mist had turned to cold pinpricks of rain. Another woman asked what would happen if the funeral was interrupted by hecklers.
“If we’re getting heckled, we stay focused, centered, serious,” said Zach Groff. He was officiating the funeral, and he spoke with the gravitas of a priest in the confessional. “If we refuse to leave, they can say, ‘You’re trespassing, we’re going to have you arrested.’ Before they tell us to leave, it’s perfectly legal.”
The mourners had reason to be nervous. Their procession would take them through downtown New Haven and into several restaurants. They would line up beside the tables, amid the din of clinking cutlery and conversation snatched between bites. They had no intention of eating. Quite the opposite: their mission was to eulogize the food.
The funeral was organized by Direct Action Everywhere—DXE, as it is known—a newly formed animal rights network. While DXE opposes all animal cruelty, the primary target of its campaigns is the production and consumption of meat. It considers eating animals to be a serious act of violence. To get their point across, its members stage “actions” in restaurants, shouting at the patrons, reminding them that they are eating corpses.
For many, the image of animal rights activism involves wide-eyed ladies leafleting on the sidewalk. As Groff puts it, “Animal rights is a white country club activity, has been up until this point.” DXE’s leaders want to take the movement out of the hands of fuddy-duddies and give it a twenty-first century makeover. The network prides itself on its diversity: Groff points out that the national founders of DXE are Chinese American, Indian American, Chicano. Full of words like “normativity” and “intersectionality,” their rhetoric has a certain intellectual hipness, and it is beginning to catch on. A year ago, Groff says, DXE consisted of eight people in San Francisco; now the group has approximately eighty chapters in twenty countries.
The community theater aspect of the funeral—replete with props, costumes, and lines to memorize—is not incidental to the movement’s growth. The primary aim of DXE’s actions is not to convince enthusiastic steak eaters to give up meat. Instead, it is to forge a strong network of activists. Each action is the radical vegan equivalent of an ice cream social: a way for the community, which does a lot of its organizing online, to meet in person and become friends. The public performance is meant to band vegans together, to strengthen their resolve and prevent them from returning to the vegetarian—or worse, omnivorous—fold.
What makes for good bonding can make for bizarre protests. At the funeral on October 30, the mourners on the Green couldn’t decide how confrontational they wanted to be. They would be shouting at restaurant-goers, but they weren’t going to cause any harm. They wanted to be noticed, but they did not want to be arrested. When they walked to Groff’s Honda to get the coffin—a four-foot-long box made of obsolete election signs that Groff had spray-painted black—one of the pallbearers spoke up: “One note about the coffin. Could this be mistaken for some kind of explosive device?”
Groff stopped in the middle of handing out fake flowers. “Good question,” he said. He stuck his nose into a purple bloom, thinking hard. “Good question,” he said again.
New Haven’s restaurant scene is nothing out of the ordinary: noodle shops, fast-food joints, and pizzerias alongside a smattering of more upscale, professorial places. To the organizers of DXE, though, the banality with which we view these restaurants is a sign of our desensitization. The animals that will become meat are not slaughtered on-site, but in the activists’ eyes, the restaurants that cook and serve cows and chickens and pigs are nothing less than institutional accomplices to murder. The group’s language is unequivocal. As Zach Groff wrote to me in an email before the funeral procession, Chipotle and Buffalo Wild Wings are “places of violence.”
What the rest of us think of as animals, DXE refers to as “non-human animals” and as “our brethren.” In their literature, animals are assigned names and genders, personalities and biographies. When I asked one of the pallbearers in Connecticut why she gave up some of her favorite foods, such as pizza and ice cream, even though their creation didn’t entail any slaughter, her answer was very personal: “I wouldn’t want anyone to do that to me: forcibly impregnate me, take my babies away, and take my milk. I would feel extremely violated by that.”
When it comes to the capacity to feel pain and joy and love, animals are no different from humans, according to DXE. Groff is convinced that animal rights can become the next progressive movement, following in the tradition of civil rights and gay rights. Organizations like ACT UP used violent imagery and street art and disruptive actions to draw the world’s attention to the AIDS crisis. Now, DXE wants to use those same tactics to draw attention to the horrors of the meat industry.
If the members of Connecticut DXE had been nervous before the funeral, it was nothing compared to what I felt. At about 6:45 p.m., I had gone into a state of frenzy. Nearly everything I was wearing was the product of either murder or theft. My sweaters were made of wool ripped from the bodies of poor bleating sheep. The sounds of pain involved in the production of my leather shoes are simply unprintable. My subjects would take one look at me and know immediately that I was a criminal. And who wants to give good quotes to a murderer?
I borrowed a non-leather belt from a friend. It didn’t keep my pants up, but I figured that exposing my rear end was better than exposing myself as an enemy to the cause. My only non-leather shoes looked like they had emerged from the nightmares of Coco Chanel: fluorescent white-and-blue jogging sneakers made of synthetic mesh. I slipped them on and laced them up. I didn’t have time to find a non-wool sweater, so I made a mental note not to unzip my jacket. I grabbed my notebook, and headed out for my first assignment undercover.
As I walked to meet the activists, I had an uncomfortable realization. The funeral would be filmed and posted on YouTube. And even if no one I knew clicked on the videos, I would be traipsing around downtown New Haven in a procession that aimed to commemorate the lives and personalities of those creatures who’d been turned into meat—creatures that under almost any other circumstances, I would be happy to ingest. I might not have been a mourner myself, but in my black coat I sure looked like one.
Our first target was Buffalo Wild Wings. There were about fourteen of us, and as we walked in, a hostess in a bright yellow sports jersey said, “Hi, guys, welcome!” and flashed her most professional hostess smile. She didn’t seem to notice our somber faces, our funereal black, our signs, our flowers, or our coffin. We stood between tables, under huge TVs that yammered with the sounds of football games. Allan Brison, a former New Haven alder—whose beard and shining eyes make him look like DXE Connecticut’s resident druid—started off the proceedings by gesturing at the coffin. “Behind us is the body of someone, someone who was never named,” he intoned, “who only wanted safety and love, but only knew suffering and violence.” His voice quavered, barely audible over the music and the sports games. Still, the restaurant’s manager appeared almost immediately, touching Brison on the elbow and whispering in his ear. Brison headed for the door. As planned, Groff began to shout, with the rest of the mourners responding in unison.
As Groff himself made his way to the door, one of the diners shouted after him, “They’re delicious,” and began to snicker.
“You laugh, they die,” Groff said.
Out on the sidewalk, everyone agreed that as actions go, the one they had just staged was weak. Everything needed to be louder, the speakers more sure of themselves. Groff would take over the opening speech—his booming baritone would carry better than Brison’s voice.
The next stop was Chipotle. In DXE’s view, Chipotle is the worst of the worst, the most cunning of enemies. The irony is that Chipotle’s website is not so different from DXE’s. Both disparage factory farms, and both claim to be fixing the problem. The burrito chain’s solution is to source meat differently. According to their website, one hundred percent of their pork comes from pigs “raised outside, or in deeply bedded pens,” where they can wander and dig with their snouts, with no antibiotics and a vegetarian diet. Other pages claim
that the company has been successful in promoting “naturally raised” cattle, and it chooses poultry farmers who go beyond the FDA requirements. Their menu even has vegan options.
But DXE activists say that Chipotle’s website is full of lies—“humane-washing,” in Groff’s words—and that its revenue is “blood money.” They see Chipotle’s attempt to provide “naturally raised” meat as yet another instance of the corporate machine masking its misdeeds in order to turn a profit, like a fossil fuel executive teaching schoolchildren how to recycle.
Tonight, New Haven’s Chipotle had a surprise on the menu: a funeral. It was just as short lived as the funeral had been in Buffalo Wild Wings, but Chipotle franchises have an antiseptic design, and the bright lights and quieter music made the activists more noticeable. As Groff began to chant, patrons pulled out iPhones and began filming. They may not have gotten to hear the tragic stories of Pumpernickel the rooster, Franklin the pig, or Grace the cow, but they saw the coffin and heard Groff’s message loud and clear before the uniformed manager—who looked no older than 25—held the door open for us. “I’m sorry folks,” he said, his tone neutral. “You have to do that outside. If you’re not going to buy anything, you’ve got to leave. If you’re not outside, I’m going to call the police.” Then, as we trouped out, he added, almost robotically, “Thank you. Have a good night.”
* * *
The last time Allan Brison ate meat was on April 30, 1975. It was the day the Vietnam War ended, and he was hitchhiking across the country, staying in Christian missions. He remembers the meal clearly: chipped beef, the meat thinly sliced and served on toast with a cream sauce—what Brison calls “shit on a shingle.”
He had become interested in vegetarianism through the work of Hebert Shelton, an alternative medicine guru who advocated both vegetarianism and fasting. Brison’s longest fast lasted twenty-one days—he had checked into Shelton’s retreat in Texas—but he began to feel weak, and he soon switched diets, eventually settling on a regimen of low fat, natural foods. “The Okinawans are the healthiest people on earth, and they eat mostly sweet potatoes,” he told me, over popcorn dusted with nutritional yeast.
Brison is 76 years old, and his unusual eating habits have sustained him through a life of political activism. In the 1960s, you could find him facing off with the police in Civil Rights protests (and, on two occasions, locked up in a Houston jail cell). Fast forward half a century, and Brison was still at it, out-campaigning a well-established Democrat in 2008 to become one of the only Green Party representatives ever to sit on the New Haven Board of Alders. And he remains an enthusiastic protester: the People’s Climate March, Black Lives Matter demonstrations—you name it, Brison is there.
But he hadn’t made the connection between his diet and his activism until he met Zach Groff. While many of the members were already active in the animal rights movement, it was Groff’s organizing and fiery emails that brought DXE Connecticut together.
As a leader of a protest movement, Groff is unusual. He is low-key, and he does not go in for the kind of oversimplification that makes for good political rhetoric. He graduated from Yale in 2013 and now works for a New Haven nonprofit that tackles global poverty alleviation. He knows that DXE can seem like a crazy fringe group, and, when I visited his apartment, he was quick to assure me that animal activism had nothing to do with his day job.
I had once again donned my vegan get-up—my pants falling off, my shoes a-glitter—but I needn’t have worried about Groff going on a fire-and-brimstone tirade against leather or wool. “Now that I scream in restaurants, the label ‘angry vegan’ is appropriate,” Groff conceded. “But in my personal encounters I’m a lot more soft-spoken. I’m quite shocked that I’m doing this.” And it turns out that neither leather nor wool is part of DXE’s campaign.
Groff speaks the way you would imagine a Yale grad might: a mile a minute, every sentence packed with quotes and statistics and subtle distinctions. He mentions so many philosophers, economists, and fellow activists that it is hard to keep track of his verbal footnotes. He identifies himself with a philosophical movement called effective altruism. “It’s all these nerdy people who are also bleeding hearts, who want to figure out how to do good,” he said. Their tool is rationality, and more specifically, utilitarian argument.
Past animal rights campaigns have focused on fur and animal testing. But the number of animals who suffer to make coats and pharmaceuticals is tiny when compared to the number of animals slaughtered for food. I asked about the buzzwords we hear all the time: local, humane, free range, grain fed. “It’s not going to be possible for us to have a society where we raise animals decently in order to kill them to put them on our plates,” he said.
Groff may describe himself as rational and soft-spoken, but our interview happened to fall on election night, and I could see the political firebrand emerge every time he turned to the coverage being streamed from his computer onto the TV in his living room. When Chris Christie appeared, Groff snarled: “He’s totally fine vetoing laws against gestation crates”—criminally small cages into which pigs are packed. “We should just put him in a gestation crate. I’d be happy to eat him if someone served him to me.”
Meanwhile, right-wing pundits have not held back from launching equally biting attacks on DXE. At Bluestem Brasserie, a fancy restaurant in San Francisco, an activist named Kelly Atlas gave a speech last September about the abuse that her “little girl” had suffered—her little girl being a chicken rescued from a factory farm. As Motown-hits played through the restaurant speakers, she looked around the room at the smirks on diners’ faces, and began to cry.
Her heartfelt words were picked up by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom wasted no time pointing out how absurd the message was. They listed pressing issues that, in their opinion, deserve more attention than the plight of a chicken. And even liberals who love to hate Limbaugh and Beck would have to admit that they have a point: police brutality in Ferguson, New York and the rest of the country is simply more urgent than the pain of farm animals.
Groff, however, views animal liberation as neglected by the very people who ought to support it. “Animal rights is the orphan of the left,” he said, quoting a blog post by another DXE activist. And though pundits may laugh at outpourings of emotion on behalf of animals, Groff feels that any publicity is good publicity. “You need to have dramatic actions and they need to be confrontational. And you can do that completely within the limits of the law. You want to spread the meme of anti-speciesism as quickly as possible.”
* * *
As the night continued, the protesters’ speeches became more personal, their performances more convincing. In Shake Shack, the staff had a powwow behind the counter, but none of them interrupted the funeral procession.
Suzanne Beck, holding up a picture of a rooster as if at a vigil, raised her voice and began: “Pumpernickel was a smart and social rooster. He knew his name and understood when his mom told him to go lay down or go eat or go play with the cats. He loved to be held and kissed and was very protective of his mom who took him in when he was a baby. Pumpernickel loved to chat with us and he loved to hear how beautiful he was. He was one of the most social beings I ever knew.”
Then it was Bianca’s turn. She had no picture of the pig of whom she spoke, but her voice rose with emotion, as if speaking about a dear friend who had narrowly survived a deadly illness: “Franklin is one of the lucky ones. He is one of my favorite pigs to visit at the animal sanctuary. When he was a five-pound piglet, he was tossed into the dead pile but a concerned neighbor noticed he was still alive. She rescued him and brought him to the sanctuary. When I visit him he comes when you call his name. He loves hugs and cuddling in his hay as he peacefully falls asleep now knowing he will have another day, as all animals should.”
Some customers were smiling, others were filming. All burgers and shakes were left untouched. “The dairy industry knew her as Number 4391, but to me her name was Grace,” Groff said. He projected without shouting, like someone delivering a soliloquy to a packed theater. “Like you and me, she wanted only love and kindness, but she was used, abused, and then discarded by the dairy industry, impregnated until she ran dry and then thrown out like trash.”
The grand finale was saved for Brison. “We know that violence against innocents is wrong,” he said. He did not speak particularly loudly, but the restaurant had gone silent, and his voice was perfectly audible over the background music. “We stand with heavy hearts to speak for those whose voices were silenced by corporate greed and lies.”
Over the course of the evening, I watched as a loose collective of vegans became a coalition of activists. They began to chant again as they filed out of Shake Shack, no one breaking character. They had not planned to demonstrate in this many restaurants, but now they were so pumped that they couldn’t help themselves. As they passed by restaurants they didn’t intend to enter, they held up their signs as if they were talismans, to keep away the carnivorous evil eye. Someone suggested that we go up the street, to teach Union League a lesson. Union League was big. Union League was The Man.
The Union League Café is an upscale restaurant “in a nineteenth-century setting,” as its website states, where ducks and cows are given posthumous French names and wine pairings to match. We filed up the stairs, and through wood-and-glass doors into the dining room. As the activists began to shout, the polite murmurs of fine dining hushed. A man to my left looked up from his “Selection of Artisanal Cheeses.” A waiter in a black vest paused, his metal crumb-scraper and crumb-dusted plate held demurely at his waist. Dressed as we were in sneakers and funeral black, with our makeshift coffin held aloft, we hadn’t expected to be let in, but no one interrupted the speeches for a while, until the owner emerged. “You leave this place right now or I go to the police,” he said in a thick French accent. He pointed a fat finger towards the door. “I call the cops because this is not normal.” As we filed back out, he gave Suzanne Beck a little push in the back.
* * *
On Sunday, December 7, I met up with DXE Connecticut just as they were being escorted out of a mall in Milford by a security guard. When the guard began to warn them about the dangers of animal overpopulation, Suzanne Beck looked him in the eyes and replied, “Did you know that at the farms that supply places like Wal-Mart, they tear off the baby pigs’ testicles without any anesthesia? You should think about that next time you want to eat some bacon.” The guard’s smile faded. He reached for the walkie-talkie at his belt. “I think it’s time for you to go.”
But DXE isn’t going anywhere soon.
In January, DXE unveiled a new campaign. They had kept it secret up until then, Groff says, for fear of “industrial spies.” The group’s national organizers say they jumped the fence of a chicken farm in California that supplies Whole Foods with eggs. On YouTube, you can watch them exploring the pens late at night, sickly chickens illuminated by the beam of their headlamps. In another scene, they take one of these chickens to a vet, who diagnoses a litany of health problems: a cut beak, long-term diarrhea, maggot infestation. The farm’s owner has insisted that the chickens filmed were not his and that he respects all humane and organic certification requirements. The New York Times also reported that trimming chicken’s beaks is indeed standard practice to prevent chickens from pecking their pen-mates, which can lead to cannibalism. DXE sees this as a testament to the chickens’ inhumane living situation.
You may be forced to think more closely about those chickens next time you go to Whole Foods. DXE has been staging protests in stores around the country, holding signs and playing animal sounds from their cell phones. In Connecticut, they have recruited a few Yale students, who have brought along their friends. They are convinced that they are right. It may be relatively easy to dismiss them as crazy vegans—people with whom you couldn’t possibly have a rational conversation—but they will happily inform you that the great majority of moral philosophers are vegetarian or vegan. If you ask, they will lay out their arguments against animal cruelty. If you don’t, they will disrupt your shopping or your dinner anyway, staging funerals and shouting slogans to strengthen a community.
Eric Boodman is a senior in Branford College. He is a co-editor-in-chief of the New Journal.