Slow Burn: The Internal Implosion of Direct Action Everywhere
This is the way that Direct Action ends, not with a bang, but with a social media disaster.
Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are a prominent animal rights group that began in the Bay Area of California and now holds chapters all over the world. Their “Core Chapters” are three long-standing branches (Bay Area, Vancouver, Connecticut) that have demonstrated long-term commitment to the “DxE Values,” as outlined on their website. While DxE claims to be built upon the work of thousands of delegates across the globe, they have a six person “global steering committee” that is made up exclusively of people from Core Chapters, prompting questions as to just how “global” this committee could possibly be.
You’ve probably seen actions sanctioned by DxE covered by major news outlets over the years. Their actions are intentionally in-your-face and difficult to ignore if you happen to be eating in a food court or Chipotle when a demonstration begins. They typically involve participants taking over a public space or laboratory, as shown by their anti-testing campaign, holding signs in silence, making speeches, or dying-in. Despite their aggressive campaigns, DxE has been accused of being nothing more than another new welfarist organization promoting single issue campaigns. Wayne Hsuing, the founder of DxE, has published questionable articles such as “Boycott Veganism,” a confused and misguided examination that claims that ‘going vegan’ is harmful to non-human justice. The DxE website fails to give any comprehensive tools for making the necessary lifestyle change to veganism, and is steadfast in its position that joining their ranks is the only way to be a true advocate for animals. They’re an organization that is set on disrupting the day of the average meat-eater, but fails to help them beyond just that.
Days into the New Year, both DxE Tuscon, Arizona and DxE Portland, Oregon publicly posted on their Facebook pages that they would be dismantling their chapters, citing racism that has taken hold of the national organization. Their announcements were anything but quiet, as Portland denounced the heart of the organization and supported accusations that power is too concentrated among a few key players. “DxE leadership has shown itself to not be democratic or tolerant of constructive criticism. Especially so when criticism is directed at “star” organizers,” the post read. “A few activists in the Bay Area informally speak for all 140 chapters worldwide. DxE leadership has refused to change.” DxE Tucson had no problem publicly naming and shaming community members who had been particularly pointed with their racist statements.
This kind of internal implosion isn’t brought on without time and cause, so where does one begin when it comes to the recent slow burn of one of the United States’ loudest animal rights groups?
Let’s start with the publication of “It’s not Intersectional, It’s DxE: an Expose Written by DxE’s Victims,” shared semi-anonymously as a WordPress document on September 16th, 2015. Eleven former members, writing under the name “Dismantle DxE,” provided firsthand testimony of the wrongs that had been committed against them on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and nationality. The document spread quickly through animal liberation networks and social media.
The accusations the writers made attempted to expose an underside of racism, sexism, homophobia, and abuse that might not be obvious to someone who has no involvement with DxE. One individual described the organization’s reaction to male members allegedly taking part in sexual abuse and assault; “Wayne also dismissed my concerns and said that I and others were threatening DxE’s reputation. They showed absolutely no concern as to the injustice we had faced and witnessed,” they wrote. Another account described alleged behavior that went ignored by leadership. “Racist jokes were aimed at my family and I,” they said, “Sexist comments were aimed at one of my partners. I felt uneasy as I realized this is the culture of DxE.”
The response on DxE’s website went up shortly thereafter. “Dismantle DxE: A Breakdown” was published by prominent leader within the organization Priya Sawhney, where she proceeded to post commentary on every description of events. It’s a series of bizarre takedowns, and while it partially exposes the authors of the stories through named interactions and e-mail logs, it’s difficult to decipher for anyone who isn’t overtly involved as a DxE delegate. “We do not have any knowledge as to this person, or any recollection of this interaction,” it reads under other accounts.
As hard as it is to fault anyone for wanting to cover their own side to a conflict, how necessary was this from such a large and seemingly powerful organization? It was certainly a risky move for Ms. Sawhney to publish details that made the victims easier for members to trace, whether or not the steering committee personally found their stories to be worth supporting. For an organization with the size and influence, this kind of kneejerk response is hardly proportionate to the action taken against them in the first place, and perhaps exposes an underlying sense of pride-fuelled paranoia.
“There are conflicts on every corner of the internet. It’s not the responsibility of DxE- organizers or activists- to identify every problematic statement that’s been made,” said Mr. Hsuing, responding to accusations on Facebook that DxE was not doing enough to protect abused members. He continued, “we are otherwise not the police of the internet. We get dozens of complaints from people across the world. If we tried to resolve every dispute on the internet involving someone who is a DxE activist, it would be all that we do.” Mr. Hsiung’s open admission to the implosion happening within his own community is telling to how effective the steering committee has been when it comes to curbing abuse. What other organization would tell us that examining hateful members would be “all that they do” if they chose to take that path? None – it would be a foolish statement and a nail in the coffin for any reputable group of activists. It’s an absolute admission of failure, and Mr. Hsuing is surprisingly unafraid to make it.
It’s important to explore why DxE might be so fraught with abuse mismanagement. Within the spectrum of activism, whether personal or in an organizational context, “calling out” and “calling in” are options to handle and speak with folks who have said something bigoted. While both of these are excellent options at the dinner table or on one’s own Facebook wall, the “calling in” model is inappropriate to use when keeping an organization running smoothly and without overt abuse. DxE is committed to sticking with the “calling in” model, choosing to privately speak to members no matter the severity of their comments, and this sends a dangerous message to others who may be bold enough to be publicly nasty to other members. Former member Taylor Freeman asks; “how many more private conversations, and taken offline conversations with known racists have to happen before the victims of the repeated racism from the same people don’t have to leave on their own accord?” He raises an excellent point that the calling-in produces an on and offline environment that alienates oppressed groups and emboldens racists to create dangerous spaces.
Even in instances where DxE has attempted discussions about race on social media, some delegates have responded negatively. When DxE shared a post on Facebook promoting Black Vegans Rock, a website that was started to highlight and celebrate black vegans, opponents of the website were vocal. Nick, a southern California based activist, went on a rant claiming that BVR was “hateful against white people and activists” and inquired as to why DxE would share such “garbage.” Delegate Chase asked “but what about anti-whiteness? Isn’t that problematic, too?”
Mr. Hsuing, during online discussions about racism over Facebook, made his own appeal to those who were speaking out; “I have had my face sliced open by white supremacists calling me an ‘ugly ch***.’ I was sent to the ER to have my face stitched back together and I still have scars on my face – to this day. And you know what? I still love the people who did this to me.” He continued, delegitimizing the experiences of members, with “they were poor white folks who were victims of oppression, too.” His comment was directed towards Katie Litchfield, a black woman and former DxE member. During one of DxE’s infamous Chipotle protests, Ms. Litchfield received multiple citations that came out to a hefty fine. There was a brief crowdfunding page posted by DxE on her behalf, but it quickly disappeared. When DxE was invited to comment, they responded that they could not host her fund as “there was an outstanding request for documentation (required for our grant process) that had not been fulfilled.” Ms. Litchfield contested these claims and began her own crowdfund page, rallying support from progressive vegans within the animal rights community. Unfortunately, the funding website shut down Ms. Litchfield’s funding, as they do not permit fundraisers to raise money for any kind of legal help. Ms. Litchfield was left abandoned by an organization that uses her photo in social media campaigns. Her portrait is still on the “Faces We Fight With” page of the DxE website, alongside other members who have since spoken out against the organization.
For Mr. Hsuing, this wasn’t his first time defending white racists. When it came to surface that he had accompanied a small group of organizers to a protest in California and stayed in the home of a well-known anti-semitic professor, Kevin Macdonald, Mr. Hsuing came out in support of the white supremacist. As a friend of the supremacist’s wife, Mr. Hsuing maintained that her husband’s politics “are his own,” called him gracious, and said that he never said anything prejudiced to the travellers. “Intersectionality is about inclusion, not exclusion,” Mr Hsuing wrote, putting activists in a position where they would be required to accept bigotry among their ranks.
The entire story of how DxE came to prosper and begin their descent is disappointing for so many reasons. Ignoring the fact that DxE doesn’t view Veganism as moral baseline or understand why single issue campaigns are problematic, any time a group of passionate animal activists come together, only to have their talents wasted and their members treated harshly is a tragedy. Activist communities are invaluable and important, and DxE is a reminder to be vigilant when examining an organization to become involved with. When advocating for exploited animals, activists are put in a situation that forces them to be vulnerable with an exposed heart. It’s imperative that movement leaders are understanding and supportive, as situations can quickly escalate. No activist who fights animal oppression expects the experience to be without a certain level of anguish, but this anguish should not be coming directly from the organization. So, where does DxE go from here? Former members speculate that the network is absolutely finished, especially with the disbanding of two major city chapters and the stream of controversy that never seems to reach a lull. While DxE remains active and continues to produce content, how far can they go if they’re unwilling to protect their own?
Whether DxE chooses to fix their internal problems or hurtle into irrelevance, is entirely up to them.