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STAGE PRESENCE

The animal rights group that interrupted Jeff Bezos is known for confrontation

By Natasha Frost in Las Vegas

Minutes into an otherwise humdrum “fireside chat” with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the tech company’s inaugural Re:MARS conference today, there was a commotion. A female protester, later identified as a member of animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, stormed past security and onto the stage, where Bezos had been in the middle of answering questions about space from his Amazon colleague, Jenny Freshwater.

In a quavering voice, almost lost over the sound of thousands of snapping cellphone cameras and sharp intakes of breath, Priya Sawhney began to ask Bezos questions about a chicken farm believed to supply poultry to Amazon’s grocery brands: what he thought about the cruelty involved; whether he would condemn the felony charges faced by members of the group; whether he planned to act.

Eventually, as security removed her from the stage, she turned and called back to Bezos: “You’re a businessman, Jeff!” (How she made it up there at all, given Bezos’s well-reported annual $1.6 million security budget, remains a mystery.)

In a later statement, the group claimed to have “undercover camera footage [showing] thousands of birds crowded in industrial sheds and no evidence of the birds stepping outside.”

Direct Action Everywhere is a California-based nonprofit that describes itself as an “animal liberation group.” Members break into animal farms to provide medical care to ailing animals and, in some cases, perform raids to “liberate” them from the farms or slaughterhouses. (Hundreds of dollars in veterinary bills later, the animals are often then kept as pets.) One recent “rescue mission,” at the Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma, California, involved more than 600 activists chaining themselves to the farm’s entrance, releasing dozens of ducks—doubtless quacking up a storm—and, as Democracy Now reports, “in some cases locking themselves by the neck to the slaughter line.” Around 100 people were later arrested.

According to the group’s website, six group members currently face “multiple felonies each for providing medical care to sick chickens at the largest organic poultry producer in the nation.” They intend to go to trial, with a view to “[opening] the floodgates for activists to go inside of all farms and slaughterhouses and legally rescue animals in California.”

Theatric protests of this sort are par for the course for Direct Action Everywhere. In 2017, the group staged dramatic demonstrations outside a butcher’s shop in Berkeley, California, in which they would splash themselves in fake blood and cover themselves in plastic kitchen wrap to look like meat. (The protests eventually stopped after four months when the store agreed to hang a sign in their window professing: “Attention: Animals lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done.”)

Other attempts at “total animal liberation” have included repeated protests in the meat section of a Berkeley Whole Foods (eventually earning them a restraining order); “screaming and yelling” in the dining room of Samin Nosrat’s former California restaurant Chez Panisse; and releasing live chickens from a poultry store in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Still, the tack of disrupting high-level speeches, previously employed by Black Lives Matters protesters at a 2015 Bernie Sanders rally, seems newer. Earlier this week, a member of the group interrupted a Q&A with senator Kamala Harris, in which he seized the microphone before being escorted off-stage by security. Much of the later coverage of the protest focused on the optics, and political implications, of a white man violently interrupting a woman of color, rather than the particular topics the group sought to draw attention to.