Matt Johnson's agribusiness opinions differ quite a bit from the average long-hauling Iowan.
"Social justice movements throughout history have happened faster than anyone could imagine," he tells me, when I ask why he and several other protesters interrupted Bernie Sanders at a town hall meeting in Kenosha, Wis. yesterday, unfurling a black banner and chanting, "Animals want to live!."
"Twenty-five, 30 years ago, if someone talked about gay marriage, they would think you're crazy. Very few are on our side of the issue, and not a lot of people are looking at it. But they're aware the situation is pretty ugly. It makes them uncomfortable."
Matt's been a vegetarian since he was four-years-old, and vegan for the last three—no small feat for a trucker born and bred in "the leading state for hog," as he describes it. He's also been a member of Direct Action Everywhere for a couple of years. Called "DxE" for short, the group is comprised of animal rights activists calling for species equality, and thus the elimination of animal products from the food chain.
Questions from the vegan community have dogged Sanders since the Iowa Caucus on February 1. According to the Washington Post, Google's top-trending inquiry during the nation's first Democratic primary was whether the senator was vegan, a question coming on the back of his perfect score from the Humane Society Legislative Fund in 2015. The Post also directs readers to a Reddit thread where vegan users argue whether Sanders should be lauded for his humane treatment of animals, or taken to task on his pro-hunting, pro-agribusiness voting record.
In fact, Matt and many of his fellow DxE members are Bernie Sanders supporters. But that didn't stop the group from speaking out at the progressive presidential candidate's stop about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, only a few days ahead of Wisconsin's Democratic primary. They're hoping to bring Sanders's support for agribusiness to a more public consciousness, which Matt says is a black mark on an otherwise positive record.
Direct Action Everywhere points to a number of votes Sanders has made with the stated goal of protecting farmers, which they say contribute to 9 billion land animal deaths every year—99 percent of the total animals killed in the US. Specifically, a HuffPost Politics article co-authored by Zachary Groff, one of the group's expressed supporters, calls out the senator's support for the Farm Bill of 2014, which he offered with the stated goal of helping Vermont dairy farmers meet demand for lower in-store prices. His campaign says he did so because farmers couldn't meet production costs.
"The ultimate question is whether we should be harming another animal for our own benefit," Matt comments. "There's no perfect way to avoid it, the way the system currently stands. But if we make a personal, cultural, and legislative shift, we can achieve it. It's just a matter of priority."
"I'm a Bernie supporter. He's the most progressive, viable candidate at the moment. But he's not a progressive when it comes to animal rights."
DxE also takes issue with Sanders's support for the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act, which prohibited any person from trying to damage or interfere with the "operations of an animal enterprise." In the same HuffPost article, the authors cite the Act's "ridiculous goal of labeling the act of freeing mink from farms as terrorism," while calling out his alleged "acceptance of a business lobby—for agriculture" in spite of his factory-farming criticisms.
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"He criticizes the boogeyman of 'factory farming' while leaving his favorite 'family farms' untouched," the article says. "It's the same line touted by corporations like Chipotle."
Matt says he would ultimately push for legislation called the Species Equality Act, which would put an end to the commodity status of animals, and "transition away from animals as property, food, clothing, and entertainment."
"Pleasure does not justify violence," he tells me. "Looking back, there are historical instances of discrimination that were plainly wrong. But at the time, the whole world was just caught up in their way of thinking. For people caught up in a comfortable culture, they just don't want to hear anything to the contrary. They try and shut down the message. So history has proven time and time again that this kind of provocative, disruptive action is necessary to break through that resistance we have to confronting our own privilege."
Matt sees the Kenosha protest not as an affront to the Sanders campaign, but a comment on alleged, deeply ingrained animal exploitation in American culture. He says the aim is to first get the issue on the table, and prevent it from being forgotten or silenced. Sanders, he says, as a progressive leader, needs to be held accountable for his support of farmers who slaughter animals, or contribute to their slaughter for food.
When I ask how he reconciles his support of Sanders with his own beliefs concerning animal rights, Matt's reply is blunt: "He's been a strong supporter of gay rights, and trans rights, and civil rights for his entire career even when it was unpopular. But I think on this one issue, he's completely selling out on principles for the sake of political expediency."
"We're just in the infancy of the animal rights movement. We'll see more progress as the circle of our moral consideration continues to widen."