Sen. Bernie Sanders has been arrested in his share of protests over the years. The Senator from Vermont and current presidential candidate has been a vocal proponent of non-violent direct action in pursuit of justice — he even hired one of the activists protesting rival candidate Vice President Joe Biden as an Iowa caucus organiser. But on Sunday, Sanders found himself on the receiving end when a group of topless women activists with the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), a group who objects to the abuse of animals in the food industry, disrupted his campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada.
The action began when one woman, identified as Priya Sawhney, walked on stage and took the mic from Sanders. “Bernie, I’m your biggest supporter and I’m here to ask you to stop propping up the dairy industry and stop propping up animal agriculture,” Sawhney said into the mic, as Sanders was leaving the stage. She was joined on-stage by two other women, both topless, who poured red liquid on themselves from milk cartons to represent the dairy industry’s “abuse of female bodies,” according to a press release. They had the words “Let Dairy Die” written across their chests.
The group was protesting Sanders’ ties to the dairy industry, citing his friendship and support from Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, who is a national co-chair on Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. DxE notes that Ben & Jerry’s is currently facing two consumer fraud lawsuits, which challenges the company’s claims about animal welfare (in response, they dropped their claim of “happy cows” from their packaging materials).
Still, Sanders had a light-hearted response to the disruption: “This is Nevada,” he joked to the crowd. “There’s always a little bit of excitement — at no extra cost.”
So, who exactly were these topless “milk” protestors? DxE is not new to protesting. The group cites a long history of non-violent direct action (NVDA) as inspiring their tactics, from Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement to ACT UP’s protests during the AIDS crisis. According to their website, they encourage chapters to organize at least one action per month. Past targets have included Whole Foods, which they locked down in San Francisco, resulting in over 30 arrests, and Chipotle, where they stage die-ins to protest what they called the company’s “humane washing.”
“We chose to be topless in solidarity with exploited cows, and to push back against a society which objectifies and seeks to control the female bodies of both humans and animals,” Rachel Ziegler, a topless protester with DxE said in a statement to Refinery29.
Ultimately, three protesters from DxE were arrested on indecent exposure charges and released on $2,500 (£1,938) bond. “Until our progressive leaders end their support for regressive and abusive industries like the dairy industry, protests are going to continue,” Direct Action Everywhere spokesperson Cassie King told People.
Sanders has not been the only candidate to face protests: immigrants rights activists, including those from Movimiento Cosecha, have been protesting Biden’s role in the current detention and deportation crisis; Elizabeth Warren was interrupted by pro-charter school protestors in Atlanta, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg faced protests from a group of queer activists in San Francisco demanding that the first openly gay presidential candidate do better by the LGBTQ+ community.
But, given the recent high-profile nature of the Sanders protest, it seems DxE is determined to make their case until it’s heard. “I voted for Bernie and genuinely want to help Bernie and help animals. When I looked into the eyes of a scared baby calf all alone at a freezing Vermont dairy farm, I saw someone who needed help,” DxE protester Christina Liu told Refinery29. “The campaign has ignored our requests for dialogue, literally for years. And now, they’ve even taken to arresting peaceful activists at his events.”
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