Activists from the group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, have dogged candidates throughout the Democratic primary, interrupting or picketing campaign events hosted by Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. The stunts are intended to raise awareness for DXE’s animal rights agenda and, more specifically, cruel conditions at dairy industry facilities.
DxE has a long history of lawbreaking to advance its agenda. The group previously led controversial “open rescue” operations to shut down factory farms and provide care to dying animals, and has faced criminal charges for trespassing and theft in California and Utah. Last year, factory farm interests persuaded California lawmakers to revise a key provision of the law to further criminalize DxE’s style of rescue demonstrations.
But the action in Carson City, Nevada, on February 16, in which DxE protesters stormed the podium to interrupt a Sanders campaign event, may result in an unusually harsh set of penalties.
The action began when Priya Sawhney, a DxE activist, walked onto the stage and seized the microphone from Sanders and declared that she was the Vermont senator’s “biggest supporter,” but said she demanded that he “stop propping up the dairy industry and stop propping up animal agriculture.”
Moments later, Sawhney was joined on stage by three other DxE activists, Carla Cabral, Audrey Rees, and Rachel Ziegler, who were topless and poured pinkish liquid, representing a mix of blood and milk, on themselves “to protest the dairy industry’s abuse of female bodies,” as DxE stated in a press release.
The crowd began booing and the group of activists were escorted off stage, where Sanders officials were seen conferring with local law enforcement. Cabral, Rees, and Ziegler were booked and charged with indecent or obscene exposure under a law passed to curb lewd sexual conduct.
The activists were released later that night after each posted $2,500 in bail. They will return to Carson City for a court hearing later this month. If convicted under Nevada Revised Statutes Section 201.220(1), the three women could face up to a year in prison and a five-year listing under the Nevada sex offenders registry. The statute was designed primarily for penalizing intoxicated tourists, but the enforcement of the law over political speech has worried activists.
DxE has targeted every major presidential campaign, but the tension with Sanders, they claim, is ironic given the senator’s support for civil disobedience tactics.
After the event, DxE lambasted Sanders for his ties to Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s brand of ice cream, claiming that its activists had revealed that the company’s own dairy farms had left piles of dead cows and calves and kept animals in small quarters. The activists have also highlighted an amendment passed by Sanders that conferred $350 million in support to dairy farmers.
The group said they have sought more civil dialogue with the Sanders campaign, but have been rebuffed and ignored on multiple occasions.
The Sanders campaign, in a statement to The Intercept, said that Sanders opposed the Nevada prosecution of the activists and has never sought to prosecute activists involved in campaign interruptions, as long as they are doing so with nonviolent tactics. In the past, Sanders has been targeted by Black Lives Matter activists who shut down a 2015 campaign rally.
“Our campaign opposes, as Senator Sanders’ policy reflects, overly-punitive approaches to public safety,” said a spokesperson for the campaign.
It’s unclear if the senator’s statement will impact negotiations between the activists’ attorneys and Carson City prosecutors.
DxE, however, was less than enthused about the Sanders statement.
“We are grateful for Bernie’s support,” said Almira Tanner, a DxE organizer who currently faces felony charges for an open rescue demonstration at an egg farm in Petaluma, California.
“But he and other politicians are still funding an industry that decimates our climate, tortures animals, and puts whistleblowers like me in prison,” said Tanner. “What we really need is for Bernie to stand for his own stated values, which means standing against big dairy and big ag.”
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