Give Praise to Seitan: Interview with Brian Manowitz, Vegan Black Metal Chef

Vegan metalheads may sound like a strange, niche, and in a way almost precious community. And, admittedly, it is. But as someone who has been both for decades, I’ve watched with a mixture of surprise and diabolical joy as more metalheads are going vegan. 

Although Brian Manowitz may not be RESPONSIBLE for that growth, he has played a visible role through his character Vegan Black Metal Chef. He started his YouTube show in 2012–I remember watching his first episode, laughing my ass off, and being astonished to find another vegan who was into black metal. 

Since then, Brian (as Vegan Black Metal Chef) has continued pumping out material on YouTube, creating the cooking show that “he wanted to see” and showing people that veganism can be easy to do, tasty, and cheap. With his vegan-friendly black metal warrior gear and characteristic “corpsepaint,” Brian has expanded from just cooking montages to incorporate discussions on his channel. He also has written a book, The Seitanic Spellbook, and he travels around the world doing live cooking demonstrations. 

I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I had the pleasure of meeting Brian in person at the Animal Rights Conference in 2018. He’s an intelligent, engaging, nice person (like many of us metalheads), and his passion for music and veganism remain clear in and out of character. 

Brian was kind enough to chat with me over the phone about his history, his perspective, and how music and veganism coexist for him. [Editorial note: The following text has been edited for clarity.]

When and how did you go vegan?

I’ve been vegan since somewhere around 2000 or 2001. It was in my first or second year of college at the University of Florida. The fast answer I tell people is, I don’t believe in the exploitation of animals. The slower answer is, I had a girlfriend in late high school and early college, and she went vegetarian in high school. After a year or so of that, in college, I looked back and said, “Well, I recognize that as the right way to go, but I’m not ready for that yet.” So I didn’t do anything…didn’t do a damn thing. Then after about a year or so, I looked back and said, “Well…it’s been a year, and she didn’t die…so if I recognize that’s the way to go, then what am I so afraid of?” I recognized it as a fear within myself…not a fear of anything actual, just a deep-seated, conditioned fear…of nothing. I couldn’t live with myself having just this fear of nothing, so I faced that fear of nothing head on and went vegetarian for about two or three months or so. Then I went to an animal rights group at the University of Florida, saw a couple of videos, and said okay, now I’m vegan.

I also went vegan my second year of college…so it’s a good time, I guess.

I think it’s reasonable in a sense in that, that’s when I started having to buy my own groceries, in college. Before that I was far less conscious in the food-making process in general…and the lifestyle process in general.

What about black metal? When did you get into that?

I’ve been a metalhead since kindergarten or first grade. My first couple of tapes were Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, the Skid Row album, and a handful of others. Then I got into Metallica and other thrash later in second grade or so. So I’ve been listening to metal for a very long time. I didn’t get into black metal actually until very late, until after college when I heard Dimmu Borgir’s Spiritual Black Dimensions. I was like, “What is this bullshit keyboard in my fucking metal?”…and then woke up the next day and said, “Mmm, I kinda want to hear that again.” So it was probably the early 2000s that I got into black metal in general–I was mostly into old-school thrash (which is also where a decent amount of influence comes from in my music), also Florida death metal and power metal, all sorts of stuff, but I didn’t get into black metal until significantly later.

Do you think there’s any connection between black metal and veganism for you?

The black metal veganism was sort of coincidence for me. The only real connection I see is that, with metal in general, it takes some amount of throwing off social conditioning in general to listen to these genres of music because they’re not in the pop-genre realm. And I tell people, the hardest part about going vegan is not finding delicious food to eat–that’s not hard at all–the hardest part is overcoming the social conditioning. You can take up drinking. You can take up smoking. You can take up doing all sorts of things, and people will be largely okay with it. If you go vegan, they’ll say, “You’re going to die! Why do you hate me! Why do you hate your family!” Shit like that. Every social pressure literally ever–from the advertising you see to everything else–will come down on you and try to scare you away and make you conform. I would say that that’s the closest connection of black metal to veganism is casting off the social conditioning.

I distinctly remember discovering your show as Vegan Black Metal Chef on YouTube and thinking, “Holy shit, there’s another one.” Back then in 2012 it was literally like, oh my god there’s another one. And now it’s changed so much.

That was somewhat of a frequent comment, actually.

I can imagine… So let’s start with the character, what made you want to create a Satanic vegan chef set to black metal?

It sounded like a lot of fun to me, and it’s a facet of me basically. With the Vegan Black Metal Chef stuff it was just the music that I liked and the cooking show I wanted to see. I was combining my passions for making music and cooking. When I started it, I’d been vegan for eleven or twelve years, and I thought, my food tasted pretty good, it’s not that difficult to make, and it’s really cheap. It was kind of three things that people think veganism isn’t. So I was like, I need to tell the world about this because I think it’s a very doable form of veganism for a lot of people. I thought about making a cooking show, but cooking shows kind of bore me and put me to sleep. So I just combined my passions for making music–black metal music in particular–and made the cooking show I wanted to see, and luckily a few other people wanted to see it, too.

What sort of educational and advocacy aims do you have with Vegan Black Metal Chef? In addition to the practical stuff of how to cook plant-based meals, do you have any other goals?

I guess I’d consider myself a light vegan activist, more or less…sometimes more, sometimes less over the years. I’m all for circus protests, and I think that was actually one of the protests where, during the protest, you could see it working, and ultimately it led to the closing of Ringling Bros. circus. There are a few protests like that, where you could see it working–even as people were railing against you, you could see it working. I’ll never tell anyone how to do or how not to do their activism. I think there’s a place for everything. Different people feel called to different activism, and we all have a role.

With myself, a large amount of my activism I call passive-ism, in the sense of just showing people what to do, not just what not to do. I think both have their place–telling people what not to do can be fantastic. But it takes a whole other skill set, mind set, and approach set to show people what to do instead of what not to do. When you tell someone not to do something, it sort of leaves a void that was filled and had a practical reason in their life. It wasn’t some extra action that they did–it filled a purpose. Now that purpose still needs to be filled, and they don’t know how to fill it, or it’s not easy for them…and if it’s not easy there’s a higher chance they just won’t do it and will just find another way.

In my book as well, there’s a lot of sidebars of what I call “practical mysticism” and personal development and things like that, because that’s a big part of my life. I guess I’ll always be showing those things: doable veganism, personal development, and activism by feeling whatever your call to activism is.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of important activism by dispelling some of the myths about veganism and doing a cooking show in a way that’s amusing and fun and engaging. I think that’s really cool and important.

It’s one way to sort of either yell or speak forcefully at someone that “Veganism is cheap! It’s easy to do! And it tastes good!” And show them that in a longer format through the videos, and convince them of that.

Speaking of the show and the character, what would you say has surprised you the most with Vegan Black Metal Chef?

Well I’m honored and humbled that anyone still gives a damn. That’s been pretty cool. And I’ve traveled the world, doing live cooking demonstrations in front of tons of people all over the world. I’m surprised anyone liked it to begin with. I’m gonna do it no matter what to answer the question of what do vegans eat. At every job I’ve ever had, it’s the question at every lunch period: “What is Brian eating…?” You can’t just say, “I eat chickpeas and onions and other things,” you have to show them entire meal ideas. Some people may have never heard of chana masala or other things, and it’s like trying to explain a hamburger or a hot dog to someone who’s never seen a hamburger or hot dog before.

Yeah, and it’s so funny too how your food landscape expands once you go vegan. I had never heard of so many foods before that I found after I went vegan–like, oh my god what’s hummus? What are chickpeas?

Oh yeah I eat a wider variety of stuff now than I ever did. And better stuff now than I ever did.

Back to the veganism and black metal, it seems that more and more vegans in black metal–and extreme metal more generally–are self-identifying as vegan and being unabashedly open about it and promoting it. And people I never knew have been vegan for years are now happy to talk about–they have no qualms about saying, “I’m vegan and fuck off.” Since you’re a well-known figure in this weird center of the Venn diagram of veganism and black metal, do you feel like there’s a quiet movement happening, and a growing interest? Or is it still mostly kind of random?

It absolutely feels like it’s growing. It’s awesome that it’s far more talked about now. For example, I’ve done cooking demonstrations the last two years in a row at Wacken Open Air in Germany.

Oh…wow…

The reason for that is that Wacken is really awesome, and they listen to the people and the fans, and the people demanded more vegan stuff.

No shit…?

Yeah, and the first time that they booked me they hadn’t even seen my cooking shows. There was a random German Wikipedia page on me. It was a week or two before the festival and they were like, “Hey, do you still do this? We need more vegan stuff.” So they flew me over. Then they had me back again last year as well. It’s an absolutely growing thing there. Even at the veg fests and things where I typically do cooking demonstrations, you see little old grandmothers and then some metalheads sitting next to them…it’s an interesting mixture. I absolutely see it as a growing thing in the movement and not just being uncovered a little here and there.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you right now is that I’m sure you’ve seen studies and things on the news saying that we don’t have long before we’re past the climate tipping point where we’re totally screwed. So much is pushing climate change, but over and over again it’s clear that our dietary choices and the animal agriculture industries are huge players in what we’ve done to the planet and are continuing to do to the planet. It’s frustrating because I feel like that conversation so often dances around the topic of going vegan, minimizing individual action. I feel like whatever else is going on, you can go vegan right now! And that’s going to make a difference the more people do it! Do you foresee the Vegan Black Metal Chef addressing that bleak climate issue at all?

I touch on it in the book a bit, but especially with the new format of videos I’ve been making, more of a vlog style instead of just pure cooking instruction, I would absolutely talk about that.

For myself, I like to focus on things that are obviously true and not rely on statistics and things that can go back forth between being “true” and “not true.” I have a science background myself–I have a degree in behavioral neuroscience, I worked at a brain lab as a computer programmer, and I had weekly scientific article discussions. I think science is fantastic and statistical analysis has its place. But I really want to focus on things that will be timelessly true and are obviously true. Like it’s obviously true that there’s huge waste in the animal agriculture industries, even in terms of the amount of food that one has to feed animals before you obtain food from them, as well as all the fuel and other processes. At every point there’s a loss of energy in animal agriculture, as opposed to just eating plants. In a sense, the exact numbers kind of don’t matter, because it’s obvious that there’s huge waste there. As opposed to having the specific numbers being attacked or challenged, if we could all just recognize that it’s obvious there is huge amounts of waste happening, then to me it becomes pretty plain.

I tell people, veganism is the easiest solution to so many of these things. It doesn’t require policing anyone; it doesn’t require any action besides your own. No one has more decision over what they put into their mouth or wear or buy than themselves. A lot of these articles that beat around the bush with this are part of that social conditioning. If people just flat-out said the elephant-in-the-room truth, these articles wouldn’t make money–they exist to make money and have people purchase them. It’s like the third rail of social conditioning that they’re not ready to touch yet. Their amygdala acts as if it’s a personal attack…even though it’s just an idea, the brain reacts like it’s an attack on the person and throws up every defense mechanism possible. Until that whole system gets acclimated to a new reality, it will still be the third rail of social conditioning, and people will fight back as if you attacked their very being.

Yeah, for sure. I wanted to frame all this in the context of black metal because, as you know, black metal is quintessentially bleak (in sound and philosophy), it’s often misanthropic, it’s very much about creating an atmosphere of dread and dark emotions. And that can be a good thing for those of us it resonates with…it can be cathartic. I find it very therapeutic when I’m feeling down to throw on some black metal and get that combination of the visceral jolt of the energy as well as the dark atmosphere that helps me experience and process my emotions.

Yeah, if they don’t come out in a healthy way, they’ll come out in an unhealthy way.

Exactly. And that’s one thing I don’t think a lot of people understand about black metal, the function it serves for those of us who listen to it. [Click here and here for some interesting scientific discussion of metal and positive emotions.] So when you’re faced with all this stuff, how do you use this music when you’re confronting all the bad shit that humanity does and the bad shit that’s going on…do you find a similar sense of using the music you make and listen to for help in what we’re facing as a species and as a planet?

Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s a huge amount of the reason I make music in general and make that music is to express those kinds of things and feel those emotions and be in that space in a way that I can be in that space and then not be in that space–I can experience that and do what I need to move forward. It’s an amazing, cathartic experience for that. It’s essential to feel and express all the aspects of emotion, not just the ultra-positive ones…though it sort of leads to positivity in a sense, by truly feeling the problems and the issues with the world and then being able to do something about it.

Vegan Black Metal Chef with Michael Winslow.

On the same note, it’s really hard to be vegan sometimes…with all you see going on, not just related to climate. Having black metal as something you listen to and create yourself, do you tie that in closely to your experience as a vegan? I’m sure you get frustrated a lot being vegan in the world. Is music something you use as an outlet to deal with that frustration?

Yeah I mean that’s largely what I’m into music for. If I wasn’t making music, I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing at the moment…

Hope isn’t something that we talk about in the black metal world, understandably, but what if anything do you feel hopeful about?

I mean you don’t see fewer vegan products in the stores these days. Like you can focus on numbers and things, or you can focus on the fact that it only seems to be growing in the stores for people to buy. It’s not like the vegan section is shrinking and shrinking… It’s an absolutely growing movement. Every veg fest I go to around the US and around the world, every year is bigger than the last. On the socio-political spectrum, both people on the “left” and the “right” hate it because it’s one of the last bastions of rational thought and truth, of speaking truth to power. Arguments just become weak against it and become silly. So the hope comes because the truth is on our side. You can only ignore facts and ignore truth for so long.

To wrap this up, do you have any words of seitanic wisdom for everyone reading, trying to manage the deep despair and bullshit that we’re dealing with?

It’s all about bringing consciousness to your actions. The more all of us do that, the more the world will suck a little bit less.

Hail Seitan. Thank you.

 

Advertisements

“In a World That Is Half Asleep”: Interview with Lindsay Schoolcraft

By Justin Van Kleeck

It’s been a long while since I did an interview for this blog, and it was my interview with Samuel Hartman, formerly of Kentucky black metal band Anagnorisis, that prompted me to start this blog in the first place! Since then, more and more vegans are showing up in extreme metal, which I find both encouraging and interesting. There even seems to be a more vocal vegan fan base of metalheads. We’re everywhere!

I discovered Lindsay Schoolcraft in the usual way, a random click on social media, and realized she was a vegan in one of the best known black metal bands, England’s Cradle of Filth. She’s also busy with a solo project and a new venture, Antiqva, with fellow vegan, Xenoyr, vocalist of Australia’s Ne Obliviscaris. Lindsay is doubly unique for being a woman and a vegan in heavy metal, so I was interested to get her perspective on the scene and the movement…

When did you go vegan, and why?

I went vegan the few days been Xmas and New Years of 2012. The documentary Food, Inc. really gave me a good look into how demoralizing the industry is towards the treatment of animals for food.

A lot of people seem to think it strange that someone who’s vegan would also be into extreme metal. What connections if any do you find personally—are they two sides of yourself, for example, or is it more directly related?

There are quite a few people in metal who are vegan and it is really not uncommon or not unheard of anymore in this genre. I view myself more as a classical musician who fell into heavy metal.

Photo by Ya Cheng Photography, courtesy of Lindsay Schoolcraft.

How’d you fall?

Ha ha, well I was training to become a classical composer, conductor, and singer and at the time I was listening to more and more metal. Then Cradle of Filth showed up and I couldn’t say no to the offer.

I’ll avoid basic questions like how you eat vegan on tour…but I’m curious about other aspects of the “vegan struggle.” First, what sort of conversations about being vegan do you have with fellow musicians? Are they most often antagonistic, or congenial? And second, do you notice any differences of tone discussing your veganism with other metal musicians versus metal fans?

Since the lifestyle and diet is still completely unheard of to some it becomes hard sometimes to get the venue staff to be able to cater to you and make you the food you need. There are times when you’re stuck in remote areas, Texas being an example, and you have to settle for a basic salad that night. I’m not picky, I’m happy to take whatever I can get. The trick is to stock up on snacks like nuts and apples.

I don’t really have this struggle amongst my peers on the road. Since it’s so common now it’s not a problem for me anymore. I still get some shit online and in person from some fans. Some people really don’t like the movement and try to tell me I’m dumb or extreme. But I’m just trying to be peaceful over here and not contribute to any suffering.

It’s also unusual to be a woman in extreme metal, though thankfully that’s becoming less true with time. What’s your take on the role women have to play as metal musicians and key figures in black metal and other genres? Have you personally felt a change in the culture?

Women are a rarity in heavy music, but we are becoming a lot more common these days. There has been a change in the attitude towards the female gender, but we still have a long way to go before we are fully heard. I honestly would just like some equality and my gender not be something that divides me in any way from anyone else.

You’ve teamed up with another vegan, Xenoyr of Ne Obliviscaris, for your project Antiqva. What’s it like working with other vegan musicians? Have you collaborated with other vegans in the past? Do you up your advocacy game when you do? 😉

Our friendship has a long history and we did bond mostly over our veganism and our love of darkly things. When we toured together we were the only vegans in our traveling party so we would get away to find food we could eat, talk about the subject, and through there found a common ground for the art we want to create: which we are now creating together!

You’re also doing a solo project as well. Can you talk a little about that, and does your veganism influence your personal music writing in any way?

I’ve actually written a song on this album coming up as a political anthem with another guest vocalist who is a vegan as well. It touches on all the topics our world faces today. We are all no better than anyone else and we need to start seeing that more than ever. Other than that the album is very personal and really displays my vocals outside of Cradle of Filth. I’m excited for people to hear it. It should come out next year.

Vegan community can be really helpful in so many ways. Who are some of your best vegan music friends, and why do you think vegan musicians can be important advocates for the movement?

My biggest influence and help to go vegan is Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy. We’ve shared a lot of stories and experiences the past few years. She is really knowledgeable and has a big heart for animals. And of course there is Xen, The Vegan Black Metal Chef, and The Vegan Zombie who has been good friends and great support. Sharing recipes has always been our thing.

We have a platform which gives us a voice and it’s not just what we say but how healthy we become too and can show people our progress and hopefully inspire them to take better care of themselves too.

Lastly, why is being vegan totally metal?

It’s courage to stand up for something unpopular in a world that is half asleep. That’s pretty much some very metal lyrics right there.

Full Text of Justin’s Interview with Yoga International

I was recently interviewed by Kathryn Ashworth, a Producer at Yoga International, for a story she was doing on veganism and animal sanctuaries. Because of space limitations, only a portion of the interview made it into the final article, so Kathryn and I agreed to post the full text here for interested readers… ~ Justin

10468042_583591315080432_4486259597133632367_o

1. What is The Microsanctuary Movement? How is a sanctuary a state of mind? 

The Microsanctuary Movement is an effort we started based on our work with Triangle Chance for All to help empower others to rescue farmed animals and self-identify as being part of a sanctuary, both through information and resources and through support networks. We are working on our website right now, but in the meantime we have been trying to share helpful tidbits through The Microsanctuary Movement’s Facebook page and our Facebook group, Vegans with Chickens. Through these and future means, we hope that the movement will inspire many vegans to rescue farmed animals, whether that be a rooster and some hens, or a few goats, or whatever species they can accommodate. To us, this is truly revolutionary because relying on large sanctuaries exclusively means limited ability to rescue farmed animals. Large sanctuaries can usually take in a few hundred animals at most, and so much of their income goes to administrative and other non-care costs. Comparatively, a few thousand vegans each rescuing a handful of animals would open up so much more space and (this is important) resources for care.

To answer the question about sanctuary being a state of mind, we have to first recognize that “sanctuary” is about how one cares for rescued animals and sees them as beings worthy of the utmost respect. Thus a microsanctuary centers on a space that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals. I am frustrated by how self-limiting we all tend to be when it comes to our views of sanctuaries. I so often hear people say that they want to start their own sanctuary one day if they win the lottery, but without any clear idea of what “sanctuary” really means to them and how to get there. I was there once, and the notion of a typical sanctuary was so daunting that I did not even know where to start to make it happen. By throwing out the ideal, I was able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers. It is a very powerful relationship and way of living, as well as a perspective on the world and our role as caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end (and help ameliorate in some way) their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. This is all about how we approach rescuing animals and accommodating them within our lives where we are now, not where we might be at some undetermined future time.

2. Can you give us an example of one animal you rescued and sheltered recently? How did you find them? What’s their story?

There are so, so many beautiful but poignant stories here at the TCA Microsanctuary, because each resident’s story reflects upon both their unique personality but also the exploitation by humans that they were rescued from. One of the dearest to our hearts is that of Bibi, a tiny little hen who came to us after her three flock-mates were killed by a raccoon who broke into the “chicken tractor” they all lived in in someone’s backyard. Bibi barely survived and was maimed in the attack: her top beak was partially bitten off, a hole was punched into her bottom beak, and she also lost part of a wattle. When she arrived, she was clearly suffering from PTSD; she spent several weeks just sitting in a bathroom like a lump. She started to come out of her shell when we put a mirror in with her, and then she really regained some of her spark when we brought in one of our other hens, Hypatia, to be a companion for her. Now she is a real fireball, with plenty of spunk and attitude. She has had to have several surgeries on her beak since then, and will likely always have trouble eating and require special attention, but she really rolls with the punches.

Bibi’s story highlights so many of the problems with backyard chicken-keeping (for example, she was part of a hatching project in which eight of the twelve chicks who were roosters and so were sent back to the farmer and most likely killed). We feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to give her a better life.

Another story is that of Plutarch the piglet. Plutarch fell off a transport truck in transit and was taken to a rural animal shelter while still a tiny little guy. When one of our board members, Linda James, discovered him at the shelter, we started scrambling to find placement for him (because we knew we could not accommodate an 800-pound farm pig at our microsanctuary). Richard Hoyle at The Pig Preserve, an amazing sanctuary in Tennessee, stepped up and agreed to take Plutarch. TCA board members Linda and Alan Nelson fostered Plutarch for nearly a month, allowing him to grow bigger and stronger in a loving space, and then several board members transported Plutarch to The Pig Preserve in late December—where he is now the most rambunctious, joyful pig you will ever meet.

His story is sad for so many reasons—not just recognizing that he would have been killed in a matter of months for his flesh, but also realizing that he was stolen from his mother at such a young age and never got to know that nurturing parental love as he grew. Animal agriculture is a story of broken families as well as torture and death, and Plutarch’s experience makes that abundantly clear.

3. What do you mean when you say, “veganism is the only satisfactory response to the suffering of non-human animals”? What about humanely raised animals?

There is no “humane” way to eat or use a living being or the things that come from her body. There is a persistent effort in our society to assuage our discomfort with harming other animals by coming up with slightly less bad ways to do the things that make us uneasy. There is no longer any doubt that, as a species, humans can thrive on a plant-based diet and have no need to exploit other beings for our benefit. That recognition of our ability to live without directly harming other animals has to frame this entire discussion about whether or not it is possible to exploit those beings “nicely.”

It takes little time researching the practices of every agricultural industry to see that animals are commodities, not individuals. You cannot justify killing a living being who is not in pain many, many years before he or she would naturally die. But that very thing happens with cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits…any animal used for food, really. There is a vast difference between when an animal is at “market weight” (i.e., when they are old/large enough to slaughter for prime profits) and when an animal is at the end of their natural lifespan. Chickens can live up to 13 or 14 years, for example, yet “broiler” chickens raised for meat are slaughtered after six weeks. Even dairy cows, who are supposedly given a better life because they are not raised for meat, still end up as hamburger after their milk production declines after a few years. It makes no sense for a farmer or corporation to keep feeding, vetting, and otherwise dealing with an animal who is not at peak production. If you want proof of this, research what happens to “spent” laying hens, whether they are in battery cages or so-called “free-range” farms, once their egg production declines after a couple of years—if they even make it that far.

As for chickens naturally producing eggs, which is a common misconception, it is helpful to understand the biology of a modern domesticated hen. The wild ancestors of domesticated chickens, which are wild jungle fowl from South Asia, lay at most ten to fifteen eggs per year strictly for reproduction. In contrast, domesticated hens have been selectively bred and genetically altered by humans to produce 250-300 eggs per year. This genetic manipulation has turned hens into victims of their own biology, leaving them trapped in their  own bodies, and it is directly responsible for the fact that most hens die before age five because of reproductive system complications (especially cancer). So to say a hen “naturally” produces the eggs humans eat is to utterly twist what “natural” actually means. There is nothing natural about a domesticated hens’ eggs, just as there is nothing ethical about eating them. Whenever a human eats a hens’ egg, whether it came from a battery cage or a backyard flock, they are perpetuating this inescapable suffering that hens endure.

Veganism is the only answer to this situation because there is no good way, no ethically defensible method or process, to exploit other beings for our benefit. Period. Once you accept the fact that animals exist for their own reasons, and have as much right to live as individuals with their own autonomy, then the question of how they are exploited is a moot one. One cannot exploit another being and pretend that one is being nice about it. One cannot justify using other animals when the only reason for doing so is personal tastes and habits and a refusal to look past the traditions and corporatized narratives telling us we need animal products to be healthy. To do otherwise is to turn individuals into objects, and that can never be justified.

4. What about people who say that they can’t afford to not eat meat due to health issues? 

In almost all cases, health arguments for eating meat or other arguments are based on ignorance of actual human nutrition, an attempt to excuse away a desire to eat animal products, or a combination of similar factors. I recognize that some humans may have such severe health issues that eating a plant-based diet is extremely difficult, just as I recognize that many humans live in food deserts and have a huge challenge just finding adequate food to feed themselves and their families. But the majority of us have the capabilities, both in our physical needs and our resources, to stop eating animal products. This is even true for athletes who put their bodies in much more rigorous and demanding physical conditions. There are vegan ultra-marathoners, bodybuilders, mixed martial arts fighters, NFL football players… It is abundantly clear, looking at living breathing humans, that being athletic does not prohibit being vegan.

5. How do animals, particularly the ones we classify (culturally) as less important (pigs, chickens, cows… etc.) give your life meaning? Why do you connect with them as individuals when so many see them as food?

Being vegan for us is centered on the idea that other animals deserve as much respect and consideration as our fellow humans.  Living with and rescuing animals (in particular farmed animals), however, reflects the fruition of our ethical principles put into practice. This is especially true for farmed animals because all of us, even vegans, have accepted the idea that they are somehow different than dogs, cats, and the other species we classify as “companions.” They live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers.

It would be hard for us to pinpoint a reason why we connect with farmed animals as individuals, except to say that it is an entirely impossible task for us to do otherwise. Humans have desensitized themselves to violence and exploitation, in particular by compartmentalizing them so as to ignore or forget them. We, and other ethical vegans, are not able to do that any longer. Taking that to the next level, we are committed to helping as many animals as we can get the respect that they deserve by getting them out of the exploitative systems they are trapped in. Getting involved with farmed animal rescue and care has led to a profound shift in how we see ourselves as vegans. It is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in and responsibility for the care of the very individuals for whom we went vegan. All of us at Triangle Chance for All are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.

6. What do you think it will take to finally convince people that this is a social crisis? Is the solution simply a matter of leading by example?

We have to do the work and reach the humans we can but not wait on others to make change happen. This means focusing on helping the victims of human greed as much as possible while also advocating on their behalf. It often seems that no one ever listens, and that we are losing the battle to make a society that is kind to all beings. But whether or not we achieve our goals, we have to do the work and strive as hard as we can.  Otherwise we can be sure we will lose.

I do not think leading by example is enough, though it is important. We have to feel within ourselves the urgency of non-human animal liberation because it is far too easy to deprioritize or forget their suffering. Empathy is important, but it is not the same as experiencing what they do, and I think this is a large part of why so little has actually changed with how humans treat other animals. So I think “what it will take” is some sort of crisis that makes consuming animals immediately harmful or impossible. Even with as many vegan products and resources as we have available now, vegans are still a tiny minority (about 2.5% or so) of the American population, and this is true globally as well. It is not a matter of practicalities.

I try hard not to be a pessimist with this whole issue. Humans have a hard time acknowledging crises until they significantly affect the humans (especially the humans with the most power and privilege) themselves. That is why it is so crucial for those of us who do get it to both advocate to other humans and act to make change happen for the individuals who suffer—whether that means helping others go vegan or rescuing animals from exploitation. Advocacy and leading by example are not enough; activism, whatever that means for you (be it protests, disruptions, leafleting, rescuing animals…), has to be a key part of how we live in the world as vegans.

7. Do you practice yoga? If so, how does your practice influence your activism?

That depends on how you define yoga, I suppose. If you mean mat work, Rosemary and I, as well as board member Linda Nelson, practiced yoga for years before starting TCA. We all saw yoga as a practice while also taking seriously the principles behind it. For example, ahimsa is a principle of not harming that (we feel) provides an imperative for being vegan. This is why Jivamukti Yoga, for example, includes veganism as a component of the practice. It is a shame that more modern yoga traditions and practitioners do not recognize this.

You could also see what we do as a form of karma yoga, of course. As someone who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation for many years, as well as yoga, I feel very strongly that our “practice” is most important when it is actualized through our ways of living in the world. What we do in private on our mats or our cushions should be a foundation for how we live in and influence the world around us.  We should also do more to acknowledge how intentional acts of service, compassion, and justice are essential components of a practice of ahimsa.

Creating Revolution: Interview with Aph Ko

The genesis of this interview is a long and winding one, starting a few years back when a friend told me and my wife about this amazing vegan grad student named Syl. Fast forward a few years to where Syl is a good friend, and her sister, Aph Ko, publishes an article addressing reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue…

Little wormholes like these open up all the time in cyberspace, and where they lead can sometimes be both informative and important for oneself. As both a writer and participant in the world of online advocacy, I am both fascinated and appalled by so much of what goes on there. After reading Aph’s article and binge-watching season 1 of her web series Black Feminist Blogger, I went down the wormhole. 

Aph’s is a crisply articulate critical voice, and her perspective on interconnected oppressions and the activist movements that counter them is wonderful in its wit and precision. I tossed a few dense questions at her to learn more about her work and some of her conclusions from her time in the blogosphere…

Aph Ko PictureCan you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?

I became a vegetarian when I was about 16 or 17 in high school after my friends showed me some PETA brochures (I wasn’t aware of their “sexy” campaigns at this point!). I worked at a vegan restaurant in Irvine, CA called “Veggie Grill” (it was the first one ever; now it’s a successful chain). At that point, though, I didn’t have an ideological connection to veganism. I didn’t take it seriously. My sister Syl introduced me to the concept of veganism as a political concept when I was about 20. She sent me the book Sistah Vegan, and I immediately saw how racism, sexism, and speciesism connected and I was hooked. (I am still obsessed with Dr. A. Breeze Harper!)

For a while, it was difficult for me to keep the vegan diet consistent, despite the fact that I understood the political ideology because I had been addicted to animal-bodies-as-consumptive-units for so long. I realized that un-learning scripts about food consumption was super difficult, but necessary and possible.

Your series Black Feminist Blogger is a hilarious and yet disturbing account of the realities faced by a black feminist writer in the blogosphere. I am curious to hear your feelings about the current state of feminist discussion in cyberspace and society at large. For example, I was struck by your fictional editor, Marie, in the series—especially her comment, “I took out inflammatory words like racism and white supremacy. … in this magazine we’re trying to talk about women’s issues.” Do you feel like actual progress (in terms of changing cultural mores and connecting movements) is being made on key feminist issues thanks to the web? What benefits and costs do you think come through engaging in online advocacy?

This is an awesome question. Yes- I do think a type of progress is being made online. It allows certain minoritized people access to platforms that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to if it weren’t for the internet. Most importantly, it allows us to connect with each other. Also, I have learned so much about social justice movements online. So in one instance, I would state that yes, progress is definitely being made because the internet offers a unique space for organizing and movement building.

Beyond that, though, I am skeptical of the idea that the internet alone will advance political issues. Part of my show Black Feminist Blogger exposes how blogging is a business based upon some of my own real experiences blogging online full time. Because people are making money off of their websites (which isn’t always a bad thing—especially if you’re doing good, important work), there’s a pressure to publish quickly and to regurgitate the same popular topics over and over (in the same ways) to achieve those clicks. Perhaps this is why you might see 300,000 articles about Iggy Azalea talking about cellulite on her ass…and whether or not her acceptance of her cellulite is a feminist stance…like what the fuck.

In fact, you will see the business side of blogging through freelance writing work. I’ve worked for feminist sites that hire a large amount of writers that they pay per article. In fact, some of these successful websites will send out emails to their freelance writers every week with “popular topic ideas” that they can choose from. Sometimes, you have to choose a topic from their list because they know they will achieve the most page clicks (which translates to money). Therefore, the focus is on PRODUCING articles, not necessarily writing awesome content that’s needed. I’ve even worked for spaces that tried to get writers from overseas because they could pay them less per article.

I think that’s the scariest part about the online space. The corporatization of online feminism is silencing radical, independent feminist voices that can’t compete with corporations, or websites that are making thousands of dollars. (Some feminist writers even have agents!) Because of this, certain feminist websites have the monopoly on feminist thought, and that annoys me. You can also expect that the same feminist spaces are going to be writing about the exact same popular cultural moments over and over again, not because they’re adding anything new to the conversation, but because they HAVE to write about it to stay relevant, and I don’t know how that translates to anything other than journalism.

Honestly, I think the internet is helping people become stronger business owners and journalists, but not necessarily better activists. The act of promoting oneself and one’s writing becomes conflated with activism.

As a black feminist, what are some of the main issues that you want to see getting more attention than they currently are? What has your experience been when trying to raise these issues in light of the narratives constructed by “mainstream” media?

Overall, I think we’re experiencing a giant theoretical rut today. Most of the conversations that are occurring in the mainstream take critical subjects and distill them. We refuse to talk about women and sexuality in a dynamic way because MALE GAZE/RAPE CULTURE. Light-skinned and dark-skinned black women can’t talk together today because COLORISM. Every minute there’s a new article about a celebrity “celebrating” their curves, or embracing their make-up free face, and at this point, the basic-ness of these events are profound. I feel fatigued with how uncritical and boring our discussions are today. The discussions in the mainstream are very safe and sanitized. We need a new framework for talking about these issues because currently they’re unproductive and produce sloppy, uninspiring, predictable conversations that don’t go anywhere.

For one, I wish that we could stop focusing so much on celebrities. I think our culture has a sick fixation with what celebrities are doing. I think feminism has been so unpalatable and unfavorable for so long that we are now trying to re-brand it in a way where it’s not threatening, and in doing that, I think we’re distilling it and unfairly slapping the feminist label onto any celebrity who denounces Photoshopping.

I think the huge focus on celebrity culture in feminism has something to do with the fact that a lot of feminism online is turning into sell-out journalism. Because of this journalistic turn in feminism, more and more feminists are “reporting” cultural events and giving their analyses.

As a black feminist, I wish we could start talking more about animal rights and veganism in our feminist circles without viewing animal rights as a “separate” field. Our social justice movements are so compartmentalized despite the fact that “intersectionality” is the trendiest word of our generation. I also wish that feminists focused more on indie digital media, indie music, art, etc. I love the grassroots feeling of the indie space and I think there’s power in the grungy, indie circuit. The act of creating is revolutionary, so I think we need to start talking some more about that. Overall, I think we need some new theory to account for the different political, racial, sexual landscape today.

Your recent article for Everyday Feminism discussed some of the reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue. Why do you think this argument still needs to be made in feminist circles (i.e., what do you think lies behind the disconnect between human feminists and other animals)?

I think many social justice movements today thrive on empty buzzwords and mantras, rather than actual praxis. So, it’s trendier to learn the language of the movement so that you “look” like you get it, rather than actually getting it. If you actually understood the movements you’ve been participating in, your behavior would start changing, not just the phrases written on your shirt.

You have some people screaming #blacklivesmatter for Mike Brown, but they can’t name one black author, black philosopher, black indie media product, black artist, etc. It’s empty.

Ironically, you have feminists screaming “the personal is political” but they don’t think about the food they consume which is wrapped up in giant systems of oppression.

Intersectionality falls flat today in many circles because it’s attached to empty praxis.

I think some feminists’ inability to fight for animal rights demonstrates how ingrained problematic hierarchies are, even in oppressed subjects’ psyches. Some oppressed folks have a hard time accepting that they might be oppressive agents to others. Unfortunately, when some groups are oppressed, they are incapable of understanding that they’re not the only bodies being oppressed, and any attention that goes to another group is immediately met with anger and frustration. This reaction is proof for my assertion that people don’t really GET intersectionality…or maybe haven’t really read about it.

I also think that because of the online space where everyone can have their own blog, and write their own critiques, everyone thinks they’re an expert at feminism. People want to critique, but they aren’t necessarily as inclined to learn (I was quite a stubborn asshole as well when I started blogging). As I said in my Daily Beast interview, I think people are experts at critiquing and pointing out problems in everything, but they don’t want to be reflexive because it means they might actually have to change, and since our culture thrives on comfort, “change” merely becomes a tie-dye colored word on a John Lennon poster that might be hanging from your wall, not a politic that you live your life by.

Along with the WHY, can you talk about the HOW? How does feminism start to take the oppression of other animals more seriously and create a comprehensive, intersectional strategy for fighting oppression?

Ironically we have the theory there that supports animal rights and veganism; we just need to practice it. Every feminist knows “intersectionality,” but they have to apply it to bodies that don’t necessarily look like their own.

I think it’s about just doing it. Oftentimes, in social justice circles, we fetishize activism, or assume it’s about changing someone else. However, it can start with you. Feminists (especially in the mainstream) definitely understand the body as a political entity, so there’s no excuse. I mean—we exist in a culture where everyone and their sister is talking about “body-positivity,” so it seems like some feminists are willing to talk about their bodies as long as it’s attached to a superficial beauty rhetoric; however, when it’s attached to changing their diets to accommodate animal bodies, suddenly they start to have a problem with that. (They will often shout scripts like “well….some people can’t go vegan because they live in poverty or because of cultural reasons,” and I’m like “okay…some people don’t have the option to go vegan…but don’t you?” Silence and crickets.)

(I just want to make a note that I’m aware that not every community has the option to go vegan. However, I’m predominantly talking to the thousands of people who *do* have the option to go vegan, but don’t .)

I mean, after my article about animal rights in Everyday Feminism, I can’t tell you how many feminists were pissed off with me and sent me really mean messages telling me that I was a joke or that I wasn’t a real feminist because animal lives weren’t as important as women’s lives. Some people were so hostile that I started re-reading my article to see if I said anything that extreme. I had no idea animal rights (within a feminist context) was this controversial. The automatic assumption that animal bodies are just “less than” reifies the exact same hierarchical systems that feminists are trying to fight to get their own rights. It’s the epitome of irony and while frustrating, it’s great fodder for another comedy web-series, LOL. This negative response reveals how misguided some attempts are in feminism to reach “liberation.”

You have to actually ACT to be an activist. It’s a struggle. So, giving up your meat and cheese might seem like the end of the world, but that feeling of personal struggle is necessary for the movement. People know animals are being tortured and slaughtered, but they can’t give up meat because it “tastes good.” How committed are you to social justice if your taste buds rank higher than another being’s existence

Activism isn’t necessarily supposed to be comfortable. We need empathy in our social justice movements. To have the expectation that dominant groups should understand your plight, while you have another being’s flesh stuck in your teeth, just feels awkward, LOL.

To focus on veganism/animal rights more specifically, what in your opinion are some of the biggest failings of the movement(s) in reaching non-white, non-affluent individuals? What concrete steps need to be taken to make veganism more inclusive—both in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of outreach and support?

I think there’s a foundational issue with inclusivity rhetoric. In fact, many folks argue (myself included) that diversity and inclusivity rhetoric serves to reify and empower white supremacy.

Your question presupposes that there aren’t people of color in the movement already, so the question discursively excludes us (brown people) which must be noted. What “animal rights movement” are you talking about?  Your question naturalizes whiteness as the norm which I think is problematic, LOL. I’m going to assume that you’re referring to animal rights organizations that are predominantly made up of white people considering “whiteness” is commonly implied, but rarely called out. By using the white-centered, ambiguous term “animal rights movement,” you’re ironically erasing brown people and our work, but I will however answer the question I think you’re asking.

I don’t view the white animal rights movement as “failing” to include brown folks because that would presuppose that they set out to accommodate brown people in the first place, which they haven’t. I don’t view my exclusion as accidental.

We can look to the ways that black feminists recently called out “white feminism” as a thing, to solve some of these issues in “mainstream” animal rights spaces because I think this is more of a rhetorical issue.

For too long, “mainstream feminism” seemed to only focus on white women, and completely ignored the ways in which women of color were impacted by patriarchy differently. Mainstream feminism also seemed to ignore the activist efforts of non-white women. Therefore, when black feminist Mikki Kendall came out with hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, she brilliantly pointed to the ways that these “mainstream” movements only recognized white activism, while excluding and ignoring the struggles and labor of people of color. In other words, “mainstream” seemed to have a color attached to it: white.

Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote a BRILLIANT article titled, “Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why Its Future Isn’t Up to White Women,” to clearly draw the lines between white and black feminism, and to make a point that black women don’t need white feminism in order to validate their activism. Before this, “white” feminism was felt, but was never actually called out. This was a significant rhetorical move. Dr. Cooper noted how white feminism (or mainstream feminism) centered on equality, and black feminism centered on justice. These are two different projects and they need two different names or else all of the work black feminists are doing will unfairly be erased or eclipsed by white women’s organizing efforts.

I think we need a similar rhetorical strategy for the current “mainstream” animal rights movement that excludes non-white activists. Part of the activism is labeling the current “mainstream” animal rights movement a white movement so that the rest of us can move on and continue doing our own activism without fighting for a seat at the white table. Fighting for animal rights and then fighting for representation in a white space are two very different projects.

If minoritized people aren’t joining your movements, it could be that we already have our own movement that you just don’t know about, OR, your space is exclusionary. The activism shouldn’t center on how to reach out to non-white people… you should use that energy to look to the foundation of your movement or project because your answers might be there. We pathologize minoritized people by questioning their motives for not joining movements and organizations that purposefully exclude them.  Instead of spotlighting the activist efforts of non-white people (because there’s a lot of us), the attention gets turned to why these folks aren’t joining white organizations.

If the white folks actually understood the issues they were so passionately fighting for, they would already be inclusive, so their exclusion is quite intentional.

Just because the white animal rights movement doesn’t recognize us, doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. We’ve been organizing for a while.

There are many black/brown vegans who are doing awesome projects and we need to allow these organic movements to thrive as they are. Perhaps white folks can help by providing resources and financial assistance to some minoritized vegan activist movements that don’t get as much exposure as white organizations, rather than trying to get these minoritized folks to join their organizations. That feels like a completely different, appropriative project.

Just remember that there are vegans of color who are doing work, and that’s the animal rights movement that I know and focus on.

Wow…so many important points there. Thanks for making the best of my poorly worded question! 🙂 So, what projects will you be working on in the near future, and what issues do you see being (continuing or immediate) priorities for you?

I’m currently working on season 2 of Black Feminist Blogger, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to film another episode of my web-series “Tales from the Kraka Tower.” For me, right now, self-care is the most important thing. In order to continue my activism, I need to re-charge, which is what I’m doing now. J

I want to keep championing for independent smart media, and I’m trying to finish an EP with my band!

Thanks so much for speaking with me!

Food Is Power: Interview with lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project

Food is a complicated affair. As vegans know, getting other humans to examine their food choices and (more importantly) change them can feel like trying to pick up the Earth and move it a few planets farther out. 

Part of the urgency we feel with food arises from the reality that it has so many ramifications on our planet, beyond whether or not we are eating other animals. This means every choice counts…and that achieving justice involves much more than going vegan. Factors ranging from treatment of workers, to environmental impact, to access to food, and much more are all crucial considerations we have to make if we truly care about just food.

Far too few vegans and “animal rights” activists venture outside of the ethics of eating (and otherwise using) animal products, but lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, is an outspoken advocate for true food justice and against exploitation in all its forms. I first corresponded with lauren after writing about the influence growing up poor had on me as a vegan, and I have been awed by her work and Food Empowerment Project’s growing presence since then…

lauren_TEDx_4 (3)
Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?

I went vegetarian when I was about five years old when my mom told me that the chicken I was eating was, well, a chicken. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I was able to stick with that decision (for a variety of reasons), but I had already stopping buying leather products. However, when I was 17 I was connected with an animal rights group in my area and learned about factory farming—it was then that I went vegan. I think, overall, the biggest factor for me when I was five was not wanting to break up families or being responsible for their separation. This April will be my 27-year vegan anniversary.

What motivated you to start Food Empowerment Project, and how did you build it up into the organization it is today?

One of my motivations for starting Food Empowerment Project was my frustration with animal rights activists who did not like me talking about the suffering of human animals in various industries, including chocolate, when I was asked by interviewers if animal rights people only cared about the suffering of non-human animals.

My passions were also stirred when I went to speak at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, and realized so many issues that I also cared about, such as workers, the environment, indigenous rights, immigration, etc., were all related to food.

I wanted to have an organization that strove for justice in all of these areas.

What have been some of your biggest victories so far? What issues are a priority for you moving forward?

To me the biggest victory has been the evolution of people understanding our work. Not that all vegans understand it, but many seem to be understanding (or at least being less hostile) to our desire to connect these issues. Food Empowerment Project has been around since 2007, but only recently does it seem as if our work is being sincerely recognized.

Getting people to understand the connections of oppression and our ability to work together (and not be separated by specific focus or being an expert) is a huge victory in my eyes. Although in a more tangible form, our work over several years to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolate was a big victory.

Our priorities continue to be hindered by our slow rate of growth in funding (an area which shows that people are only just now starting to understand the importance of our work, but funding is not pouring in).

Fortunately, with a great group of volunteers we will continue to work promoting the issues of ethical veganism, fight for justice for farm workers, discourage people from buying chocolate from areas where the worst forms of child labor are taking place and get companies to be transparent on their sourcing, and continue our work with communities on the lack of access to healthy foods.

image (23)

There is some criticism in the vegan movement of “single-issue campaigns.” Would you consider FEP’s actions—e.g., targeting Clif Bar for their chocolate sourcing—to be single-issue campaigns? How do you respond to that sort of criticism, if you encounter it?

Campaigns have to be single issue in a sense if you want concrete change versus general outreach. For example, you can have a long-term goal to get all animals out of marine parks, to abolish marine parks, but perhaps your smaller goal is to shut one of them down. I am a campaigner, and I like concrete goals in order to know if I am having an impact versus just hoping or assuming I am.

When it comes to Clif Bar, I don’t find it to be a single issue as we were targeting a company that makes primarily vegan products. Our goal was to get them to be transparent. We want all companies that make vegan products to be transparent, but we can’t just tell them all that and think we can get somewhere. In an ideal world, sure. But the reality is that corporations aren’t going to make changes for the good unless we demand it from them and we’re specific about what we are asking of them.

Along with your work with FEP, you do a lot of speaking about activism and intersectionality. What are some of your priorities as an activist?

Yes, I do talk about how issues are connected. My priorities as an activist change and they evolve. Currently, I would say they are in a constant struggle to block out the noise of those who are not doing strategic work and to make sure that F.E.P. works in a way that is consistent with our ethics. It is tough to juggle, but we do our best. And also as an individual I want to be sure to keep active with strategic campaigns and outreach efforts for both animal liberation and human justice.

More importantly, what do you feel the vegan movement needs to do in the context of other social justice movements? What have we done well, and what do we need to do better?

FEP School Supply Drive beneficiary.
FEP School Supply Drive beneficiary.

I think the vegan movement should not sell out other social justice issues that are also advocating for those who are being exploited, marginalized, abused, and killed. I don’t ask for vegans to give up their good, just, and necessary fight for non-human animals, but to work to be consistent by not supporting chocolate that comes from child labor and to be educated about using incorrect statements such as, “Anyone can be vegan if they really want to be.”

We need to do better about truly connecting the issues. Connecting issues does not mean you only talk about other social justice issues as a pretext for getting others to go vegan. It means truly understanding how these issues are connected and work with others to stop them. It’s important to remind yourself that you might be an expert when it comes to animal issues, but perhaps you’re not with other issues, so there is a time to lead and a time to follow.

I am particularly interested to get your perspective on how to make (ethical) veganism less of a phenomenon of the privileged—despite the historic associations between animal rights and white supremacy—and more about enabling everyone be able to make healthy, sustainable, just food and lifestyle choices. What can individual vegans do, and what has to be changed on a larger socio-economic scale?

I think vegans can and need to be honest. If they are creating recipes, let’s not pretend that anyone can make it because it is made from scratch and from whole foods. That is great for many, many people, but not everyone. Be honest and acknowledge that your meal ideas and recipes are very important and can help people go vegan, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it is easy for everyone. It won’t work for people who only have access to tomato sauce, and for whom fresh produce is a potato and onion on an irregular basis, or for people who live in shelters or motels. They might care, but they might not have an option right now.

We all need to work for living wages. Living wages for everyone will mean they will have more access to healthy foods—including fruits and vegetables.

Little boy with backpack
FEP School Supply Drive beneficiary.

Are you optimistic that the vegan movement can grow out of its largely consumerist phase and actually make a difference in the lives of humans and non-humans everywhere? Why or why not? Do you have any suggestions for making veganism a real force for social justice?

I do think we can as long as we keep the issue at heart as the focal point. Look, unfortunately, capitalism is to blame for much of the ills in the world. And by using consumer campaigns we have to work to force corporations to make changes. But if we are dishonest about our goals, I believe we lose credibility. It’s important to keep the focus on the animals, and the reason why many of us do the work we do is because we do not want non-human animals to suffer, be abused, exploited, and killed. This way we keep the heart of the matter front and center and do not allow the dollar to be the focus.

It is important to remember that with a diet based primarily of fruits and vegetables, what we eat (and encourage others to eat) also comes from an abusive and exploitative industry. Farm workers in the US face some of the worst abuses in the food industry. They are not paid living wages (many get paid based on how much they pick), do not get benefits, they work in extreme environments (some collapse from heat exhaustion and die in the fields), are exposed to hazardous chemicals, and many of the women are victims of sexual abuse. These are issues vegans need to address.

Eating a cruelty-free diet will require that the rights of the farm workers are also met.

Thanks so much for speaking with me!

Thank you for wanting to cover our work!

Fighting the Chill: Interview with Sarahjane Blum

A few years ago, I learned about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and the U.S. government’s efforts to label animal rights and environmental activists as “terrorists.” As immediately offensive as all that information was, it was made all the more real–and terrifying–when I started connecting it to individual activists and their courageous work. 

One image that has stuck in my mind since those initial periods of research on AETA is of a woman standing in what looks like an industrial farming shed and holding a duck. 

Years later I was connected with Sarahjane Blum, the woman in the photo, while organizing an anti-AETA event in Chapel Hill, as part of a larger weekend of action put together by the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. Her experiences doing open rescue and other forms activism led her to take part in a lawsuit against the government, for its violations of First Amendment rights through AETA. With the rising interest in Open Rescue (thanks to the foundational work of Animal Liberation Victoria, and most recently Direct Action Everywhere), I was curious to get Sarahjane’s story as an open rescuer, her perspectives on direct action, the impact of AETA, and much more…

blum1Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?

I realized the other day that I have been vegan for just over half my life. Which means that some of my memories of what took me down that road are fuzzy, and that some of my stories about my early veganism sound like a bad “back in my day we had to walk barefoot uphill to school and back” joke.

With that said, my process was pretty simple, though not quick. The weekend of July 4th, 1990, a friend of mine invited me to go out of town with his family. I was raised in New York City, in a very urban environment, without a lot of contact with animals other than squirrels, pigeons, and humans.

We went to this little island teeming with critters, and I sat around watching them mesmerized. The last day I was there, my friend and I went for a bike ride, and there was a raccoon on the side of the road who had just been run over by a car. I don’t know if this was actually the first time I had seen a dead animal in a context other than a dinner plate, but it felt like new knowledge. I was twelve at the time, and came home and told my parents I was going to stop eating meat.

From there on, it started to strike me how many seemingly unconnected choices involve animal use and exploitation. I started looking for shoes which weren’t made with leather; I saw an ad in the back of a magazine and wrote away for a booklet about alternatives to dissection and got on PETA’s mailing list; and the list of things that I tried to be conscious of kept growing.

Some time in there, I decided that when I left my parents house for college, I would go vegan. I still can’t remember when I first heard the term, and I had only ever met one vegan in my life at that point, but it seemed to me that if I could find a way to live a less-exploitative life, I should. And I’ve kept trying to do that ever since.

What has been your path as an activist and what issues got you into activism?

I’ve always been easily outraged, and done my best to act on that feeling. There wasn’t a petition I didn’t want to sign in my youth, or a social justice movement I didn’t want to support. And, again, this feels like a very long time ago, so forgive me the vagary. When I started getting connected into an activist scene, I tried to go to every event, get active for every cause, and soak up as much knowledge and passion as I could. I started going to weekly meetings at the Wetlands Collective in NYC, and organizing with the New York City Animal Defense League. Rather than me rehash old war stories about those days, I’m just going to suggest everyone head over to the Talon Conspiracy and take some time digging into the history of our movement.

You have been involved in “open rescue” direct action. Can you talk some about what open rescue is, how open rescues are conducted, and some of your experiences as a rescuer? Where does open rescue fit in to the tactics of the movement now as you see it?

In the early 2000s, I worked with a group of activists to conduct a nationwide investigation into the foie gras industry, and to rescue a number of ducks from farms where they were being force-fed to the brink of death. Without attempting to conceal our identities, we did our best to exhaustively videotape the conditions on the farms, and the slow rehabilitation of the birds we rescued. We spent months conducting the investigation, researching how the facilities worked and obtaining footage of all stages of these animals’ lives. We had veterinarians examine both the live animals we were able to rescue, and the dead animals we came across. Some of what took us months might be a much shorter process today because of improvements in technology, since a lot of logistical quandaries would have been avoided if we didn’t have to lug large camcorders or could have set up motion sensitive cameras. When we felt like we had a full picture, we started telling the stories of these birds, and the open rescue angle allowed us to personalize their stories and bring more attention to the suffering of animals being bred and raised for food than we would have been able to otherwise.

In our case, we were fortunate to attract a lot of attention. The exposure of the industry really got the attention of the movement, the public, and the media. There was a groundswell of outrage that helped pass the law outlawing foie gras farming and sales in California. (This week, as I was contemplating the questions you sent me, foie gras producers and restaurateurs won an appeal that at least temporarily allows foie gras to be served again, though its not clear if that’s a permanent shift. The production is still illegal, and the California farm that was the state’s only producer is out of business.) There was print and TV news coverage, and even a feel-good half-hour episode of a show on Animal Planet devoted to showing the rehabilitation of two ducks we rescued from Hudson Valley Foie Gras. That doesn’t sound so groundbreaking today, but looking back it seems clear that the outpouring of videos from undercover exposes and open rescues really opened the door for violence against animals to be covered and shown in a mainstream way on TV. Jane Velez-Mitchell and Whale Wars, to cite just a couple of examples, have demonstrated the market for stories about animal issues on TV and created frameworks (admittedly still limited) for having mainstream conversations that push back against the assumptions that underpin our treatment of non-human animals. The work done by groups and individuals undertaking undercover investigations and open rescues in the late 1990s/early 2000s is a clear part of that cultural shift.

The inroads that activists were making at that point in time led to backlash. The open rescue movement is just a small part of the story of the green scare, as it has become known. Everything from the SHAC campaign to the ALF to Vegan Outreach was bringing really unwanted attention to corporate interests that made their money by exploiting animals. Again, I won’t bore you with history, but encourage you to read Green is the New Red and Muzzling a Movement to learn about how lobbyists led the charge to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The AETA raised the stakes on any sort of civil disobedience or direct action and certainly it caused people to think twice before taking part in open rescue. But even while acknowledging that people backed away from direct action (and even speaking out on behalf of animals) after the passage of the AETA, I don’t think that tells the whole story about why we saw so few open rescues after 2006.

These past few years have seen a huge uptick in the number of breaking stories about undercover investigations. Now that you can get accurate depictions of the realities of farming on your cell phone, with a small hidden camera, go pro, or motion sensitive camera tucked inside a farm, or with a telephoto lens from way off, there are a lot of new, novel ways to start engaging people that use some of the same energy that drew us to open rescue. I’m thinking here of everything from Will Potter’s Kickstarter-supported Drone on the Farm project to the activists who are currently being prosecuted under Utah’s ag-gag laws for taking pictures of a hog farm from public property. There is still momentum to expose animal exploitation. There’s also still open rescue. I just watched the new Direct Action Everywhere egg-laying-hen rescue video this morning.

You are also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. government in relation to AETA. Can you explain what the lawsuit is about and the current status?

In 2012, the badass lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the lawsuit Blum v Holder asking the federal government to strike down Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional. The plaintiffs in the suit were all long-time activists who felt the chilling effect of this law in our daily lives. As I said, I don’t think that the AETA was the sole reason for the fall-off of open rescue in the last decade, but I do know I curtailed my activism for a while when I felt the all-too-real threat of lengthy Federal prison sentences for engaging in that form of non-violent civil disobedience. The AETA presents an unconstitutional limitation on our first amendment rights, it’s clear. That was the basis of the lawsuit. But, because we were not actively being prosecuted under the law, there was a question of whether we had what’s known as “standing” to challenge it. In the end, rather than rule on the constitutionality of the law itself, the courts determined we didn’t have standing. On November 10th, 2014 the Supreme Court denied cert in our case, which means we can’t take it any further. It’s disappointing, but more disappointing is the fact that during the period when our suit was winding through court, Kevin Oliff and Tyler Lang were charged under the AETA for allegedly freeing mink and foxes from fur farms. CCR is working to get their case dismissed, but they need all the support they can get.

You live in a hotbed of radical vegan activism in Minneapolis. Are you involved in a lot of the actions going on there? Why do you think Minneapolis has attracted so many passionate, innovative vegans?

I’m a transplant to Minneapolis almost by accident, so I am probably the worst person to ask anything about why people end up there. It was a happy accident, though, as Minneapolis does have a really robust activist and radical culture, particularly for a town its size.

Not just in terms of animal issues. I remember a zine circulating around the RNC in 2008 called The Struggle is Our Inheritance that goes back through 50 years or so of radical action in Minnesota—actions that it seems like people in the rest of the country don’t know nearly as much about as they should. I guess between this and the earlier Talon shout out, it’s pretty clear that I think getting grounded in history is critical for being engaged in social change.

I show up to as many events as I can, but with how you phrased the question I have to be honest and say that day-to-day I don’t get to as many events as I’d like. I am torn between kicking myself for not doing more (which is the primary reflex action of most people who are drawn to trying to change the world around them), and being thrilled that there are so many people organizing around social justice issues that there’s no way one person could everywhere that there’s something worthwhile happening. Still, you just lit a fire under me to get to a protest or prisoner letter writing night soon.

In your mind, what are some of the most important issues that vegans—particularly radical vegans with an itch to take action and effect change—should focus on or learn more about in the future?

I want to go back for a second to my experience with open rescue. I often say that I think I ended up working on foie gras in particular because I hadn’t had much experience around animals growing up, but I had fed ducks at ponds. I had seen them around me growing up, watched them, wondered at them. I had seen them, so I could see them. Sometimes, I worry that if I spend too much time online I’ll lose sight of them, and all the animals for whom I’m trying to advocate. I can see it happening sometimes when I get on Facebook or wherever the new big theoretical debate is happening. We can argue tactics in terms of strategic efficiency, or break down activism as a numbers game, but unless we stay connected to other living creatures (including humans), how are we even going to imagine what a better world would look like? It’s critical we support sanctuaries, interact with real-live individual animals of the sort we are talking about saving from violence and exploitation, and get off our computers and into our communities.

Thanks so much for speaking with me about your work!

 Thank you!

Interview with Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

It is always exciting to meet another vegan metalhead (if you are a vegan metalhead like me at least). I cannot quite remember how I met Jayaprakash Satyamurthy in the realm of Facebook-Earth, but it was a quick experience of exponentially increasing excitement. Jayaprakash, who lives in Bangalore, India, is more than just a vegan metalhead; he is also the bassist for the band Djinn And Miskatonic, as well as a published writer of weird fiction in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft. Oh, and on top of all that, he runs an animal rescue organization and shelter, which means he lives with a big furry family.

I was fascinated to learn more about Jayaprakash’s experiences and his work…

JayaprakashPlease share your story of going vegan. When did you decide to stop consuming and using animal products? What motivated this change in your lifestyle?

I was raised vegetarian. In my college years I started to eat meat. I can say that it was the usual process of dietary drift a lot of young Indians go through once they are exposed to a more diverse peer group in college; I can say it was just the convenience of picking up a sheek kebab or shavarma roll after a night at the pub with my friends. I can make any number of excuses, but the real reason is that my vegetarianism was simply a matter of habit, and even though I considered myself an animal lover, it was more of a sentimental thing, not something I’d thought through rationally as an adult. More to the point, I think it just showed how weak-willed and ready to be tossed about on the waves of peer pressure I was. I didn’t care to “fit in” in my choices of music and books or clothing; yet it seemed okay to go with the flow when it came to more crucial choices like diet and even clothing—I wore my share of clunky leather boots and jackets during this time.

I will say that I was never completely comfortable eating meat. I always felt heavy and sluggish after eating anything more than a kebab roll, I was repulsed by bone and gristle in what I was eating, and I frequently fought down a sense of nausea while eating meat, thinking of the living thing it had once been. In fact, meat formed a very minor part of my diet, which was mainly ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Questions of the use of animals for food and clothing and so forth surfaced in my mind from time to time, but I never considered them in sharp detail. I was opposed to animal testing, and I continued to enjoy the company of cats and dogs, but since moving out of my family home and living in a series of hostels and shared flats, I hadn’t had a pet and I think losing that daily connection with the animal world helped blunt my instincts.

I reverted to vegetarianism after living with the woman who would become my wife. She was born into a meat-eating community but gave up meat as a little girl, not wanting to harm animals. It felt to me like a natural decision, a relief, a homecoming. You might ask if I would have continued to eat meat if I had met a different woman, and all I can say is that sometimes the right people come into one’s life and leave it at that. A lot of people remain meat eaters even if their spouses are not—this was the case with my father and mother—and I could have done so too. I also stopped wearing leather shoes and retired my old leather jacket.

As I grew more involved in animal welfare, moving from activism to regular rescue and rehabilitation of stray dogs and cats, I started to learn more about the issues involved in how we exploit animals for our comfort, convenience, and luxury. I read a lot about ethical reasons for a life free of animal products, worked my way through Massimo Pigliucci’s examination of these issues on his Rationally Speaking blog, and reconnected with the deep emotional connection I had felt with all animals as a child. Finally, a video by PETA on dairy farming in India pushed me over the edge. I decided to stop consuming dairy as well, and called my wife up and told her I had taken the decision to become a vegan.

I know that the exploitation, torture, and murder of animals continues around me daily. I know that my ceasing to use the products of this cruelty probably doesn’t reduce any of it. But I take comfort in knowing I no longer have blood on my hands, in knowing that there is no ethical contradiction in my animal welfare activities (well hardly any) and in, perhaps, serving as an inspiration to others. I feel like I have finally become someone the five-year-old me would have been proud of.

You are involved in the heavy metal scene in a number of ways, from playing music to being an active commentator online. How long have you been into heavy music? How long have you been playing, and what is your band, Djinn & Miskatonic, up to these days? Any other projects in the works as well?

I discovered heavy metal music through MTV in the early 90s. I was already a music lover with diverse tastes for an early teen: classic rock, some blues, some alt, a lot of western and Indian classical. At first, I had little patience for the “long-haired guitar bands” on MTV. But then songs by Metallica and Guns n’ Roses started clicking. My home life was not altogether happy, and I identified with the rage in many of these songs. When I discovered Iron Maiden, I responded to their complex melodies and epic storytelling. Judas Priest filled me with intimations of power and glorious darkness. Slayer’s music showed me how music could be sinister and attractive at the same time.

I wanted to start playing this music at once, picking up an acoustic guitar and playing at writing songs and being in a band with friends. It took me years to get any good, and to decide to play the bass guitar. I played with a few different bands in my college years, covering everything from alt rock to thrash and heavy metal, and trying out a fair number of original songs along the way.

I’ve been playing the bass guitar since I was 17. I had a long hiatus from music but started again in 2010. In 2011 I formed what would become my current band, Djinn And Miskatonic. Our first album, Forever In The Realm, was a more traditional doom affair, with lots of Saint Vitus, Reverend Bizarre, and Electric Wizard influences. We’ve nearly finished recording our second album, and this time around the musical range varies from Sleep/Vitus doom to Cirith Ungol-influenced epic doom metal with a couple of other odd things along the way.

I’d love to do a couple of other musical projects—something more raw and thrashy as well maybe a space rock project some day. Right now, I don’t have enough time or collaborators for anything other than Djinn, and anyway we’ve got an anything-goes approach to songwriting which allows us to try out a lot of different musical ideas.

In an earlier interview, I discussed possible connections between an interest in black metal and veganism with Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis. What is your take on being a vegan metalhead? Do you feel like your brand of veganism is in any way informed by your taste in music, or vice versa?

I think maybe extreme metalheads, if they have not been co-opted by the right-wing politics and misogyny that inhere in those circles, are people who are used to standing out from the mainstream and making their own decisions. I think there is a strain of nature-worship and pantheism in black metal in particular which is conducive to moving towards veganism.

But I don’t, ultimately, see a close link between the music and the ethics of veganism. I am happy to see that people like Mille Petrozza are vegan, but I also know many more metal musicians thrive on steaks and leather. There’s no consistent ethical stance in what is after all a diverse community of people and ideologies.

On the other hand, I have found in practice a lot of animal lovers in the metal community here. So that’s a good sign. I try to be visible in my veganism so that I can act as an advocate to people in the music community who may feel predisposed to at least hearing me out because they respect me as a musician. But ultimately, you become vegan because you do not wish to participate in the murder, rape, and torture of sentient beings any longer. People from any musical background can and have made that connection and that change in their lives, and I respect them for it and count them as my peers.

You are also an active writer of weird tales, and a fellow fan of H. P. Lovecraft (yes!). How does your penchant for weird fiction tie into your other activities—music, veganism, etc.?

Although I’ve tended to approach horror themes a little more crudely in my lyrics, my interest in weird fiction does have a lot to do with the urge to write dark, eerie music and with an overall preoccupation with dark, fantastic themes and imagery. So far, I haven’t written songs that are directly influenced by my ethical choices. I don’t know if there is any tie-in between weird fiction and veganism, but I have heard it suggested, I don’t know how seriously, that animals might have a very different kind of consciousness from ours, as different as those of the Lovecraftian gods are from our own—and we’ll never stand a chance of learning more about how that consciousness works if we keep eating them.

Along with all of this creative work, you also are involved in animal rescue in Bangalore. Can you discuss your rescue and what got you into rescue work?

I got into rescue work because I wanted to do something more practical and impactful than the activism too many animal lovers content themselves with. There is a place for raising awareness and running campaigns, but my own temperament draws me to working at the rescue side of things instead. I feel I am doing something of intrinsic and real value when I help nurse an animal back to health, find a new home for a former stray, or at least provide warmth, food, shelter, and love for a dying animal. There are many roles you can play in animal welfare: awareness, fundraising, admin, and so forth. I found that this was the role I could be most useful in, and even so I don’t think I’m very good at it yet.

My wife and I started to be the go-to people for anyone who found a lost or abandoned cat or kitten. There aren’t as many animal lovers in Bangalore working with cats as dogs, and our home population of rescued cats keeps growing. We also take in dogs, and starting a shelter seemed like a natural progression. We’ve had a setback recently, losing the land on which our first shelter was run, but we are looking at new sites and hope to include a full-fledged cattery at our next shelter. Our shelter is called Simba’s Run, after an abused Dalmatian who was one of the first rescues undertaken by our animal welfare organization, Animal Aid Alliance.

How does being vegan influence your efforts to rescue and care for animals in need?

The shelter I help to run is no-kill as far as possible. I have taken a decision to put down animals who were terminally ill and in pain, like a cat with a shattered spinal column or a puppy with an advanced, uncurable case of distemper. This decision is never taken lightly, and I try to spend time with the animal, comforting it, before the euthanisation. The idea of euthanasia for “unadoptable” animals or simply to keep shelter populations down is repulsive to me.

I’ve also had to accept that it is very hard to give cats and dogs a meatless diet. I don’t feel good enabling the slaughter of one set of animals to help my efforts to save another set, and this makes me feel like a hypocrite. Vegan diets for dogs and especially cats are a deeply controversial topic and hard to get clear facts and advice about. I have experimented with a vegan cat food with taurine added, but my cats have not responded to it especially enthusiastically. Still, I hope to learn more and to switch to vegan food for my shelter if it seems like the animals will not miss out on nutrients and flavor.

Sometimes I wonder what we’re all doing, setting up dependent relationships with animals and playing god. Some human beings respect that social contract with our companion animals; others don’t, and then people like us try to step in and rectify the balance. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

What sort of advocacy work are you involved in, and can you talk some about the vegan scene in the Bangalore area? What are some successes you have seen there, and what are some key issues you think need to be addressed?

I’m not involved in any vegan advocacy in an organized way. I make no secret of my veganism, and as an “out” vegan I hope to influence others. I think I have helped at least two people go vegan. There are a couple of vegan restaurants in Bangalore and a few vegan meet-up groups. I still haven’t interacted much with them beyond the occasional online chat. I really should, I’m sure, but in a culture and society that’s becoming deeply committed to meat eating, I think it is more useful to be out there, being visibly vegan, sane, and happy.

In my country, meat eating is a complex affair. It’s a way to rebel against Brahminical strictures; it’s forbidden flesh; it’s cool and sophisticated. Suddenly everyone is a foodie, sampling steaks and whatnot at hipster eating places. I think people need to learn to see their dietary choices as not just about their lifestyle and self-image but in the context of the ethics of what we eat.

At the same time, the average Indian vegetarian is deeply dependent on dairy products and the idea of doing without cow’s milk is unthinkable to many. I’d like to see that lactose addiction being combated with better information and better awareness of what it means to keep a mother in captivity, impregnating her time and again just to steal her milk from her babies.

Our government has in the past run highly successful campaigns to popularize milk and eggs as healthy and essential to our diet; I don’t think veganism should be government mandated, but I’d like them, and the media as well, to at least table it as a reasonable choice and not something extreme or just a fad.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Thanks for the chance to do this interview. I’d like to invite anyone in Bangalore who is seriously considering veganism to reach out to me to learn more. Also, I now kmow one other vegan in the Indian metal community: Aditya Mehta of Solar Deity. I’d like for our tribe to increase, so if you’re an Indian metalhead who loves animals, and would like to learn more about veganism, once again, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you, and I can be reached at jayaprakash@gmail.com.