A True Activist: How One Woman is Putting Compassion Above All Else

June 13, 2019

There are people who are passionate about causes. And then there are people like Priya Sawhney who are willing to put everything on the line for what she believes. This is Priya’s story.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

A True Activist: How One Woman is Putting Compassion Above All Else

There are people who are passionate about causes. And then there are people like Priya Sawhney who are willing to put everything on the line for what she believes. This is Priya’s story.

Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is used to getting a lot of attention.

They don’t shy away from controversy when it comes to getting their message across, and the same goes for Priya Sawhney, an organizer and one of DxE’s co-founders.

Less than a week after another DxE organizer stirred controversy for disrupting a MoveOn panel with Kamala Harris in San Francisco, Priya made international headlines after being arrested for getting on stage in Las Vegas to confront the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos.

On stage, Priya pleaded to Bezos about ending Amazon’s support of animal cruelty and offering him a flower.

She was unable to get close enough for him to accept the flower and he didn’t respond to Priya’s main plea:

“You are the world’s richest man. You’re the president of Amazon, and you can help the animals.”

Immediately after, Priya was pulled from the stage by a group of security guards and arrested. She spent more than 48 hours in jail and is facing felony charges for simply asking a question.

I spoke with Priya about this incident and the animal rights activism in general.

The main takeaway I had from my conversation with Priya –beyond the fact that she is an absolute pleasure to talk to– is that she is remarkably passionate about the animal rights movement and will not rest as long as animals are being bred into existence just to suffer and die for human use and consumption.

Priya was born and raised in Punjab, India before moving with her family to the Bay Area when she was 12 years old.

The timing of Priya’s move to the US would shape her life forever.

They arrived shortly after 9/11. Coming from a Sikh family, Priya faced a lot of discrimination, at one point, even being called a terrorist in the halls of her own high school by classmates.

The fact that no one spoke up for her or stood by her side made her realize from a young age that most people remained quiet in the face of injustice. She knew immediately that staying silent wasn’t an option.

Before DxE, Priya worked as a community organizer in the Tenderloin Housing Clinic of San Francisco where she helped low-income families and individuals. She sees a direct correlation between her work there helping those in need with her work as an organizer and animal rights activist.

Once DxE started taking off, she left her work as a community organizer and focused all of her efforts on animal rights activism.

direct action everywhere priya organizer

I reached out to Priya because I wanted to know more about her as an activist but also understand a little more about the disruption that took place on the stage with Jeff Bezos.

Shortly after her release, Priya mentioned in a video that the security detail that took her off stage threatened violence against her and DxE, prodding to know whether or not there were other activists planning to take similar actions.

When I asked her about why she thinks a non-violent protester who simply asked a question would be threatened with violence, her answer resonated with an attitude that many activists, regardless of which movement, can relate to.

“I think it comes from a place of not only trying to protect profits but also to threaten people who have the nerve to go against the grain, go against the system, and go against these corporate profits.”

Going against the grain is an accurate way to describe the animal rights movement and the mindset of many animal rights activists. We learn from a young age that eating animals is normal. We are inculcated to believe that they are here for us and that killing living animals, in the case of eating them or wearing them, isn’t wrong. But we also learn from a young age not to be disruptive, not to talk back, and to never disrespect the authorities. So it’s only natural that most people are reluctant to speak up, even if they are faced with something that challenges their moral convictions.

Because eating food, and eating animals in this case, is a personal choice influenced by family, culture, and tradition, claiming the practice is wrong is going against the grain. This will cause major publications to make the peaceful protestor, in this case, Priya, to come off as the wrongdoer and not the multi-billionaire whose company supports animal cruelty while seeking higher profit margins.

And while some people may argue that an action like this is rude or uncalled for (it’s called a disruption for a reason), that doesn’t deter Priya. She isn’t going on stage to promote a business or try to sell something. She is there risking her own freedom in order to deliver a message that is widely ignored in the mainstream media. In fact, it takes actions just like these to get people to talk about the issues at hand.

And that’s why she is up there. She is there because of the issue of how animals are treated and the suffering they are subjected to before their imminent slaughter. Priya is willing to put everything on the line for what she believes in, even if it means facing felony charges and going to prison.

dxe protester arrested priya sawhney

I asked her about what goes through the mind of a person when taking action, knowing that you could be going to jail and turned into the enemy in the media.

“I’ve done a lot of disruptions now, and I think one thing that sticks out to me is that you get into a zone. You have one mission. All you are thinking about is getting on that stage. What I told myself leading up to rushing the stage was that I was meant to be there.”

Even though Bezos didn’t respond, something Priya suspected from the start, she was able to get her message across. Bezos is the world’s richest man and in a position of power to make a change at the snap of his fingers. If he wanted to, Amazon could stop using suppliers that stopped inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on animals.

As she was being pulled from the stage, Priya was angry. Not because she was under arrest but because she was there alone and didn’t have, at the very least, a journalist with her to document what happened to immediately get the word out. Hearing her say this makes me wish I could have been there to document the experience in real-time and not just discussing it in hindsight.

Once arrested and able to make a phone call, she was told that the news of the disruption was spreading quickly and that media outlets around the world were picking it up.

“I was in jail but crying happy tears. It was worth it.”

Although Bezos didn’t take the flower or listen to Priya, the disruption still exceeded her expectations. Getting on stage was key and getting international press justified the action. However, Priya was hoping that Bezos would simply have a dialogue with her or hear her out, something that would take but a moment of his time and just a tiny bit of compassion. That didn’t happen.

“We needed to do it this way. We have tried to talk to Amazon before. We have gone to their headquarters, we have tried to be reasonable and do things by the book. And when we have had protests at Amazon, we have told the security that tries to shut us down that we would happily stop the live stream video and shut down the protest if they could just send one person from Amazon to talk to us and that never happens. They are the largest online retailer in the world. They are taking over the grocery business. Bezos bought the Washington Post in cash. Someone needs to hold them accountable. And if it can’t be done through the proper channels then we are forced to disrupt.”

To an Amazon, or a Jeff Bezos, or someone reading an article about this disruption that paints Priya or DxE in a negative light, these kinds of actions might seem extreme or radical. But is that really a problem?

Superficially, it might come off as radical because of what Priya mentioned about going against the grain or going against the system. But what is so extreme about peacefully and compassionately standing up against the suffering and slaughter of trillions of animals?

How are the people standing up against the violence called extremists while the people supporting violence with their purchases and behaviors are not?

To Priya, what’s problematic about this dynamic occurs when people aren’t willing to listen or have a diplomatic conversation about the matter at hand.

“Some people think that I am extreme or the people at DxE are extreme because we cause these disruptions, we do these open rescues, we get arrested, face felonies, do time in jail, risk our lives for the cause. But we need to start a dialogue with these people. We need to ask them why they think that so many people are putting themselves in this position? Because they want to get killed? Do they want to get arrested? I personally don’t like going to jail. But when you shift the narrative and tell people that we are taking extreme action because what is happening inside of these places is extreme. When you see animals getting their throats slit, when you see them getting denied food and water, and you’ve tried to do everything in your power to address this with the district attorney, or the officials of the county, or the companies responsible and you get no response, then yes, we need to do something extreme. And what we choose to do that is “extreme” is non-violent and invites people to put the issue of animal rights on the table.”

protesters from direct action everywhere

The public perception of animal rights activists is, for the most part, negative. The industries that profit from the suffering of animals benefit the most from this public perception as it makes them the good guys when a story breaks about “radical activists” disrupting an event or performing an open rescue. This helps convince the general public that the few brave people who are willing to put everything on the line out of compassion in a non-violent way are the extremists while covering up the fact that they profit from the systematic suffering and slaughter of countless sentient beings. Their power is vast and they’ll go to great lengths to keep the public eye far from what happens behind closed doors.

“These industries grow in the dark. They thrive in darkness. That’s why when we go inside with our cameras and our drones, we are able to shine a light. That’s what it takes to expose them, that’s what they’re scared of. Despite the fact that they have power on their side, money, and resources, what they don’t have on their side is the truth. And if you ask somebody if they think that an activist should be facing decades in prison for trying to take two sick piglets to get help, pretty much everyone will agree that it’s absurd he’s even facing time. And that includes the people who are supporting the system that allows these piglets to become sick and dying in the first place by consuming animal products.”

It’s important to remember that people’s minds aren’t going to be changed overnight. That’s especially true when it comes to how the media is going to cover issues that not only challenge large corporations or policies but the actions and habits of people in general.

But as more and more people start to realize that the current animal agriculture system is morally abhorrent, more people get on board. And as the movement grows in numbers, the more chances there will be for conducting open rescues and disruptions that generate press and awareness.

direct action everywhere jeff bezos

And while she doesn’t believe that all press is necessarily good press, she believes that things are changing.

“Not all press is good press but I think the narrative is shifting. Some press that should be portrayed in a positive light is presented negatively. A lot of the press coverage lacks integrity and is grounded in fear. As I mentioned earlier, people are scared to go against the grain. So if you’re going to write about Amazon or Whole Foods and exposing these major companies for wrongdoing or animal cruelty then a lot of reporters might think to themselves that there is a fine line.”

But Priya is confident that the tide is turning.

She is seeing that more people are willing to get involved and that people are becoming more open to having the dialogue that touches on issues that might challenge their habits and behaviors. 

And even more importantly, more people are participating in open rescues. DxE’s open rescue in early June at a Petaluma duck farm in Northern California attracted 600 animal rights activists, dozens of whom were arrested.

The very fact that so many activists were arrested just shows that they are right. Large-scale repression like this is done strategically to keep people quiet and deter them from doing what they’re doing.

This kind of repression, while successful in shutting down the activists in the moment, is actually adding fuel to the fire and inspiring other people to become active and make their voices heard.  

Priya believes that this kind of repression is going to be what makes us reach a turning point.

“Repression is a double-edged sword but it’s really a gift. When people get arrested for animal rights, it makes the issue more urgent, it makes animal rights, in general, more urgent, it inspires sympathy from the general public, and I think it will mobilize more people. We need more ordinary people to step up. Once we do, we’ll see massive change.”

Let’s hope she is right.

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