During the past three weeks, I’ve participated in protests outside the home of Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín.
Dozens of Berkeley residents, holding “Divest from animal agriculture” banners and placards, use megaphones to chant and deliver speeches. We also reach out to neighbors explaining our campaign. All of this is an effort piloted by Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE — the Berkeley-based animal rights network I lead — calling on the city of Berkeley to divest city funds from animal agriculture.
These demonstrations are certainly disruptive; some might say they’re antagonistic. Even the protesters themselves don’t actually want to be out there. So why are we?
While the movement to divest from fossil fuels has gained widespread prominence — including in New York City and the entire nation of Ireland, as well as more than $14.5 trillion in assets globally — animal agriculture has largely flown under the radar. But the industry is every bit as catastrophic.
Animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water — both directly by animals and by growing their feed — than any other industry in California, where droughts and wildfires have dramatically intensified in recent years. Furthermore, 75% of new infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and factory farms are petri dishes for breeding future pandemics. The workers in slaughterhouses and factory farms bear a considerable psychological toll, including increased rates of addiction, PTSD and domestic abuse. And of course, animal agriculture directly causes the acute, needless suffering of billions of sentient beings every year.
Berkeley is known for its rich legacy of spearheading social progress. The impact of our individual consumer choices — vegan, organic, sustainable, etc. — is a speck of dust compared to the ripple effects made possible with progressive legislative change. Berkeley’s 2017 fur ban is a perfect example, as San Francisco followed suit the next year, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a statewide fur ban in 2019.
Sure, you might be thinking, the problem is very real, and our request for the city of Berkeley makes sense — but why go about it in such an aggressive manner? Well, it didn’t start out that way.
Beginning in early 2020, Berkeley residents sent City Council members postcards and emails, in addition to making phone calls and giving public comments at City Council meetings. DxE later held a public demonstration at Berkeley City Hall. It was only after our efforts for productive dialogue were ignored for a year that we first resorted to a demonstration outside the mayor’s home this past January.
Arreguín first acknowledged our campaign Feb. 8, a day before a second demonstration at his home was scheduled to occur. He emailed us, saying he supported our goals and hoped that we could talk instead of following through with our planned demonstration. Campaign organizers happily obliged, postponing the demonstration in a good-faith gesture to promote productive dialogue.
But in the interactions that followed, the mayor’s prior silence was replaced by seemingly empty promises.
After two meetings, he committed to 100% plant-based purchasing as an end goal, with about 50% as an intermediary goal. He also committed to a third meeting with DxE organizers and city department heads to discuss implementation, saying he’d introduce an ordinance by early May. Subsequent emails asking for an update on that third meeting have gone unanswered to this day, and phone calls to his office were met with vague responses such as “It’s on his to-do list.”
Then, in early May, I had a quick conversation with the mayor outside City Hall. He reaffirmed that he wants to implement a divestment ordinance. He also said he’d send us an update via email by May 7. On Monday — more than a month later — we received an email from him.
The email states Arreguín’s intent to introduce an ordinance in late July to partially transition city funds away from animal agriculture. DxE protest organizers are skeptical but optimistic. At the end of the day, intentions must culminate in concrete action — and we have yet to witness it more than a year after we initiated contact with the city. At the end of the day, we are still left with Arreguín’s words, which are, of course, nonbinding.
Arreguín’s overall track record is one of apparently empty commitments to concerned constituents, when he’s not ignoring those constituents entirely. We cannot rely on his words, so we must instead demand action. We ask that the mayor follow through on all of his commitments by addressing the climate crisis and animal suffering with an ordinance that transitions all city funds away from animal products and toward sustainable, ethical plant-based foods.