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Grassroots Activism - Then and Now

Grassroots activism gave birth to the animal rights movement and fostered its growth for the next three decades. Then, its role has greatly diminished. Here, we explore the amazing history and current status of grassroots activism in the animal rights movement.

Early History

In 1977, four years before our movement’s historic first conference, pioneer grassroots activist Henry Spira forced the American Museum of Natural History in New York to shut down cat blinding experiments. He accomplished this through constant picketing and applying pressure from wealthy donors, with no organization, no treasury, and no staff.

In 1981, young George Washington University student Alex Pacheco recorded cruel experiments on macaque monkeys at Maryland’s Institute for Biomedical Research. The resultant media coverage placed animal rights and his student group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in our nation’s consciousness.

In 1982 and 1983, Ohio child welfare worker Richard Morgan organized huge rallies at four national primate research centers, as well as in New York and Washington.

For the next three decades, pretty much all animal rights outreach was organized and manifested at the grassroots level, through rallies, marches, pickets, and information tables. National organizations, with skeleton staffs and limited funding, relied largely on grassroots volunteers.

World Farm Animals Day

Early on, we determined that grassroots campaigns would be more effective if planned well in advance and with some regularity.

In 1983, we arranged the first annual observance of World Farm Animals Day. The purpose was to mourn and memorialize the world-wide suffering and slaughter of billions of innocent sentient animals for human gluttony. The date selected was October 2nd – birth date of Mahatma Gandhi, world’s foremost champion of farmed animals.

Many early observances involved mock funeral processions, displays, or information tables at government offices, slaughterhouses, or fast food restaurants. Our activities in the nation’s capitalΒ  included a mock slaughter line, a mass “die-in,” a hunger strike in a veal crate, and a sit-in in the Secretary of Agriculture’s inner office. Some years, we attempted to stop trucks bringing pigs and lambs to Virginia slaughterhouses. We organized the first ever march and picketing at the infamous Farmer John slaughterhouse in Los Angeles.

Eventually, observances extended to other countries, notably India, Israel, and Europe. Indian groups organized massive lectures, marches, and bicycle rallies.Β  Israeli activists arranged colorful marches and public “die-ins.” European organizers had rows of activists holding photos of abused farmed animals and “blood”-splattered human bodies in giant cellophane-covered “meat trays.”

The Great American Meatout

The concept of the Great American Meatout, patterned after the Great American Smokeout, was to get people to “kick the meat habit at least for a day.” The first observance took place in 1985, on the first day of Spring – March 20th, with information tables in busy urban areas, urging passersby to sign a pledge. A weekly e-newsletter called Meatout Mondays offered a pertinent news item, a human interest story, and a vegan recipe.

As Meatout expanded, at the turn of this century, we launched annual receptions for Members of Congress and their staff. We got dozens of governors and mayors to proclaim March 20th the Great American Meatout Day in their jurisdictions. We bought discounted billboard and bus card space with the slogans “Kick the Meat Habit” and “Let’s Save Some Lives – Yours and Theirs.”

Here again, we gained broad participation from India, Israel, and several European countries.

Decline of the Grass Roots

Two crucial factors contributed to the radical decline of grassroots activism in our movement toward the beginning of the last decade.

This is when big money started flowing into our movement. Organizations like Mercy for Animals, the Humane League, and Animal Equality mushroomed from a handful of overworked activists to large organizations with staffs numbering in the hundreds. Nearly all the new hires came from the grass roots, virtually snuffing out local activism.

At about the same time, the growing availability and popularity of Facebook and other social media platforms had a mixed effect on grassroots activism. On one hand, it facilitated coordination of grassroots outreach. On the other, it encouraged some activists to waste valuable time posting images of the latest animal atrocities and bashing each other’s activities.

Current Status

Despite its decline, grassroots activism continues to play a role in our movement.

Two American groups rely primarily on traditional grass roots outreach. The Save Movement, with nearly 700 groups in 70 countries, pickets slaughterhouses and factory farms. Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), based in Berkeley, conducts marches, open rescues, and an Animal Liberation Conference.

Other organizations have moved their grassroots outreach on line. World Farm Animals Day urges local activists to fast on October 2nd and to post online pictures of themselves with a sign noting why they are fasting. Veganuary, out of United Kingdom, asks individuals to go vegan for at least the month of January.

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39 thoughts on “The Vegan Blog”

  1. We have learned nothing, but I see a glimmer of hope in this next generation. There’s more love and willingness to care… Maybe I’m dreaming; naive; or surrounded by ‘nice’ young people, but it’s heartening. Thank you for everything you have done to keep those souls safe and loved πŸ’šπŸ’šπŸ’šπŸ’šβœŒοΈπŸ’•
    Co, Antrim
    N. Ireland

  2. Amazing post. Some people are shocked at the comparison between the Holocaust and what humans do to animals, but this is just speciesism. They feel that comparing human and animal suffering somehow discredits or diminishes human suffering, because they believe animals are lower than humans. Thank you Alex Herscaft for making this important point and hopefully the no vegan majority will see the truth soon. Peace and Love

  3. Thank you. I often reference the holocaust in my animal activism and now here are your world changing words to back me up. Thank you thank you. Blessings.

  4. Dear Alex,

    I am moved and humbled by your experience as a young child and the journey it has taken you on. I am finding it hard to put in to words my gratitude that you have been able to find a positive trajectory for the suffering, pain and loss of life among your loved ones, not to mention countless others.

    I am only months in to living a more compassionate life. Vegan eating has been an easy conversion for me and my only regret is having not done it sooner. I have often been saddened by peoples’ lack of empathy towards fellow humans and found it hard as a child to understand racism. Little did I know I was implicitly being taught that oppression (in its’ many forms) was ok. I guess it has never sat well with me, but until only recently the connection between eating animals, animal cruelty and our oppression of people, has eluded me.

    Thank you for giving voice to such a big topic and sharing your experience. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Sincerely, Cyntra

  5. I was never in a camp. But I recognized oppression, and resolved to stop eating meat many years ago. Interestingly enough my own mother tried to guilt me about my decision. And she was raised on a farm.
    So thank you. I firmly believe that you cannot say you love animals and continue to eat meat…it’s more appropriate to say you love certain animals and hate the rest.
    And if you eat meat, you are harming the climate. That’s a proven fact. So thank you sir for your convictions. They are entirely correct.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have been a vegetarian since I was a child and a vegan for ten years.
    It is so refreshing to read that others see how this evil, everyday like slaughter, slavery and torture is acceptable if someone else does it for you

  7. Thank you very much for this website, for this clear message.
    I am from Slovakia, and I woul like to make translations of your blog posts, so people, who do not speak English, can read your important thoughts, if it is ok with you.
    I never heard thoughts about our beloved animal toys in our childhood opposing the teaching, that animals are food. I is very strong image of our internal incoherency.
    Thank you. I is honor to read your kind words!

  8. It’s awesome to become acquainted with a four-decade Vegan. I will keenly anticipate your periodic sharing of wisdom and advice

  9. Thank you. Sir for your incredible insight…
    World must start to understand that
    Savagery is. Savagery… no matter the species πŸ™

  10. This Text was verry emotional and show the same Violence to animals in high level how the Violence to jewish people before many years ago. Changes was only the Spezies,the cruelty ist the same and so unnessesary!!! Love all beeings is our learning Prozess! I fight for every Animal!πŸ’ͺπŸ’ͺπŸ’ͺ✌️I’m a vegan.❣️

  11. Thank you very, very much for calling on your family’s tragic experience, and that suffered by so many others, to advocate for fairness and compassion for all sentient beings. When will the world learn? “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards ALL.”

  12. This was the first time I heard of you. I’m already vegan , 3 years only unfortunately.
    I wish you can reach more and more people , your words are so powerful. I wish you health and happiness and that many people will hear you out

  13. Alex, I’m so grateful that you are still so active in fighting for the animals! Keep it up as there is still too much work to do. We are fighting against our own government which subsidizes the animal industry!

  14. What an excellent piece of writing to defend animal farming industry πŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸ½πŸ‘πŸ½ I’ve just shared it in Facebook

  15. Dear Alex, dear, dear man! I have for many years referred to the killing of these precious beings we share our Earth with as another holocaust! It has always saddened & sickened me. I am forever grateful for the work you do to try and bring awareness, awakening to the human species about what is REALLY going on!!! There are many times I cannot even leave my home for fear of what I might see! I pray and oh I do so hope one day this horrifically heinous treatment of these beloved beings, the innocents indeed will end! …. Thank you!

  16. Thank you for your kind comments.
    Additional information and lessons from the Holocaust about our oppression of animals are available on our website at
    The video of a speech I delivered before 2,000 vegan activists in England on August 31st may be viewed on the FARM Facebook page or YouTube channel.

  17. Thank you for the content of this piece, nicely written with lots of great historical information. (I wanted to re post it but I’m an aesthete and cant bring myself to post the cartoon pig logo)

  18. Greetings! This is my 1st comment here so I just
    wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects?

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I am not aware of anything comparable. That’s why I was motivated to start this blog.

  19. Good question. Much of what I write about is material that I have given a lot of thought to or actually written about. Beyond that, when a thought strikes me, I put it down, name the topic, and file it. So, a lot of my writing is more a matter of rescuing these files, organizing the content in some meaningful fashion, and filling in the gaps, rather than generating new ideas.

    1. I hope to eventually, once the blog has become more established and assuming that the author is someone whose expertise and opinion I respect.

  20. This is a great reminder of how far we have come. Sometimes it seems as if we have stalled and that there is no way to reach the 8 billion people on this planet.

    But comparing the progress over the past four decades does reveal a real move forward. I can remember the day when wanting a veggie burger meant boiling lentils or soaking beans to start with!

  21. Thank you for this stunning, informative perspective that most people never consider. After going vegan in July 2014 I had a gut-punch realization that we do not live in a civilized society. The atrocities against nonhuman sentient beings remains hidden, justified with baseless rationalizations, or dismissed. The comparison to the holocaust has been controversial mostly because of this indoctrinated, false belief of human superiority. Equally tragic is the suffering people cause each other.

  22. Hello Alex,

    I feel your recent blog about Grassroots activism leaves out a lot and focuses instead on yours and Farm Animal Reform/Rights Movement’s grassroots history. I do agree, both you and FARM contributed a great deal, is that really all there is to the animal rights history? Perhaps your blog should be title different (FARM’s Grassroots Activism, or My Contributions to Grassroots Activism), and also the intro.

    I also question your assertion that “it [social media] encouraged some activists to waste valuable time posting images of the latest animal atrocities and bashing each other’s activities.” I feel you reduce it down and call many efforts to educate people who would otherwise never see anything about veganism and/or animal rights, much like your letters to the editor which many also question how effective they really are. Also, I’m not sure what you refer to exactly with the bashing each other’s activities, but sometimes being critical and looking within must be good for the movement, right?

    I would also like to add, I do not believe that the Save Movement and DxE are the only two US based grassroots organization, maybe you were thinking the largest? It’s worth nothing that DxE has had multiple confirmed cases of sexual assault from multiple people, some which are even protected by DxE and continue to engage in bad conduct. Also, allegations of not supporting rescued animals in sanctuaries, letting rescued animals die and many other serious issues.

    Thanks for your time and for your blogs.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Will. One of the key functions of our blog is to stimulate reflection and discussion.

      I listed FARM’s two largest grassroots campaigns for a couple of reasons:
      1. I am obviously more familiar with those and
      2. No other organization in our movement has maintained as many grassroots campaigns (the others being Vegan Earth Day and Gentle Thanksgiving) as intensely and for so many years as FARM has.

      My opinion on the impact of social media on grassroots activism in our movement is just that – my opinion. That’s why I used the qualifier “some” in referring to activists who were adversely affected.

      I never suggested that the Save Movement and DxE were the only American-based (Save is Canadian) organizations engaged primarily in grassroots activism. They are just the ones I am somewhat familiar with.

      Finally, I scrupulously refrain from passing judgment on the political correctness of an organization, because I am so familiar with how flimsy, hurtful, and destructive those comments can be.

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