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The Thankless Task of Being a Topless Anti-Dairy Protester

The militant vegans who rushed Biden’s victory speech are trying to be heard amid a cacophony of tiny interest groups.

Symone Sanders hauls an anti-dairy protester off stage at Biden’s Super Tuesday event. (David McNew/Getty Images)

When anti-dairy demonstrators stormed the stage during Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday rally, it was the two women standing next to him—his wife, Jill, and his adviser Symone Sanders—who went into offensive-line mode and pushed the protesters away from the podium. The protesters went on shouting, “Let Dairy Die,” and Biden carried on celebrating the day’s electoral victories. Protesters from the same group had interrupted an Elizabeth Warren event a few days earlier. At Bernie Sanders’s rally in Nevada, in February, one of the protesters was able to speak into the microphone before being hustled off stage. “Bernie, I’m your biggest fan, and I’m here to ask you to stop pumping up the dairy industry and stop pumping up animal agriculture,” she said. Sanders stepped away from the podium and waved her off. Three other female protesters also rushed onto the stage, topless, and poured streams of fake blood over themselves from milk cartons—part sexy PETA ad, part Carrie.

When I spoke on Wednesday night with Priya Sawhney, the woman who grabbed the mic at the Sanders event, and Matt Johnson, another member of the animal liberation group Direct Action Everywhere, I anticipated writing something kind of cheeky about the protests. They are, after all, deliberately and literally splashy: boobs and milk. Something about the narrowness of the issue—the protesters’ decision to highlight not just animal rights or animal agriculture but specifically the annual subsidies that flow to the dairy-milk industry—feels like performance-art commentary on the mosaic quality of the Democratic primary electorate. The extraordinarily long primary season, which started out with such a broad spread of candidates, saw a blossoming of tiny, distinct bases with very specific issues of concern—some identitarian, some policy-based. The anti-dairy group doesn’t represent the whole party, of course (the protest immediately spawned a constellation of posts on Twitter saying, in a variety of ways, “try bringing that noise to Wisconsin”), but they’re one tile in the party’s big picture. It’s a special quality of primary season that, at least for a moment, the party has to answer not just to the ethanol lobby but also to the militant vegans.

Sawhney and Johnson decided to take their anti-dairy campaign to the Democratic primary candidates’ stages, they told me, because everyone in mainstream politics is complicit in farmed-animal suffering. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a Joe Biden surrogate, is the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. One of Bernie Sanders’s campaign co-chairs, Ben Cohen, is the co-founder of the Vermont ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s. In the Senate, Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored the Dairy Pride Act, which would have limited the use of dairy-related terms to animal-based products, making products like soy milk and coconut butter go by some other, plant-specific names. “It’s a problem all across the political spectrum,” said Johnson. “Animal agriculture would be a great candidate for a tax, but instead the whole political system is in bed with the dairy industry,” he said, referring to the Farm Bill’s regular subsidies for the industry. “And nobody’s talking about it—the suffering of nonhuman animals is just never discussed.”

Sawhney sees her work for animal rights as being an extension of, rather than in competition with, the fight for justice for all people. A Sikh who immigrated with her family from India at the age of 11, right around the time of the 9/11 attacks, Sawhney told me that she relates personally to the plight of farmed animals. When people in her community were threatened with racism and xenophobic attacks, she says, “All I wanted was someone to stand up for me.” That is how she conceives of her work on behalf of creatures many consider mere agricultural products. (She is careful to use the term “nonhuman animals” for farm creatures, emphasizing that humans are also members of the animal kingdom: “It’s that sense of separation that allows us to oppress other beings.”) The three topless women who rushed the stage with anti-dairy slogans written on their chests felt a similar connection, Sawhney told me. “They want to use their bodies in solidarity with cows, who are sexually violated, whose babies are taken away, to highlight the parallels with what happens to women,” Sawhney said. She referred to the dairy-industry practice of artificially inseminating cows, who need to give birth in order to give milk, and then separating the calves from their mothers shortly after birth. “It’s about whether or not you treat an individual with respect, or whether you treat them as an object,” Johnson added.

The plight of the milk cow may not be at the top of most people’s lists of political concerns. (Many would place the plight of the dairy farmer much higher.) But Johnson and Sawhney speak about it with real emotion and seriousness of purpose. There is something a little comical about women baring their breasts for bovine liberation, sure, but there is also something inspiring about their moral clarity and laser focus. The women who took off their tops in Nevada face charges of public indecency that could land them on a sex-offender registry. What a sharp contrast from the Democrats I talk to, many of whom feel swamped by the “electability” debate and the task of balancing practicality and vision in their electoral choices.

The protesters’ brief time on stage seems emblematic of this moment in the election cycle. The politics of primary season are expansive, at least for residents of early voting states, and throughout the past year Democratic candidates have been reaching out to niche constituencies. (If Direct Action Everywhere were based in Iowa or New Hampshire, instead of California, they probably could have arranged to meet with every candidate for a handshake and chat over a plant-based beverage.) But at this moment in the campaign, the focus shifts from the granular interests within the party to broader questions. Bernie or Biden: Which one is better? Which one can beat Trump? That shift in focus happened precipitously this week, as Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Warren suspended their campaigns. With that sudden winnowing, the time for reaching out, or even listening, to the more idiosyncratic elements of the party (unless they have a lobbying budget) seems to vanish.

The anti-milk disruptions exemplify a particular point in the life cycle of political ideas. These activists know they aren’t going to change the substance of the Farm Bill by jumping onto a rally stage with messages on their breasts; they want to grab some of the spotlight and get people talking. It’s easy to brush off as spectacle, but who’s to say whether the seed of this idea will take root? Just a few elections back, policy proposals that have dominated this cycle’s conversation, like a wealth tax and Medicare for All, were dismissed as fringy and radical. As the Democrats’ historically diverse field, one that encompassed a huge range of identities, narrows dramatically to two candidates who are—though far apart ideologically—both white, septuagenarian men, it is worth thinking about how we decide which political passions are laudable and which are laughable, and whose ideas are welcomed to center stage.