Op-ed: Why I disrupted Chez Panisse

Friday night, I entered Berkeley’s world-famous Chez Panisse with a bouquet of flowers. I looked to Chez Panisse as an example of fine dining at its best. The sights and aroma all created a seductive mood in the restaurant. I was there with the flowers for a reason you might not expect, though: to remember the animals Chez Panisse was serving that night with a flower for each plate.

Commenters quickly noted that my protest was like a scene from Portlandia, transplanted to equally hipster Berkeley. What they did not know is that I grew up in Iowa, the pig-farming capital of the US. For most of my life, animal farming has been everywhere, from 4-H events to state fairs to lots and lots of farms.

Like many children, I cared about animals and was upset by what we do to them.  People at best ignored me and at worst mocked me. When I was a little boy, some uncles painted the nose of a dead deer red and called him Rudolph at a family Christmas to make fun of me.  Family fishing trips were always uneasy; “catch-and-release” was a hard-fought compromise between fitting in and animal welfare. From farming to hunting to fishing, killing animals was a part of everyday life.

What was perhaps strangest about Friday night is that it felt like a scene from Iowa, not Berkeley. As I spoke, a staff member pinned me against a table and babbled gibberish inches from my ear. Another knocked an activist to the ground and hit a third activist in the face with her camera. A customer called us “disgusting,” “fascists,” and “bitches.” All this in the face of a nonviolent protest in the city of People’s Park and the Free Speech Movement.

I think it’s pretty clear why the diners at Chez Panisse reacted as they did: they felt we were attacking them. We went into Chez Panisse, though, to attack an idea with only nonviolence and love for its servers or customers. We went into Chez Panisse to attack the idea that we can do whatever we want to animals – including violating their dearest desire to live – just because they are animals. I ate animal products for 25 years. Virtually all of my friends and family eat animals. Good people do bad things.

What we do to animals is definitely a bad thing. Friends of mine have entered some of the best farms in the country — farms labeled “humane” and that supply stores like Whole Foods. They saw rampant disease, animals struggling to move in the dense crowds, and brutally cruel mutilations. A growing number of Berkeleyites and Americans want no part in this violence. We have come to see that we should treat animals as we would want to be treated.

What we are doing in Berkeley is not all that different from what many others have done in this homeland for grassroots activists. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley students made Berkeley a flashpoint in the battle over political censorship in the fight over the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living set a national standard for enacting equal opportunity and non-discrimination for people living with disabilities. Today, a growing community of animal-rights activists have just opened the world’s first-ever animal rights center. Through nonviolent marches and speak-outs, educational sessions on animal agriculture and social justice to simple friendship and community, Berkeley residents are working to change the world for animals.

As the number of vegans and vegetarians increases and a recent gallup poll finds that 32% of Americans support equal rights for animals to be free from harm, it is time for Berkeley to get ahead of the game as it always does. While most Americans recognize that we do horrific things to animals — most severely to those on farms — farmed animals are left with barely any legal protection.

It’s time to make Berkeley an example of the best we can be. That is what I pled with diners Friday night and that is what we will continue to plea. Nobody is perfect, and we are all raised to support things that we later come to regret. It’s time for residents of Berkeley to face what we do to animals from restaurants like Chez Panisse to labs at UC Berkeley and have a conversation about how to right this wrong.

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Matt Johnson lives in Berkeley and is an organizer with the grassroots animal-rights network Direct Action Everywhere.