Reminiscent of the “smoking kills” labels on packs of cigarettes, a sign denouncing the killing of animals now hangs, counterintuitively, in the window of a North Berkeley butcher shop.
The owners of The Local Butcher Shop on Cedar Street agreed, under duress, to put the sign up in exchange for a promise by animal-rights activists to stop holding weekly demonstrations in front of the store.
The Bay Area chapter of the national non-profit Direct Action Everywhere has protested — sometimes half-naked and covered in fake blood — while butchery classes are in session every Sunday since April. The group, which is also known as DXE, says it will only hold two more protests if the new sign, which says, “Attention: Animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done,” stays up for the next year.
Monica Rocchino, who owns The Local Butcher Shop with her husband and former Chez Panisse chef Aaron Rocchino, said she considers the deal extortion.
The couple first met with the activists in May to try to come up with a situation that would work for both parties. At first, said Rocchino, Direct Action Everywhere members said they would not stop protesting until Berkeley was meat-free and The Local Butcher Shop was out of business, but they all agreed to consider a compromise. The activists came back a couple weeks ago with other options, including putting the sign up in the window. The owners were able to negotiate the size and placement and the 15″ by 15″ sign now hangs in a corner, fairly easy to miss.
“The most palatable option to us was to put that sign up” instead of facing more demonstrations, she said. “The protests impacted the neighbors and local businesses more than it impacted us…so it felt like the most respectful thing to do.”
While they did not seem to deter customers, the demonstrations were anxiety-inducing and embarrassing for the butcher shop staff, Rocchino said.
In the activists’ view, any discomfort the butchers have felt is trivial compared to the cruelty experienced by animals. Direct Action Everywhere, whose local chapter is based at the Berkeley Animal Rights Center at 2425 Channing Way, has gained some attention since its formation in 2013 for its often eye-catching protests of meat consumption. In September 2016, about 15 of the group’s members disrupted dinner at Chez Panisse, and in May one of the co-founders was arrested while trying to release a chicken from a live poultry market in San Francisco Chinatown. Direct Action has also taken aim at UC Berkeley research labs, Whole Foods and Costco, as well as politicians ranging from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to Bernie Sanders.
To Bay Area omnivores, The Local Butcher Shop might seem like an odd target. The small Gourmet Ghetto shop emphasizes locally sourced and sustainably raised meat and encourages the use and consumption of the whole animal.
“What we do here is very nuanced and the Berkeley community understands that,” Rocchino said.
The owners’ claim that they practice humane butchery is part of the reason activists have singled them out, said Direct Action organizer Matt Johnson.
“People have this notion that there is a right way to hurt animals. We wouldn’t look for the right type of violence to kill a puppy,” said Johnson, one of the activists who has demonstrated outside the shop and at Chez Panisse.
While ethically questionable, what the activists have done is not illegal, according to a UC Berkeley Law School professor.
“Is it extortion? Morally, of course, if you think this is pressure that shouldn’t be brought to bear,” said Christopher Kutz, who specializes in moral, political and legal philosophy. But “it’s not enforceable as criminal extortion,” he said. Extortion also requires a demand of money or property.
Kutz noted that if the activists took the same action at a place almost universally deemed reprehensible — a place enslaving people, for example, he said — it would be viewed as righteous.
Johnson, however, thinks animal killing and consumption would inspire the same disgust if people really stopped to think about it.
“We feel we are bringing to the surface values that people already hold,” he said.
Direct Action Everywhere regards the butcher shop sign a first-of-its-kind victory and the activists are considering trying the same approach elsewhere in the Bay Area.