There's been a fair amount of talk among vegans and animal rights activists in recent days about the propriety of confronting Bernie Sanders, as my fellow Direct Action Everywhere activists did and as my friend Jay Shooster and I did in the Huffington Post following Russell Simmons' criticism of the presidential candidate over his support for animal agriculture.
Many people feel, arguably rightly so, that Sanders would be the best candidate for animals of any because he is less susceptible to corporate pressure and has at least said he does not like factory farms. So they say that this is just going to hurt him and undermine our cause.
I think this is pretty clearly wrong. I think that's especially true for a cause in its early days - how many votes are animal rights activists going to steal from Bernie Sanders? How I wish we were a threat. On the other hand, the gains from getting this issue on the political table - from even the most cursory of responses - are substantial.
We've seen how #BlackLivesMatter activists have brilliantly made racism a particularly potent issue in the campaign and led Sanders' campaign to considerably change their platform and emphasis. I'd like to offer up another episode from my gay elders as an example of a similar dynamic: pressuring George McGovern - in a far more aggressive way - to endorse gay rights in the 1972 campaign. Note that in general, early protests of politicians by gay activists targeted those who were likely sympathetic (in New York, this meant liberal then-Republicans like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller). Here's the McGovern story:
"Why did McGovern seem to be committed to every liberal issue except gay rights? The gay activists were unable to understand...
"It was a quiet August morning, an hour before lunch and less than two weeks before Labor Day, when thirty members of the Gay Activists Alliance appeared, as if out of nowhere, and quickly and precisely brought McGovern's presidential headquarters to a halt. As soon as they got off the sixth-floor elevator, Bruce Voeller and two other GAA members walked deliberately toward three 10-button phone consoles, the main switchboards for the campaign. 'What's going on here?' the operator asked helpelessly as two of them chained their wrists to the phones... The activists who had chained themselves to the consoles commandeered the telephones and, consulting a list of telephone numbers, began to call every major media outlet in New York City: the Times, the News, the Post, the Associated Press, the United Press and all the TV stations. 'I am chained to a desk in George McGovern's campaign headquarters,' each of them said. Whenever the phone rang and the light lit on the console, they would pick up the phone and announce that the McGovern for President headquarters had been taken over by gay liberationists...
"[F]inally, at mid-afternoon, with the television cameras rolling, [campaign manager] Geto appeared, standing next to GAA member Allen Roskoff, to read a statement: 'Senator George McGovern has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans. He has specifically addressed himself to discrimination directed against men and women based on sexual orientation, and has pledged to alleviate such discrimination in the federal government and in other areas of public life. Sen. McGovern believes that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be eliminated.'"
-Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good
That was the first example, as far as I know, of a presidential candidate explicitly supporting gay rights in any way. It didn't come about because they were nice.