OWhen animal rights activist Matt Johnson last made national headlines, he was in disguise. He appeared on Fox Business in December 2020 sporting a buzz cut and a button down (very different from his usual casual attire) and impersonated the CEO of Smithfield Foods. The pork giant he claimed to represent had factory farms that were “petri dishes for new diseases”, he told the news anchor. After the segment went viral online, Fox realized their mistake: “It looks like we’ve been punks,” host Maria Bartiromo announced, apologizing to Smithfield, who called the interview a “hoax complete”.
Johnson’s antics and apparent lack of fear of consequences made him a formidable opponent of the meat industry. But while the Fox incident offered a moment of levity, today Johnson is headlining something far more serious. He was just released on criminal charges that could have sent him to prison for up to eight years. After he conducted an undercover expose on terms at the Iowa Select Farms hog company in May 2020, his actions put him at risk for burglary and planting recording devices. Another charge, for trespassing in a food operation (an offense created by an Iowa ag-gag law), was added in 2021.
While these specific charges against Johnson cannot be brought again, they may not be the last. His work as an organizer with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) involves high-profile, high-risk actions like covert registration of factory farms and animal rescues. Since farm animals are legally owned and have no rights and almost no protection from suffering, removing them is generally treated as burglary, which is no different from stealing jewelry or stealing someone’s wallet. someone. Over the past decade, numerous state “ag-gag” laws have sought to further criminalize such activism.
The conditions that brought Johnson, an Iowa native now based in California, to the facilities of Iowa Select Farms were particularly cruel, according to DxE – and the outrage that followed his briefing suggests the public was also alarmed. As Covid tore through American slaughterhouses, Johnson had been briefed by an Iowa Select truck driver on conditions at the company’s facilities.
In the meat industry, workers were getting sick, meat-packing capacity was drastically reduced, and farms were overloaded with animals and looking for ways to get rid of them. Johnson was made aware of a practice called “ventilation shutdown”, used by Iowa Select to mass exterminate hogs: the animals were herded into sealed barns and essentially cooked to death by heaters and steam generators .
In undercover footage captured by Johnson in May 2020, which was published by The Intercept, the pigs can be heard screaming in distress. The revelations immediately grabbed headlines and sparked a public relations crisis for Iowa Select, which stopped practicing venting shutdown after its revelation — a rare and solid victory for animal rights activists. “Matt’s investigation into the ventilation shutdown is probably the most important [factory farm] investigation in more than a decade, ”explains Justin Marceau, animal rights specialist and professor at the University of Denver.
A surprise in court
Lawsuits against activists such as Johnson have increased in recent years. Last month, Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of DxE who for years faced pending criminal charges in multiple states, was convicted for the first time of two felonies in North Carolina for removing a sick goat from a farm. But on Wednesday, the day before Johnson’s trial, all charges against him were dismissed, a result that surprised journalists and activists. A series of earlier charges relating to Johnson’s ventilation shutdown investigation in Iowa had already been dismissed in January 2021, days before the trial, because Iowa Select Farms would not testify. The charges dismissed this week, which included Johnson’s rescue of a two-week-old sick piglet he named Gilly, were the second case involving his activity at Iowa Select facilities.
The prosecutor in the case, Wright County Assistant District Attorney Joe Corrow, on Tuesday asked to dismiss the charges “in the interests of justice,” a vague legal phrase that doesn’t give much insight into his reasoning. “It’s basically a catch-all to say, ‘Yeah, we don’t think we should be moving forward anymore,'” said Adam Junaid, one of Johnson’s attorneys. The motion to dismiss came 15 minutes before the start of a hearing on media recording of the trial, which is generally allowed in Iowa. Neither Corrow nor Iowa Select Farms responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Johnson’s was one of the most highly anticipated farm animal rights cases in recent history, and the result is undoubtedly a victory for DxE, a group that since 2013 has been taking animals from factory farms and daring law enforcement to pursue them – a practice they call “open rescue”. This has sparked debate over whether activists have the “right to save” animals from suffering.
“We are setting a precedent that rescuing animals from situations where they are in distress is the right thing to do. It’s not a crime,” Johnson said, speaking after the charges were dismissed. But Johnson had hoped to stand trial. Some might question the wisdom of inviting criminal convictions, but for DxE, breaking the laws in order to change them is part of the problem. “I think when people see the repression of activists, it’s actually very positive for the movements because you get that sympathy, you get that attention, and people see you as someone who is suffering unfairly,” he said. said DxE lead organizer Almira Tanner. “And then, of course, there are the opportunities for concrete legal victories.”
Marceau, a specialist in animal rights, believes that it is useful to bring unjust laws on the treatment of animals to justice. If a jury votes for an acquittal in such a case, he said, that would be a bad outcome from the state’s perspective — making prosecutors reluctant to bring similar cases to trial, and opening up space for activists to make more rescues.
But this is a high risk strategy. “Prison is terrible,” Marceau said. Along with the personal suffering, he wonders if the incarceration of prominent activists such as Johnson could hurt the morale of the movement.
Even if an activist has a nice case, the jury isn’t sure they’ll hear it. In Hsiung’s trial in North Carolina, for example, the judge blocked most testimony about the health and suffering of the goat he had saved. In Johnson’s case, the state had filed a motion arguing that showing the ventilation stop “would appeal to the sympathy of the jury and arouse their sense of horror, and would only serve to confuse.”
Johnson did not want his case dropped. He had hoped to use the trial to try to convince a jury he was right to expose Iowa Select atrocities, set precedent for the right to save suffering animals and challenge the constitutionality of the ag-gag law. under which he was charged. Even a guilty verdict, he said, would help the movement. “I’m very at peace that sacrifices like this are going to be necessary,” he said before the charges were dropped. He had spent the last few weeks with his family in Iowa, preparing for the possibility of going to prison.
“Not really,” Johnson said when asked if he was relieved he wasn’t locked up after the prosecutor decided to drop the case. His legal team then filed an objection to the dismissal, arguing that Johnson should be able to respond to the allegations against him and “have the ‘right to rescue’ tested in court.” At a final hearing on Wednesday, the judge appeared confused that Johnson was fighting for the right to risk jail time. “The court cannot force the state to go to court,” he concluded, before dismissing the case.