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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Saturday, February 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Powered by Plants: Group places compassion, animals and TVs front and center

By Jonathan Glover For The Spokesman-Review

Odds are you’ve seen them. But not their faces – usually not their faces.

In parks, on sidewalks. Outside events. In the middle of a crowd. On the tail end of a box of chicken nuggets thrown swiftly from a passing car, followed by a slur of insults.

They’re difficult to miss but somehow easy to overlook. Maybe it’s because they stand still. Silent. Holding only a TV, its sound drowned out by the noise of everyday life, its images depicting the grotesqueness of animal slaughter. It’s difficult to stare.

But they want you to look. They want you to feel uncomfortable. To ask the question: “Is the dissonance in your stomach worth the meat with which it’s sharing space?”

Their heads are sometimes wrapped in a Guy Fawkes mask, a nod to the infamous revolutionary who planned to violently overthrow the English throne. Or, more recently, plain black sleeping masks. Or nothing at all. Face to face.

They called these demonstrations Cubes of Truth. Now they’re simply outreach events. But to you and me, they look like a piece of public art. And maybe they are.

“We’re just trying to take some blindfolds off,” said C.J. Morrison, the group’s 29-year-old leader, as she recently prepared to march alongside her friends at the most recent Women’s March. “And trying to get more vegans talking about this.”

Because “talking about this” is at the heart of veganism – how much to share, when and where. In a fight for animals, the club is keenly in tune with the stereotype all vegans talk about is being vegan, and tact becomes the first and second rule. And, yes, please talk about it.

Tact is why the group recently splintered. Gone are the Fawkes masks, the megaphones. No longer are they called Spokane Animal Liberation. Liberation, they decided, sounds too militant.

They picked Courage for Animals instead.

And they ended any affiliation they had with Anonymous for the Voiceless, an international grassroots animal activist group who pioneered Cubes of Truth and has since run into local controversy involving activists in Seattle.

“We’ve just decided to focus on ourselves,” said Arica “Vegangelical” O’Dell, a vegan’s vegan, roller derby skater and Morrison’s friend and housemate. “And rebrand.”

It’s a rift not specific to Spokane. Indeed, vegans are divided – loud or quiet – the world over. Seen or hidden. Activist or pacifist.

In fact, in contrast to Anonymous for the Voiceless’ hard-and-fast abolitionist stance on animal exploitation by humans, including service animals and pets, takes a more tranquil approach.

“The greatest mistake made by new activists is that they often use a one-size-fits-all approach – they urge veganism and nothing less than veganism upon anyone who will listen,” the site reads. “You can certainly accomplish a great deal for animals by sticking exclusively to vegan rhetoric, but you’ll likely have a far greater impact if your conversations make room for a broader set of possibilities.”

You can see that philosophy playing out in real time. One of the largest food headline-grabbers of 2019, vegan or otherwise, was the widespread adoption of the Impossible Foods vegan hamburger, a patty so meatlike, some say, you can hardly tell the difference.

The product – made possible by clever rearrangements of soy into heme, the compound that gives the burger its meaty flavor and color – is now available at Burger King, Carl’s Jr. and local restaurants across the United States, including Spokane.

It’s no doubt led to hundreds if not thousands of omnivores switching to a plant-based diet. Even the most pessimistic viewpoint would admit someone trying the burger, if even just once, saved at least part of a cow from the butcher.

Yet some in the community look down on the product. Indeed meat replacements in general. Or restaurants offering vegan alternatives, such as Taco Bell, for their continued use of animal products.

Morrison and O’Dell don’t share that sentiment. Been there, done that.

“We weren’t getting activists before,” Morrison said. “We need a large group to be impactful.”

Because for a boycott to work, people have to join. Fittingly, one of the activists Morrison looks up to most is Ed Winters, known online as Earthling Ed – widely considered one of the most influential activists on the planet.

Chances are you’ve seen one of his presentations floating around Facebook. He’s always calm and matter of fact. He speaks with grace, and his words have weight. He’s the opposite of a liberator. More so an educator.

“The morality of veganism wasn’t something I was born with,” Winters says in one of his more popular videos. “It was something that, it grew and I educated myself on. And I learned more and more about.”

It’s the education, compassion and willingness to have a conversation that inspires Morrison, O’Dell and the dozens of activists who regularly show up to outreach events.

On a recent weekend, about 13 members arrived in front of River Park Square – directly across from Red Robin, a restaurant that offers vegan patties, including the Impossible Foods burger – for a modified version of Cube of Truth.

Four people held TVs, facing outward in a circle, while others talked to people curious enough to stop and have a look.

One man, Larry Caber, stopped and talked to O’Dell for several minutes. Among many things, they spoke about the benefits of the diet. O’Dell wondered if he’d consider trying a vegan or plant-based lifestyle even if for just a few weeks.

While he mostly indulged her in friendly discussion because he “likes knowledge” and “seeking things out,” he said he’d consider her offer.

“I don’t know if I would go vegan or not,” he said just after their conversation wrapped. “I do know that changing my diet in the latter years in life will be a benefit. So maybe.”

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