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Six Things Everyone Should Know About the Foster Farms Trial
A viewer's guide to the next stage in the fight for the Right to Rescue.
The last week has been hard, among the hardest of my life. It's not just the half dozen legal proceedings I’ve been part of, mostly as as attorney (often for myself). I dealt with a devastating personal loss. Many of you heard that my cat Joan, who has been with me for almost my entire adult life, passed away last Friday. The days after his passing have been filled with grief and tears. And these losses keep getting harder. I’m not entirely sure why.
But what has kept me going, more than anything, has been a deep sense of purpose. My friends Alicia Santurio and Alexandra Paul go to trial in just a few days, and much to my surprise, it’s looking like this case is going all the way. It’s surprising because Foster Farms has an enormous amount to lose, regardless of the trial outcome. Millions of people have already heard about the sickening cruelty in their farms as a result of this prosecution. (See, for example, this extraordinary op-ed in the New York Times.)
Regardless of the trial result, this will only get worse for the company. If they “win,” they will make martyrs. More people will hear and write about the case because of the unearned suffering Alicia and Alexandra will experience from being falsely accused of crimes. If they lose, however, things are even worse: it will be the second straight major trial in which a jury has defended the right to rescue. Either way, the stakes are immensely high.
And that is why I’ve decided, in my last blog before trial, to give you a viewer’s guide, of sorts — so you can help us amplify this story, and put pressure on District Attorney Nicole Silveira to do the right thing: namely, prosecute animal abuse and not animal rescue. Here are six things to keep in mind.
This prosecution is intended to silence a movement. For the last 10 years, undercover investigators have revealed horrors at Foster Farms that defy the most nightmarish imagination. Animals violently thrown against metal shackles. Buried under piles of corpses. Even boiled alive. And perhaps the most important thing to note about this trial is that it’s not really intended to “prosecute crimes.” It’s intended to silence people who would blow the whistle on these horrors. As with the Smithfield trial, the odds that a prosecutor would invest the amount of time and attention in a case of this sort — where the prosecution itself is alleging the animals are worth at most $20 — are minimal. What makes this case important is that it’s an effort to not just punish Alicia and Alexandra, but to deter other activists from engaging in the sort of muckracking activism that they were doing in September 2021.
This trial isn’t actually about theft; it’s about power. Of course, the only reason that Foster Farms has convinced the state to target activists is because of their immense power. The company has described itself as the largest poultry processor in the Western United States, and it has particular influence in Merced County, the site of a massive facility in Livingston, CA, which might very well employ more people than any other private facility in the county. The question answered by the trial, then, will be whether nonviolent activists can effectively stand up to this corporate power. We’ll know the answer in less than 2 weeks.
The value of the animals will once again be a key issue in this case. The Smithfield Trial was won in part on the basis of a relatively legal narrow argument: the question of whether the animals we removed from Circle Four had value to the company. That issue will be relevant again in this trial, but the prosecution and company have some tricks up their sleeves. In particular, while the prosecution in Smithfield tried (and failed) to argue the piglets weren’t sick at all, the Foster Farms prosecutors appear to be taking a different approach: arguing that even a sick animal has value. This is preposterous to the point of being laughable, but a non-expert jury — especially one that is in farm country — may very well take the bait.
The prosecution will try to make the case that these two women are “dangerous.” One thing that will not change is the attempts to demonize the defendants. In Utah, the state claimed its investigation of the removal of piglets from Circle Four was a “terrorism” investigation. The nearly-laughable zeal with which the prosecution pursued the case ended up backfiring, as people across the world were quick to grasp the absurdity of comparing rescue to terrorism. The prosecution in this case, perhaps learning from cases like Smithfield, is not going to those extremes. But it is still asserting that Alicia and Alexandra are “dangerous” — to the workers, to consumers, and even to the animals they rescued. The great thing for us is that Alicia and Alexandra are among the most innocent and gentle people one can possibly imagine! I expect these efforts at character assassination will once again backfire.
We have won some important victories already in the case, but we’re getting a new judge. I’ve been pleased by the results of arguments in briefing over the last few weeks. We’ve had some smart judges make correct rulings on the law. The situation, so far, has felt more like Iowa, where we had an intelligent and fair-minded young judge, rather than North Carolina or Utah, where the judges seemed intent on Day 1 to stop our activism, rather than provide a fair trial. The sad thing, however, is that our luck may run dry. The trial judge stepped back from the case on Tuesday, and we will get a random new judge at the start of trial. We can’t be sure, for that reason, our victories — e.g., in regard to documents that we demanded of Foster Farms — will be sustained.
We have an opportunity to create immense change — but it depends on you more than me. And that brings me to the last and most important point. If we are to sustain and build these victories, it will depend on a mass movement. The entire political structure of Merced County, one of the most significant farm counties in the state, is watching this case. And if the District Attorney and Foster Farms are able to crush us, and leave the movement broken and silenced, it will set a terrifying precedent for both civil liberties and animal rights. But if, regardless of trial outcome, the public mobilizes against this unjust prosecution, and targets the key figures, such as District Attorney Nicole Silveira, who are driving it forward, then we can win regardless of the outcome at trial. I know this is exactly what Alexandra and Alicia want. They see thesmelves as surrogates for the poor birds who cannot be in court.
But that is a role you can play, too. We need every person who possibly can to spread the word about this case. And we have a call to action coming up on Monday for exactly that purpose. People across the nation will be contacting the DA to let her know we’re united in opposition to Foster Farms’ bullying tactics. If enough people put pressure on Silveira, she and other DAs will think twice before ignoring animal cruelty complaints, and prosecuting whistleblowers. That outcome is within reach, but it will take you — not me — to make it happen.
I hope you’ll make a call, email, and social media post on March 6.