When K.S. heard there was a vegan animal rights activist running for mayor in Berkeley, California, her interest was piqued. K.S., who requested to use her initials out of fear of retaliation, was living in Los Angeles but immediately signed up to volunteer remotely. It was the summer of 2020, and she was 23 years old, with a year of post-undergraduate college under her belt working at PETA. In no time, Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) and the Berkeley mayoral candidate K.S. was volunteering for, made her the policy director of his campaign.
By December, Hsiung was pulling strings with his connections at Lewis and Clark Law School and UC Hastings to help get K.S. on their radar for when she would apply after she told him that she wanted to be an animal rights lawyer one day during one of their weekly Zoom check-ins. K.S. said they had a mentor-mentee relationship, and Hsiung insisted she join the DxE legal team for hands-on legal experience. The first thing K.S. noticed about the DxE legal team she was working on was that it was composed of young women her age, some even younger.
Co-founded by Hsiung in 2013, DxE is known for its disruptive, direct-action alternative-style protests in the name of animal rights. Now, K.S. and other former DxE activists allege that core members of the group’s leadership team were involved in sexual misconduct, retaliation, and shady business practices while fostering a cult-like environment at the Berkeley-based nonprofit. Organizers say the organization has been structured as a hierarchy, with Hsiung sitting at the top and misusing his position to engage in relationships with much younger staffers and retaliate when they speak out.
In an emailed statement to Prism, Hsiung said the allegations against him and the organization are false and “stem largely from sources who were removed from DxE for their own misconduct.” Hsiung officially stepped down from his leadership position in 2019, and in July, he announced he was leaving the organization entirely and would no longer be a member. However, according to activists, he has remained an active part of DxE.
By March 2022, K.S., who was about 15 years younger than Hsiung, agreed to meet with and help Hsiung record a podcast in Southern California. K.S. said Hsiung suggested the two get dinner the night before under the pretense of showing her how the mics worked before their morning taping. During the meal, K.S. said Hsiung asked her intimate and personal questions, including if she wanted to have children.
K.S. said Hsiung walked her to her car and “launched into a profession of feelings” for the activist, admitting he had felt this way for a long time and that her disinterest in having kids concerned him. During her drive home, Hsiung sent K.S. a lengthy Signal message that was viewed by Prism in which he expressed his feelings and “love” for K.S. The next morning, during the taping, K.S. said Hsiung asked if it was awkward for him to hug her.
In September 2022, K.S. filed a report of the incident. The reports team — a small group of unpaid volunteers with no official human resources experience — responded by saying that Hsiung would sign an agreement committing to not pursuing or professing his love for members who reasonably believe they are in a mentor-mentee relationship with Hsiung. However, the reports team would not provide K.S. with a signed copy of the document.
“Wayne absolutely said he would sign it,” the reports team member wrote in an email originally sent to K.S. and shared with Prism. “We reviewed the Reports processes and realized signed documents and agreements aren’t protocol. We’re following what Core and Reports developed in terms of protocol. Maybe you could tell me your hesitation? Do you think he’ll violate because it’s not a signed contract? As part of the team I interviewed Wayne and in no way got that impression at all.”
DxE’s communications lead told Prism that it’s a standard practice in DxE’s report process to have commitments confirmed in writing over email rather than signed documents.
A History of Workplace Relationships
Despite DxE’s response to her report about Hsiung, K.S. remained active in the organization. However, in June 2023, Hsiung let K.S. know that he was planning on publishing a blog post detailing his relationship and sexual history, which would include details about K.S. K.S. reported the matter to the reports team. Hsiung expressed that he would let K.S. make edits to the document. She said her demands included specifying her age, that they had a mentor-mentee relationship, and the fact that she was not aware that the dinner was a date. Hsiung refused to include these details. During a livestream on Facebook, K.S. wrote in the comments section and asked him to retract misrepresentations of her and other women’s actions. Hsiung has since blocked K.S., so her comments are no longer visible.
“I care about DxE and the people in it and the work that they were doing,” K.S. told Prism. “I put a lot of my passion and effort into it, and I wanted them to succeed, and I never wanted to publicly shame Wayne or anything. I just wanted him to be held accountable and stop targeting young women.”
Charlotte, a former DxE activist who requested a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation and who also worked on Hsiung’s mayoral campaign, started working with DxE in 2019 during its California fur ban campaign. Charlotte said she quickly noticed the culture of members, including core leadership, co-founders, fellows, stakeholders, and organizers — many of whom were in their 30s and 40s — dating or attempting to date young activists in their late teens or early 20s.
“DxE has this one-ask rule: If you ask somebody out once, and they decline, then you’re never allowed to ask them out again,” Charlotte said. “But Wayne gets around this by asking people to coffee or dinner to thank them for doing this or that. And it’s never an official date.”
Charlotte helped Hsiung during his failed 2020 Berkeley mayoral campaign and began dating Hsiung for eight months during her involvement as a volunteer. A month after the relationship began, Hsiung sent Charlotte the relationship/consent waiver, which states, among other provisions, “DxE cannot be responsible for my relationship conflict.” Charlotte broke up with Hsiung by the summer of 2021 but remained an organizer for DxE and supportive of Hsiung’s pursuits.
This year, tensions came to a head on May 30, when Charlotte attended a talk with Peter Singer, an animal liberation philosopher, moderated by Hsiung at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Charlotte was in attendance with another former DxE activist who had expressed concerns about Hsiung’s misconduct. The other activist declined to comment for this story.
During a question and answer portion of the event, the former DxE activist asked Singer and Hsiung, “What is your responsibility to women as men in powerful positions in the animal liberation movement?” She then addressed the sexual harassment claims against both Singer and Hsiung. Singer and Hsiung denied the claims. Because Charlotte was sitting next to the other former activist, she believes Hsiung thought she was involved in the questions, and on June 22, he posted a Facebook Live video in addition to the planned blog post detailing his dating history, including identifiable details about Charlotte and K.S. He claimed the activists accusing him of misconduct are detractors working to undermine the animal rights movement.
“I haven’t been able to sleep,” Charlotte said. “The way he’s turned the community against me, the feeling of being ostracized has been really disturbing.”
Charlotte filed the first of three reports in June with the DxE team, claiming that Hsiung was bullying and retaliating against her. According to records obtained by Prism, members of the reports team have expressed concern that Hsiung will litigate against them for holding Hsiung accountable for his alleged behavior. The reports team says an investigation could potentially find Hsiung in violation of DxE’s own retaliation and intimidation rules and requested that an outside human resources lawyer handle the case. But, after leadership failed to find an external human resources team to handle the matter, by Sept. 26, all four reports team members had resigned. Prism contacted the reports team for comment but did not hear back, and individual members declined to speak on the record.
A DxE communications representative wrote in an emailed statement that the reports team is volunteer-based, and the membership fluctuates.
“It makes me feel like there’s nothing I can do to combat this, this highly manipulative person and what he wants to say to the rest of the community,” Charlotte said. “There’s nothing I can say to fight back against him. There’s nothing I can do to set the narrative straight. He’ll tell his story about me, and people will believe it.”
Word of the confrontation between Charlotte and Hsiung spread across the organization to a Signal group chat filled with former and current DxE activists discussing sexual harassment claims. In the group chat, activists shared their negative experiences with DxE and Hsiung. One of the participants was Rachel Ziegler, who joined DxE in 2015 when she and her friends drove from her small town in Newport, Pennsylvania, to participate in a store disruption at Whole Foods in Philadelphia. Ziegler was immediately intrigued by DxE’s non-traditional style of activism: chaining themselves to slaughterhouses, rescuing live animals about to be killed at certified humane farms, and protesting inside grocery stores.
A short time after, Ziegler moved to Berkeley to deepen her involvement with the organization and live in one of its activist houses, funded by DxE and its donors. But by 2018, she started noticing alarming behavior from leadership and realized DxE was not the morally righteous organization she had signed up for. Zeigler said she had concerns about the abusive culture of DxE, which she privately made known to other stakeholders, a term used within DxE’s hierarchical structure, when she left her fellowship position in 2019.
“I think the thing about [Hsiung] is that he breaks you down emotionally,” Zeigler said. “Every time he talks to me, I end up having to piece back together my sense of self and my self-esteem … I just started to realize that this person is really toxic and abusive, and there’s no way to hold him accountable.”
She says she remained on good terms with the organization and was paid a quarterly stipend as recently as March 2023 to take photos at DxE protests.
Ziegler was one of six DxE activists, including Hsiung, to face felony charges for an incident in 2018, when DxE staged an attempted mass rescue of chickens from Petaluma Poultry in Sonoma County, California. On Nov. 2, Hsiung was found guilty of felony conspiracy and two misdemeanor charges for the incident, and he was taken into custody and is awaiting sentencing on Nov. 30. Ziegler and the other activists took a plea deal in early September to avoid going to trial.
Another activist sharing their experience in the group chat was Camila, a former DxE activist from Peru who has requested to use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation. Camila, who is now 21 years old, first got involved with DxE in 2020 when she was 18 years old. She said she wanted to start a local chapter of the organization in Peru and was encouraged to join and become an organizer with the group.
Camila said she spent hours on lengthy Zoom calls with core team members in the U.S., including Hsiung, who tried to encourage her to move to the U.S. and into one of DxE’s activist houses in Berkeley. It was part of the organization’s larger and ongoing “Move to Berkeley” campaign to bring activists to hot spots of animal exploitation and foster a community.
“I was working very hard,” Camila said. “I was trying to learn as much and as fast as I could, and then the pandemic hit. That made it easier to be absorbed into all of it. My whole social circle became DxE.”
Camila and other former activists agree that the group fosters a process of indoctrination centered around Hsiung’s cult of personality. Camila says she alienated herself from her family and friends outside of the organization and that the amount of work she put in began to cause her psychological distress.
“I really put my life on the line for DxE,” she said. “But at the same time, you’re helping animals so why shouldn’t I stay? … We’re changing the world.”
Camila, who is not a U.S. citizen, connected with DxE activist Rocky Chau. Camila said Hsiung suggested the two get married as a way for her to achieve immigration status. Camila and Chau quickly got engaged without meeting and carried out a long-distance relationship until February 2021 while Camila lived in Lima awaiting immigration papers. Prism reviewed text message records between Chau and Camila that confirmed a relationship between the pair.
“I kept hearing these stories, and I kept reading [about people] who had left and were alleging that there was sexual abuse and coercion going on within DxE,” Camila said. “There was always a way to justify it. While seeing this, I was being groomed myself [by] the person that was about to marry me to emigrate, which was Rocky Chau.”
Hsiung responded to the allegations in an emailed statement to Prism, saying he advised many people that “bona fide, legitimate family-based immigration is the cheapest, fastest, and easiest way to obtain permanent residence – which is the same advice any attorney would give.” He added that he has never encouraged anyone to marry and move into the DxE House.
Camila never ended up moving to the DxE house in Berkeley. She left the organization in June 2023. In a written statement from Chau, he said, “These allegations are false and defamatory.”
In the Signal group chat where Camila raised these issues, as the conversation continued and allegations and discontent mounted, Camila said she was going to call the police on a mass action at the Animal Liberation Conference in an attempt to prevent other young activists from getting sucked into an organization that she refers to as a “culty.” K.S., who was in the group chat, was alarmed and took screenshots of the conversation. She then sent them to management to warn them that their security was not tight enough. Camila did eventually call the police, but no arrests were made.
“I don’t know if I regret doing this or not,” K.S. told Prism. “I just worry that it will impact people who didn’t do anything wrong. But what’s the accountability? … I don’t know how it’s possible at all, and that’s why I’ve just kind of stepped away because I tried, I reported … I did everything that I could, like I reported to them that the police were called. That should have been a sign of good faith to them that I care about DxE and their work.”
Afterward, Zeigler said, “immediate retaliation followed for every single person in the chat,” even though many of the chat’s participants disapproved of the activist’s decision to call the police. Participants’ emails were quickly deactivated, which meant they lost access to sensitive information, even though they were in ongoing lawsuits, according to Zeigler. In June, Zeigler’s attorney was told that DxE would be pulling financial support for her legal case stemming from the 2018 attempted chicken rescue.
“They’ve been trying whatever they can to put me in a place where I can’t fight my case,” Zeigler said. “It’s a really upsetting situation.”
In an emailed statement to Prism before his arrest, Hsiung denied retaliation by DxE and said only one person involved in the group chat was terminated without his knowledge for “deceptive behavior.” In a written statement, DxE confirmed suspending Zeigler’s email and attorney payments because “supporting snitching is a serious offense in DxE and other activist movements.”
Activists allege the retaliation didn’t end there. Zeigler conducted a fundraiser to help with her legal fees and ultimately raised more than $6,000. After Charlotte showed support for the fundraiser and expressed disagreement with DxE removing Zeigler’s defense funding, by July, she was removed as an organizer from DxE.
Hsiung told Prism that Charlotte was removed as an organizer from DxE, “for deceptive behavior – i.e., secretly sharing confidential information from the press team with an individual who had called the police on activists in DxE,” but Charlotte says she was not a part of the group chat that resulted in the former activist calling the police.
“We have little chance to repair our reputations from the damage he inflicted and tell our side of the story without going to the press,” Charlotte said in an emailed statement to Prism. “How he smeared us has harmed the important work we do for the animals and the collaborative work we did with other activists.”
A History of Misconduct Leads to a Mass Exodus
In a three-part series of now-private YouTube videos from 2020 that have been viewed by Prism, a former DxE activist accused Hsiung and DxE of misconduct dating back to 2007.
“At the time I had no idea [that Hsiung’s behavior was predatory], now I see that it’s a persistent pattern of predatory behavior,” the activist said in the video, adding that she was only 16 years old at the time. “But then I just thought, ‘Oh, cool. Like, I must just be really mature for my age.’”
At the time of the videos’ publication, allegations of misconduct and abuse by Hsiung had already begun to mount. In September 2015, an anonymous group of former DxE activists who are women of color created a post on a blog titled “Dismantle DxE,” detailing their experiences at the organization. They explain in the document that the organization lacks intersectionality, abuses those who disagree, and manipulates or derails its way out of conflict situations. The post includes accusations of misconduct by a long list of activists who say they were victims of rape, revenge porn, and sexual harassment by men in DxE’s core. Prism attempted to reach out to the authors of the Dismantle DxE document but did not receive a reply. Prism has not been able to independently verify these accusations.
In a written response to the allegations before his arrest, Hsiung said, “None of Dismantle’s anonymous authors – some of whom appear to have been fabricated – themselves claimed to have been a victim of sexual misconduct, either in Dismantle or anywhere else; rather, they allude to sexual misconduct happening to other anonymous people.”
“[T]he group has a flawed and inept accountability process which leaves victims feeling manipulated, dismissed, or attacked,” the “Dismantle” blog post says. “Direct Action Everywhere is not intersectional, not a safe space, and certainly not revolutionary.”
DxE Fundraising Director Priya Sawhney responded to the allegations made in “Dismantle DxE” with the document “Dismantle DxE Breakdown,” refuting the claims. Shortly after, a lawyer sent cease and desist letters to the suspected authors of the “Dismantle” blog on behalf of the 11 victims who shared their testimonies in the blog post, claiming that the authors were defaming and stalking the victims. On the same day, DxE posted a tweet with a meme seemingly mocking the people who came forward while pointing followers to a since-deleted blog called “The Victims of Dismantling DxE,” which disparaged the people who came forward and portrayed Hsiung as a victim.
During a two-hour meeting in 2017, Hsiung singled out an activist he had removed by saying she had violated the group’s trust for speaking negatively about him in private, which caused members to question the leader’s intentions. Days later, former and current members of the organization created a “Steps to Healing” petition, which outlined steps for DxE’s leadership team to take accountability for their alleged behavior. The petition details violations from members of the core team, including psychological manipulation through “love-bombing,” disenfranchisement of non-Bay Area members, and email censorship. It goes on to suggest that members of the leadership team, including Hsiung and Sawhney, recuse themselves from their positions.
The document was signed by 43 former members of the organization who left en masse. The mass exodus of organizers resulted in the Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan, and Philadelphia chapters closing. The New York and Colorado chapters also closed.
In the years since, many other former members have left the organization, including Camila.
“I left because I accepted and realized it is a far left-wing political cult that psychologically abuses its members … and fosters a sexual abuse environment,” Camila wrote in a statement sent to Prism.
A Faulty Accountability System
Zeigler and other DxE organizers say they want to see an actual accountability process from Hsiung and to prevent future young activists from being harmed and manipulated by the organization. The existing process, they say, is deeply flawed.
Camila said all sexual misconduct or other human relationships-related reports had to be made directly to the reports team and that the organization created a culture that discouraged seeking outside support, whether from family or legal authorities.
“[The reports] would just get dismissed,” she said. “Nothing happens with the report, and basically they victim-blame a person, or it just takes a while, or they say there’s not enough proof.”
By 2020, DxE published an FAQ addressing the organization’s history of allegations. But activists say Hsiung’s behavior persisted. On its website, DxE claims it now refers allegations of sexual misconduct to an external professional and removes the accused organizer from the network pending further guidance. The organization says it has made consent training mandatory for all organizers. In an emailed statement to Prism before his arrest, Hsiung said DxE stopped using an in-house accountability process for sexual misconduct allegations in the summer of 2017. However, according to organizers and emails between the “reports team,” all misconduct allegations are still sent to internal team members, whom have since resigned.
“Implementation of external reporting has been shaky – there have been occasions where it has not been used – and is one of the areas that DxE should, in my opinion, improve on,” Hsiung wrote in an email. “But the elected leadership of DxE, which is 80% female, always acts in good faith and is doing the best they can, in my opinion, in often difficult circumstances.”
In an emailed statement to Prism, Hsiung said, “I have encouraged DxE to be as transparent as possible and have had little involvement in accountability processes since 2016, when we shifted these reports to an independent conflict resolution team, and no involvement at all since 2019 when I stepped down from leadership.”
Though Hsiung officially stepped down as the head of DxE in 2019, he still has ties to the organization and its finances through Friends of DxE, a 501(c)(3) organization and DxE’s fundraising arm. Hsiung’s sister, Amy Hsiung, is listed as the organization’s president, but neither she nor the other members of the organization have been visually active participants in the animal rights movement space.
In a written response, Hsiung said his sister is “a highly competent professional who cares about animals and has contributed hundreds of hours of volunteer time to various organizations, without asking for any compensation.” Amy Hsiung and Friends of DxE did not respond to Prism’s request for comment.
DxE’s Issues Impact its Larger Mission
DxE’s internal issues spilled over into its pay structures and other financial issues. In 2020, the organization brought in more than $1.3 million in revenue through its fundraising arm, Friends of DxE. The same year, according to tax documents, DxE spent only $12,000 on salaries and wages. In 2018 and 2019, it listed paying no salaries or wages. Zeigler says she was paid through a system that allocated her a quarterly fellowship stipend based on the work she had contributed that totaled about $30,000 a year — a poverty-level wage for the San Francisco Bay Area. Zeigler said she did not have to pay taxes because fellows were not given an official income. But it was close to impossible to get health care or qualify for food stamps, which they needed but couldn’t receive without proof of income.
The SF Bay Core team, which included Hsiung until 2019, votes on who should get a fellowship stipend. The team then forwards the recommendations to Friends of DxE’s board (where Hsiung’s sister is president) for approval.
“They explicitly tell you this is never guaranteed,” Zeigler said. “Basically, you’re stuck in a cycle of continuing this work with them. Otherwise, you may not get another fellowship check, and you better stay in line.”
Animal rights activist Jasmine Afshar started a chapter of DxE in Phoenix in 2017 after being hesitant to get involved with DxE based on its history of allegations. Afshar says she first went to an action with the organization at a slaughterhouse in 2017, where they stopped trucks from entering. While she was there, she started crying, and a DxE activist came up to her and told her that it’s OK to cry. Afshar recalled saying she was not crying because she was sad; she was crying because she was angry.
“That’s when they decided to onboard me,” Afshar said. “I don’t know how I fell for this when I was actually in the military.”
Organizers say the leaders at DxE prey on emotionally vulnerable and passionate young activists whom they see as being mission-driven. But when Afshar said she requested more information about its open rescue strategies, little was provided.
“They frame everything under a need-to-know basis,” Afshar said. “What it’ll turn into is like … ‘We need you to just operate in good faith that we are moving in such a way that we’re progressing the animal rights movement.’”
DxE eventually convinced the chapter to live in communal housing together in Phoenix. Afshar, who is a disabled veteran, said the experience was incredibly taxing on her mental and physical health.
“I lived in chronic pain and poverty because all my energy went to activism — as did my money,” Afshar said. “I ended up in a psychiatric hospital because of the pressure, the damage it was doing to my disabilities, and the mental damage from the incestuous dynamics.”
Afshar ultimately left the organization in 2019 after witnessing a turkey rescue where organizers waited to put the turkeys in a heated area despite the cold temperatures to prioritize a photo showing the turkeys outside. She also objected to their increased use of deceased animals during actions.
“My exit was realizing that just the smallest critiques instantly turned me into an enemy of everyone who used to support me,” Afshar said.
In a written response, Hsiung said, “DxE has used deceased animals, in a respectful fashion, at many demonstrations. There are disagreements about this practice. I personally would prefer that it not be done. However, as with so much movement strategy, we are not all going to agree. I fully respect the activists who use this strategy, whether at DxE or with other organizations.”
Hsiung provided no data or information on how many deceased animals are used during DxE actions.
Former DxE activists say they would like to see Hsiung take accountability for his harmful actions. They also want the organization to change its leadership team to preserve the ultimate animal rights mission — but some aren’t as hopeful progress will be made.
“I don’t feel there is a way that DxE can be reformed or held accountable from the inside,” Camila said. “But I think the change and accountability should come from the outside.”
K.S. says that accountability from Hsiung has proven difficult because of the mission-driven nature of animal rights activism.
“I think that’s what gives Wayne his power. He knows that all these people care more about changing the outcome of factory farming and the billions of animals that are being killed than they do about getting personal revenge against what Wayne has done,” K.S. said. “I just want him to stop going after young women, and I don’t know how to make that happen.”
Prism attempted to reach out to Hsiung for a follow-up interview, but he has since been tried and convicted, so a second interview was not possible. A DxE communications representative wrote in an emailed statement that they actively encourage dissenting opinions, but they do remove members who violate their code of conduct or harassment policy.
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.
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