Joey Carbstrong, vegan activist, on the myth of humane slaughter and why vegans have obligation to convert meat eaters
Australian who had an epiphany while in prison for a gang-related crime channels the assertiveness he once used to intimidate people into turning others on to veganism; he recently joined protests against Hong Kong abbatoir
Joey Armstrong has heard all the excuses people use for eating meat.
“‘I need to eat animals to be healthy’ is easily refuted because eating animals is killing us through heart disease,” says the Australian animal rights activist, known online as Joey Carbstrong. “‘It tastes good’ isn’t justification for anything immoral; neither is tradition.”
The vegan lifestyle – eschewing all animal products in favour of alternative materials and a plant-based diet – is increasingly being adopted worldwide. Health-related or environmental concerns convert many people to veganism, but for Armstrong the most forcing reason is to end the animal suffering he believes is an unavoidable outcome of the meat and dairy industries.
The 31-year-old, a former gang member, spent time in prison before turning his life around and switching to a vegan diet for both ethical and health reasons. Now a prominent advocate for veganism, he campaigns for the movement and teaches fellow activists how to deal with common responses of meat eaters they engage.
He says, “I hear, ‘Where I buy my meat they’re killed humanely’, but you can’t kill anyone humanely. Humane means to show compassion. You can’t take away someone’s greatest gift in a humane way … And if animals come from a welfare farm, they’ve got even more of an interest in living.”
Armstrong visited Hong Kong in December to support local vegan activists. He joined Hong Kong Pig Save in protesting outside an abattoir, live-streaming to his Facebook page as he scaled one of the facility’s outer walls to film the pigs confined in holding pens.
Later, he joined an Earthlings event – named after the 2005 American documentary – a demonstration in a busy square in the city’s Central business district, where members wore white masks while holding signs and playing videos depicting the slaughterhouse process.
Flash mob scenes are particularly effective at grabbing the attention of passers-by and drawing people into discussions, Armstrong says.
“People have this idea in their mind of what happens in a slaughterhouse and it never does the reality justice,” he says, sitting in a Central vegan restaurant while preparing to lead the protest on the streets below. “Until they see that then they really do not understand.
“I’ve found it’s a lot easier to talk to someone when you have that type of hardcore evidence right there in front of them. People are less likely to reach for silly justifications.”
Despite Armstrong’s background, he says his style of activism is non-confrontational and places an emphasis on being polite and respectful. The campaigner feels strongly about what he sees as the responsibility of all vegans to be active participants in furthering the movement.
“When you become a vegan, you’re realising you’ve been causing harm to innocent beings and you’ve tried your best as far as practical to stop causing harm. But that is a neutral position; it doesn’t mean you’re doing something fantastic, it just means you’ve stopped doing something horrific or contributing to something that’s horrific.
“Obviously, we’re not consciously doing something that’s horrific, but when you wake up to it, you realise you been paying for something horrific to happen.”
He continues: “You also know about this horrific thing that’s happening and if you stand by and watch, that’s akin to standing by and watching someone abuse their wife and not saying anything. If you didn’t intervene, then you become complicit. That’s why I think it’s an obligation for vegans to be active in whatever positive way they can.
“It doesn’t mean stopping trucks and shouting at people; it’s about being proactive and using the skills you already have in positive and creative ways.”
The tools from his past help Armstrong approach others without apprehension and stand his ground if exchanges become confrontational – though he says his restrained and respectful manner quells any argument before things get violent, as they might have done when he was younger.
After dropping out of school aged 14, Armstrong fell in with the wrong crowd, eventually progressing “to more serious, hardcore, organised crime gangs” and dealing drugs to support his own habit.
“In all this time, I still had compassion in my heart but it was clouded by the environment that shaped me and people around me.” Aged 26, he was arrested after being caught with a gun and, while on home detention, began taking steps towards becoming healthier.
“I’d put on a lot of weight and was very depressed. I looked for the best diet to lose weight and I found a raw foodist (Dan McDonald) online talking about life-giving plants. He said if you eat suffering, death and fear, it manifests as disease in your body.
“That resonated with me. It didn’t turn me vegan, it was just in my mind,” he recalls.
He ended up in prison for six months where he “had an epiphany”. He says: “It was the longest I’d been sober for the past 12 years of my life. I began seeing my life with new eyes. I’d seen all the other prisoners in there and didn’t want to be there, I wanted to leave the gangs.” Once freed, he began thinking about what changes he could make to his life.
“I’d always said that it’s hypocritical to say you love animals – save the whales, dolphins, dogs – but then have a piece of an animal that’s suffered and had a bolt gun to the head on your plate. I was a walking hypocrite … I decided to align my actions and my morals.”
From then on, he channelled the confidence and assertiveness he’d once used to intimidate people into turning others on to veganism. He began a YouTube channel, adopted his Carbstrong persona, and watched as his message spread.
“I had this fire inside my chest. I’d spent all this time taking from people and making people feel upset and scared around me. I wanted to give back. I knew I had to tell my story and get it out there.
“I remember every morning I woke up, I’d think, ‘that’s another day gone, I’m going to be dying soon’ … I was fresh out of gangs so I was swearing and carrying on, but I still had a pretty consistent clear message. I was driven.”
Taking his message across the world has opened Armstrong’s eyes to the distinct challenges activists face in different countries. While some may argue that the sight of unprocessed meat swinging from butchers’ hooks helps people understand that their food was once a living creature, Armstrong says the nature of Hong Kong’s wet markets instead hinders the work of local activists by desensitising diners to the slaughtering process.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he reasons. “It’s going to condition people to violence and it’ll make it harder for us as activists to get through to people. We can’t shock people with pictures of chopped up bodies because they’re everywhere.”
When approaching people in the street, Armstrong asks questions and prompts them to reassess why they eat meat.
“People select the animals they care for and which species matter. It’s discrimination based on nothing. [I would] help them make the connection with other animals they care about and get them to understand these animals are feeling, sentient and intelligent beings just like their dog.”
Over time, Armstrong has learned that people process vegan messages in different ways and that, despite his best efforts, some people do not convert.
“Your responsibility is to be a shining light and leave a seed, a positive mark, a really big question in their mind. Then you move on. Something you say might be stuck in their mind for a few months or even years,” he says, adding: “When the environment is right in them, you might set them off on their journey.”