In this opinion piece, Joanna Blythman addresses the potential challenges of new campaign group Animal Rebellion. Scroll to the end of the piece for our thoughts on the issue.

Whether hastily assembled by a handful of activists or painstakingly arranged by organisations, peaceful demonstrations are an indispensable pillar of democratic debate. Protests on the climate emergency are increasing across the globe in varying manifestations and intensity. The recent emergence of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK brings with it a form of protest that is self-organising in nature – if you agree with an online statement of values, you will be encouraged to join in mass disruptions, such as halting traffic to draw attention to climate breakdown. Sympathisers are also urged to set up smaller actions in their local area. The XR activists who glued themselves to the pavement outside Barclays Bank in Manchester earlier this month, epitomise self-organised local disruption in action.

The beauty of this approach, from the instigators point of view, is that they can harness the power of social media to fire people up. They don’t have to build solid numerical support, via trade unions or political parties. Their driving aspiration is that small actions all around the world will collectively pressurise those responsible for the problem to mend their ways, and also to embarrass governments into action. Theoretically, such disruption creates a public conversation that knocks heads together. A prototype for this looser form of direct action was the Occupy movement.

Now, a nebulous new force – Animal Rebellion (AR) – has emerged. Borrowing language from trade unions and the Left, it says that it works “in solidarity” with XR and is “in communication to take action alongside Extinction Rebellion,” although the precise nature of the relationship between the two informal ‘organisations’ is unclear. AR’s activities are apparently endorsed by a coalition of some 18 animal justice groups, all pro-vegan.

Animal Rebellion’s ambition is monumental. It wants nothing less than a total cessation of all meat, fish and egg production. Why? “We believe that this movement is the route to ending the industries of animal farming and fishing, and achieving justice for animals, because we know that climate catastrophe and ecological collapse cannot be averted while these industries continue to exist.” AR draws absolutely no distinction between industrial agriculture (factory farming) and regenerative agriculture (mainly small-scale, organic and pasture-based). It’s all just animal torturing and planet-wrecking stuff that must be ‘disrupted’.

Animal Rebellion’s philosophy has an authoritarian, patronising tone to it. Its avowed intention is to shift public discourse by, “educating the masses about the devastating effects that animal agriculture is having on our planet, by putting an end to the speciesism in society which we have been conditioned to accept as the norm.” There’s no room for debate here. The spontaneous actions of ‘mass volunteers’ will make those who eat animal foods see the error of their ways and AR will be the midwife of that transition.

In October, Animal Rebellion is piggybacking on Extinction Rebellion’s planned mass autumn protest. From 7th until the 19th of the month, AR will engage in civil resistance: its showpiece disruption will be a two-week blockade of London’s Smithfield meat market, one of Europe’s largest commercial markets, where it hopes to have around 10,000 supporters present. “We are promoting mass ‘above the ground’ civil disobedience for animals, in full public view,” it says. “We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience that this causes to ordinary people, but we act out of urgency and necessity.”

Tactically speaking, Smithfield market is an obvious symbolic target for Animal Rebellion, a convenient one too: in central London with good transport links. But Smithfield Tenants Association will doubtless have made contingency plans to ensure that trade carries on regardless. You could argue that Smithfield is fair game, albeit two weeks of disruption seems excessive. Similarly, any group that wants to confront the meat industry could in theory target intensive farms, cutting plants and industrial meat manufacturers, but for the fact that they have tight security that is hard to breach.

What really worries me about AR, however, is that its satellite supporters will find it easier to go after small farmers, producers and retailers of meat, dairy, fish and eggs, especially progressive enterprises that are sitting ducks because they pride themselves on having nothing to hide. The irony is that the more genuinely transparent and progressive a business is, the more it is vulnerable to animal rights activists who feel obliged to stamp on the merest suggestion that any trade whatsoever in animal products, however conducted, can occupy any moral high ground.

A case in point earlier this year was Hisbe, Brighton’s alternative social enterprise supermarket, which prides itself on selling only locally produced, high welfare animal products. It was targeted by a small group of animal rights activists organised online by a global body that calls itself Direct Action Everywhere, (DxE). On the first occasion, a group of around 15 campaigners streamed into the store and blocked the meat and dairy aisle, intoning a script by megaphone and holding up placards with messages such as, ‘It’s not food, it’s violence’, tactics which doubtless intimidated its staff and customers.

This was mild stuff though compared to the case of Molesworth’s Family Butchers in south Gloucestershire, which had placards placed outside by vegan activists that read, ‘Cancer on you and your family’ and ‘Rot in hell murdering scum’.

This incident in turn was small beer compared to the experience of Kent farmer Eloise McDonald, who found hundreds of her pheasant chicks gasping for water and starving after representatives of the Animal Liberation Front ‘helped’ her birds ‘escape’ by cutting through fencing and gas pipes. Around 3,000 chicks are estimated to have perished in this incident.

Obviously, no movement can be held responsible for the fringe activities of troublemakers. Animal Rebellion is at pains to point out that it will “treat police, farmers and butchers with love and respect at all times”.

But I can’t help thinking that the generic pro-plant/anti-animal food narrative promoted by Animal Rebellion – with its endorsement of spontaneous direct action – can be heard by zealots as a dog whistle incitement to take ill-considered, often unpleasant, even criminal action.

For some time, animal rights activists have been trolling small food businesses on social media. Recently, a London fishmonger found his photos and videos of freshly caught fish deemed “disturbing” on Instagram, which issued a warning about them. This was only withdrawn when the Telegraph, which covered the story, queried the company’s censorship. Farcical? Perhaps. But online or off, when does a righteous group of ‘mass volunteers’ become a bullying mob? When does civil disobedience and disruption turn nasty if its instigators – radicalised online by worst case, inflammatory propaganda – are making up the rules of engagement as they go along, with absolutely no oversight from any responsible parent body?

Over the years, I’ve been on too many demonstrations to list, but I won’t be camping out with Animal Rebellion at Smithfield. Its failure to acknowledge the qualitative difference between various types of animal production is willfully uninformed and intellectually dishonest. There’s a dictatorial, illiberal ‘only one true way’ ring to AR, a bull-headed (excuse the pun) refusal to see any nuance.

Worst of all, and for this I judge Animal Rebellion particularly harshly, it shows a complete lack of interest in finding a meeting point that more progressive farmers and parts of the food industry might engage with: a phasing out of factory farming, for instance. Without that sincere wish to find a solution rather than have a fight, I fear we’re dealing with ideologues, thorough-going extremists and fanatics. And wherever they appear in the world, and whatever the doctrine they espouse, those are dangerous people.

The Sustainable Food Trust supports Extinction Rebellion in their efforts to tackle the climate crisis and co-founder Gail Bradbrook’s presentation at our conference Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Emissions, this past July received a long ovation from an audience of 300 people, many of whom were farmers. Gail has a deep understanding of the role livestock must play in sustainable food systems. We completely understand why many people are appalled by the intensive production systems that produce much of the meat sold in supermarkets today and agree with the objective of campaigners to eliminate industrial meat from our future food systems. However, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about the centrally important role that sustainably managed livestock and grass-fed ruminants (cattle and sheep) need to play in rebuilding the carbon and wildlife destroyed through intensive grain and other types of continuous crop production, thereby slowing climate change and runaway biodiversity loss. We are therefore concerned that a failure to differentiate between livestock systems that are part of the problem and those that are part of the solution may result in planned direct action, by groups such as Animal Rebellion, having unintended consequences. To discuss these issues further, with people from all sides, we are planning to run a conference on the role of livestock and meat eating in Autumn 2020. We welcome comments on this issue and are happy to consider publishing balanced contributions to this discussion. 

Photograph: Ian Sane

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