Civil Disobedience & Climate Alarmism in the Animal Rights Movement | Ryan Michael
In August 2019, I stood in London’s Hyde Park alongside more than 10,000 activists eagerly awaiting the beginning of the Official Animal Rights March. During my first march the previous year, I was struck by the vibrant atmosphere generated by like-minded individuals, united by their desire to create positive change for animals. I returned in 2019 with similar expectations but left with a sense of bemusement about what I had witnessed.
The alarm bells first rang when organisers informed the crowd that we would be stopping in Trafalgar Square for a one-hour long blockade as an act of civil disobedience. We were instructed how to participate effectively in the blockade, including how to avoid arrest in the potential scenario that the police intervened. The blockade itself was a damp squib. Thousands filled Trafalgar Square to the brim and remained in place for an hour, with little effect, before resuming the march up to Parliament Square. The alarm bells rang once again, however, at the conclusion of the march when the crowd was led in a cult-like call and response emphasising the need to stop the oppression of animals at any cost.
These additions to the 2019 march were the responsibility of a newly formed organisation called Animal Rebellion, which utilised the march as an “open rebellion against the UK government”. Inspired by Extinction Rebellion, Animal Rebellion has taken up the message of the “climate emergency” with a stronger emphasis on the impact of animal agriculture on the planet and the need for a plant-based food system. Through non-violent civil disobedience, Animal Rebellion seeks to cause “economic disruption to shake the current political system” and force a conversation using actions with high consequences (such as mass arrests and time in prison). The work of Animal Rebellion does not stop there. The group also has a commitment to “breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation” with the belief that “societal systems of oppression, such as sexism, classism and racism, may manifest themselves within our movement”. One of Animal Rebellion’s directors, Dan Kidby, even describes himself as “pro-intersectional vegan anarchist”.
The 2019 march was a publicity stunt to raise awareness of Animal Rebellion’s presence on the scene and was only the beginning of its infiltration into the animal rights movement. In May 2021, the group gained traction in the national media with a blockade of four McDonald’s UK distribution centres to pressure the company to become entirely plant-based by 2025. 100 protestors blocked the entrances of the distribution sites with trucks and by shackling themselves to bamboo structures. Around fourteen Animal Rebellion activists were arrested during the disruption, yet the blockade only managed to mildly disrupt McDonald’s supply chain. Astonishingly, the effectiveness of the action was proclaimed by an Animal Rebellion activist who pointed to reports that McDonald’s had limited breakfast items. A great success, I’m sure. Animal Rebellion were at it again in July, blockading another McDonald’s factory with the same tactics.
The animal rights space has always had a radical wing; think the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The radical flank can play an important role in stretching the Overton window, allowing for the more acceptable face of the movement to achieve important gains. The presence of Animal Rebellion in the movement is not the issue. It is, instead, the acceptance of the group’s radical tactics and alarmist message by the movement’s far more reasonable centre. This threatens to cede ground and power to the radical flank. Soon after its founding, Animal Rebellion gained the stamp of approval from a large number of respectable animal rights organisations, including The Vegan Society, Veganuary, PETA, and Sentience Institute, all of which met with Extinction Rebellion to discuss and plan a two-week long direct action in October 2019. This event caused widespread disruption in London and was extremely unpopular with the public (only 8% supported the actions). Not only does there seem to be growing favour in the movement for a vastly unpopular tactic, but the growth of intersectionality, a core principle of Animal Rebellion’s work, also threatens to destabilise the focus on animals while placing other social issues at the forefront, such as climate change and Black Lives Matter.
In August, the only national march for animals in 2021 will be organised by Animal Rebellion who plan to “occupy, unite, and rebel in central London”. The extension of the group’s influence, and with it the prominence of civil disobedience, seems inevitable. Yet, if the animal rights movement is to gain wider support and foster a nuanced discussion about moral progress for animals, we must reject these divisive and harmful actions. The movement must not forge its identity in “equity” or in intersectionality. Nor is the way forward through civil disobedience. I left the 2019 march with a sense of bemusement. I now dread the dire consequences this current fixation may bring to bear on the movement itself and, ultimately, for the animals it should represent.