Lessons of radical activism from the animal rights movement

Dusan Pajovic takes a look at some of the methods used by the animal rights movement and whether they could be applied to other activist causes 

The Animal Rights (AR) movement is one of the fastest growing social justice movements in history. There are now a number of groups that radically challenge the system of exploiting animals. The question is: what is the AR movement doing that makes it so successful?

I’ve spent countless hours participating in protests, outreach and education programmes, writing petitions and law proposals, as well as protesting in front of slaughterhouse facilities. After years of playing an active role in this movement, here are some of the key lessons that class struggle organisations or any other racial/gender justice groups can take and learn from the advocates of animal liberation.

For the purpose of this article, I’ve categorised these tactics into five different pillars.

1. Community work

is key if you want your activism to be intersectional. These types of activities not only position your organisation as working-class friendly, but also keep you in touch with the people who are struggling and who your comrades are in the fight against the establishment. During the process, you will even help them in the most direct way. People tend to be fed up with their daily lives and problems and don’t really have the energy to talk or think about Hegelian perspectives. More often than not, they need a kind act and a nice word, someone to fight alongside. Animal Save Movement recognised this with their Mutual Aid actions, where they give plant-based food to those in need, together with a leaflet that promotes their ideas and why it is important to be vegan. Food Not Bombs does something similar. It’s in human psychology that when someone receives something, they want to give something in return. That may lead to an attitude change. I am not saying you should abuse this or patronise people, but if you are talking about class/gender/racial inequality or environmentalism and animal rights, you are doing a good thing and changing the individual in the process. An additional layer is being in touch with the people and animals that we are fighting with and for. It’s easy to get lost in theoretical principles and education that is far away from events on the ground, so it is important to constantly remind ourselves why we are doing this.

2. Street education with performativity

Have you ever seen some people hold (fake) dead animals in your city? Or have you seen someone with an Anonymous mask holding a laptop with a sign that reads “truth”? Then you have been exposed to the actions of animal liberation advocates! And I bet you couldn’t just look away. If you haven’t come across this, let me break it down to you. Many organisations, including PETA and Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) hold ‘dead’ animals to portray the state that they continuously endure in slaughterhouses, fur or egg farms. This kind of emotional shock often leads people to getting informed and possibly to stop funding these industries. Activists would then be there to provide more info and flyers. A bit less shocking but equally effective actions are done by Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV). AV holds famous Cube of Truths, where activists stand in cube-like shapes in the streets with anonymous masks while holding their laptops and tablets that portray videos of animal cruelty that happens on regular basis in this industry. But this is just bait for a conversation. Once you come closer to look at videos, someone called the “outreacher” will approach you and start asking questions. No, they won’t just preach to you why veganism is a moral way of living. Rather, they are going to engage in a Socratic method of conversation that has proven to be effective in changing attitudes. The key part of this method is to lead the person to come to a conclusion themselves, by embracing logic with tactually developed questions, in this case on why they aren’t vegan yet. Of course, during the process, you would also get some information on what is happening inside the animal agriculture industry, but you would be the one that speaks the most and answers the questions.


3. Pressure campaigns and targeting

Even though this tactic is not highly popular, it is extremely effective, and it has been used by some AR organisations that have inflicted a massive damage to animal abusers. For example, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was an international animal rights campaign seeking to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), Europe’s largest contract animal-testing laboratory. The activists were pressuring primary, secondary and tertiary figures. First they were emailing and phone calling the abusers and the company itself, followed by showing up in front of the houses of those abusers with megaphones and whistles, disrupting their daily activities. Then the campaign was expanding to secondary and tertiary targets; including the shareholders, suppliers and banks by carrying out the same actions mentioned above. All of them would be provided with the footage of what is happening in HLS, along with the info on why it is unethical and unscientific. To demonstrate the power of this tactic, let me quote an article on this matter:

“SHAC also turned its attention to other companies and investors that had a connection with HLS. Many, including the embarrassed Labour Party (which held shares in HLS through its pension fund), moved their money out to avoid further harassment. Institutional investors, including Shroeders, also withdrew. Not surprisingly, the value of the company plummeted: being valued at £360 million in 1990, its market valuation fell to £5 million in 2001. HLS was also dropped from the New York Stock Exchange. When protests directed at its bankers, the Royal Bank of Scotland, led to its account being closed, the Bank of England—at the request of the British government—was obliged to step in and provide banking facilities. This was an unprecedented step.”



4. Constructive civil disobedience and direct actions

The aforementioned DxE have gained so much publicity and support for their bold and radical actions. To name a few, they regularly chain themselves inside of slaughterhouses to stop them from operating (similar actions are being done by Meat the victims). They also protest at major fast food chains such as McDonalds with loud noises and graphic images of animals being killed, and they do sit-ins at strategically important places to raise concern about Rose’s law. Additionally, unlike the Animal Liberation Front, which rescues animals with their masks on (see below), DxE engages in open rescue, as a statement that the right to rescue animals from being killed is a moral act, even though it is illegal. “One has moral responsibilities to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. Open rescues are seen by millions and force the issue of animal rights into the public consciousness. DxE activists are now going to court for rescues at some of the largest factory farms in the world.

5. Economic sabotage

Now we come to the most controversial way of carrying out activism, which we will analyse through one of the groups with the greatest legacy – the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). ALF is a bit like Antifa – it’s rather a movement than an organisation, and everyone is welcome to identify as a member if they follow their basic principles: non-violent direct action in protest against incidents of animal cruelty. ALF is most famous for their raids of animal testing labs. During the raid, they would rescue the animals and take the footage filmed by researchers and, in some cases, equipment was destroyed. Due to those actions, ALF has shut down many companies that simply couldn’t recuperate after the economic sabotage that they were inflicted with. The same goes for slaughterhouses and fur farms. The fact that the ALF was ranked No.1 on the FBI’s list of domestic terrorism threats in the USA speaks volumes. The leaderless movement that operates in small cells, that never hurt a living being was above white-supremacists. It seems like profit loss hurts the FBI more than lives lost. Surprise, surprise.

As one member of the ALF said: “If we are trespassing, so were the American soldiers who broke down the gates of Hitler’s death camps; if we are thieves, so were the members of Underground Railroad who freed the slaves of the South; and if we are vandals, so were those who destroyed forever the gas chambers of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.”

I am not saying we should just directly implement everything written here, but we need to elaborate on these matters and analyse what is effective and what isn’t, and what succeeded and what didn’t. Before going into activism ourselves, there is a tonne of strategic planning that has been already done, both within and outside of our movement. We need to make use of it. Act smart and be on the right side of history.


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