Marching, Speaking, and Doing

The National Animal Rights March for 2021 was organized by members of the group Animal Rebellion, and took place in London last Saturday afternoon. The starting-place was Smithfield, the UK’s largest wholesale and retail meat market. With its long history of cruelty and violence, and its setting in London’s centre of finance, the City, representing the rule of the money-interest, this was a very well-chosen venue. In fact it was here, in October last year, that Animal Rebellion set up their plant-based market alternative, beautifully picturing the one viable food-future open to us. And even the more general Extinction Rebellion campaign, radical and eloquent as that is, evidently needs this persuasion. Its current leaflet, as distributed at Smithfield, puts second-to-last, in its ‘What can I do?’ list, ”cutting down on meat”. A placard at Saturday’s march stated the case more accurately and urgently: “Go Vegan, or Go Extinct”.

Smithfield banner

The route for the march took in three stopping-points at noted counter-vegan institutions. There was Cargill, for instance, whose holdings and own operations make it the largest (in the sense most profitable) food business in the world. Despite its plant-leaf logo, tastefully topping the ‘i’ in its name, this company controls the impoverished lives and violent deaths of billions of animals every year. Animal Rebellion calls Cargill the “silent giant”, and certainly it keeps itself anonymous at its London headquarters, 77 Queen Victoria Street. Like so many companies, it prefers to boast about its work (“committed to helping the world thrive) in the nowhere-land of the internet. By the way, the italics for ‘thrive’ are Cargill’s own, so you can see how earnestly sincere it is about this aim.

Then there was the Marine Stewardship Council, round the corner at Snow Hill (the police running ahead of the march to guard the doors at each next stop). This is an organization whose “vision . . . is of the world’s oceans teeming with life”. Plunderable life, that is, for the MSC’s hope is that, by not over-fishing, we can make “seafood supplies” (sometimes known as fishes) lastingly available “for this and future generations”. Our speaker outside Cargill’s offices, Tim Bailey, had told us that the pain of slaughter, however small the animal, was “exactly the same”. This assertion was quoted in news reports, perhaps because it feels like an over-statement or at least tendentious. But we don’t have to know whether it’s true or not, for the right to live is certainly nothing to do with large or small. And therefore the speaker outside the MSC’s headquarters, Laila Kassam, quite properly re-defined ‘over-fishing’ as any fishing”.

March at MSC

One of the founding organizations for the MSC was Unilever, whose offices were the march’s first stop. This is another giant enterprise, which hoovers up successful brands, mainly cosmetics and foods, and makes their profits its own. Most of the conventional ice-creams one’s heard of, for instance, seem to belong to Unilever, for of course it’s not a vegan-friendly enterprise. It is, however, publicly committed to animal-free research (“we do not agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of our products.”), and it posts an interesting video on Youtube about modern alternatives (linked in the notes below). It’s even been commended for its research policy by PETA.

However, as Animal Rebellion says, Unilever sells its products in countries whose governments require animal tests even for cosmetics – notably China – and the enormous volume of Unilever’s international trade therefore ensures that it’s still implicated in animal testing on a large scale. Unilever claims that “Doing good sits at the heart of everything we do”, but it’s the shareholders whom it aims to do good to first of all, something which a march round the City’s money-shuffling institutions makes more than usually obvious. And I doubt that those ice-creams, beverages, shampoos, soaps, and detergents, in so many varieties of packaging but otherwise insignificantly differing within their categories, do anything like as much good for their consumers. Certainly they aren’t worth the life of a single animal.

There are two other reasons for being wary of Unilever’s claims. One is that its newer animal-friendly values come after a very unpleasant history of vivisection. Work being done in the 1970s at Unilever’s own laboratories in Bedford was instanced by Richard Ryder in his pioneering book Victims of Science (the testing of shampoos and soaps in the eyes of rabbits). The same establishment was the scene of a mass raid and exposé by activists in 1984. In the trials which followed that event, one judge called the defendants “enemies of society”, and 25 of them were sentenced to a total of 41 years of imprisonment. More recently, in 2013, Unilever was one of a number of large food businesses said to be testing foods and drinks on animals, in order to justify health-claims.

The second reason for wariness is the bumptious jargon in which the company speaks to its public. “Our philosophy is quite simple,” we’re told: “Live from the Heart!” This is the explanation of “our heart-shaped logo . . . a sign that says ‘here there’s joy!’” How could one possibly trust this sort of sickening hyperbole, or suppose that anyone actually working at Unilever takes it seriously? The similarity of style with Cargill’s gush about “helping the world thrive, or the Marine Stewardlship Council’s vision of “teeming” oceans, reminds us that addressing the public on any aspect of Unilever’s business is a specialism within the company, a profession in itself; this is not the company’s collective voice, not even the voice of the company board. The heart-on-sleeve sentiment is just the fashion of the moment in public relations. It says nothing informative about the reality behind it, and certainly doesn’t underwrite that. Therefore the ethic which first persuaded Unilever and other such businesses away from animal-testing needs to be kept clearly in their sight, and they need to be kept in ours. That was the purpose of the mass visit on Saturday.

Nobody could put the case, or represent it in person, more authentically than the speaker at that point, Mel Broughton. As he told us, he has been putting and living the case for forty years and more: “I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.” In fact he was there at the 1984 raid on Unilever’s laboratories. Not that Mel was making a personal claim for attention. It’s the mark of his commitment to non-human animals that he’s simply purged of vanity and self-interest: a remarkable lesson in personality. And anyway, Mel’s immediate theme was not the past, or even Unilever’s reformed present, but today’s front line in anti-vivisection: the beagle-breeding establishment in Cambridgeshire called MBR Acres (the initials stand for the American owner, Marshal Bio-Resources).

Mel speaking

MBR Acres looks like a factory farm, and that’s indeed what it is, holding about 2000 animals at any one time in sheds with no outdoor runs. The dogs – beagles, because they are small and biddable, indeed trusting – are kept in a germ-free environment, and trained to accept inhalation-masks and injections. Then at 16 weeks or so, they are put into crates and transported to laboratories near and far for use in research. MBR beagles must have constituted a majority of the 4340 dogs used in British research last year, mostly for ‘repeated dose toxicity’ tests. These testing regimes may last for periods of less than 28 days, or up to and beyond 90 days. Such periods represent the likely remaining life-span of the MBR dogs, though some of them survive for re-use. The ordinary life-span of a beagle is twelve years or more. Yes, this is factory farming all right; it’s just that the dogs are being force-bred to be poisoned rather than eaten.

There’s a ‘Camp Beagle’ outside MBR Acres, protesting against, and as far as possible obstructing, the operations. Mel Broughton described the scene, with police crowding at the site entrance, and police vans escorting the MBA vehicles as they carry the dogs away: “We could hear those dogs crying in the back.” There are several videos online showing all this, in one of which can be heard a human crying too, a terrible addition to the distress. Film-clips also show the animals inside the facility, being crated and stacked in the vans. It was film of MBR Acres which is said to have shocked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She has demanded a re-examination of the use of animals in research, with a view to their eventual replacement. Very probably this project will fade into oblivion, as most progressive political schemes do. And anyway, as Mel said, “We’ve waited long enough, for 40 or 50 years . . . This has to end now, and we have to be the ones to do it . . . What all these animals want is liberation, and you are the people who will deliver that liberation. Don’t give in. Believe in what you’re doing.”

Mel Broughton is a most forceful public speaker, using no notes, prompted only by conviction and purposefulness. But as another notable speaker, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, said, “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” Can speaking, or even marching, get things done? Well, they do get things noticed, get things minded, and get things intended. Without those preliminaries, nothing collective gets done; with them, liberations have indeed been achieved in the past, and this of the animals surely can be too. But as Animal Rebellion says, “We must act now, before it is too late. It’s time to rebel for all life.”

Notes and references:

Animal Rebellion describes its 2020 occupation of Smithfield Market, and its thinking generally, in an excellent post here: https://animalrebellion.org/love-and-fruit-in-the-time-of-catastrophe-animal-rebellion-converts-smithfield-meat-market-into-smithfield-beet-market/

Animal Rebellion has published an open letter to Cargill here: https://animalrebellion.org/cargill-family-a-historic-choice-is-upon-you-planetary-destruction-or-climate-animal-and-human-justice/

The Marine Stewardship Council’s policies are described on its web-site here: https://www.msc.org/about-the-msc/what-is-the-msc

Unilever’s policy on safety-testing is presented here: https://assets.unilever.com/files/92ui5egz/production/5f08c41a40e03128d79e5a6161da28b5adb2c507.pdf/alternative-approaches-to-animal-testing.pdf  and the video showing the modern alternatives is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJWG3YCXT0Y  Its earlier work is mentioned in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, Davis-Poynter, 1975, pp.48-9, and a description of the 1984 raid and subsequent trials is given in Keith Mann’s From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007, pp.87-91. The BUAV’s exposé of Unilever and others in 2013 was published in the Daily Mail, as archived here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2345276/Food-giants-Nestle-Unilever-caught-animal-testing-scandal.html

MBR Acres is shown at work in a video made by Free the MBR Beagles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K08pAr_NvQ  Other material about it, and about Camp Beagle and the campaign, can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/campbeagle199/

Lloyd George is quoted from a speech given at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and reported in the Times for 20 January. The quotation has been used before in this blog on 26 August 2019 for the post ‘March of a Nation’.

The final quotation from Animal Rebellion comes from a general account of its 2021 actions here: https://animalrebellion.org/rebellion/

The photographs show the march setting out from Smithfield Market, the stop outside the Marine Stewardship Council (with police and pink octopus at the entrance), and Mel Broughton speaking outside Unilever’s headquarters.

An Animal Rights Activist in Prison

This is a guest post by Mel Broughton, describing his experiences of arrest, trial, and imprisonment during the campaign against the new laboratory at Oxford University. Please also read in this connection the post for 15 January, 2016, ‘In Prison and You Visited Me‘: (https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/).

In December 2007 I was arrested and charged with a number of serious offences which included ‘conspiracy to commit arson’.  A determined and controversial campaign had been waged against the building of a new animal research laboratory in Oxford.  I was spokesperson and co-founder of SPEAK, the group which had taken up the fight to stop the Oxford animal lab.  The campaign had found itself at the centre of a media storm and was fighting a High Court injunction bought by the University of Oxford.  In 2004 work had been stopped at the lab site as contractors withdrew after pressure from animal rights activists.  But after an eighteen month suspension work was resumed by anonymous contractors whose workers wore balaclavas, while building materials were delivered in unmarked lorries escorted by plainclothes security men in cars.  A surreal and at times menacing atmosphere descended over Oxford and its animal lab.

It was during this turbulent period that my home was raided and I was taken away. At 5.50 a.m. on 13th December, 2007, my sleep was disturbed by bright blue flashing lights outside my window. There were lots of voices and car doors being slammed. I sat up in bed and Bella, my dog, jumped up from her sleep. The next noise was an ear-splitting crash as the police battering ram went through the front door of the house. In the half-light I became aware of voices in the corridor, and I got up as the door to my room was opened and police officers in riot gear entered my flat. My first thought was for Bella, who was by now in a state of real fear and panic. In the half-light she passed the officers in my room and the growing number filing into the corridor, none of whom made any effort to stop her running out into the road.

My only concern at this point was my dog, the chaos and confusion of the police’s uninvited entry being secondary. One of the officers (a regular at the weekly Oxford protests) started to read from a charge sheet. In the confusion I heard the words “conspiracy”, “arson” and “blackmail”, but they meant little as I could only think of Bella running around outside in a state of panic. I remember saying to the officers, who were hyped up to the point of hysteria, that they should calm down. I was then instructed to get dressed as I was to be transferred to a police station for questioning. At this point I made it clear that I was going nowhere until they called my parents to come over and wait for my dog to return. This they agreed to, sensing that I meant what I said and that my accusation that they had deliberately let my dog out carried some truth.

My hands were cuffed behind my back and I was led out into the still dark of a winter’s morning. I passed officers as they filed into my small flat ready to take it apart. I was led to a waiting police car and saw the vans that had ferried the search teams parked in a line outside.

After a journey through the countryside in the dawn light I arrived at Banbury police station where I was to spend the next two and a half days being questioned.  It was made clear to me by my legal representative that I would be remanded to prison and any bail application at that time would be futile.  The public perception of anti-vivisection campaigners had been distorted by an alliance of police, media and animal research apologists.  It meant that increasingly the only voices listened to were those of vivisectionists.  That, combined with some high-profile arrests (some of which were filmed by invited media), pointed to a government-backed attack on the animal rights movement.

I made my appearance in court at Banbury, and after a few legal arguments was remanded.  I was taken to Woodhill prison where I was processed and informed I was a “high-risk” Category A prisoner. I was made to strip for a search and then to put on a Cat A boiler suit to be photographed and then fingerprinted. As a Cat A prisoner I would not be entitled to the usual visiting regime, so I would have to make applications for each potential visitor, who would then be subject to a police check and visit to the potential visitor’s home address. This process took up to three months to complete, and even my family visits were conducted under closed conditions behind a glass screen.

At this point I informed the reception staff that I was a strict ethical vegan.  There is always a level of disdain or hostility to those who do not conform to the norm and at this time veganism was still considered ‘extreme’ and, for the prison, troublesome.  Still it’s important that your ethical principles are recognised, and being vegan is far more than just a lifestyle choice.  Many ‘ordinary’ prisoners are curious or even confused why someone would end up in prison for standing up on behalf of nonhumans.  Most are there because of selfish motivations and unfortunately, as you soon learn, they are also largely poorly educated and from the margins of ‘respectable’ society themselves.  With some invaluable help from outside (Vegan Prisoners Support Group) and my own dogged determination I secured vegan food and toiletries.

My stay at Woodhill was to be marked by some unsettling developments when my cat A status was removed and then two weeks later put back on again.  This sense of unease was to be further confounded when I was moved into the Closed Supervision Unit (C.S.U.), a prison within the prison. The unit was small, consisting of just 24 cells, but there were only 9 prisoners there and, as I later learnt, most of them had allegedly committed politically motivated crimes or the most serious non-political crimes. It was claustrophobic, with cameras on the walls and outside the cells. There were six officers to nine prisoners; there was no exercise yard – just a “cage” where you could stand for twenty minutes per day to get some air. I refused to enter the cage, telling the officers that I had spent my life fighting to keep other animals out of cages and I was not prepared to voluntarily walk into one myself. As such, I was not to get any outside exercise for a year. I suspected the move to the CSU was meant to make me look as ‘mad’ and ‘dangerous’ as possible, and my suspicions were confirmed when I was informed that it was at the request of outside agencies that my cat A status had been reinstated.

I still tried to make the best possible use of time by immersing myself in reading and study.  At first it was difficult to gain any material about animal rights because the censors and prison security deemed it a risk.  It is strange that rights for nonhumans had become such a threat to the status quo, but on reflection it doesn’t take an academic to work it out.  The truth is that animal exploitation is big business and most peoples’ lives are connected to it in some way.  The fact that nonhuman animals can and do suffer in the same ways that we can should cause everyone concern, but it has been a recurring fact in human society that we often suspend our rational thought to replace it with stories and agendas that hide the truth.  Add to this the powerful influence of an institution like Oxford University and I could see why my predicament was as it was.

I was asked often by other prisoners why would I think that animals deserved any consideration, let alone basic rights.  I always took time to explain why I held the views I did and often I would earn their respect, even if they didn’t fully understand.  There are human victims in prison, people with obvious mental health problems who should have received help not captivity.  It only served to strengthen my dislike for the principle ‘might is right’.  I could get a proper sense of what it is to be an animal locked in a cage.  The difference is that I still had some rights, something no nonhuman can rely on to alleviate their torment and abuse.  As time passed I managed to secure more vegan items to supplement my diet and on one occasion delivered a talk to some fellow inmates on veganism.  I also had to prepare for my first trial which meant reading a lot of legal papers and trying to understand some of the extremely complex arguments that were to surface in the science of Low Tandem DNA (LTDna) profiling.

My trips from prison to the courthouse in Oxford were long drawn-out affairs.  As a category A prisoner I had to travel in a prison van on my own.  I was required to wear a green and yellow boiler suit with a large A on the back (and, though it was winter, only prison shorts and a T-shirt underneath).  This again, as I learned from a prison officer, was to heighten the sense of menace at the court and put me in as bad a light as possible.  On my arriving at court, other prisoners were told to move back as I was led to a holding cell whilst cuffed to other officers.  I caught the looks on their faces as if I was someone who at any moment was likely to attack them, and I never got used to that. I was to discover that the police had also requested I be shackled in the courtroom and be accompanied by five prison officers.  The judge refused the last request and said, “He is not a dangerous man. I don’t want to see all those officers in the courtroom”.

I was to endure a total of three trials before I was finally sentenced to 10 years.  After a hung jury at the first trial I was re-tried, and after a guilty verdict at the second trial I appealed my conviction.  I was to win my appeal against the verdict but a ruling that it was a misdirection from the judge in the second trial meant the prosecution could call for a third trial – which they did.  The courtroom had a large screen on which to play selected segments of speeches I had made at demonstrations in Oxford and elsewhere.  It is surprising how cleverly-edited pieces of media put together can produce what amounts to unbridled support for direct action.   It would take too much time to recount the details of all three trials but it was clear I was to be ‘dealt’ with and the guilty verdict came almost as a release.  I was returned to prison to continue my sentence.

On my release from prison I was to be subject to five years of ‘bespoke’ licence conditions.  Among these conditions were: “vii, Not to contact or associate with anyone currently or formerly associated with the campaign currently or formerly known as SPEAK without prior approval of your supervising officer.” And “viii, Not to contact directly or indirectly any person whom you know or believe to have been charged or convicted of any offence related to animal liberation/rights, without the prior approval of your supervising officer.”  This amounted to social isolation for someone whose friends and colleagues were drawn from the animal rights movement.  Each visit to see my supervising officer was always prefaced by the question “Have you seen anyone?”  The number of people who attended SPEAK protests or were supporters was in the thousands; how could I possibly know who they all were?  I dealt with the situation by arguing back at every opportunity, but it’s difficult to argue with the faceless agencies who design these conditions.  The point is you are meant to feel helpless, and in such circumstances to become disillusioned.  But for me that was never going to happen; it only served to make me more determined to return to the animal rights movement the moment my conditions lapsed.

The Oxford animal lab had been opened in 2008, and in 2017 a total of 236,429 animals including mice, rats, ferrets, guinea pigs, nonhuman primates, pigs, jungle fowl, and zebra fish suffered and died there.  SPEAK is still there; for fourteen years the weekly protests have been a presence, a reminder to Oxford University that we have not forgotten those nonhuman victims.  The university blandly states that medical progress is not possible without animal experimentation. But this is the 21st century; science, like all human endeavours, moves on or should.  And what of our understanding of the complex nature and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals?  Oxford University ignores and loftily dismisses the suffering it creates inside its animal lab, but it will not be allowed to silence us.

 

Mel Broughton