In the early hours of Wednesday, May 13, the Beeston butchers’ shop ‘Meat 4 U’ was vandalised with the words ‘scum’, ‘murderer’ and slogans ‘stop killing’, ‘kill butchers’, ‘meat = murder’. The graffiti was done by self-proclaimed ‘anarcho-vegan’ animal rights’ group ‘Liberate or Die’. However, as a non-meat-eater, though unaffiliated with any activist groups, I am not convinced that this was an exhibition useful to the cause. In fact, it appears that this misplaced action has become somewhat endemic in recent years to animal rights’ activism more so than any other issue, with organizations from PETA to Animal Liberation Front regularly coming under fire for their inability to see anything beyond their own narrow cause. The result is that animal rights campaigners struggle to be taken seriously.
Direct action can be useful in the activist toolkit. It can work on multiple levels for a cause. If you can actively stop an injustice from happening, break a chain of supply, or cause a disruption that in the long run prevents injustice with commensurate action then you have made progress. There are other times where the action may not dent the overall system by directly stopping the cogs turning but rather causes enough disruption and controversy to open up a wider discussion and illuminate a cause that previously went unacknowledged by mainstream thought. Think Extinction Rebellion camping out on roundabouts in the centre of London and disrupting commuter traffic. Whilst there is an inevitable effect on the people’s journeys, the overall effect on individuals is minimal and spread across a wide number – it is not a personal attack, rather it is a disruption of everyone. The disruption was enough of an inconvenience to make national news and draw a vast amount of attention to climate justice. I’m not suggesting that all activism should be conducted in this exact manner, but rather that the praxis should fit the cause and further it. In this day and age, activism is more about PR than it is about throwing bricks.
In this case, targeting a small business, which must undoubtedly be struggling financially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is tone-deaf regardless of your view on eating meat. To target a very small group of people in response to the wider issue of carnism under capitalism seems entirely misplaced. Yes, it is often necessary that to make a statement businesses may be affected, but this is not a massive corporate monster. No animals were saved by those messages as they are dead long before they reach the shop, and the customer base of a butchers’ are well aware of where meat comes from and aren’t likely to be deterred. Whilst it is true that consumer habits affect supply and demand; these are people who actively choose to go to a shop specifically for meat so are the least likely to have a change of lifestyle.
The messages therefore only really preached to the converted, something that I feel has become an increasing issue for activism in the era of social media. Whilst demonstrations like these might look radical on the surface, they end up being little more than a self-congratulatory effort that make for edgy imagery. These messages on a small, family-owned business do nothing to actually raise awareness of animal rights. Daubing these messages across a storefront in a town like Beeston, that has a very diverse and working-class community spirit, just seems to be in bad taste. It ignores the current more pressing issue of people struggling to make ends meet, pay their rent and keep their businesses afloat amidst global economic uncertainty. The absurdity of ‘kill butchers’ alongside ‘stop killing’ really hammers that home.
As I mentioned previously, this isn’t a new scourge on the animal rights’ cause. With the rise of ‘white veganism’ it seems that those who advocate for animal rights can often find themselves overlooking human rights in the process of their performative critiques. I used to believe, naively, that in an ideal world we would and could all be vegan, but I quickly realised this is not in any way compatible with the current state of the world; it wouldn’t help us end the housing crisis, it would push us even further from solving world hunger, and it definitely wouldn’t help us redistribute Jeff Bezos’ wealth. I also came to learn that giving up meat entirely isn’t feasible for everyone for so many reasons – health, economic factors, and cultural reasons all play a role in why not everyone can eschew meat altogether – and to steamroll these human considerations is ableist, classist and colonialist too.
It occurs to me that most reasonable people that have the compassion to care for animal rights also care about human rights and these are not things that can be separated; large scale use of animals for food is a result of the same consumerism that creates sweatshops and poor working conditions. If we want to support animal rights we cannot support them in a vacuum or in lieu of any and all other causes. We have to think about the cultural and economic factors that make veganism impossible for some people to adopt as well as the human causes we might be squashing with our need to appear ethical, unproblematic and all-loving. It is unfortunately not enough to call one butcher a murderer and disappear into the night.