With only around 1,000 people taking to the streets at this year’s National Animal Rights March in London – compared with 12,000 at the last similar (pre-pandemic) event in 2019 – the drummers were more important than usual.
Events like this are all about creating a vivid spectacle to attract the attention of the public and hopefully raise awareness. So you have posters (essential), smoke flares (optional and kind of annoying), wacky outfits (optional) and noise (essential) – anything that makes you seen and heard.
With any luck, much of the noise comes from marchers chanting slogans en masse: “There’s no excuse for animal abuse”, “Humane slaughter is a lie”, “It’s not food, it’s violence”, etc. But this year, unfortunately, with such a relatively small crowd, there was no way voices alone would carry the message, particularly as not everyone is into chanting.
Hence the importance of the drummers. There were two small groups of them, one near the head of the march, one near the tail, and they were magnificent and loud. Small it might have been, but there was no missing this demonstration.
I stuck close to the leading group of drummers and soon fell into an almost hypnotic state of presence driven the rhythm of their beats, marching for a cause I care passionately about. The persistent pounding ran through the protest like an invisible thread, lifting the limited chanting a little higher, stitching the spectacle together.
It was therefore absurd when the drummers were told by one of the march organisers to shut up. During a stop outside the headquarters of Unilever, which tests cosmetics on animals, a speaker said how great the drummers were but could they please stop for the rest of the march and let people speak for “those without voices”.
As the march continued without the drummers’ beat, it was immediately clear that there simply weren’t enough people there to make enough noise with voices alone. Without that pounding rhythm, the buzz had been killed. I could see a few what-the-fuck looks on the faces of the drummers, and indeed was so WTF myself I almost walked off at that point.
I have no idea why anyone would decide to pull the plug on a key component of the march – presumably the decision was made in a studiously democratic fashion, perhaps even by impromptu committee, for good reasons unclear to me – but fortunately it didn’t last long. One group of drummers remained relatively quiet for the rest of the march, offering the occasional rim-shot here and there, but the one near the rear went rogue and was soon pounding out the beat with full force.
Ultimately the job of the march will have been done: at least some of those who saw the spectacle passing through the City of London on Saturday August 28, beginning and ending at Smithfield meat market, will have been provoked into wondering what it was all about. Perhaps some will have been inspired to find out more about the cruelty of the meat industry and the dark contribution it makes to the destruction of our planet. Maybe some – in fact just one would be enough for today – will even find their way to a plant-based life.
I’m very glad I took part but must confess I was disappointed by the huge fall in numbers compared with the 2019 march. On that one, it felt like veganism was surging ahead. This time, it felt a little like it was in retreat. I doubt that’s the case, though; just my perception on the day. (High-quality statistics on vegans in the UK are hard to come by but everything points towards growing numbers.)
I understand that it must have been challenging to organise such an event just a few months into the post-pandemic opening up of the world, with many around the country reticent about the prospect of travelling to the capital for a demonstration.
But one of the big differences between the 2021 event and the 2019 one is that this year’s was organised by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) sister group Animal Rebellion (AR) and the last one by the campaign organisation Surge. I know very little about either group, but AR definitely has a higher profile – and not necessarily in a good way, at least from a public perception point of view.
This year’s march came at the end of a week of direct action by both XR and AR, with a good few activists arrested along the way. Perhaps this might have put some off attending, fearing it would be the kind of protest that would involve a willingness to be detained by the police. I support the missions of both XR and AR but even so, I initially had second thoughts about joining the march for that exact reason.
It’s a tricky issue for these organisations to navigate. On the one hand they argue we are in a climate emergency (I agree 100 per cent) and that strong action is needed right now (again I agree). On the other, much of what they do does little more than put off ordinary members of the public trying to go about keeping a roof over their heads; causing traffic jams in an already congested city, for example, or trying to stop public transport running do little to win anyone over.
We definitely need radical, rapid change to save our planet, but if this is going to come through the work of groups such as XR and AR, they are going to have to raise their game beyond the approach of any publicity is good publicity. It might make good fodder for the social media machine (and how strange it is that so many campaigners rely so heavily on feeding the artificial intelligence systems developed by some of the world’s most powerful corporate gangsters, thereby making them wealthier and even more powerful).
But for a revolution to succeed, you have to convince the broad masses to take action. It will require much creative thinking.