Animal rights activist Jordi Casamitjana looks at the different National Animal Rights Marches that have taken place in London through the years, especially the most recent one in 2023.
“We are not alone.”
Anyone who has spent some time fighting for a worthy cause needs to “feel” this sentence now and then. Most worthy causes exist because they are not yet part of the status quo — which is why they are “causes” — meaning they rely on minorities to propel them forward. And many of these minorities are quite small, relative to the size of the majorities who do not support their causes, or mostly ignore them. This is why, now and then, activists for such causes need to get together and perform “rituals” to tell each other and the world that “we are not alone”. This is what, in a nutshell, socio-political marches are. A group of people parading themselves around society shouting about what they believe in, in front of complete strangers.
Marches are quite different to protests. Their focus is not on whoever they a protesting against as is the case of static protests. Marches’ focus is on those who march, telling the world “Here we are, this is what we believe, and we are proud in believing it”. Despite what people assume they are, marches are not really recruiting tools (although activist can reinforce their identity when participating in them and they engage in leafleting on their edges). They are not really lobbying tools either (although politicians may change their position when they watch them, and they may use them in their speeches). They are not really campaigning tools (although campaigners use them to promote their brand and to call people to action). They are mainly social tools that reinforce the identity of socio-political movements and give them a sense of perspective regarding their diversity and size.
They are, essentially, morale boosters, and the animal rights movement, which for decades has been struggling against a tide of speciesism and apathy, certainly needs a boost. And one dose of such a boost a year, in the place most symbolic of unity, may give you enough morale for the next 12 months or so. A big march in your capital representing all those fighting for the same cause as you in the nation where you live is what could do it. A National Animal Rights March of some sort — with whatever name you want to use to label it.
The UK animal rights movement, one of the older animal rights movements in the world, has been quite aware of the importance of this type of annual morale-boosting event, so it has been organising animal rights marches in London for quite some time. Not all had the same name or scope, but they all aimed to get as many people on the streets of the UK capital showing the nation that “we are not alone.”
Let’s have a look at how these marches have been evolving in the UK.
The National “Not Quite” Animal Rights Marches
I found it difficult to find all the big marches that have happened in London over the decades that could be classed as “animal rights” marches because they were often not defined as such at the time. Many were about specific issues within the animal rights scope, but focusing on particular types of animals (such as wildlife), particular types of animal exploitation (such as vivisection), or particular animal crises (such as animal culls). Many were not big enough, or not mobile enough, to qualify as either “national” or “marches”, and others were just animal rights sections of other bigger marches of another type (such as the 2023 Vegan Earth Day March which was just one section of the Earth Day March).
Over the decades I have been an animal protectionist, I have participated in many marches — and I have even helped to organise one, the National March Against the Badger Cull on 1st June 2013, when I was the campaign manager of IFAW.
Anti-vivisection marches were probably the first in London, starting centuries ago. One of the firsts may have been about the Brown Dog Affair (a statue of whom can still be seen in Battersea Park). In February 1903, William Bayliss of the Department of Physiology at University College London performed an illegal public vivisection on a brown terrier dog still conscious. The procedure was condemned as cruel and unlawful by the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) that had been formed in 1875. On 10th December 1907, hundreds of medical students marched through central London waving effigies of the brown dog on sticks, clashing with 300 police officers.
As part of the World Day for Laboratory Animals, NAVS organised several marches through central London over the years calling for an end to the use of animals in research. The one on 25th April 1992, might have been the biggest anti-vivisection march in London, reported to have had 23,000 participants. In 1990, NAVS’s march had reached nearly 10,000 people (who marched from the Little Brown Dog statue in Battersea Park), and in 1991 it had reached 18,000. There were also several marches against live exports, and on 13th July 2002, Viva! organised a big march to end factory farming, starting in Kennington Park. The March to Close all Slaughterhouses, which started in France in 2012, has been also an annual activist feature seen in the UK capital for some years — as have been several anti-hunting marches.
However, none of these marches covered the entire philosophy of animal rights, or the philosophy of veganism, which, although I consider them separate but mutually reinforcing philosophies and social movements, they overlap greatly. That was until 2016.
The “Official” National Animal Rights Marches
From 2016 onward, except for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a big annual animal rights march in London that is not focused on any group of animals in particular, or any specific type of exploitation. Such marches, which attracted not only animal rights activists but also vegans who may have not considered themselves as activists before participating in the march, have been organised by different organisations, and sometimes have had the extra term “official” attached to them, to link them to similar marches in other countries.
The first of these happened on 29th October 2016, and it was organised by the grassroots group Surge Activism, led by the vegan activist Ed Winters, also known as Earthling Ed. According to Surge, the purpose of that march was, “To unite the vegan community globally and inspire vegans to speak up for animals in their everyday lives and get active in their local communities.” It was estimated that about 2,500 people attended, who met at Hyde Park Corner. That one was called by some “The Big Animal Rights March”, and it is perhaps the first of these marches where the term “vegan”, and the concept that veganism and animal rights are intrinsically linked dominated its narrative.
In 2017 the march was officially named “The Official National Animal Rights March”, and it happened on 2nd September. It is believed that over 5,000 people attended. It was still organised by Surge, with the support from The Save Movement and the HeartCure Collective. The meeting point was the Achilles Statue, located in Hyde Park. Speakers included Earthling Ed, Joey Carbstrong, Lucy Cooke, Cesar Feradras, Kate Louise Powell, Jordan Heart, and Rehana Sara Jomeen.
The 2018 march, which happened on Saturday 25th August, had a bigger participation, believed to have reached 10,000 participants. It was still organised by Surge, with the support from HeartCure Collective. It began in Millbank and ended in Hyde Park. Speakers included Ed Winters and actress Evanna Lynch. That year organisers linked the march with similar marches happening in other countries, claiming that more than 28,000 attendees marched in 25 cities across the world demanding an end to all animal oppression.
The National Animal Rights March should not be confused with the National Animal Rights Day. The latter was created in New York City, US, in 2011, by the nonprofit organization “Our Planet. Theirs Too.” Inspired by the stunts created by the animal protection organisation Animal Equality, which in 2008 in Madrid, Spain, first developed the format of an Animal Rights Day commemorated with a Memorial Ceremony using silent activists standing with the dead bodies of non-human animals (and it continues having this sort of events every year), “Our Planet. Theirs Too” started to replicate them in several US cities. Also, the National Animal Rights Day should not be confused with the International Animal Rights Day, a day created by the UK organisation Uncaged, and celebrated every 10th of December. These are commemorative days or static protests, but not national marches that move thousands of people through capital cities.
The “Protest” National Animal Rights Marches
The 2019 animal rights march in London, which happened on 17th August, changed its main organiser group. This time, it was Animal Rebellion (Now called Animal Rising), an animal rights offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, known for its direct-action civil disobedience approach. They slightly changed the march from a purely morale-boosting expressive march to a more direct-action protest march.
Like the previous year, there were also other marches happening in other cities under the same “brand” name of the “official” animal rights march, and it was reported that they happened in 49 cities worldwide, from Berlin to Melbourne, with a collective attendance of 41,000 activists. However, I have not seen any evidence that all these marches were coordinated to the extent they could be considered the same march under the same organisers.
It was reported that the London Animal Rights March in 2019 saw 12,000 people, a record that has not been beaten yet for a generic animal rights march — although, as we saw earlier, anti-vivisection marches had achieved bigger numbers. This may be explained not only by the natural progression of these marches since 2016 but also because in 2019 London saw an explosion of animal rights activism, with many vegan outreach groups being created (several of which I joined).
However, the National Animal Rights march in London was different than previous ones because it openly planned some direct action as part of the event (which was one of the reasons I did not participate in it as I was in the middle of my litigation that would lead to ethical veganism becoming a protected philosophical belief, and I thought it would be too risky for me to participate in a protest that could involve unlawful activities). The activity I am referring to is that the march stopped en route to blockade Trafalgar Square for an hour. The rally at the end in Parliament Square included speeches from Ed Winters, Evanna Lynch and James Hoot from Animal Rebellion.
After the 2020 break because of COVID, the 2021 march happened on 28th August and continued being organised by Animal Rebellion. As the previous year, it also included several key stops. The meeting point was Smithfield Market (the biggest wholesale meat market in the UK), quite a departure from previous marches. The circular route of the march began going to the world headquarters of Unilever on Victoria Embankment, then to the London HQ of Cargill, then on to the offices of the Marine Stewardship Council, and finally finishing at Smithfield market. It is believed that around 1,000 people participated, a decline in numbers affected by the still active COVID-19 pandemic.
Claudia Penna Rojas, one of the speakers at the march, said: “Animal Rights Marches have historically served as a space to celebrate and remember the trillions of animals killed and exploited by humans in the name of progress, tradition or entertainment, and we expect today to be no different. By coming together we can envision the world we want to see, provide space for grief and despair as well as a catalyst to commit to further action and change.” Other speakers included Mel Broughton, co-founder of SPEAK campaign against vivisection; Dr Alice Brough, renowned pig veterinarian and activist; Tim Bailey, environmental scientist and one of the UK’s most prominent farm regulatory pollution experts, and Dr Laila Kassam, co-founder of Animal Think Tank, a grassroots organisation building a social movement for Animal Freedom in the UK. Wendy McGovern was the host of this march.
Harley McDonald-Eckersall, a spokesperson from Animal Rebellion, the organisers of 2021’s march, said: “Humans kill over 70 billion land mammals every single year. We drain the oceans of trillions of fish, all in the name of profit and a meal for us to consume. After decades of deception and lies from massive corporations, there is almost no facet of our lives that does not profit from the exploitation of animals in some way. We must come together and unite for animal justice to say no more to testing, no more to the fur trade and no more to slaughter. We need to imagine and create a world based on freedom and justice for all animals.”
The 2022 march took place on 6th August, and it was a collaboration between Animal Rebellion, Animal Freedom Movement, North London Hunt Sabs, Animal Justice Project and Animal Save UK. The meeting point was Marble Arch, and the route was Marble Arch – Oxford Circus – Piccadilly Circus – Trafalgar Square – Parliament Square. Speakers included Dan Kidby and Laila Kassam. I could not find any source of information about the number of participants, but I assume it was still low as COVID-19 was still an issue.
The Clashes of Marches for 2023
In 2023, a mild but direct clash occurred between two marchers planned for London the same day. One that could be perceived as representing the “rebranding” of the original march that Animal Rebellion/Animal Rising seemed to have been undertaking since 2019, and another representing the “back to basics” march that wanted to be a more generic typical animal rights march, this one planned by unaffiliated grassroots activists. In the end, the latter won, as a few weeks before the event Animal Rising cancelled its march planned for such a day (although they don’t claim theirs was another National Animal Rights March as the one they organised in previous years, but something different).
The march took place on Saturday 26th August, and it was organised by the National Animal Rights March collective (NARM), quickly created by independent activists for the sole purpose of organising it. Sunny Ky, one of its members who initiated the move toward creating a different march than the one proposed by Animal Rising, told Vegan FTA how everything started: “The journey to organize this peaceful march commenced on July 3rd, when a small group of friends and I felt a compelling need to address a significant concern. It became evident that another march, titled the `March for Animals and Nature,’ lacked the crucial inclusion of the term ‘rights.’ Fuelled by our deep conviction, we embarked on the journey to initiate the National Animal Rights March, scheduled for August 26th. This event served as a counterpoint to the aforementioned march. This juncture held immense significance for the entire vegan community. It presented a pivotal choice – one that urged each individual to decide between advocating for the ‘rights’ of other animals or uniting with both vegans and non-vegans in support of the broader march for animals and nature. Our motive was never to sow division within the vegan community. Our goal, rather, was to underscore the vital importance of recognizing and championing the inherent ‘rights’ of animals — a responsibility that we owe to them.”
Kate Jay, another of the organisers, told me this on 25th July 2023: “The National Animal Rights March 2023 is being organised by a small group of grassroots vegan animal rights activists. We are completely independent and not aligned with any national or international groups. We decided to organise the march when Animal Rising announced that they would be doing a different type of march this year – one which invited non-vegans to participate and didn’t have a vegan or animal rights message. We are organising in a short time span but are hopeful that we can pull things off!
This is what Animal Rising wrote in a statement when it announced it had cancelled its march (passed to me by Kate Jay):
“We will no longer be marching for Animals and Nature in London on 26th August.
For the last few years, Animal Rebellion (now Animal Rising) has been organising the ‘National Animal Rights March’, an event that started in the 2010s and peaked in 2019 with 10,000 people in London. As a nonviolent group spanning the animal and environmental movements, it is no secret that not everyone was happy with our involvement in this and, indeed, we acknowledge we were never the perfect group to take it on when Surge stepped back.
At the beginning of this year, we offered the march to most major animal groups in the UK in the hope that they may pick it up. None did. The event page on Facebook, set up the year before, remained quiet as we were focussed on delivering a high-pressure nonviolent direct action campaign that involved disrupting 5 animal-racing events, a dairy farm occupation, the rescue of 3 lambs from Royal land, a demonstration outside nearly half of the remaining greyhound tracks on the same day, and more. With these high-profile actions, we sought to help repair our broken relationship with animals and nature, repeatedly asking one simple question ‘as a country of people who love animals, are we really okay with them being harmed and exploited for our use, whether on race tracks; in laboratories; or in farming and fishing where the largest number of animals suffer with the greatest impact on our natural world?’
Throughout this campaign, the 26th August was always at the back of our minds. The National Animal Rights March itself has been declining since Covid and it is evident to many that marching is not always an effective way to achieve change, especially if not tied to a broader strategy with appropriate messaging. Naturally, we care deeply about being as impactful as possible when addressing the animal and nature emergencies, and we always want to make sure anything we invite our supporters to is worthwhile and transformative. We had long, and very serious conversations about where our energy is best spent and came to the conclusion that we would not be organising the National Animal Rights March, and would instead try something new (with the added spice people have come to expect of us).
In the absence of another group to organise the original March, we expected it would just not happen. I personally advocated keeping our new event on the advertised date to not let down people who had already made arrangements to be there on the 26th (travel, etc.), although now acknowledge this was a mistake. We could have also done better to communicate the rationale behind this decision, although we were admittedly under immense pressure ahead of the action(s) at the Greyhound Derby final in Towcester.
Regardless, some individuals have now stepped up to organise the National Animal Rights March on the day it was originally planned. Naturally, this would clash with our March for Animals and Nature. In line with our nonviolent principles and to foster unity across the animal and environmental movements, we have decided to cancel our event.”
The “Back to Basics” National Animal Rights March 2023
The National Animal Rights March 2023 held on 26th August started at Marble Arch at noon and headed for Parliament Square via Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Whitehall. This is what the organisers, NARM, wrote to define what the march was about:
“It’s that time of the year – time to bring our energies together and march for the animals. Time to send out a strong and clear message: Animals are here WITH us; not for us. And that they should have at least one right: the right NOT to be treated as property or resources.
We won’t be satisfied with comfier cages; we are demanding EMPTY ones. We don’t want tests to be conducted on a different species; we are demanding the END of animal testing. We aren’t asking for better methods of exploitation or more legislation which equally protects the oppressors.
We want the END of all use of other animals for any purpose whatsoever.
Let’s end the oppression of other animals and march for justice, respect and peace.”
I participated in this march, and it went very smoothly (despite the continuous threat of heavy rain, which only materialised after the march ended). I asked a policeperson present about how many people he thought attended, and he said he guessed between 1000 and 2000. The march made two short improvised stops, one by the infamous Canada Goose store which sells jackets made with coyote fur and goose feathers, and another by a steakhouse, where some of the marchers protested without any major incident. The march ended in Parliament Square where five activists gave short speeches. These were Fran Vaz, Sean Barrs, Aura Palmer, Mel Broughton, and Wendy McGovern.
Fran Vaz is an artist and activist who loves using her creativity and ideas to work towards animal freedom. When she’s not organising activism events, she spends her time drawing, painting and sewing. She has been involved in decorating buildings, banners, piñatas and (sometimes) even slaughterhouse trucks. Fran said this in her speech:
“Activism is about doing what is right not just what is comfortable. This means, sometimes, after choosing the path less travelled, sometimes means going against the grain. This might mean work moving away from opportunities, and jobs, and projects that you might be doing that don’t align with your values. It might mean losing your friends. It might mean standing up against oppressive behaviour too. It might mean taking a risk. It might mean doing something that you never thought was even possible for you. Doing what is right over what is comfortable is really hard and often a really big sacrifice. It can hurt a lot of the time but I think it’s what we need to do to change our world for the better.”
Sean Barrs is a vegan academic, activist, and ultra runner. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. and planning future races and fundraisers for sanctuaries. He’s been vegan for 13 years and believes in a vegan future in which every animal is free. Sean also organises activism with his grassroots group, Vegan Actions Cambridge. He said this in his speech
“Together we can come away from here today and we can make a huge difference. We can change history if we continue to raise our voices like we have today. So, you must never underestimate your ability to affect change. You must never underestimate your ability to convince others of what is right and what is true. Each and every one of us has a part to play in achieving Animal Liberation. We each have our own skills, abilities, and strengths that we can bring to this movement and we need to utilize them. We need to work harder than ever before because the animals need us more than ever before.”
Aura Palmer is a vegan activist and artist. She is 19 years old and has been vegan her whole life. She does a lot of street activism and works with many animal rights groups in London. She said this in her speech:
“I was really happy to be asked to speak at this year’s Animal Rights march because this is a very important event for me. In 2017, I attended the march with my family at the age of 14. My whole life I wanted to get involved in activism. My mum has been an animal rights activist all her life… I attended the Animal Rights march in 2021. I was so happy to finally be able to come, and also so happy to see how many other younger people were also there fighting for the animals. More and more vegans mean more and more vegans having children. As someone who has been raised vegan, I can say 100 per cent that it is the best thing you can possibly do for your child. I feel so lucky to have been raised by such strong and passionate parents.”
Mel Broughton joined the fight for Animal Rights at the beginning of the 1980’s and in the following decades has taken part in many campaigns. As a hunt saboteur, Mel learnt the value of direct action in saving lives and changing minds. He said this in his speech:
“My message today is this: Please do not forget the principles this movement was built on. And I want to give you an example, because I often read online, on social media, these arguments, these pointless arguments between vegans and plant-based, and all the rest of it. It doesn’t matter. And here’s why it doesn’t matter. When I used to get in a van in the early 1980s on a Saturday morning with a group of people to go to a hunt, or go on a March, or a slaughterhouse, I would get in a van with one or two vegans, probably more vegetarians, and even one or two meat eaters. But I can guarantee you one thing. The animal rights people in that van, within a few weeks, had changed everyone into an animal rights activist, consequently a vegan.”
Wendy McGovern first got involved with grassroots Animal Rights at the age of 17 through anti-vivisection activism with Uncaged Campaigns. Since then, her activism has been diverse including event organising, stall holding, outreach, protests, and volunteering with local rescue and farmed animal sanctuaries. Her recent projects include setting up and hosting the Thrive Vegan World podcast, and The Animal Rights Show, which streams regularly on YouTube. She said in her speech:
“The animal rights movement is different to other social justice movements. Other animals live under the tyranny of an oppressor and face an injustice of an unthinkable size and scale, but unlike other movements, the oppressed individuals are not the ones who mobilize their own movements. Instead, it falls to us humans to stand as their advocates, allies, and accomplices to seek Justice on their behalf. That’s not to say that our fellow animals are voiceless, or that they do not resist their oppression. They protest with their voices and resist with their bodies, but their protests are ignored and their resistance is crushed and often punished.”
Simple Morale-Boosting Performances
As usual, several animal rights organisations send their contingents to participate in the march with their own banners and placards. I asked Animal Aid what they think about these types of marches, and Fiona Pereira, Campaign Manager, replied:
“Marches like the National Animal Rights March in London are a fantastic way for people who believe in a world without animal exploitation to gather, and enable everyone to share knowledge and experiences of how we can achieve that goal. The solidarity of being part of a movement that is campaigning for an end to animal exploitation gives us all renewed energy, as well as being a wonderful vehicle for meeting new friends and finding ways of collaborating. The march is also important for spreading the message to people who may be unaware of the plight of animals, and for people who are new to the movement to start participating in campaigning. The energy of a unified group of people is empowering and gives us hope.”
I asked Sunny Ky, one of the activists I mentioned earlier who got the idea to organise a march different from the one planned by Animal Rising, about how he thinks it went. He said, “Despite its brief 8-week preparation and limited resources, the National Animal Rights March saw an impressive turnout, even in the face of railway strikes that prevented many vegans from attending. I’d like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to everyone involved for their exceptional dedication to advocating for animals. Collectively, we’re making a substantial impact in pushing for a more ethical and compassionate world.”
When the event finished, I approached the host who was introducing the speakers and helped to direct the march, and who announced that, from then on, the march would be organised on the first Saturday of every September. I asked him for his impression of how it went. He said the following:
“We set out to achieve as many numbers as we possibly could. This far outweighed our expectations. We’ve had so much stacked against us. We had a limited time period to set things up and get things organized; we’ve had the train strikes; it’s a bank holiday, and lots of people are on holiday. And despite that, we’ve had a massive turnout in numbers. The speakers have all been fantastic. I really can’t add more than that. Watching people march was phenomenal. Seeing people just organising themselves, knowing where to go, which path to follow, and taking that time to get out of other people’s way, the police have been absolutely awesome. I genuinely couldn’t ask more. Everybody that’s been here has been phenomenal. And to look out at a sea of people it’s just stunning. And next year will be bigger, better, and far more effective.”
I asked him how he wanted to be quoted, and he said, “We are the National Animal Rights March Collective.” Even if I already knew it, he did not want to give me his name, which I took as not wanting to pull focus away from the collective into individuals or organisations — as perhaps that was one of the things the new “organisers” wanted to move away from.
Marches thrive with both the power of the individual and the power of the collective. This is why we see banners carried in harmony by a diverse group of people but also imaginative placards showcasing the creativity of the individual marchers, expressing themselves in very original and clever ways. Marches are loosely structured and improvised performances, with makeup, costumes, chants, dialogues, and ensemble acts, which narrate a story (with a beginning of meeting and gathering, a middle of fluid marching and performing, and an end of reflecting and dispersing) centred on the message “we are not alone.” They are mostly morale-boosting and inspiring inter-movement events the success of which are not measured by what they achieve, but how they make their participants feel.
They are not more complicated than that. If the National Animal Rights March aims to be welcoming to everyone who is in alignment with the core principles of the animal rights movement (not necessarily of the wider vegan movement), it does not need to be more complicated than that.
It seems to me that, through trial and error, the National Animal Rights March is finding its identity.
Let’s see how it is manifested in the following years.