Direct Action: Is It Effective?

According to one dictionary, direct action is “The use of immediately effective acts, such as strikes, demonstrations, or sabotage, to achieve a political or social end.” This definition is somewhat vague; there’s no clear line separating direct action from other forms of activism.

In this post, I’ll focus on non-peaceful forms of animal rights activism – disrupting places which sell animal products, breaking into labs and factory farms to free animals, burning these facilities down and so on.

I decided to write about this topic after finding the YouTube channel of a UK direct action group. They marched into meat markets and the shops of charities which test on animals, chanting phrases like “Shame on you” through a megaphone.

This strategy seemed painfully ineffective. Butchers in the market immediately became aggressive, making rude gestures and shouting offensive comments. They felt personally attacked, and so they retaliated. It was hard to see what had been achieved, other than fostering resentment towards animal rights activists.

To me, it seemed that showing farm and slaughterhouse footage to the public outside the market, or handing out leaflets and engaging in conversation with people, would’ve been a far better approach. It would likely have made many people think twice about what they bought, whereas I doubt this group’s approach changed anyone’s mind.

Similarly, marching into charity shops with a loudspeaker is likely to be counterproductive – staff and customers will probably be intimidated rather than sympathetic. Talking to people who are about to enter the shop would be more effective.

What about more extreme forms of direct action? Breaking into and sabotaging facilities is controversial even within the animal rights community. I recently watched the documentary ‘Behind the Mask’, which is about the Animal Liberation Front – groups of individuals who illegally free animals from facilities like farms and labs.

As an example, the ALF successfully shut down a rabbit farm by breaking in and freeing several rabbits. Presumably, the farmer couldn’t afford to replace the missing animals and repair the damage.

But this tactic didn’t work on facilities run by large corporations, which had plenty of money to buy more animals. To cause enough damage to shut down these facilities, the ALF resorted to an even more extreme tactic – arson.

In the film, a member explains how they shut down a slaughterhouse  by burning it down (after first ensuring no-one was in the building). Since no more animals will be slaughtered there, it seems they were successful.

But looking at the bigger picture, I’m unsure whether these tactics are effective. Destroying slaughterhouses doesn’t reduce the public demand for meat, and while demand remains high, the industry will find a way to meet it. Moreover, if animal rights activists commit arson, it becomes easy to label them as extremists.

Having said that, some forms of direct action definitely do make people sit up and take notice. A while back, some Israeli ALF activists broke into a hatchery and turned off the machine which shredded the male chicks alive. The police arrived, and one activist challenged a policeman to turn the machine back on. He wouldn’t do it. The video got over 100,000 views and no doubt made many people aware of the fate of male chicks in the egg industry.

Then there’s hunt saboteurs, those who use direct action to stop blood sports. They’re an example of direct action with a definite positive impact; they save the lives of many foxes and other animals, and raise awareness of these issues in the process.

I admire the bravery of those who risk jail time for what they believe in, and no doubt the rescued animals appreciate it too. As a peaceful activist, nothing I’ve done has come close to shutting down a slaughterhouse! However, I think it’s really important to inspire lasting change in people’s habits so they stop supporting industries which abuse, kill and exploit animals – ultimately, this will prevent slaughterhouses from being built in the first place. Education is the best way to do this, and will remain my strategy.

What do you think about using extreme tactics to free animals? Is it justifiable to break the law to do so if no-one is hurt in the process? And is it effective? Leave a comment below.

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8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. These actions are more counterproductive, it vilifies the public, so people will get into defensive mode. All these ‘rights group’, ‘activists’ are not getting into the source of the problem, the economic system. People have to make a living, and with a GDP based economy, it’s not going to slow down, until ‘basic income’ is initiated.

    1. I definitely agree that many of these actions just make people defensive. I do think activism can be very effective (my group has had a lot of success with the Earthlings Experience, for example) but mostly when it’s peaceful and nonjudgmental. I think basic income would be a massive step forward for our society.

      1. Sure, activism is necessary and getting to the root cause is needed, thus all activists, groups need to back economic change, via basic income.

    2. while I agree basic income is necessary, I don’t see how it would stop people exploiting animals. Even with a basic income, people will eat, wear, own and otherwise exploit animals just as much as they do right now. The economic system can actually be used to our advantage, if we educate ourselves and refuse to eat, wear or otherwise participate in/pay for animal exploitation, the suppliers will have no choice but to stop exploiting animals.

      Sorry, maybe you can elaborate on your comment so it’s more clear how the economic system is directly responsible for animal exploitation, particularly considering that ALL societies exploit animals.

      1. Just to clarify, speciesism, or the belief that animals are somehow less than humans and that justifies us doing whatever we want to them, is the real problem behind animal exploitation. I can certainly see how economics are a factor, but economics are not the only or even the most significant factor in animal exploitation. Speciesism is.

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