Butchers in France called for police protection after six people were arrested following incidents of vandalism at shops selling meat and dairy products. In the U.K., a family-run butcher was sprayed with the words “Stop Killing Animals. Go Vegan” and claimed to have received a petrol-bomb threat. And, in Canada, activists disrupted diners in a Toronto steakhouse to lecture them on animal rights.
For animal rights activists, veganism is only a starting point for ending the killing of animals. “Once vegan, we believe there is a moral imperative to spread the message as well as take measures to stop the atrocities involved with the production of meat, dairy and egg products,” said a spokesperson for the Animal Liberation Front, which speaks on behalf of individuals and groups engaging in often illegal protests.
Civil disobedience and the physical targeting of individuals and their property is justified, according to the Animal Liberation Front. “We support all of these measures, and hope they continue to escalate until the message is understood,” said a spokesperson.
Though reports of militant veganism have become commonplace in the media, they’re at odds with an alternative perspective that such approaches are not the way to take veganism mainstream.
Not all vegan or animal rights activists are confrontational. In the city of Vernon, just outside Los Angeles, people regularly gather for a peaceful “pig vigil” in protest against pigs being brought to a slaughterhouse.
The protest is organized by a local chapter of the animal rights group The Save Movement, which encourages people to take and share photos and videos of the animals’ last moments of life, but to be peaceful and nonjudgemental, and to “smile when possible.”
Vegan activist Ed Winters, who himself has been a victim of violence while protesting, said he has changed his own approach. “I used to be loud and abrasive, but I feel that was pushing people away.”
Winters said the term “militant veganism” has often been used to demonize vegans. Angry forms of protest are a result of people becoming frustrated that others do not feel the same way as them, he said. Winters said he now supports “nonviolent activism,” in which people can make their points but do not alienate others.
Not everyone feels vegans need to be vocal. Judy Nadel and Damien Clarkson, who founded the plants-based events company Vevolution in the U.K. and U.S., said they felt uncomfortable with the vegan culture they engaged with after giving up meat and dairy.
To go mainstream, Nadel and Clarkson said, the movement needs to become much less judgemental and more inclusive toward people who are perhaps only experimenting with veganism.
The most successful form of activism, they said, has been the innovation in vegan food products, like meat-free burgers and dairy-free milk. U.S. retail sales of plant-based meats have risen 17 percent over the past year, with products including the brand Beyond Meat, which has seen a sales uplift of 70 percent.
“I don’t agree with people saying you have to be on the street screaming and shouting. Protest has a place, but real change is coming from creating businesses, being compassionate and making plant-based more accessible to people,” said Clarkson, “That’s the reason vegan has gone mainstream.”
Between 2 percent and 6 percent of Americans now identify themselves as vegetarians, up from just 1.2 percent in the late 1970s.
The danger of confrontational types of activism is that it creates an expectation of perfection that is too much for the majority of people, said Jodi Monelle, founder of livekindly, a vegan and plant-based news website.
If veganism wants to continue growing, it has to ditch that model of perfection, Monelle said, pointing out that around 40 percent of visitors to her website classified themselves as non-vegan. “The puritanical view of veganism needs to shift in order for us to make change. A lot of new vegans drop out because they can’t meet those standards overnight.”
Monelle said activism that turns into abuse or involves physical harm is counter-productive because it taints the view of vegans. “We’re all on this journey of self-improvement and we’re all at different stages. We want to show veganism not as restrictive, but fun, accessible and attractive to people.”
Activist Winters has a similar view: “We all have a moral obligation to do something, but what we do is subjective to each individual.”
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