Raging over spilt milk: behind the scenes of Animal Rebellion

 (Courtesy of Animal Rebellion)
(Courtesy of Animal Rebellion)

‘People were shocked, and understandably so,’ says Steve Bone, a 40-year-old photographer from Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. ‘I mean — you walk into a shop and all of a sudden there’s a tall, ginger-bearded man pouring milk all over the cheese display. You’d think: “My God, what’s going on?”’

Bone, the tall, ginger-bearded man in question, is a member of Animal Rebellion, the animal and climate justice group that dominated headlines last week after several of their direct action protests went viral. You will have seen the clips: activists entering high-end food stores such as Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and Waitrose, and proceeding to binge-dump dairy products across the floor. To say that these antics divided opinion would be something of an understatement. Depending on where you go for your news, you’ll either find passionate voices of support for Animal Rebellion’s cause, or (and due to the nature of online commentary, this one’s probably more likely) splenetic, expletive-filled rants about ‘entitled lefties’ wasting food. But more on all that noise in a moment: during the protest itself, Bone says, things felt far less hostile.

‘There were a few derogatory terms thrown at us,’ he tells ES Magazine of the actions he took part in at Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges. ‘But we were expecting to be roughly frog-marched out, and that didn’t happen [Bone and fellow protester Sofia Fernandes Pontes were arrested the next day: both appear in court on 7 November]. I go into this kind of Zen mode during these acts of civil resistance,’ he adds. ‘At one point, there was a gentleman stood next to me as I was pouring the milk and I was concerned he would get splashed. I was already prepared to smell like milk all day, but I didn’t want him to have to as well. So I just said, “Excuse me, sir, would you mind moving over, please?” It was all totally non-violent.

These episodes don’t always proceed quite so peacefully. At Animal Rebellion’s previous campaign in September in which holes were drilled into delivery truck tyres at dairy production sites, Bone was ‘struck in the chest’ by a less-than-impressed onlooker. ‘I just took it and moved away,’ he says, diplomatically. ‘I’m quite a calm person anyway, but when you’ve got people shouting at you or hitting you, you just have to keep telling yourself why you’re there. You’re fighting for a better future.’

It won’t have escaped you that lately, the sight of people such as Bone being shouted at or hit as they fight for the future has become an almost daily occurrence. Whether it’s protesters super-gluing themselves to roads, activists hurling soup cans at a Van Gogh painting or tall, ginger-bearded men redecorating the Fortnum & Mason carpet, groups including Animal Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have been consistently engaging in non-violent disruption across the UK for months. Their actions represent an attempt to draw the Government’s focus to the climate crisis and, in Bone’s words, ‘start a national conversation’. In this, there can be no doubt that they’ve succeeded — you’re reading this article, for a start — but there is also an unshakeable sense that perhaps the radical nature of these demonstrations is provoking less of a ‘conversation’ and more of a nationwide shouting match.

 (Courtesy of Animal Rebellion)
(Courtesy of Animal Rebellion)

In typically measured fashion, Piers Morgan branded Animal Rebellion’s milk-pourers ‘pathetic, attention-seeking morons’ on Twitter. Just prior to her resignation, the UK’s shortest-serving home secretary, Suella Braverman, placed the blame for the disruption squarely on ‘The Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’ (didn’t they do a John Peel session in 1986?). These are extreme examples, of course. But no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you will undoubtedly have come across people (online or off) who share the protesters’ concerns but are sceptical about their methods of expression. Were there any worries on Animal Rebellion’s part about throwing away food during a cost-of-living crisis?

‘That’s why we didn’t target supermarkets or department stores where people who are struggling to buy milk are shopping,’ Bone explains. ‘Frankly, if you can afford to buy milk in Fortnum & Mason, you’re not struggling with the cost of living. Outside of that’, he adds, ‘[dairy] milk isn’t made for us, it’s made for baby cows. If you want to get technical about it, the milk has been “wasted” as soon as it’s taken from the calf.’

This idea that we’re turning people against our cause... It’s not our cause, it’s everyone’s

Animal Rebellion’s proposed solution to this wastage is for the Government to support farmers to transition away from animal farming to a plant-based food system. ‘That would free up so much land, which can then be rewilded, bringing down greenhouse gases and bringing back our beautiful British countryside,’ says Bone. ‘I’ve got a six-year-old girl — I don’t want her growing up in a country that’s brown and barren.

Bone came to activism late, turning vegan four years ago after watching Netflix documentary The Game Changers, which explores the strength benefits of plant-based eating. But it was only this year that he felt compelled to put himself in the line of fire (or at least, fists) for the sake of the climate: ‘It was just having conversations with people, and their refusal to see how evil animal farming is, not just its cruelty to the animals but also what it’s doing to our planet. We’re talking about the sixth mass extinction, up to three billion climate refugees expected by 2050, according to the United Nations. It was causing my wife and me real anxiety and stress, and we thought: “We can’t just stand by; we need to take action.”’

Anxiety and stress are the emotions powering most of these climate protest groups. Emma Brown, 31, is a member of Just Stop Oil, the movement responsible for that Van Gogh soup-throwing incident at the National Gallery. ‘I can’t sleep the night before [protests]. I feel sick with nerves,’ she says. ‘It might look like what we’re doing is easy, but as human beings it’s very uncomfortable to behave in a socially unacceptable way. It’s like if you just started singing in the middle of the street — people would look at you like you were mad. When doing [these actions], we’re putting ourselves up for a lot of hatred, vitriol and ridicule.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of this: social media is currently chock-ablock with clips of irate motorists screaming at road-blocking protesters. Critics of the groups would point to this ‘hatred, vitriol and ridicule’ as an indication that their tactics aren’t working: how is disrupting the lives of regular people going to win Animal Rebellion or Just Stop Oil new followers?


‘This idea that we’re turning people against our cause... It’s not our cause, it’s everyone’s’, Brown says. ‘That’s why comments like Andrew Marr’s, saying, “Right, they’ve absolutely lost me, forever” [Marr’s tweet in response to Just Stop Oil’s soup stunt] are ridiculous. Whether or not you agree with our tactics, we are all affected by this. None of us wants to starve or die in a climate-related disaster. If what we do seems radical, it’s because we need radical change.’

A radical approach is also needed, protesters say, because other methods have failed. Last November’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow saw a focus on education as a vital component in tackling the climate crisis. Brown was at protests surrounding the summit, which she feels has made, ‘excuse my French, but f***-all difference. The Government is still licensing new fossil fuel projects and the huge social and political change we need is not going to happen by having a few more education stalls. But disruption to businesses and supermarkets immediately gets heard and talked about by politicians and it moves [the climate crisis] to the top of the agenda. It’s our last, best hope.’

Commander Karen Findlay, the Met police chief responsible for major events and public order, would argue otherwise. She is keen to stress the strain the recent swathe of protests has put on police resources in the capital. ‘It’s really tough,’ she tells us. ‘We’re at more than 6,500 officer shifts [on these protests] now, and a total of 506 arrests [as of 20 October]. This means that on a daily basis, officers are being taken away from front-line policing duties such as reducing knife crime or properly investigating sexual offences.’

Findlay also highlights specific tactics that protest groups employ, which, intentionally or otherwise, require a larger police presence or specialised training. ‘You’ll have seen clips of protesters going limp, meaning it takes four officers to remove them, rather than just one,’ she says. ‘Also, if protesters have glued themselves to roads, we need to bring in specialists who are trained in de-bonding. What we can’t do is what some [police officers] have been reported as doing in France, which is simply rip the protesters’ hands off the road. That’s not acceptable — we have a duty of care towards the protesters as well as the public.’

Officers are being taken away from front-line duties such as reducing knife crime

For her part, Brown maintains that the police officers she has encountered during actions have been largely sympathetic to the Just Stop Oil cause. ‘That might change as they feel more and more stretched,’ she admits. ‘But at one protest I had a policeman tell me how hard it was with his baby during the heatwave. He was really worried about the climate, and kept asking us, “What can I do to help?”’

For Findlay, however, the police are in place to respond practically to these protests rather than emotionally: ‘We understand that people are really concerned about the climate and we will always facilitate protests. But it’s not our job to place judgement on the virtue of the cause; it’s our job to be consistent and impartial in our response to it. For me, there’s enough pressure on society right now already. You can see why people become frustrated if they can’t get to work or get their kids to school. When those things become disrupted, that doesn’t seem appropriate to me.’

Appropriate or not, the protesters remain adamant that their actions are getting results, and not only in raising the blood pressure of Daily Mail readers. Brown cites a YouGov poll, taken after a blockade she was involved in outside an oil terminal, that showed ‘a small increase’ in people willing to take direct action on the climate. Bone, too, talks of the lengthy historical success rate that non-violent civil disobedience has enjoyed (‘Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, gay liberation marches...’)

He also speaks of the positive reaction Animal Rebellion has received when engaging with dairy farmers about the group’s demands. ‘Most farmers [we’ve spoken to] are fully with us,’ he says. ‘They know they’re trapped between a rock and a hard place in this [dairy industry] system.’ It should be pointed out, though, that when ES Magazine contacted the National Farmers’ Union for comment, NFU dairy board chair Michael Oakes replied: ‘During a cost-of-living crisis... farmers have been shocked about these reckless plans to block supply chains, cause disruption and purposely waste food.’

Clearly, then, consensus on these demonstrations is still a long way off, so don’t expect the protests to stop any time soon. Animal Rebellion is planning various outreach events in the run-up to its next campaign in spring next year, while Just Stop Oil is clambering up new bridges and blocking new roads every day. ‘It’s like there’s a brick wall in front of us,’ Brown says towards the end of our conversation. ‘And that brick wall is the system that’s killing us by being so inflexible to change. People have been throwing stones at this wall for years and now we’re doing it, too, with these protests. Day after day after day we’re trying to weaken the wall. That’s why we continue… because you never know which stone will be the one to break through.’