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Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > United Kingdom

January 20, 2006

As the clouds opened and drizzle began to soak the 100 or so people gathered outside Balliol on Saturday, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled upon a scene from Glastonbury: there were children running around, grown ups in silly costumes, dreadlocked youths holding banners and, of course, it was raining.

But the silly costumes were a bit too macabre (lab coats smattered with blood), the banners too serious (pictures of animals being tortured) and the police presence too great: SPEAK had arrived in Oxford.

SPEAK, the animal rights group already credited with ending plans for a proposed animal testing laboratory in Cambridge, had coordinated transportation from various parts of the country to arrive in Broad Street at midday, from where they would walk down to South Parks Road where the University is currently building its own animal testing laboratory.

 

Work on the project was halted 19 months ago, only resuming in November, after a campaign of intimidation by various animal rights groups against the building contractors, who eventually pulled out. On this grey Saturday afternoon, however, the initial atmosphere was rather festive, with no scuffles or fights. Friends, couples and families waited for the march to kick off.

As one man remarked, "It’s very peaceful and you have a wide cross section of people and ages, from all walks of life who just want to come and make their voices heard." Among these was eleven-year-old Loreena, from Hampshire, accompanied by various members of her family. "I’ve always thought that everything should be equal," says Loreena, who disagrees with the idea that, "animals are below us [because] they don’t have feelings".

Why is she against animal testing? "There are so many better and cheaper alternatives." While she doesn’t condone the violent tactics used by some animal rights campaigners she says, "It’s so frustrating that we get ignored over and over again and put down as terrorists.

?? Would she herself ever get involved in more dubious activities in the name of animal rights? "I can see that doing something physical would be a better idea, but I hope that I would never get to that point" she says. As the march began, however, the emphasis was on opposition to animal cruelty as opposed to terrorist tactics. Jennifer Berry, 66, said that she was "against violence anywhere, in any form".

Why had she turned out for the march? "There’s no point in testing on animals, its better to test on human tissue, as some organisations do. We have good alternatives." While such peaceful views were by no means uncommon the general feeling seemed to be one of grim determination. As police surrounded the demonstrators the noise began: many had whistles, loudspeakers, even drums setting the pace of the chanting ("Stop the Oxford animal lab").

There was a palatable sense of anger, with various effective orators spurring the crowd on. When the march eventually came to a premature halt on South Parks Road, approximately 100 metres from where the empty shell of the laboratory remains half built, there was a scrum as a small number of protestors surged forward to push down a metal barricade that had been erected across the road.

The barricade was torn down amidst violent scuffles and a number of arrests but a significant police presence meant that the activists could go no further. Some parts of the crowd started to chant "burn it down" but were soon silenced as Mel Broughton, spokesperson for SPEAK, took to the microphone. He claimed the police had "lied through their teeth", having promised them that the demonstration would be allowed to go further down South Parks Road and protest directly outside the lab.

However, with the police clearly not about to budge, the majority of the crowd stayed put while Broughton introduced his first speaker, a graduate, in fact, of Oxford University. Matthew Simpson, who attended University College, reading English, took it upon himself to give the demonstrators a warm welcome on behalf of Oxford University before proceeding to name famous Oxford alumni who had voiced their opposition to animal testing. He began with John Ruskin.

"Do you remember John Ruskin?" Simpson bellowed. The crowd fell silent. Undeterred, Simpson quickly ploughed on with his list, which included CS Lewis (a devout Christian), Coleridge (an opium addict) and Samuel Johnson (who as well as opposing vivisection also declared that, "Any of us would kill a cow rather than not have beef.") "Oxford should lead us to a higher civilisation," Simpson called, "not betray us into a lower one.

?? When questioned as to whether he thought the intimidation and noise of a regular weekly protest might affect nearby students unconnected to the animal lab, Simpson was pragmatic. "The history of liberty is about taking it, not being given it. They didn’t give it to the slaves, they didn’t give it to women in the Suffragette movement, they won’t give it to the animals. I’m very sorry to hear that [some students feel intimidated], because that’s not what this is about.

?? The crowd, however, seemed to be more interested in tearing down a nearby fence than listening to a "Who’s Who" of Oxford. The subsequent speaker, introduced only as ‘Greg’, was more of a hit, preferring an emotional approach to reach his audience, encouraging them to "imagine being a small primate in the jungle". Greg began, however, by vilifying the police, referring to them as "scum of the earth" which the crowd quickly seized upon, chanting "scum, scum, scum".

While he was careful not to explicitly refer to violence, there was a lot of emphasis on ‘action’ and for people to take their own initiative: "Action is everything," he stated, "Every single thing you do makes a difference, be that a phone call, be that an email, be that a demo, be that whatever you want." "Whatever you want" doesn’t seem always to fall within the boundaries of the law.

This seemed something he had no problem with, ending by urging, "Never, ever, ever stop smashing Oxford University until they give up.

Next up was John Curtain, a long time activist who has been to prison for acts committed in the name of the cause. He wished to try an exercise in telepathy with the crowd, because "What I really want to say I think the police would misconstrue as totally, absolutely illegal." It turns out Curtain was named in an injunction against SPEAK by Oxford University.

Curtain wanted to focus on the contractors hired to build the laboratory, saying they "must be made to regret ever taking such a stupid decision". In this vein he stated, "When it becomes public, the name of the company who is responsible for doing the building of this torture facility… now this is where I’m going to close my eyes for thirty seconds and I’m going to whack in the telepathy." Presumably he wasn’t telling the crowd to send the builders a box of chocolates.

And this is where the message that SPEAK was sending became outwardly aggressive. Broughton once more took to the stand with the words "If you want a fight, you’ve got one." Holding up a balaclava he informed the crowd that should he put it on he would be arrested, but the contractors were working on the lab every day, wearing balaclavas. "So who’s the terrorist?" he asked. But this is where SPEAK’s arguments begin to fall down.

The reason the builders wear these balaclavas is to prevent animal rights activists from being able to identify them and subject them to terrifying campaigns of intimidation such as the previous contractors underwent. Walter Lilly & Co eventually halted work on the laboratory in July 2004 citing "threats and intimidation" as the cause.

Similarly, after the recent case of Gladys Hammond • whose remains were dug up and stolen by activists • shocked the nation, her family finally decided to give up breeding guinea pigs for animal research. Such tactics do not endear the animal rights activists to either the government or large sections of the public, particularly when they are seemingly prepared to put the ‘rights’ of animals above those of humans.

Today’s protest seems to have signalled a turning point in the campaign. While no explicit mention was made of violence the very definite message was that the time for talk is over and the time for action had come.

nclear, but when ‘Greg’ points at the half-built laboratory and shouts to the crowd "There’s only one thing that stands in the way of ourselves and victory," one can only wonder, victory at what cost?

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