Disruption of the McDonald’s supply chain shows animal rights direct action works

Protesters outside Heywood McDonald's distribution centre holding a banner that says "Meat & dairy = climate crisis"

On 22 May, animal rights network Animal Rebellion went up against McDonald’s. Groups of activists shut down all four of the fast food chain’s UK distribution centres. And it was one of the most significant acts of animal rights direct action in a decade.

McDonald’s vs the world

Just after 5am on 22 May, Animal Rebellion announced it was “currently blockading all four McDonald’s distribution centres around the country, stopping trucks from entering or leaving.” The four depots, located in Hemel Hempstead, Basingstoke, Coventry and Greater Manchester, supply 1,300 outlets across the UK.

In a press release, Animal Rebellion said it demanded McDonald’s makes its entire business “fully plant-based by 2025.” James Ozden, a spokesperson for the network, explained that this change was crucial not just for the rights of animals but also the health of the planet:

The meat and dairy industry is destroying our planet: causing huge amounts of rainforest deforestation, emitting immense quantities of greenhouse gases and killing billions of animals each year. The only sustainable and realistic way to feed ten billion people is with a plant-based food system. Organic, free-range and ‘sustainable’ animal-based options simply aren’t good enough.

Animal Rebellion’s press release also contained support for workers’ rights. It said it supports the UK’s McStrike and the US’s Fight for $15, both of which are agitating for better pay and conditions for McDonald’s staff.

Animal Rebellion said on 25 May that the blockades, originally planned for 24 hours, lasted between 19 and 30 hours. And combined, they lasted 96 hours.  The network said this action was “only the beginning”.

Direct action gets the goods

Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to Manchester Hunt Saboteurs, whose members took part in the blockade at Heywood. The group said it chose to take part in the blockade because it believes “this kind of direct action is effective” and “more of it” is needed.

Since the State-led repression of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign, animal rights direct action in the UK has experienced a lull. SHAC targeted animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences. The campaign brought the company almost to collapse, but Huntingdon Life Sciences was bailed out by the British government, and courts jailed SHAC’s alleged ringleaders. But since the last SHAC-related imprisonment in 2014, veganism as a diet has exploded in the UK. And it’s brought a new wave of animal rights activity with it.

Animal Rebellion, which formed in 2019, has tried to channel the energy of Extinction Rebellion towards the animal industry. While its earlier actions faced difficulties, including curtailed attempts to target Smithfield and Billingsgate markets in London, the shutting down of McDonald’s distribution centres appears to have been highly successful. Outlets around the country were forced to close or limit their menu as a result.

“Direct action works,” Manchester Hunt Saboteurs told Phoenix Media Co-op. “We see it weekly when out sabotaging hunts… [and] It was great to see the impact [on McDonald’s] the following day. It shows what kind of impact even a relatively small amount of activists can have.”

Animal Rebellion told BBC News that about 100 people took part across all four blockades.

Strange policing

Police arrested a total of 14 protesters, eight at Basingstoke and six at Hemel Hempstead. There were no arrests at Heywood, though Manchester Hunt Saboteurs described an atmosphere of “confusion and mistrust” resulting from unexpected policing:

There seemed to be no motivation from [the police] to try and remove the activists. … Saturday afternoon, the specialist team came in to assess the lock ons with the Evidence Gatherers, so we were sure at that point that removal attempts were imminent, but shortly afterwards they all left. The blue bib Police Liaison came to tell us that they would not be removing us and that they would just send a local unit back later on to check in. We never saw them again.

We think that they maybe did not have the resources as there was also a large Palestinian protest on in the city centre at the same time. It seems likely that as we were peaceful and had stated we were planning to be there for 24 hours that they decided to just let the action run its course.

The Heywood blockade finished at 4am on 23 May.

There have also been some previous links between Animal Rebellion and the Palestinian cause. The animal rights network helped Palestine Action shut down an Elbit factory in March 2021. Palestine Action also shared a message of solidarity with the McDonald’s blockades.

Reigniting the struggle

Not only is the animal industry unspeakably cruel towards non-human animals, it thrives on the exploitation of its workers. Despite attempts to greenwash itself, McDonald’s remains an emblem of how destructive capitalism can be for humans, non-human animals and the planet. And Animal Rebellion’s latest action may well have re-opened the struggle against the company and against the animal industry.

Main image via Aggravated Trespass