On a chilly January afternoon in London’s Leicester Square, a group of people are standing, backs to each other. They’re dressed in black, faces covered in Guy Fawkes masks, completely silent. In their hands, they hold laptops, showing looped footage of common animal agriculture. On those small screens, bewildered, frightened pigs, now all long dead, are being kicked and beaten on their way to slaughter.
Behind the masked figures, a famous Leicester Square casino glows in pinks and neons. The contrast between its lights and what’s happening on the screens is jarring and grotesque, like seeing an ad for a new restaurant next to graphic coverage of an ISIS beheading. When passers by stop to watch, their eyes fill with outrage. Some flinch and back away. Through it all, the protestors stand quietly, letting the film do its work.
This is the Cube of Truth, helmed by Anonymous for the Voiceless or AV - one of a growing number of activist groups using silent protest in the name of animal rights. The first was UK-born Earthlings Experience, based on the devastating 2005 American documentary film of the same name; the most recent, a small but rapidly expanding posse called The Circle of Silence.
While the groups are similar in practice - static, structured, masks used with laptops or placards - all are rooted in the same belief: letting the realities of the meat and dairy industries speak for themselves, no words needed. The aim: to encourage the public to turn to vegan lifestyles by showing that animals are not commodities but sentient creatures who suffer as acutely as we do.
Silent - or at least, peaceful - activism has a long history. On July 28, 1917, in one of the US’s first mass protests against racial violence, thousands of black people walked in silence down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Like Mahatma Gandhi before him, Martin Luther King believed that non violent protest was the most effective weapon against racism and injustice. More recently, NFL players knelt during the American Anthem in silent protest at police brutality.
There is something in silent protest that resonates in the service of the unjustly dead, evoking lives lost and consciousnesses erased. At the same time, it works simply as a counterpoint to the common perception of animal activism as spiky and full of rage. “Screaming, aggressive, throwing red paint at people wearing fur…” muses Brad Simmons, AV’s London co-ordinator. “Now we’ve got more calm and rational methods of advocating for animals and for veganism.”
That rationality is carefully embedded in every aspect of a Cube - and of AV, from ethos to delivery. Co-founded in 2016 by activist Asal Alamdari and a young plant-based nutritionist called Paul Bashir, its philosophy is drawn from Martin Luther King’s seminal quote: “Those who love peace must learn to organise as effectively as those who love war.”
Thus, in a Cube, protestors stand shoulder to shoulder; masks are used partly to draw attention to the event (and they do; coming across a Cube in your average High Street can be heart stopping) but also to make volunteers appear inanimate. “Without masks, it can feel awkward for people watching the videos. The masks remove judgement,” explains Simmons.
As well as laptops, protestors carry signs bearing the word ‘Truth’. “People see the masks and the Cube and the signs from afar and think, what truth is that?” Viewers who linger for a significant amount of time are then gently approached by the group’s outreach, explaining the scenes in the footage, answering queries and questions, offering suggestions for action and response.
Again, the tone is quiet and respectful - even in the face of challenge. “It’s imperative that, when we’re communicating with people, we remain calm and professional,” emphasises Simmons. “If we respond aggressively, then defences are going to go up. Also, if people hear us, as vegans, perpetuating the idea that we’re angry and rude, that’s not going to do us any favours.”
And the approach seems to be working. At its last global count, AV claims to have convinced at least 95,000 members of the public bystanders to take its messages seriously, thanks to some 2,826 demonstrations in 476 cities, in 56 countries and counting. With over 450 groups around the world, and that number increasing daily, AV has become the fastest growing animal rights organisation in history.
Taking part in a silent demonstration can be emotionally charged and physically challenging. Limbs stiffen, masks gather condensation. And yet, the concrete sense of purpose sustains and nourishes. You may not speak to the person next to you but you know that, if you did, you would fall on each other’s shoulders and weep.
And because of the silence, as you stand there, past footage crawls through your mind: every shattered piglet you’ve seen lying next to their caged mother, every motherless calf thrashed for not moving towards his own death fast enough, every exhausted dairy cow hooked onto the tractor and dragged to the slaughterhouse. For one, two, three hours, you are as mute in the face of horror as the animals themselves. The difference? You get to go home afterwards.
“Some people literally stand there for hours,” says Simmons, quietly, still awestruck. “I always thank the people who do a lot of time in the Cube because it’s hard work. But they’ll say to me, it’s nothing compared to the suffering the animals go through. And I love that there are people like that, who are not only giving up their time to educate people but also willing to go through a degree of suffering themselves.”
What gives Simmons a glimmer of hope? “The youth getting involved in animal rights - the average age of the Cube is mid to early 20s - but also the natural compassion that all humans have. If you did a poll right now, 99 per cent of people would say they’re against animal cruelty but most of them are still paying for it to happen. I believe it’s just about reconnecting people with innate values that have been ripped away from them by advertising and tradition.
“It’s a big fight because we are up against years of conditioning and trillions of dollars of marketing but we do have truth and justice and peace on our side,” he adds. “If you look at history and other social justice movements, like the suffragettes, it always took just a small group of people to convince the masses that something was morally unjust.”
Related content: The Save Movement activists bearing witness to farmed animals.