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The Voices Behind the Chalk – The Canterbury Vegan Activists Fighting for Animal Liberation

We The Free vegan activists gather in Canterbury for the Worldwide Vegan Chalking Night on September 2, 2023. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


“For you, it’s a meal. For them, it's their life.”


This is one of the many slogans tourists and locals encountered beneath their feet outside Canterbury West Station on the sunny Saturday morning of September 2, 2023. Though a select few hurriedly strolled past without taking much notice, many passersby were surprised to see a large section of the previously unremarkable pavement bursting with colour from vegan messages and designs in chalk.


            “Pretty much everyone walking past is reading the messages on the ground,” said Alex, one of the activists involved in the chalking, “It's planting seeds, I think. It’s good.”


            Led by Ella Barlow, Canterbury local organiser of animal rights organization We The Free (WTF), a small but passionate and committed group of activists have come together to participate in the Worldwide Vegan Chalking Night (WWVCN) for the first time.  


Ella Barlow chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

Local organiser Ella Barlow chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


WTF is a global animal rights activism community “focused on defending animals through street and online advocacy.” They focus extensively on “positive and inclusive community-building alongside data and analytics to effectively expose violence against animals and cultivate a vegan world.”


Barlow explains: “We hold an abolitionist view on animal exploitation, which means we don’t view animals as objects, property, or slaves, and we are totally against all animal exploitation in all areas of life.”


Straying from their usual forms of outreach, Barlow’s WTF group has opted in what WTF Regional Support Lead, Rebecca Owens, describes as a “very gentle form of activism.”


Sprouting from the hypothetical question, "What if all the people around the world who fight for animal rights took the streets the same day and chalked them up for their liberation?" WWVCN is a global campaign initiated in 2019 by vegan animal rights activist Ismael García Martín, based in the Canary Islands. The campaign’s official page describes it as “12 hours of chalktivism for the nonhuman animals.”


worldwide vegan chalking night

Worldwide Vegan Chalking Night 2020. Photograph: Ismael García Martín


WWVCN was hugely successful from conception, in 2019, there were groups participating from almost 300 cities in 65 countries and 5 continents. Since then, it has become one of the biggest vegan activism events globally, and it takes place on the first Friday of September every year.


By participating in the event, Barlow hopes that their art activism will educate and raise awareness. Besides writing slogans like “Peace begins on your plate” and “Animals are friends, not food,” the activists also took the chance to put down links like “” and “” for people who were interested in learning more. Both links contain a comprehensive collection of resources for gaining further insight into veganism and the reality of animal agriculture.


linksSlogans, links, and resources written on the pavement in chalk. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Activist and participant Rob Smith who travelled from Ashford to participate in the action describes activism and driving change as an accumulative and varied effort. “I think all types of messaging are valid,” he explains, “In this case, it's a more passive form of messaging. I wouldn’t necessarily say this has a strong impact, but it's all part of getting the messaging out in different ways.”

 Vegan activist Rob Smith writing a slogan on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles PhotographyVegan activist Rob Smith writing a slogan on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


When asked about their thoughts on the vegan movement, two tourists from London said: “It's not so much in your face like the others, it's not aggressive. I don’t see too much, maybe I didn’t look for it, but it seems like it's not in the public eye so much.”


Appreciation towards the passiveness of the wider vegan movement is a sentiment shared by several passersby who spoke with The Social Talks. A tourist from Suffolk said: “They've done it in a nice manner here. It looks really nice, and they've put thought into it. I think it's a good thing, but it still won't change my mind about the Greggs bacon and sausage rolls.”


When asked about the biggest barrier the movement is currently facing, Clare Griffiths, one of the activists and participants, told The Social Talks: “I feel like it's people's taste pleasure. People are so attached to all they’ve known. People still don’t know the reality, lots of people either refuse to look at the reality or look at it and sort of ignore it.”


Vegan activist Clare Griffiths chalking on a tree. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

Vegan activist Clare Griffiths chalking on a tree. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Consistently, in studies conducted over the past two decades, taste and the enjoyment of eating meat have ranked first out of all the reasons people choose not to go vegan.


This is also something Griffiths, who has now been vegan for two and a half years, had struggled with during the first month after her transition. She said: “Don’t get me wrong, when I started to give up meat at first, because we're so used to being attached to our taste and what we crave, until my body started to get nutrients through an array of plant-based foods, I was having quite a few cravings.”


When asked about how she overcame her cravings, she said: “I just kept my vision on the reality, I couldn't shake it at that point, and I thought, I want to live true to myself.”


Be one less person harming animals

Slogan written on the pavement with chalk. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography



The second most common reason found to be cited against going vegan is inconvenience. Many consumers believe that plant-based dishes are more difficult to prepare, there are fewer options when eating out, and a lot of extra time and effort is required in gaining the knowledge for switching to a balanced vegan diet.


A London tourist told The Social Talks: “I have too many old habits to give up. That's the thing. There are many fewer options, and nowadays the cost of living is so high, and I think it's more expensive to be vegan than, I won't even say pescatarian, cause even for being pescatarian, it's expensive. The fish is expensive.”


 Several passersby also perceive vegan diets as more expensive than a typical diet with meat and dairy, which they have noted as another reason that has stopped them from becoming vegan.


However, a study published by Oxford University in 2021 found that in high-income countries, vegan diets were actually the cheapest and reduced costs by up to one-third. This is followed closely by vegetarian diets. Flexitarian diets with low amounts of meat and dairy were 14% cheaper than the typical diet, whilst pescatarian diets were approximately 2% more expensive.


            There was one Canterbury local, who is flexitarian and whose granddaughter is vegan for environmental reasons, told The Social Talks: “I think there's a very good case for giving up meat, especially given that meat is an extremely expensive and resource-consuming way of producing protein. It’s very unsustainable and given that two-thirds of the planet hasn’t got enough to eat, us in the north should make a few sacrifices.”


Although a couple of other onlookers have also alluded to the environment as a potential reason to become vegan, the activists we spoke to have all emphasized keeping the animals and their suffering at the forefront of their minds as the most powerful drivers for staying vegan.


For Barlow, this was the main reason she did not encounter much difficulty when transitioning. “Once I found out what was happening to animals,” she said, “I just asked myself if it was harder for myself to be vegan, or if it was harder for them to continue living through what they're living through. That was what made it such an easy switch.”


Chalk on the sidewalk

Vegan message written on the pavement with chalk. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Alex, who has been a vegan for 12 years and an activist for 11, said: “I've always been an animal lover, but it's not until I started watching these documentaries that I realized that saying I was an animal lover was hypocritical when I still sit down and eat them. And I think once you realize, it's just the animals that keep you going.”


A survey conducted by the Humane League found that while health is the most popular reason for omnivores and semi-vegetarians to consume less meat, animal welfare is the most commonly cited reason by vegetarians and vegans.


Social scientist and animal advocate Christopher Bryant explains in a research article: “This is logical, because improving one’s health or reducing one’s environmental impact can be achieved by consuming incrementally fewer animal products; viewing animal products as the product of animal suffering and exploitation, however, is more conducive to eschewing them altogether.”


However, Chantelle, a vegan activist who travelled from Essex to participate in the event, believes that this is actually one of the most misunderstood aspects of veganism: “People think we're some sort of cult,” she says, “They don’t understand that we’re doing it for the animals, they think we're just on some sort of diet, they think we’re all malnourished.”


Given that currently, only 1-2% of the UK population is vegan, a myriad of misconceptions and stereotypes about veganism still plague the media and public discourses.


One of Chantelle’s biggest hopes for the movement is for it to start gaining positive traction and media coverage. She believes that currently, one of the main factors contributing to negative press attention is the government’s partiality to farmers. 


She explains: “The government coinciding with the farmers and supporting them rather than our plant-based message is a big issue for the movement. If they would stop all our taxes subsidizing the meat and dairy industry, then they wouldn’t be so cushy with the farmers, they wouldn't be running to support them as much. This is a big barrier because it means that the media is against us.”


Research has shown that a meat tax would be most effective for reducing meat consumption among a population. However, government subsidies are currently promoting meat consumption instead. Journalist Phoebe Wester explains that this is due to lobbying, the government’s fears of appearing as a “nanny state”, and more.


Vegan activist Chantelle chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

 Vegan activist Chantelle chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography



One of the misconceptions of veganism Barlow wishes to debunk is that vegans are trying to control what people eat. A survey in 2017 found that 97% of US adults believe that deciding whether to eat animals is a personal choice, and “nobody has the right to tell me which one they think I should do.” Several people who passed by the event and spoke to The Social Talks also echoed that belief.


Barlow explains: “We don’t mind what people eat, you can eat whatever way you want. It's just about who we eat, and we believe that a personal choice no longer is a personal choice when there's a victim involved.” Indeed, if the animals that are being consumed were human beings, an overwhelming majority of people would, most likely, no longer perceive the decision to eat meat as an acceptable personal choice.


Since a big part of veganism is about seeing animals as equals who deserve equal treatment, 15-year-old vegan activist Harvey recommends spending time with animals at sanctuaries and farms as one way to: “begin viewing animals as individuals, instead of as pieces of neatly packaged flesh one picks up and buys at the supermarket.”


Despite being an organization that upholds nonviolence as one of its main values, and despite the peaceful and nonconfrontational nature of chalking, the activists still encountered a couple of shouts from trolls driving by.  


Chantelle also told us: “We get a lot of body shaming and diet shaming. We get a lot of shaming in general even though we're a protected movement. We're protected by the Equality Act, but it's just not recognized, so we get a lot of abuse.”


A study in 2022 found that reading about vegan protests, regardless of how peaceful or violent they are, generally worsens attitudes towards veganism and increases justification of meat-eating habits, even among vegetarians.


One of the main explanations the study postulated to be responsible for the phenomenon is the meat paradox. Some or even many meat-eaters may identify as animal lovers or believe that animals should not be harmed. This leads to cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort one feels when faced with their own contradicting beliefs and behaviours.

 Vegan activist Alex chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles PhotographyVegan activist Alex chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography



This conflict in belief and behaviour may also challenge or pollute one’s view of oneself as a moral person. The cognitive dissonance then results in the activation of defence mechanisms, which can manifest as negative perceptions of and reactions towards the vegan movement.


Griffiths feels that because of the defence mechanisms this cognitive dissonance provokes, many people, including herself before she transitioned, find the word vegan triggering, and mistakenly stereotype vegans to be judgmental towards people who are not.


She wishes more people would understand that: “Because for most committed vegans, it stems from a place of compassion which is nonjudgmental. It’s about love and acceptance, live and let live, to an extent. It's much more nonjudgmental than what I used to feel.”


Chantelle, who has been vegan for 7 years, told The Social Talks that the hardest part about being a vegan activist is in fact unrelated to the dietary aspects of adjusting to plant-based foods.


Vegan activist Chantelle chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

Vegan activist Chantelle chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


“It’s the fact that you're living in a non-vegan world,” she says, “As in you care about animals so deeply but everyone around you is still harming them. It’s just good that comes of it, but you get so much hate for it. It's just a completely misunderstood movement. That’s what's hard about it.”


Although most activists are used to hearing the occasional negative comment being shouted at them, Harvey believes that these trolls actually do have a real impact on the vegan movement: “Because when people walking by on the street hear what the troll is saying and take it in, they’ll begin to think what the troll is saying is true.”


This is why most activists in the group emphasized that, even though they would love to see more people become vegan, their biggest hope is for more vegans to become activists.

 Vegan activist Alex chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

Vegan activist Alex chalking on the pavement. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Alex believes that one of the reasons many vegans are not activists is because they are unsure of what to expect. For new activists, he recommends starting with nonconfrontational events or joining group events, such as the WTF Diamond which is one of WTF’s flagship outreach events.


Such an event allows new activists to take on the more passive role of holding a screen showing footage of animal exploitation, while other activists take on more proactive roles of speaking with members of the public who stop to watch.


Alex notes that another helpful element of WTF for new activists is that the outcome of their outreach tends to be less confrontational. He explains: “The way WTF does it is they try to get people to come to a conclusion themselves by just asking them questions, instead of imposing any specific viewpoint or action onto them. It’s less confrontational when they come to the conclusion themselves.”


WTF’s other flagship event, the WTF Movie Challenge, takes a similar approach. Members of the public have a choice to partake in an incentivized challenge to watch a 3-5 minute “horror movie”, which is actually a “supercut of an animal rights documentary showcasing some of the worst legal and standard practices in animal agriculture.” If participants are willing, this is usually followed by a conversation with one of the activists.


 Alex adds that attending these events is also great for meeting people within the community, especially because of WTF’s focus on community-building, which increases the incentive and motivation to become a regular participant and activist.


The WTF group in Canterbury will be hosting a Diamond on September 16, 2023, from 12 to 4 p.m., as well as a 3 Minute Movie Challenge on September 24, 2023, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Activists of all levels are welcome to participate.


For vegans thinking about becoming an activist, Smith, who has been vegan for 5 years and an activist for a year and a half, says: “Don’t hesitate, the animals need us to get this message out for them. For anybody wanting to, please do! it’s a very welcoming community.”


full picture

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Chalk drawing of WTF logo. Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


Photograph:Harvey Giles Photography


peace begins on your plate

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


pigs feel pain

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


young activist

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography


respect all life

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography 


Slogan on the pavement

Photograph: Harvey Giles Photography

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Tags: #animalrights #veganism #activism #wethefree #chalktivism #canterbury #WTF #WWVCN #veganactivism #worldwideveganchalkingnight


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