Monday, 30 March 2009

On Protest

Protests can be quite a divisive issue amongst the general populace. The elderly shout get "back to work!", the apathetic mumble "what's the point anyway?", the clued-up shout "there's every point!", the ignorant scoff and utter some remark about hippies, the hippies complain there aren't enough drugs, the police are looking for drugs as an excuse for arrests, the militant are goading the police, the peaceful are pleading with the militant to be non-violent, the media are hoping for violence for the sake of a good story, the celebrities relish the column inches through association with a good cause and the politicians ignore it all and read about it in the papers.

Of course, the above is a sweeping generalisation that plays on stereotypes but there is an element of truth to each of the above accusations so why do I insist on protesting, and even more so, direct action?

Because we live in a democracy.

Unfortunately for many people in this country, they think such a thing begins and ends at the vote but that's a weak concept undeserving of the name. A true democracy involves debate, discussion, activity and engagement of the populace to work towards a better society. Democracy of course means rule by the people and direct action is just one particular facet of a wider democratic framework that encourages people to think about issues and act upon them.

When it comes to campaigning particularly, there often arises the question of whether the struggle should be fought through the usual political process, ie Parliament, or through direct actions such as protests and marches. There is no straight answer, no silver bullet and no one vehicle for facilitating change, so all forms of participatory democracy should be embraced, though naturally some may be more worthwhile and effective than others and should therefore be judged according to each one's merit.

Weakness of Parliament

Today, the 'usual' democratic channels - elections and Parliament and even the mainstream media - fail to truly engage the differing points of view and more often than not alienate people. This can range from a feeling of being unable to identify with the main political parties to the lack of genuine Parliamentary discussion and an actual ear from ministers. There are many reasons why Parliament shouldn't solely be relied upon to drive change, namely its thrall to big business, powerful lobbyists and individuals, misguided personal interests, the whips, an unfair and unrepresentative electoral system, and inadequate checks and balances. (The debate surrounding the electoral system and even the very legitimacy of political parties can be argued elsewhere).

In the summer of 2007, Des Browne, then secretary of defence, committed the UK to participating in the United States' missile defence program -- 'Star Wars' -- which involves hosting on British soil the largest American intelligence gathering base outside of the US. This base, owned and operated by the Americans, actually operates outside of British Law and Parliamentary scrutiny. Despite playing a key role in the weaponisation of space and a new arms race, the decision to go ahead was slipped through just before Parliament recessed for the summer. It was not debated in Parliament, let alone put to the people of Britain. Furthermore, this barely raised an eyebrow in the press. Sure, it was reported. It was reported like a traffic jam on the M25 is reported, that is, it was reported to have happened, but little debate or holding to account followed.

The Parliamentary (and even mainstream media) channels exclude the little man in the street from the political discourse. In the above case the people of North Yorkshire, where the military base is located, had absolutely no say in the building of the spy base. Obviously, one can't go around questioning every citizen on every decision made in government, it would be impossible and impractical, but in this case, not even lobbying of local MPs would have been able to influence the government's decision as it was taken without the permission of our elected representatives.

Keeping it up

There is clearly a need for action outside of, and in addition to, the usual Parliamentary 'norms'. Protests and direct actions give more power to the people by involving them at the grassroots and empowering them, even if it's only in as much as granting them the opportunity to shout in the streets of London. For the protester, direct action may be seen as serving three purposes:
- To vent frustration and anger in a somewhat constructive manner
- To let those in power know that all is not well
- To let other people know that all is not well

Now here comes one of the main criticisms - that protests do very little and that politicians just ignore them and continue like nothing happened. In many cases this is true. The classic example is the anti-war protest in March 2003 where some two million people marched through the streets of London to protest against Blair's decision to invade Iraq. We all know what happened there.

Where they failed wasn't in protesting, but in not turning up in the same numbers a week later. People vented their anger and frustration, thought they'd played their part and quietly went back to their normal routines, exactly as Blair and Campbell did. The main battle when it comes to campaigning is sustaining the pressure when the government are firmly entrenched in their ways. The powers-that-be can brush aside a single march and go back to business as usual. But if two million people continue to protest week after week, amongst other forms of direct action and Parliamentary pressure, they'll eventually have to take notice.

Disruption and consequences

Other forms of direct action can take numerous guises, from mad clad Dads climbing cranes to environmentalists occupying runways. Direct action is another form of participatory democracy that should be encouraged as it helps raise questions, spark debate and let authority know that change is needed. However, of utmost importance is the need to consider the consequences direct action will have. Some direct action can be brilliant, doing exactly as just mentioned in questioning, informing and triggering real debate. Go too far though and campaigners risk polarising public opinion, triggering debate on the action rather than the reason and ultimately being counter-productive.

Recently, Leila Deen of Plane Stupid threw green custard over Peter Mandelson. He's a public figure much disliked by a vast majority of the population. Secretly, most people would love to throw more than just custard over our dear friend Mandy. The result? Leila draws attention to the role of the business secretary in climate change and probably earns many an imaginary pat on the back.

Similarly, the Climate Camp held at Kingsnorth last summer drew attention to the new coal fired power station. At this camp the campaigners held workshops and ran a sustainable, low-carbon community for many days, educating one another and proving that it is possible to live without fossil fuels with just a little bit of creativity and ingenuity.

However, in stark contrast to the above, Plane Stupid committed a massive faux pas when they occupied the runway at Stansted airport. Again, this was to highlight the effects particular people have on climate change; in this case those taking cheap and/or unnecessary flights. In Plane Stupid's eyes, and in mine I must admit, they are fair targets for protest. Unfortunately, it was the wrong place to hold the protest. Rather than making people consider their carbon footprint they simply pissed off a load of people whose flights were delayed as well as a wider part of a sympathetic, travelling society. Unless there's widespread support in the population for such direct action, beyond the activist community, then such direct action is really just self-defeating.

Invariably, a lot of direct action will lead to disruption, as did Plane Stupid's Stansted stunt. There's actually nothing wrong with disruption and in fact for protests to be really effective they do have to be somewhat disruptive. It’s disruption that awakens us from our happy slumber and forces us to think about serious issues in the world. Many people don’t like it, but without disrupting their cosy little existence it can be extremely hard to make them sit up and pay attention.

But there's a line that must be drawn, beyond simply disrupting people's lives and making them think, and actually just pissing them off and alienating them. Disruption should be confined to public space. Encroaching on private space then turns into preaching and again can be counter-productive. Direct action should always be approached with the ethos of making people pay attention, asking that they question the world and think about things in a different way, rather than preaching to them that they or other people are doing wrong. Protesters don't like to be preached to, so why be a hypocrite?


For most movements either left or right, violence is nearly always counter-productive and ultimately undermines the causes people are 'fighting' for (unless they're of particularly authoritarian nature). The end doesn't always justify the means. It's like the old slogan that 'fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity'. If you're campaigning for a fairer, more just world with no wars and human rights abuses, you only undermine yourselves using violence to achieve that world. It's a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, some protests often do get nasty, and the organisers and fellow demonstrators have a responsibility to try and control it. In this day and age, the police take no shit and as sad as it sounds are often looking for a fight as much as the more militant protesters are. (It's not unknown for police to use inflammatory language ahead of protests or even use agent provocateurs to try and incite violence, if only to give them an excuse to break it up.) If the police take it upon themselves to play a bit of unwarranted hoky coky with their truncheons and shields then it's human nature to defend yourself, but protesters should always go as far as possible to avoid violence. Sometimes of course, violence is caused by the protesters and the police have no option but to defend themselves, in which case the peaceful ones should get the hell out of dodge or let it be known they mean no harm by simply sitting down and letting the minority show themselves up as idiots.

Is violence ever justified? I can't stretch as far as completely ruling it out but I don't want to give the impression I'm contradicting the above sentiment. Some people will say that throwing custard or even shoes is a violent act. By the letter of the law, yes it is, but you would think that all people involved on the receiving end, the 'victims' and the authorities, would act pragmatically and even see the funny side. There's a little grey area where playful, prank like actions cease being pranks and start being violent that should be carefully navigated by both protesters and authority. Again, consider the consequences of your actions.

At the Gaza demo, protesters were asked to bring shoes along to throw at the Israeli embassy (it being so soon after the Bush incident). The police decided not to let people march past so inevitably they bore the brunt of the shoe surplus. In such situations, the police should expect that to happen and even take responsibility for it, see it not as an incitement to violence and simply take it on the chin. Rising to it only inflames the situation and triggers a circle of violence. Even in situations where shoes turn to rocks, if it's simply a very irate bunch of people venting their anger from afar, then be the bigger man and let it pass. If it ever looks like the situation is going to spill over and turn into a full on assault of the police then deal with it accordingly. But ultimately it will achieve very little, so what's the point? Instead, protesters should avoid getting into such situations in the first place and instead channel their anger into more productive means, like using humour and ridicule to attack authority, rather than violence.

Finally on the subject of violence, is the issue of destruction of property. Many protesters say they are non-violent in so far as they won't direct their anger at humans (or animals) yet see property as fair game. I have to admit; I agree to an extent but fail to see what it would really achieve. Starbucks are evil so why not let them know how we feel by smashing a window? The only problem is the one from earlier - what consequences will your actions have? Apart from some police interest, it's hard to imagine you will endear yourself to wider society; likely you'll be seen as nothing more than a hooligan. The brief satisfaction and thrill of getting one over Starbucks by smashing their windows isn't actually going to achieve anything. Unless there's a widespread revolutionary fervour among society where such acts will be generally considered 'acceptable' then they're going to be pointless and ineffective - you may as well just do a line of cocaine if you want a thrill.

Many people will claim protest and direct action achieves nothing but this is just a nihilistic way of looking at the situation. Just because there are many 'failures' does not mean protest and direct action should be discarded. Where people go wrong is lumping their eggs in one basket and thinking that only by marching past Parliament will they excite change, when in fact they should be using all the 'weapons' in their democratic arsenal with sustained pressure. Protests should be used alongside Parliamentary processes, media and new media engagement, community discussion and other means. Can you imagine if people were instead saying 'let's give up the vote, it means nothing'? To give up protest is to give up politics. Long may it continue.