New Internationalist

Is it OK for protesters to damage property?

Issue 440

Photos of masked ‘black bloc’ protesters smashing windows seem to accompany most international summits these days. But the debate over whether property destruction is a valid tactic for bringing about social and political change stretches as far back as protest itself. Two seasoned activists dive head-first into this divisive issue.

Every issue we invite two experts to debate a hot button issue in The Argument, and then invite you to join the conversation online - we’ll read all your comments and select the best to print next issue. (We’d prefer you to use your real name, but would love to hear what our readers have to say either way.) If you can’t comment, then you can simply vote in our poll, which you’ll find partway down the debate.

Looking for a debate from a previous issue?
Is it ever right to buy or sell human organs? - October 2010
Are public service cuts justified? - November 2010
Should nation-states open their borders to refugees and migrants? - December 2010
Is being vegan the only green option? - January 2011

Merrick

Last autumn, London hosted two large demonstrations against government spending cuts. First were the firefighters, and nobody but the firefighters themselves remember it. Had they, like the student demonstration for free education, gone and totalled Conservative Party headquarters then, as with the students, public support would be strongly behind them.

Nobody is saying that activists should be as destructive as possible to all property in sight. But as part of a movement that has tremendous moral force and faces targets who care more for property than for people, property damage has a proven track record of effectiveness in bringing about justice that would otherwise be denied. Conversely, the history of just politely asking for change echoes loudly with the yawns of the ignored.

So, if you renounce political property damage then renounce the liberties it has brought. Do not vote unless you are a wealthy land-owning man. Reinstate apartheid. Rebuild the fences around great swathes of wild land. Tell the Majority World ex-colonies to resubmit to the shackles of European rule. Tear up your union membership card. Pay your poll tax, and face a future where you pay for education.

Philippe

Now come on, Merrick. Our debate will be short, but that's no excuse for oversimplification. Any group of protesters — firefighters or students — who resort to trashing buildings as an acceptable, routine tactic are more likely to ‘total’ their own public support than make a dent in the religion of private property that we live under.

Are you saying that property destruction has been the defining tactical feature of the Suffragette, labour, anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements? Because that would be a preposterous reduction.

Are you forgetting the radical civil resistance that has brought about many of the changes you seem to claim were the result mainly of property destruction? Because that would an indefensible oversight.

You seem to equate a disciplined refusal to break windows, set bins on fire, and throw rocks and firebombs with polite meekness and ineffectual protest. I say, look back at history: the main tools of the labour movement were strikes, worker solidarity, union labels and boycotts.

The South African system of apartheid was brought down not by the tiny military impact of the ANC's acts of sabotage; much less by random window-breaking. Apartheid was dismantled by mass resistance, largely based on consumer boycotts, the ‘End Conscription Campaign’, and large-scale civil disobedience, supported by a worldwide direct action movement for divestment. India and a host of African countries broke the shackles of the British Empire through similar means.

Lasting political change rests on a shift in power relations within society. And you can't change a system by trashing stuff. Only changing people and their interactions can do that.

Merrick

Hugh Warwick
Stop the crop: activists dressed as aliens pull up GM crops in Watlington, Britain, 1999. Hugh Warwick

I didn’t say property damage was the defining feature of those movements, but yes, it was a crucial one. The briefest glance at Suffragette history shows it was central.

We must talk, think, read, write and analyze, and then act in many ways. This certainly includes the tools of civil resistance you speak of, and some more boring things too. But to stop short of something so tactically useful is to tie both hands and a leg behind our backs.

Property damage does not have to lose public support. Everyone – you included, I’ll bet – agrees there are circumstances that can justify it. It’s a matter of whether the case is strong enough.

The 1984-85 miners' strike in Britain involved colossal property damage, even bloodshed and death. The miners were vilified daily in every media outlet. TV news was re-edited and reversed to show miners’ response to police attacks as unprovoked. Yet support for the miners never dropped below a third of the population, roughly the same as Britain’s current governing political party.

When we rip up GM crops or trash mining equipment, we halt destruction. When I tore down fences around woodland threatened by the Newbury Bypass, it was not damage but conservation and liberation. Yes, it was an act that damaged property. But then again, so is bomb disposal.

Philippe

Peter Marshall
Schoolgirls attempt to prevent further damage to a police van that has been abandoned in the midst of student protests, London, November 2010. Peter Marshall

Just because the struggle for women’s suffrage was eventually successful does not mean everything the Suffragettes did or condoned was always the right tactic. The many splits, purges and divisions within their organization show the highly divisive impact some of its more violent tactics had.

Your choice of the miners under Thatcher is telling. Public support that hovers just above a third using violent tactics isn’t much to celebrate. That struggle ended in defeat, remember?

You seem to be looking for common ground where I would agree to limited property destruction. I’ll get to that. But before I do, let’s agree on one crucial point: the ‘Masked Protesters Smash Windows’ story is just as much of a boring, old, useless tactic as your everyday stale labour march.

If trashing stuff were so effective for our side, would the state spend so much money to train and plant undercover police officers like [recently-unmasked] Mark Kennedy in our movement?

The danger lies in fetishizing any tactic, violent or nonviolent. The problem with riot porn – rocks, windows, burning cars – is that these tactics are just slightly more damaging than the ridiculously ineffectual ones.

Merrick

The state infiltrates any effective challenge to the status quo; peace groups and trade unions as much as terrorists. Tailoring your tactics to avoid state repression entirely only works if your aims never conflict with the state’s.

We can’t restrict ourselves to doing what is approved of by media tycoons and their corporate advertisers. The media, like the state, is largely run by and for the powers we’re challenging. As the examples I've named show, people are smart enough not to take the editorial line at face value.

You know this, which is why you’re happy to use other tactics that also provoke media opprobrium. See any news report on strikes and blockades and you'll get someone complaining about the inconvenience. Those poor people who were late for work because Rosa Parks delayed their bus…

We should not be concerned with what those who cause or defend the bad stuff think. We need to ask what is the right thing to do to stop what is wrong; actually stop it, as opposed to just saying we’d like it stopped. Those who stand at the edge of an evil merely bearing witness are allowing it to continue. Their compliance is complicity.

So that leaves a question: why would you disown a tactic if it’s not only publicly supported but also more effective?

Philippe

Defying repression and media-imposed limits? Sure! If done right…

The state infiltrates all kinds of groups, but the agent provocateur’s job is to provoke the trashing of property and violence as a way to discredit us. They can’t do that with explicitly nonviolent groups.

I see people applauding editorial lines that are critical of vandalism and terrorism all the time. I still think they’re smart. They don’t want a society like that.

Why do you think Mubarak unleashed thugs onto Egypt’s streets? It was his last-ditch effort to portray civil resistance as civil war, and be rebranded a saviour. No wonder protest organizers in Cairo were working tirelessly to keep the gathered masses from playing straight into the dictator’s hands.

So, is it okay for protesters to damage property? I say no. It is tactical and strategic suicide.

Are there acts of property damage I support? You mention GM crops and the sabotage of destructive equipment. The four Seeds of Hope Ploughshares women who did $2.4 million damage to a Hawk jet bound for East Timor – I’m with that. The Drax resisters who planned to shut down a coal power station? I’m with that too. But black bloc shit? No thanks.

It’s context and design. Provocateur-style trashing isn’t radical civil disobedience. Many lives depend on us understanding the difference.

Thank you, Merrick, my brother in struggle.

Merrick Godhaven has spent much of the last 20 years blockading, blogging, banner-waving, organizing and agitating on environmental and social justice issues. Pending egalitarian utopia, he expects to spend the next few decades doing the same. Philippe Duhamel has been designing and organizing campaigns using nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience for over 25 years. He's currently trying to get a new campaign off the ground to stop shale gas fracking in his home province of Quebec, Canada.

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