New Internationalist

Is peaceful protest a waste of time?

2013-10-11-climate.jpg [Related Image]
The G20 climate camp shut down the City of London and generated a lot of attention before it was broken up by riot police. Les Hutchins under a Creative Commons Licence

We were proud. On 29 September, more than 50,000 of us marched in the Manchester sunshine, fighting – metaphorically, of course – to save the NHS and other public goods.

In spite of our vast numbers, it was an intelligent, good natured protest, without any incidences of violence or public disorder.

And with hardly any coverage in the national press either – even though we were taking our protest right to the journalist-packed heart of the problem, the Conservative Party at conference.

So – was it a waste of time?

Not in terms of building solidarity and showing support for health workers struggling to save the NHS as the government dismembers it, selling bits of it off under the fig-leaf of austerity.

Not if you think of all the families with children or elderly and disabled people who could march freely in a police-light environment, without fear of being kettled and baton-charged.

And if the purpose was to show, through numbers and the sheer ordinariness of the people protesting, the extent of public concern and unwillingness to be taken in by coalition spin.

But in terms of rattling the cages of policy makers and getting them to rethink the damage they are doing, it was a gentle rattle, easily ignored.

If I think of successful protests that have commanded attention – the Poll Tax riots or the Kingsnorth climate camp actions, for example – these have been far more raucous and disobedient affairs.

Even the recent UK Uncut action that blockaded roads in protest against legal aid cuts, though it involved only 500 people or just one per cent of the number that marched in Manchester, got more news coverage. The reason is simple. There was disruption – there was fear of danger and potential violence.

Getting into the news isn’t everything, but if you are protesting about something it is pretty important. By and large, the public prefer peaceful demos, and complain when actions have been hijacked by ‘mindless thugs’. But chances are that those complainers would not have heard of the protest had it lacked that vital newsworthy ingredient – a bit of civil disobedience, a touch of criminal damage, some arrests.

As a journalist I recognize that people marching from A to B and then having a rally at the end – even if there are lots of you – is not a great news story in the conventional sense. As I wrote a recent blog about the Manchester march I have to admit that, enthused as I was by the event and what it represented, making it interesting to readers was a bit of a challenge.

I believe that resisting austerity requires a wide range of tactics. And although I tend towards the peaceful ones, I increasingly believe that it’s the actions that seriously disrupt which bring us face-to-face with what is at stake. This is especially pertinent when acts of criminal damage or violence against property are done to prevent a greater violence – that against people.

This is the violence that is happening right now. Kill the NHS and you kill people. Take disability benefits away from people who depend on them for their lives and you are encouraging them to commit suicide. Force people out of their homes because they cannot pay ‘the bedroom tax’ and you are making them homeless and knocking years off their life expectancy. Take legal aid away from those who cannot afford lawyers and you kill all hope of justice. Ensure your policies make the rich even richer, and you are committing an act of the most grotesque economic violence.

These are the acts of government violence that are happening right now in every part of Britain. This is what we need to expose and resist. If a bit of serious public disobedience creates the spark to crack open what increasingly feels like a closed debate, let it roll.

November 5 – Guy Fawkes – has been declared a Day of Civil Disobedience. Time to start plotting? 

Find out how at the People's Assemblies Network.

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