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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  1. #1 Obi 11 Oct 13

    I ended up live video streaming for one hour and 9 minutes to let the whole march pass, just to show how many people attended.
    It was a good day.

    You are welcome to embed the stream ..:)

  2. #2 Assaf Koss 12 Oct 13

    I really don't get protesters. Seriously. People have been protesting their ’rights’ for ages. But, without actual resistance, there has never been any improvement.

    It is /only/ when people sit down and say ’No more!’ that anything ever changes, at all. Even then, the less resistance there is, the less change there will be.

    <a href=’’ title=’Click here to visit my blog.’></a>

  3. #3 Gavin MacMillan 14 Oct 13

    Greenpeace was one of the organisations which adopted the concept of non-violent direct action with great success. I worked on their boats in the mid-1980's, and when we made a protest (or action) against a specific issue, while for us at the sharp end of the action, it was a very personal moment, and we wanted, as much as anything, whatever we were protesting against to stop at that moment, for Greenpeace, the organisation, our protest was, in effect, a media event which generated imagery which could then be used as a vehicle to carry the message of the protest to a wider audience through news outlets, etc.. And in many ways, for political street protests to gain media coverage, they need to look at this in the same way. People marching down a street is, in many ways, passé. Have some of them do something extreme, outrageous or eye-catching in a way which does not threaten people has a far better chance of catching media attention. And if that doesn't work, maybe it is time to consider what other alternatives there are to get the narrative broadcast. Violence doesn't work, as the violence then becomes the story and the narrative behind this is lost. But I am sure there are people out there with enough imagination to come up with ways to catch the attention of a highly selective press and give them something to get stuck into.

  4. #4 seren dipity 14 Oct 13

    This is the crux. A to B doesn't work. Yes, it helps create solidarity (the march in Manchester did at least let people know they weren't alone and there is significant will to resist the cuts) but as Vanessa says, there was little coverage whereas the UK Uncut blockade generated more coverage.

    The suggestions are to get more creative with forms of non-violent direct action. Of course. Occupy is a good example, nobody could have anticipated camps going on for four months in their town centres. UK Uncut developed occupying shops that don't pay tax. Climate Camp occupied space for a week outside a significant climate change behemoth and ended with a day of direct action. Reclaim the Power camp in Balcombe just used the same model. These are brilliant people and they have achieved great things, way more than any march can.

    There are hundreds of genius forms of creative direct action, try looking at the Beautiful Trouble book or website to be astonished (Or New Internationalist's extraordinary school text book The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit)


    New and creative forms of NVDA are not only what is needed... YOU are needed to.

    That's the main problem. It's all very easy to sit there and comment on how you think direct action should be, but without you actually getting involved yourself, things are going to remain a trickle when now more then ever, this country needs a flood of people taking part. In fact the world does.

    The state media has created a sense that protest is violent or dangerous or the preserve of losers. It is quite the opposite. Protest has become the last form of real democracy as there sure as hell is nothing democratic about how this coalition of fools operate, nothing democratic about how they are the servants to corporate masters/vested interests, nothing democratic about having a fat finger stuffed in many lucrative pies, a revolving door between big business and ministerial positions or legislation scribing roles... There is no democracy, that would suggest a choice that would make a difference.

    Come on... Let's get real here. The time for clicking on websites or clucking on comments pages, shouting at your TV or regaling people in the pub/dinner party with how things ought to be is LONG GONE. Surely it's obvious now that whatever party win whatever elections, the same insane neo-liberal economic system is in place, propped up by the same corporate controlled media.

    The UK is a laughing stock for having so few people taking action.

    Take Climate Change as one issue to address: if we do not act right now, the future for our children is night mare like. Do you really think it's worth just waiting at home and hoping others do something? Why is it up to the few brave people to continually take the risks? Think of those 20 Greenpeace activists facing jail in Russia. Why have they taken that risk? They understood the sacrifices they were making and decided it was worth it. They are no different to you. They have children. They have mortgages. Families, friends, a liberty they value.

    That's the key question:

    ’Where the hell are you?’

    If we don't act now, in huge numbers, taking that minimal sacrifice of arrest and possible prison sentences, then this species, this race, maybe isn't worth saving anyway. Personally, I believe it is. I honor those individuals who have taken that step, honour them more highly than pretty much any other living beings currently, there is more integrity, more hope, more genuine humanity in in one little finger of one activist willing to put their liberty and security on the line than a whole house of commons full of politicians.

    YOU are the answer to all this.

    Thanks to NI and the wonderful Vanessa Baird for once again being way ahead of the curve and for covering what really matters in this country and globally.

  5. #5 Penny Ormerod 17 Oct 13

    I agree with every word - thank goodness it's not just me who felt utterly demoralised and defeated by the lack of cover. Came back on coach from Manchester at 9pm (having left home at 7am) on a high, feeling exhilarated and powerful by the unexpectedly high turnout, switched on the news at 10 - and plop...
    Let the plotting begin!

  6. #6 Pete 17 Oct 13

    Great article!

  7. #7 Finn Jensen 25 Oct 13

    As someone who has been to hundreds of demonstrations in my long life I have asked myself this question several times. I am not a pacifist and not against of using illegal tactics (such as refusing to pay the poll tax). It is a tactical question of which types of protests to use on each occation and there there is no universal answer.
    The yard stick should not be getting as much publicity as possible but if a certain tactic might help bring broader support and involvement in the protest. A lot of bad publicity might not help at all but might push a lot of ordinary people away from supporting you.
    Even among those who tend to participate in demonstrations there is often a majority who are against the use of violence. They might stop coming to demonstrations if they think it is likely to end in violence. People will have to understand why it is necessary to use violence or do illegal activities before they can accept them, let alone participate.

    There are many types of non-violent and legal activities that can be used to create publicity in the media. Using humour/creativity is one way. Demonstrating at MP's surgeries/homes might be another. Writing letters in the local and national press is yet another. Launching a legal challenge against the government might be one way in certain circumstances.

    One has to win the argument with the public. This is easier to do on issues like bankers' bonuses and the big six energy companies ripping us off. On other issues like the benefit cuts we have not yet won the argument with the majority of the public according to the opinion polls.

  8. #8 David Littlewood 25 Oct 13

    I'm afraid you are right. Rarely has revolution occurred without significant violence - some of the central European revolts in the late 80s are maybe an exception, but they were knocking at a virtual open door. In present circumstances, we have to make politicians more afraid of us than they are of the 1%, and that means physical intimidation.

  9. #9 bhglennie 27 Oct 13

    The effectiveness of peaceful protest is that if the numbers are big enough it will encompass people from all walks of life and nationalities.
    It is conservative forces who prefer violent individual actions instead of mass actions they can't control. In Northern Ireland Bernadette Devlin had to be eliminated because the movement she was part of went beyond Protestant vs Catholic with everyone fighting together for basic rights.
    The Islamists are very conservative and don't want people involved in mass protest they can't control. Al-Qaeda want to change the ruling clique, but are terrified of mass protest like in Egypt because it will go beyond their limited aims of a new Conservative Religious clique to keep the people in line.
    Greece and Spain have the Powers-to-Be terrified that the people will tire of bailing out the Upper Class and decide it is time look out for themselves- maybe run things for themselves !

  10. #10 Rivenrod 04 Nov 13

    I agree absolutely. The right to withdraw our consent from those in authority and the right to engage in civil disobedience when our voice isn't being heard by those engaged by us to manage our nations affairs is fundamental to our freedom.

    I and, I'm sure, many thousands more are sick of politicians blatantly ignoring us. I would prefer reasoned, peaceful debate but increasingly I can see that approach is a waste of time and energy. In the end, as you have said, physical action is all that remains to us.

    How about a picnic on the M25?

  11. #11 andria53 15 Jan 14

    I'm not sure than any kind of protest against our current systemic economic neo-liberal model in the world is a waste of time frankly. Asking us whether peaceful protest is a waste of time is a very challenging question though
    We have tried peaceful and although this has educated millions, i don't think it has really helped the UK for example to establish more social and economic justice. It is good that more people know about the scandalous banking systems especially the private ones,the corporate domination of the world not to mention the threatened fracking-massacre of our land and the outcomes of this but frankly TOO MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED OR KILLED THEMSELVES AS A RESULT OF THESE POLICIES, AND i FOR ONE, AM GETTING IMPATIENT FOR CONCRETE CHANGE that will slow down the suffering of increasing millions..
    I would like to write much more but it is 2am and I'm a health-challenged lone Mum . I think I have said No it is not a waste of time BUT....and the BUT is getting bigger and bigger every day.....

  12. #12 Badland virtuoso 25 Jan 15

    Peace amongst protesters themselves is crucial,defeat starts from within a movement once your forces begin to decimate each other, there must be very specific objectives and discipline. Peace against oppression is futile and counter productive, because oppression=violence and Oppression only hails to violence.

    Peaceful protest may work in an environment built on peace not on an environment built on bloodshed and greed.Does the bully not take candy from the baby because hes crying? I think not,his morality is flawed from the start. They are looking forward to your peaceful protest, because they can handle your nagging. Your wants have been ignored before you even started protesting.

  13. #13 trevor davies 05 Jul 15

    Peaceful protesting is a negative way to effect change. It is a sop. It is an opportunity for people to vent their energies. They go home happy. It's what the government wants and is a useful way of controlling the masses. They are under reported for two reasons. The propaganda does not wish it and what is essentially a non event is a non newsworthy event.
    To make an effect there should be violence directed at those who are not listening. It should not be directed at our own people, which will be reported covertly with glee. The French want Uber to disappear which it does by violently targeting. The French often do this.
    It must be well regulated by the protesters. I finish before 5000 words.

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About the author

Vanessa Baird a New Internationalist contributor

Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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