Is there a place for violence in protests?
As students continued to demonstrate last week against the Coalition government’s education reforms which began a year ago, commentators on all sides sat tight and asked ‘will they or won’t they?’ There was fear among many that the protests would descend into the same violence we saw last year, when some protesters assaulted Tory headquarters at Millbank Tower, smashed police vehicles and defaced the area around Parliament Square. These demonstrations drew heavy criticism from commentators, politicians and student leaders themselves for assuming violent tactics. As the argument goes, since we live in a democracy, there is no excuse for resorting to violence when we have at our disposal peaceful channels of protest. In both cases, pacifism as well as with adventurist stunts, violence is viewed as something abstract, rather than in terms of its relationship to the demands of the cause itself. Both sides display a short-sighted view of history and express a narrow definition of democracy as a pragmatic, technical process rather than something that arises from the depths of society.
There seems to be an assumption that the democratic rights and freedoms we enjoy today are but the gift of a benevolent state. On the contrary, they are actually the outcome of bitterly fought out struggles, often involving violence, acts of terrorism and deliberate law-breaking, now generally regarded as legitimate in retrospect. From the Chartist struggle for male suffrage and the suffragette struggle for female enfranchisement through to the armed anti-colonial struggles that forced imperialism out of India and Africa, we see that social and political movements have often involved conflict and acts of violence. So are we perhaps missing the point when our focus seems to have shifted from the politics of the struggle to the process itself?
I recently chaired a discussion on this issue at the annual Battle of Ideas festival, where the panel rightly emphasised the importance of content and context. The merits of any protest, they argued, should be judged according to the demands of the struggle itself. Likewise, when protesters themselves fetishise violence or non-violence, this is merely a symptom of the emptiness of their cause. This analysis bears out remarkably in the case of the global Occupy movement. In their protest against capitalism, the Occupy London website states ‘We are a peaceful non-hierarchical forum.’ Call me a cynic, but it’s difficult to imagine that a movement which introduces itself with these words will radically transform society, let alone turn capitalism on its head. The absence of political leadership or any coherent demands is held up by the Occupiers as a virtuous corollary of a participatory democracy. For these protesters, it seems that simply by rallying and registering your discontent a better society will magically come into being. Exactly what that better society will look like, no one knows yet. Ideology, political debate and arguments are seen to be old fashioned and it’s deemed to be enough to simply be able to say ‘I woz ere’.
Compare this to the civil disobedience that marked the beginnings of the Ghanaian fight for independence. In a famous incident in February 1948, amid a growing mood of resentment towards their colonial masters, Ghanaian ex serviceman, who fought in the Second World War for Britain were inspired to struggle against their colonists and demand their freedom. A group of unarmed ex-serviceman marched to the Christiansborg Castle to submit a petition to the Governor about their poor conditions. A white police officer ordered his guards to shoot them, but they refused, at which point he seized the rifle himself and shot dead three of the ringleaders. Instead of fighting back, the crowd of almost 2000 turned back; but not because they were pacifists. These were men who had witnessed battle and were in no way cowed by the shooting. Had they decided to do so, they could have easily taken on the police officer and his garrison and storm the Castle. The crowd retreated because they realised that to sweep away the petty resistance which faced them would be to initiate a battle which they knew they were not yet ready to fight.
Surely whether or not violence is justified in civil disobedience is more a question of what we are fighting for; and asking what the best strategy is for its success? As we see with the example of the Ghanaian soldiers, often it does not happen that you are either for violence or against it but instead, when you take matters into your own hands and you want to destroy the old order, you make tactical decisions and don’t rule anything out. To not fight was a tactical decision for these soldiers, but to make a principle out of it would have been to surrender.
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