Peter Tatchell says direct action protests are about people taking power for themselves, instead of leaving politics to professional politicians.
What do Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King have in common?
They all used direct action protest as a way of winning social justice. Pleading with politicians was not their style. They found that writing letters to MPs and lobbying government Ministers did not work.
Instead, they staged street demonstrations, organised hunger strikes and sit-ins, refused to pay taxes and harassed political leaders. That is how India won its independence, women got the vote, and racial segregation was ended in the USA.
Less than a decade ago, direct action secured one the biggest political climb-downs in Britain this century. Margaret Thatcher’s much-hated Poll Tax was defeated when millions refused to pay and tens of thousands rioted. Opposition MPs had proved powerless to stop the Poll Tax, so people took power into their own hands – and Thatcher’s flagship policy collapsed.
The defeat of the Poll Tax illustrates a very important principle: democracy is about more than voting once every five years. Having your say in a general election is fine, but not enough.
Something as important as running the country should never be left to politicians. Look at the mess they are still creating: unsafe railways, mad-cow disease, polluted cities and a minimum wage that excludes young school leavers. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with traditional politics. Hundreds of thousands are deserting the ballot box and turning to direct action protest instead.
It is pointless looking to politicians for help when often it is politicians who are the cause of the problem. The vast majority of people are against genetically modified food, but the government insists that unsafe crop trials must continue. Just a few months ago, Tony Blair promised swift action to ban fox hunting. Now his pledge is being quietly dropped.
When politicians ignore the wishes of the people and break their promises, direct action is the only option left. Who can blame Greenpeace for wrecking GM crops and hunt saboteurs for saving foxes from being torn to shreds by dogs? Their methods get results, whereas lobbying the government has failed.
The arguments for and against direct action revolve around two fundamentally different styles of politics. Representative democracy is the system where MPs are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. This tends to encourage elitism and arrogance in politicians, and disempowerment and passivity among the electorate.
Participatory democracy is, in contrast, about people being involved in the political process in an on-going way, rather than only at election time. They take power for themselves, instead of handing over responsibility to professional politicians. This ensures better checks and balances against the abuse of power and the neglect of public opinion.
Direct action is the highest form of participatory democracy. People represent themselves. They get involved in political decision-making, and through their own efforts bring about social change.
Having taken part in more than 1,000 direct action protests over the last 30 years, the beneficial effects are self-evident.
Take the issue of police victimisation of the homosexual community. Respectable gay organisations lobbied the police for years, but they were ignored. Then, in 1990, the queer rights group OutRage! began a high-profile direct action campaign to challenge harassment.
We invaded police stations, busted entrapment operations, photographed undercover officers and hounded the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Within three years, the number of men convicted of consenting homosexual behaviour fell by two-thirds, saving thousands of gay men from arrest. Direct action gets results!
Published as “Full Frontal: Direct Action”, in What’sonUK, Student Special, November 1999.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.