Non-violent direct action & civil disobedience gets results

Violent protest is counter-productive. It alienates the public

By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – 9 March 2020

Protests that remain peaceful are the most powerful
The i newspaper:

Having taken part in more than 3,000 non-violent direct action protests over the last 53 years, I’ve witnessed first-hand their success

What do Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Me Too have in common? They are all hugely successful peaceful protest movements that changed public consciousness and put long neglected issues on the political and cultural agenda. While mainstream politicians and lobbyists had marginal impact, these three campaigns ensured that the climate emergency, police racism and sexual harassment became centre stage.

They succeeded by producing evidence to show why change was necessary, telling moving personal stories and engaging in effective, headline-grabbing protests. And they did so non-violently and mostly with great dignity. This secured widespread support and put pressure on governments, businesses and institutions to act.

Their peaceful methods won the moral high ground and kept the focus on the issue they were championing. If they had resorted to violent protests it would have undermined public sympathy and distracted attention from the wrongs they sought to put right.

This is what happened with the IRA’s terror tactics. They set back the republican cause. Their violence, not Irish unity, became the issue. In contrast, peaceful protests by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s won the battle of hearts and minds.

Faced with injustice, people have a right to rebel. No one should have to endure suffering and hardship. Protest has been the kick-starter of social advance all throughout history, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes and the Black civil rights movement.

None of our precious rights and freedoms were freely given by our rulers, from freedom of the press to the right to a fair trial. They had to be prised from the powerful by brave, trailblazing and mostly non-violent protesters who were often reviled.

But where do we draw the line? Can any form of protest be valid to resist oppression?

Some animal rights campaigners argue that the violence done to other species in factory farms and slaughterhouses justifies counter violence to stop that suffering. Although I do not condone violence by animal liberationists, at one level they may have a point when they say that a little violence is legitimate in order to stop a lot of violence.

It is widely accepted that Britain was justified to unleash violence against the Nazi regime to halt its violent destruction across Europe. Equally, nearly every African agrees that when Britain subjugated colonial peoples, exploited their labour and natural resources and refused to grant them independence, they had the right to protest by taking up arms to fight for their freedom.

My point is that a blanket condemnation of all violence is sometimes difficult to sustain. When there is no possibility of peaceful democratic change, violent resistance may be the only solution and the lesser of two evils.

But history is strewn with examples of armed insurrections against tyranny turning into a new violent despotism, such as Russia 1917 and Zimbabwe 1980. The ends do not justify the means. Violence often leads to more violence and can corrupt an otherwise ethical cause. That’s why I believe that if we want a non-violent society our methods of protest must be consistent with that ideal and aspiration.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are two of my inspirations. They respectively led the entirely peaceful struggles for Indian independence and racial desegregation in the US. These momentous victories show the potential of non-violent direct action to achieve social reform against huge odds.

In democracies, where the option of peaceful change exists, it is impossible to justify violent protest. We have the leverage of the ballot-box and the power of mass action.

Three decades ago, Margaret Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax was not defeated by the alienating riots, but by hundreds of thousands of people who marched peacefully and, most significantly, delayed their payments to make the system unworkable.

Having taken part in more than 3,000 non-violent direct action protests over the last 53 years, I’ve witnessed first-hand their success in helping win equality for women, black people and LGBTs. Protest is the lifeblood of democracy. It is the way we hold the rich and powerful to account, against the abuse of state and corporate power. Long may it continue effectively – and peacefully.