We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience


11:06 am - November 24th 2010

by Jenny Jones AM    


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Every new generation of campaigners from the peace movement of the 1980s onwards has been through workshops which teach you how to make an impact and how to handle the police.

Non violent direct action (NVDA) has to be part of a wider, mass protest to be really successful, but from Greenham Common to Swampy and Greenpeace, it has as much a place in Britain’s cultural life as Glastonbury or a Royal Wedding.

If done properly, it can not only generate the right kind of publicity, but direct it against the right institutions.

As a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority I’ve worked hard with others to convince the police that they need to make a clear distinction between people intentionally breaking the ‘law’ and people being ‘violent’.

This distinction was recognised by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in their report on the policing of the G20. People walking through an open lobby door and occupying Tory Party HQ is civil disobedience, whereas an idiot throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof at the police is being violent.

If we want to change the style of public order policing in Britain as campaigners, we need to keep these distinctions clear in our heads.


(pic by Ann McKechin MP)

I personally agree that many of the Coalition’s actions justify civil disobedience. Where I draw the line is the argument that violence is justified because the impact of this government’s brutal policies will have a destructive impact on people lives. As soon as protest turns violent we lose the argument.

I know that someone will quote the poll tax riot as an example of government changing policy as a result of protest, but that rewriting of history completely ignores the mass campaign which preceded it. The Green Party was part of ‘the can’t pay, won’t pay’ movement which made the poll tax so unworkable and led to administrative failures throughout the country. I myself went to court to explain why I wouldn’t pay the poll tax.

I strongly believe we also have to recognise the problems the police face when shifting through the non violent planners of civil disobedience and the people who have come along for a punch up.

For example, one of the reasons for the appalling policing of the happy, peaceful, singing, dancing G20 climate camp protestors who put up their tents in Bishopgate last year, is that they were dealing with police officers who had been through a hard time with less than peaceful demonstrators earlier in the day at a different location.

With the waves of cuts hitting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, there will be a lot of anger. I’ll be out campaigning today on the Student Day of Action, supporting the students in their protests at the savage government cuts, and monitoring the police reaction.

But our focus should be civil disobedience, now a very British tradition.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Jenny Jones is a London Assembly Member, representing the Green Party. She is also leader of the Green Group and Chair of the Planning and Housing Committee.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Crime

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Reader comments


“For example, one of the reasons for the appalling policing of the happy, peaceful, singing, dancing G20 climate camp protestors who put up their tents in Bishopgate last year, is that they were dealing with police officers who had been through a hard time with less than peaceful demonstrators earlier in the day at a different location.”

I absolutely LOATHE the argument (or even implication) that it’s understandable if the police rough people up if some people are violent to the police. It’s their job to keep a level head and not start lashing out. Yet every time I’ve seen riot police in action, they have attacked innocent people, and every time other people defend them by focusing on some ‘violent’ protestors.

2. Chaise Guevara

@ 1

But this article doesn’t make that argument. It lists violent protest as a contributory cause of police violence, but that’s not the same thing as supporting or justifying it.

Analogy:if I got mugged you could say that my walking down a dangerous road alone at night was a cause of this (i.e. if I hadn’t done that it wouldn’t have happened), but that doesn’t get the mugger of the hook morally or legally.

You’re using more than a touch of hyperbole in describing the governments policies as “brutal”.

Re the policing of protests, the first step I would like to see is the firing of any officer not displaying his number. There is no excuse for this, the reasons for removing their numbers are obvious and appalling.

There’s a world of difference between say, the suffragettes, who were agitating to get women the vote, and students who just want more government handouts. There are masses of good arguments as to why students should get funding but nobody can deny that this is a handout. In other words you’re not protesting for freedom or equality or civil rights or justice, you’re protesting to be given more of other people’s money.

Good on the students for standing up for themselves.

This is a welcome reminder that there has been a credible precedent effectively protesting against ideological attacks by government. It neatly avoids sanitizing the problem at Millbank with fuzzy thinking.

If the students can set a good example by using effective NVDA then future protests, of which I believe there will be plenty, will have a model to follow.

This article is spot on.

“I know that someone will quote the poll tax riot as an example of government changing policy as a result of protest, but that rewriting of history completely ignores the mass campaign which preceded it. ”

It also ignores the fact that the government brought in the council tax in place of the poll tax. So fail.

“As soon as protest turns violent we lose the argument.”

I think you need to back that up because from my perspective violence does very little to the argument except gain it press attention. Plenty of movements have destroyed property and caused damage and it’s had no effect on the argument whatsoever.

“As a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority”

You could probably get a doctorate in hypocrisy. This piece is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve read in years. I won’t be lectured about anything whatsoever by one of those responsible for making sure the killers of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson escaped justice.

Making something “very British” tends to mean making it part of the status quo. It is “very British” for the establishment to ignore protests and press on with their depredations on the lives of ordinary working people in the interests of the rich and powerful. This is precisely what Cameron and Clegg are promising to do.

The argument’s neither won nor lost through violence – but public support is.

Besides which, aggression itself is wrong whether you win the campaign or not. Each act of agression degrades society as a whole.

The Poll Tax was defeated because it was impossible to police not because protestors clashed with police.

I might become a pacifist one day but ’til then if aggression is always wrong should we never have invaded Nazi Germany?

(Well, not “we”. The British, U.S., Soviet, French and Commonwealth armies of the 1940s…)

11

I think you are being disingenuous: the civil unrest connected with the Poll Tax must have been a factor in the decision to abandon it (irrespective of any value judgement about the violence). If the Tories had tried to carry it on, it would very likely have been much worse.

‘I might become a pacifist one day but ’til then if aggression is always wrong should we never have invaded Nazi Germany?’

Godwin Fail.

I’m no pacifist: I’d support violence in self defence and Hitler clearly had intentions on Britain, whatever the SWP line is this week.

The issue is the *initiation* of violence.

Godwin Fail.

Eh?

The issue is the *initiation* of violence.

Someone can have clear intentions to do harm without committing physical violence (which would, of course, preclude our rather violent state). I think, unless one’s pacifistic, opposing the civil use of force implies an infallibility to democratic (or despostic) systems that’s unmerited.

But, then again, it could be true that violence is inherently corrupting and, thus, self-repeating.

Good gracious, this has been a pretentious comment.

@15

Godwin aside, would WWII have been wrong if Hitler hadn’t had designs on Blighty? ie: war not in self-defence but in defence of the Jewish people (and the rest of Europe)?

‘I think you are being disingenuous: the civil unrest connected with the Poll Tax must have been a factor in the decision to abandon it (irrespective of any value judgement about the violence). If the Tories had tried to carry it on, it would very likely have been much worse.’

The violence meant the government could legitimately extend police powers so no, it was counterproductive. It was also – and I can see some of you are having trouble with this concept – WRONG IN ITSELF. You can’t just write off value judgements about violence as if those value judgements were immaterial.

‘Someone can have clear intentions to do harm without committing physical violence (which would, of course, preclude our rather violent state). I think, unless one’s pacifistic, opposing the civil use of force implies an infallibility to democratic (or despostic) systems that’s unmerited.’

I never said democracy is infallible – particularly ‘representative’ democracy which is largely self-legitimating, self-perpetuating and self-serving – but the cost of that fallibility is outweighed by the cost of mob rule. If force is a legitimate form of protest why limit it to university fees? Why not settle arguments over immigration with broken bottles?

‘But, then again, it could be true that violence is inherently corrupting and, thus, self-repeating’

*Aggression* is self-repeating. If you initiate violence that violence will be met – legitimately.

‘Good gracious, this has been a pretentious comment.’

Not at all. I find it easier to reconcile my opposition to the initiation of violence with defence against the Nazis than you can reconcile your support for violence with your opposition to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

18

Before you get too comfy on your high horse, I specifically said that I wasn’t making a comment about whether it was right or wrong. I have a view but it isn’t germane to the point I was making, namely that your bald statement that the violence had no effect is at best questionable. It’s not rocket science. the Poll Tax wouldn’t ipso facto have succeedrd if it HAD been possible to police and administer more effectively: it became toxic to the Tory party’s, and would have led to considerably more civil unrest if they had tried to persevere with it. You can still deplore the violence and agree that is true.

You’re under several misapprehensions, Shatterface. Firstly I’ve not supported and don’t support the few protestors that used real and dangerous violence. Secondly, the “pretentious” comment was aimed at me, not you.

My point is that if we’re to allow violence as a means of self-defence why should “aggression” be limited physical abuse? All manner of things, from psychological torment to the restriction of freedom to the exploitation of belongings can be just as harmful and malicious as physical force. Why is it merely the latter that legitimises violence?

If your protests involve violence or damage you must understand that the police will treat you all as working to a common illegal purpose. You cannot expect the police to magically distinguish between good and bad members of a mob. After all, you cannot agree the distinction between yourselves.

Remember even peaceful occupation is illegal, treat such adventures with respect, do all your homework, prepare properly and conduct yourselves properly.

That does not mean I agree with the police tactics. They are crude, often wrong (sometimes illegal) and ultimately very damaging to long-term relationship between the police and the public. But is there anything else available to them?

If illegality happens on your protest then you permit the use of these police tactics. You know it will happen so you have no one to blame but yourselves.

I deeply regret you allow it, mainly because you are undermining the credibility of future public protests, they will be subject to bad policing because you provide evidence to those who argue that no protest will be well conducted.

You may feel part of a great movement but please realise that you have very little public support. You have two problems in correcting this. The first is that you are seen as a privileged group arguing only in self-interest and secondly you are violent or failing to control violence in your protest.

Your arguments are not being heard because they are not being made coherently and persuasively (maybe they cannot be). You need to correct this and you need to get a grip on the violence – work with the police, have an organisation structure, don’t be a rabble, have your own marshals. If they do their job the police will work with them.

It’s also a good idea try to cut out the silly revolutionary rhetoric that we have heard time and time again since Che was a lad it. It conveys all the credibility of a cartoon character.

Personally I don’t think you cant turn this round, so individuals, don’t get carried away thinking you are changing the world and damage yourselves in some way on a crusade that history will show never existed.

Good argument Jenny but how long do you expect people to take being punched, kicked, batonned and run down by horse back riot cops before they hit back?

Sir Paul Stephenson has already upped the ante by calling for more violence from the police. He has threatened as much knowing there’s another demo planned for next week. He’s a disgrace and should be sacked but that won’t happen so the initiative lies with the protestors.

Do they accept the violence of the police or do they go to the demo anticipating it and prepared to give back some of their own?

This could turn very nasty.

24. Chaise Guevara

“If your protests involve violence or damage you must understand that the police will treat you all as working to a common illegal purpose. You cannot expect the police to magically distinguish between good and bad members of a mob. After all, you cannot agree the distinction between yourselves.

[…]

If illegality happens on your protest then you permit the use of these police tactics. You know it will happen so you have no one to blame but yourselves.”

Um, why should someone be to blame for the actions of a stranger who happens to agree with him on a single political point? Guilt by association doesn’t work. You can’t justify overzealous policing on the basis of “unless someone owns up to throwing that rock the whole protest will be in detention.”

The reason is that you are jointly holding a protest. If that protest starts to be violent or create damage the police have the responsibility to control it to stop it happening. You are not an individual you are part of a joint enterprise.

Of course you could say (as I often do) that the police have a duty to help you exercise your right to peaceful protest. The problem with this is the fundamental distinction between those who are lawful and those acting illegally has to be made apparent. The organisers have to prevent participants acting illegally and hand over to the police those who do not. If you are not willing to do this you are effectively assisting the illegal acts.

The police gave you the benefit of the doubt a week earlier and you failed to reward their trust by controlling your demonstration. You must have expected them to not make the same mistake twice and to use the well established practices to control events as soon as the protest started creating damage.

The debate is not where you want it. It is all about violence, damage and police tactics.

It did not have to be this way.

“For example, one of the reasons for the appalling policing of the happy, peaceful, singing, dancing G20 climate camp protestors who put up their tents in Bishopgate last year, is that they were dealing with police officers who had been through a hard time with less than peaceful demonstrators earlier in the day at a different location.”

I was at the G20 protest in London, where not only did Ian Thomlinson get killed by the brutal police, they also kettled many thousands of peaceful protestors for many hours with no food, water or toilet facilities. Anytime I asked the police what was going on, they were either aggressive or laughed at me. So to say the police had a “hard time” is at that protest is laughable.

I was also at Climate Camp, just popped along to see a friend who was there, it was easy to do so as the pavement was open for passers-by. After chatting to my friend for around 10 mins I told him I was heading home, because I had been kettled for much of the day… but when I went to leave the police blocked me & told me I could NOT leave. The same nastiness & brutality from the police occured here as in the G20 protest!!


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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  2. Jacob Richardson

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  3. Helen Lambert

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  4. Melissa Nicole Harry

    RT @libcon: We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience http://bit.ly/h0mMrP

  5. Jenny Jones

    Young Greens call on NUS to provide NVDA trainning. My article: police, protestors & NVDA http://bit.ly/eVrmP2 #demo2010

  6. Darren Johnson

    Young Greens call on NUS to provide NVDA trainning. My article: police, protestors & NVDA http://bit.ly/eVrmP2 #demo2010

  7. Violence and public protest: a brief defence « Though Cowards Flinch

    […] spokespersons for the Green Party (and inevitably the pro-capitalist parties), I believe that the announced plans of the […]

  8. Wendy Maddox

    I totally agree & support civil disobedience: RT @libcon: We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience http://bit.ly/h0mMrP

  9. Greener London

    http://bit.ly/eVrmP2 Green Party AM Jenny Jones shows her solidarity with student protests #cuts #dayx #nocuts #anticuts

  10. paulstpancras

    We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience | Liberal Conspiracy
    http://bit.ly/hjldcK

  11. Darren Johnson

    Forget the gap year, get some NVDA trainning. Article by Jenny Jones on student protests http://bit.ly/fCIRDW demo2010

  12. Elise Benjamin

    RT @DarrenJohnsonAM: Forget the gap year, get some NVDA trainning. Article by Jenny Jones on student protests http://bit.ly/fCIRDW demo2010

  13. ellispritchard

    We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/dSn37db via @libcon

  14. The Green Party

    @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  15. Lynda Odom

    article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI (expand)

  16. David Henry

    RT @TheGreenParty: @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  17. Steve Gardiner

    RT @TheGreenParty: @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  18. Clare Cochrane

    RT: @TheGreenParty: @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  19. Iain Lindley

    RT @VoteDavidHenry: @GreenJennyJones article arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI << extremist Greens!

  20. Richard George

    Article by @GreenJennyJones starts well, but falters quickly. http://bit.ly/eYG9uI Trouble started when cops kettled peaceful #dayx protest

  21. Luke Homer

    RT @libcon: We need to reclaim the true ideals behind civil disobedience http://bit.ly/h0mMrP Well said

  22. David Henry

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  23. Therese

    Excellent @GreenJennyJones article arguing for *non-violent* civil disobedience: http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  24. David Henry

    RT @TiggerTherese: Excellent @GreenJennyJones article arguing for *non-violent* civil disobedience: http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  25. Caroline Russell

    Pitched just right RT @TiggerTherese: Excellent @GreenJennyJones article arguing for *non-violent* civil disobedience: http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  26. Kevin Blowe

    Written before yesterday's protest: a prominent Green Party member blames 'bad' protesters for police brutality http://bit.ly/gnbZzo

  27. Daniel(le) Nobody

    Jenny Jones is a disgrace to Green Politics. There! I've said it. #Uk #thegreenparty http://t.co/NX2vVAN via @libcon

  28. Political Dynamite

    Jenny Jones AM on civil disobedience | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/7ML5MvQ via @libcon #cuts #nocuts #demo2010 #bbcqt #dayx #dayx2

  29. c

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  30. Greener London

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  31. Therese

    Excellent @GreenJennyJones article arguing for *non-violent* civil disobedience – http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  32. Christian DeFeo

    RT @TiggerTherese: Excellent @GreenJennyJones article arguing for *non-violent* civil disobedience – http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  33. Andy Bold

    "As soon as protest turns violent we lose the argument." http://bit.ly/ft44f5 #demo2010 #dayx

  34. Juliet Brain

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  35. Mortimer Vanunu

    RT @TheGreenParty: @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  36. Tony Dowling

    RT @TheGreenParty: @GreenJennyJones article on Liberal Conspiracy, arguing for a campaign of civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eYG9uI

  37. Darren Johnson

    In case you haven't read it @greenjennyjones calls for non violent, mass civil disobedience http://bit.ly/eVrmP2 #demo2010 #student #soas

  38. Camden Green Party

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  39. Mortimer Vanunu

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  45. Syed Choudhury

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