Where does peaceful protest get us?
On 26th March, the Trades Union Congress are calling a march in London against the government’s austerity measures. This has reignited one of the longest-running debates in activist politics: that of peaceful protest versus direct action. In particular, the line is drawn between those worried that a violent minority will hijack the event and distract from its message with mob tactics on one hand and those who feel that heavy stewarding and cooperation with the police will lead to an entirely passive event which accomplishes nothing and demobilises people.
I, of course, fall in the latter camp. Writing of the march, I noted that “route stewards” will be tasked to “prevent any sit-down protests or direct action.” This will ensure that the event “will be a passive and uncontroversial march from A to B, and at the end we will hear some people spout rhetoric about exactly the kind of civil disobedience they are actively curtailing.” The fact that campaigning will climax in such an ineffective thing means that “the thousands of people looking to challenge the government’s agenda” will “go home utterly deflated, and believing that there is nothing they can do in the face of the attacks on our class.”
An article for the Solidarity Federation freesheet, Catalyst, adds that “the only way [the government's] plans can be derailed is if we simply do not accept their imposition, and make the country ungovernable.”
Contrary to that position, the Public and Commercial Services Union (for one) believes that “a big demo will rattle the government and give working people a glimpse of their strength and the confidence to take the battle forward – with co-ordinated strikes if necessary.” Anything else, as a post on Liberal Conspiracy argues, just “threatens to blot out our political message” with “continual violent confrontations with the police.” The only accomplishment is “losing the political message, losing support, and getting protesters injured, and arrested.”
For centre-leftists like Sunny Hundal, “laws get passed via Parliament” and the aim of protest is simply to win public support so that politicians will listen to our message. After all, “there is no substitute for political action in Westmin[ister],” simply because “we live in a Parl[iamentary] democracy” and the only reason “politicians don’t listen” is “because we are politicall[y] unorganised.”
I outlined the broad case for direct action here, as well as expanding upon my opposition to pacifism and what purpose “violence” against property can serve. I have also argued the case for a direct action approach in specific situations over at Truth, Reason & Liberty. I won’t rehash the arguments here. Although that is an ongoing debate, and one that needs to be had in order to convince people of the merits of taking matters into our own hands rather than pleading with our “leaders” to make changes for us, that is not the purpose of this post.
Instead, I want to take a look specifically at peaceful protests – not the role that they can, and do, serve as a pressure-release for popular anger, but at the situations where they can be useful.
Perhaps the main way that passive actions prove useful is as a focal point for building up a movement. If you are looking to get more people involved with a cause, then getting out on the streets is the best way to do that. And, unlike a stall or simply handing out leaflets, a big event like a protest catches peoples’ attention.
It also allows people beyond already-dedicated activists to get involved.
If you are interested in politics and looking to get involved in activism, it is hard to know where to begin. Trawling the internet may provide you with some info on the organisation that best reflects your outlook, but it is much easier for most people to approach a human being than to offer their services to people they’ve never met via email. And whilst a stall or a leafleting session may also offer the same opportunity, the amount of people doing that to sell everything from cheap goods to religious enlightenment inclines even those who are seeking an outlet to steer clear. A protest, on the other hand, cannot be mistaken for a charity mugger.
The other benefit of such an event is that it allows people to join a movement or a cause without having to necessarily commit to paying subs to an organisation. Of course, political groups will always want to grow – some by appealing to those who agree with their aims and principles, others by aggressive party building at all costs – but not everybody wants to do that.
Instead, then, of pursuing people to join any given organisation, people can get involved in the cause. Protests and marches provide a focal point, to draw public attention to the fact that there is an ongoing issue, and to encourage people to join the fight. It also makes it easier for them to approach those already involved, to ask what is going on, and to engage in a dialogue. From there, they can walk away, dip their toe, or plunge right in. That is entirely up to them.
But the point remains: protests and demonstrations serve as a focal point to promote a cause and draw people into the movement supporting that cause. They are a precursor to – not a substitute for – direct action.
Another use of protests, is as a very public way of demonstrating solidarity with other peoples’ struggles. Particularly in the case of the international arena, or those who are imprisoned.
There are numerous examples of this, such as the protests in support of the hunger strike at Yarls Wood detention centre, the IWA pickets for workers sacked when trying to unionise, or the Solidarity Federation’s national day of action against Subway.
One particularly powerful demonstration of such solidarity occurred when the Free Workers’ Union (FAU) of Berlin was effectively denied the right to act as a trade union by the German Courts.
According to the FAU’s own website;
FAU-B and its group within the Babylon cinema have been fighting for a labor contract since the beginning of June 2009. Although the Babylon cinema is government funded, pay has been miserable and workers rights have been ignored. A large portion of the cinema’s staff is organized within FAU-B. This is the first significant labor dispute of the relatively small FAU-B. It has caused an uproar not only in Berlin, but in all of Germany. Anarcho-syndicalists in a labor dispute, an effective boycott that was prominent in the media, extensive and innovative demands, and the involvement of the workers themselves (which is rare in Germany) have made an impression on the public. When the pressure was at its height and the bosses could no longer avoid entering negotiations, not only did politicians intervene but ver.di (a big union in Germany, part of the umbrella organization of mainstream unions, DGB) took up negotiations with the bosses even though they had almost no members among the cinema’s staff and no mandate from them. The workers, who were obviously flabbergasted, were excluded from negotiations.
Apparently a deal was made between ver.di, politicians, and bosses to get rid of FAU-B and calm things down at the cinema. But the staff and FAU refused to be silenced. Neue Babylon GmBH reacted by flexing some legal muscle and ver.di by attempting to damage FAU’s image. Firstly, the boycott – one of FAU-B’s main forms of pressure – was banned, and doubt was cast on FAU-B’s ability to negotiate contracts (in Germany this is a prerequisite for being able to legally take collective action). At the same time, other court cases were brought against FAU-B relating to freedom of expression. But FAU-B did not back down. This led to the latest court decision, which basically bans FAU as a union.
However, the FAU are the German section of the International Workers’ Association (IWA-AIT). In response to this decision, solidarity actions soon sprang up across the globe. German embassies and consulates in Poland, Ireland, the USA, and elsewhere were picketed by anarcho-syndicalists in support of the FAU’s right to organise and to act as a union. This added pressure on the back of the group’s own campaigning, and helped to spur them on to victory and the right – once again – to call themselves a union.
Solidarity is not just a word or a sentiment – it is a weapon. It is the means through which the working class exercises its collective strength, providing a network of support for those in struggle. Even when that struggle is in another part of the globe, we should not doubt the power of this weapon.
Beyond the demo
I hold firmly to the belief that the struggles of the working class will be won by direct action. As Gilles Dauvé once noted, “10,000 or 100,000 proletarians armed to the teeth are nothing if they place their trust in anything beside their own power to change the world.” Because “otherwise, the next day, the next month or the next year, the power whose authority they recognize will take away the guns which they failed to use against it.” If we look to leaders and betters to resolve our problems, we will be yoked to their control, and sell-out is inevitable.
But even if you do not believe this, it remains a fact that peaceful protest does not claim victories. If you are a reformist, it has to be followed up with political lobbying, and winning the argument so that the “nice” politicians acting in favour of the common folk who have petitioned them. For revolutionaries, it is a precursor to direct action.
Either way, in itself a passive demonstration does not gain anything. It can be used to show solidarity with the struggles of others, to draw people into a broader movement, or to show the ruling class the strength of popular anger.
But, in itself, this will not free political prisoners, end wars, or stay the axe of austerity. For that, we have to follow up the protests with action, whatever form you believe that should take.