Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How to direct action?

I couldn't make it to the protest in London last Saturday (stupid charity meetings), though I understand it went quite peacefully. For my part this comes as good news as it means that none of my friends got beaten up (as far as I know, haven't actually heard from everyone who I know was there since Saturday...) though not everyone agrees. This post describes itself as "an intervention in defence of direct action", thought it is specifically defending the tactics of the "black bloc" protest movement.

I'll come to the tactics employed by different groups in a second, but I feel that the poster starts badly, by describing their fellow marchers as, "supposed comrades" [emphasis mine]. Surely it makes sense to embrace, not alienate these people, for as long as we have a common cause? Especially when 138 of the 147 protesters being charged by the police were involved in the peaceful direct action at Fortnam & Mason. While the poster argues that, "The dichotomy between “protester” and “anarchist” or “troublemaker” is entirely false" these words are not synonyms (neither UK Uncut nor the TUC is anti-capitalist), and if politicians and capitalist commentators can still disagree on the very nature of the situation but still protest under the same banner, are the anarchists really unable to? It seems like a shame, especially when UK Uncut specifically ask them to. And did the poster really expect everyone who came to the march to get involved in violent direct action? Even those who brought their kids, or came in their wheelchairs, or to protest at cuts to their pensions?

Putting any such considerations aside though, what would be the ideal level of protest? If the protest really has had no effect on government policy, even those of us who want to work with the current system must surely acknowledge its limitations? Perhaps it serves well to raise awareness, but if as Vince Cable says the government is consulting with trade unions does this make us the suffragettes to their more-effective-but-less-glamourous suffragists? UK Uncut claim to be hitting organisations where it hurts (their wallets) by closing business for a period of time, and acts of peaceful disobedience to the law have a long-established and respected pedigree - Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr. And clearly they're rattling cages, or the police wouldn't have made so many arrests.

But what for those of us who want to change the system, not its current manifestation? Violent resistance has an equally long list of heroes - Judas Maccabeus, Robin Hood, Malcolm X - and the tactics of the black bloc are very clearly deliberate, down neither to "mindless hooliganism", nor to being "out of control", nor even to a wish to "vent frustration", all of which I've seen suggested in the past few days. The police are the obvious body to be the target of this violence, and our poster considers the police operation have been a success because they "[meted] out so many more injuries to protesters than were sustained". But the Police were protesting too, and here again is the risk of alienating potential allies in the current battle of a longer campaign. So is this form of violent protest wrong? And if it's wrong in the UK, why are we supporting it in Libya?

There are peaceful ways of changing regimes, but they are longer and slower. If anarchists believe that the current system is causing suffering then they may see themselves as having a duty to act as quickly as possible, but that doesn't mean that other methods don't work, or that they should be dismissed and ridiculed. People exercising the power they have to effect change within the constraints of the law should be encouraged not reviled, or else they'll stop. As Alice Walker said, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."


  1. The way I've often heard it put, is that in order to preserve and enforce democracy the public has to employ the four Boxes: Ballot, Soap, Jury and Ammunition. In that order. And only moving on to the next one when the previous ones have failed. (Caveat: I may have got the order of the first two the wrong way round though - but those are the two that can be used effectively, simultaneously)
    In Libya, democracy has broken down to the point that none of the first three boxes work any more, so violent protest/coup is the only recourse. In Britain, we're somewhere in between Soap and Jury - the level of peaceful protest and legal recourse. If those *still* produce no results, then that's the time we need to start thinking about taking it one step further. In my opinion at least.

  2. I like your four box heirarchy, but surely the argument of the anarchists would be that the first three have failed already? This UK Uncut protester, arrested after the F&M occuppation, might now agree;

  3. I think it's an argument that can be made, certainly. I don't agree yet that we've exhausted all other avenues, though, and that while civil disobedience is a valid tactic, jumping straight in at that deep end whilst those other avenues are still being explored is divisive and potentially hindering to the cause, because they end up losing support.

  4. From an anti-violence, pro-UK Uncut perspective;