Friday, 12 November 2010

Direct Action - where should we draw the line?

There has been a lot of debate recently about the so-called Siege/Battle/Occupation of Millbank and whether the violence was a good thing or not. Some argue that it was good because it brings publicity and others that it was bad because it was illegal, resulted in the injury of innocent people and brought massive negative publicity to the cause, overshadowing and damaging our very good arguments. I'm firmly in the latter camp as my article here indicates.

Now, don't get me wrong, direct action can be brilliant and is often a vital tool in drawing media attention to causes which would otherwise be ignored. A stunning recent example of this was the Vodafone Protests which brought a previously ignored issue into the public eye.

However, what happened at Millbank on Wednesday was disgraceful. Innocent businesses had their offices destroyed, ordinary office workers were terrified out of their wits, at least eight people had to go to hopsital due to their injuries and there are reports about of a young man having suffered brain damage after being hit by a brick (I've been unable to find a source for this but will update if I find one) *update* it appears that this story was false as the BBC has said that no one was seriously injured. The media has focused mainly on the violence and the arguments over increasing tuition fees have been sidelined.

But, instead of the violence let's imagine this had happened instead. Towards the end of the protests NUS stewards lead students into the lobby of Millbank Tower where they stage a sit-in, completely blocking the lobby and the courtyard whilst other students lock arms and form a symbolic wall around the entrance, waving placards denouncing the increases in tuition fees. A few yards up the road the rest of the protesters listen to speeches before dispersing peacefully. The sit-in continues for several hours, drawing mass media attention as sutdents continue their sit-in until late at night. The evening news is dominated by coverage of the thousands of students in and around Millbank while Newsnight goes ahead as planned with it's debate over the increase in tuition fees.

A lovely picture isn't it? Obviously it was never going to happen, there were too many people in the crowd out to cause trouble and it would have been impossible for so few NUS stewards to maintain discipline amongst such a large crowd. But if it had been pulled off imagine the positive attention it would have drawn to the cause instead of the dozens of negative editorials, opinion-pieces and letters to the editor that we have seen instead.

Gandhi showed that the powerful of peaceful protest could liberate a nation of hundreds of millions of people - I'm sure we can achieve the far simpler goal of stopping tuition fees with the same methods.


  1. I am instinctively against violence. But let's look at the facts. If the students had gone home after a quiet and polite saunter across Westminster, the media wouldn't be talking about the issue now.

    If the students can create the impression that a very large number of ordinary people (not a tiny hard care of nutters) are so angry they want to burn buildings down. And this sort of thing goes on. The government will start to look weak, like it is loosing control.

    They will then have the choice ultimately of a bloody confrontation with our young people (ala China or Iran) or conceding to their demands. That's the bottom line.

    Remember why the poll tax went - it wasn't people politely lobbying their MPs.

  2. @Mark

    Nonsense, the 24 hour news channels and ordinary news shows were already covering the protest before it turned violent. Newsnight had planned to have a debate over the merits of the tuition fee increases. The violence destroyed all that and all of those programs focused on the violence instead.

  3. You obviously know much more about it than I do George, I'll keep my nonsense to myself in future.

  4. You also miss the point that this was a very small minority of the students and the protest was infiltrated by anarchists, something which is common knowledge yet I haven't seen reported in the media.


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