Direct Action, Non-Violent Protest, is what was promised to those who wanted to do a little more than just March for the Alternative, the TUC inspired protest against government public service cuts in London yesterday. Instead you could Occupy for the Alternative, in a series of actions coordinated by UKUncut. I can understand the attraction; personally I do not get excited at standing listening to loads of speakers telling me what I already agree with. I understand the purpose of some direct action; the freedom of the very rich, whether bankers or tax exiles, to get away with that unrestrained greed and injustice sickens me.
The promise from UKUncut appealed to that emotion that has been stirred in so many of us. "Flash mobs, bail-ins and occupations will shut down the dozens of banks and tax dodgers along the length of Europe’s biggest shopping street." It was simple. A map on the website provided plenty of targets for the adventurous, and a list of already planned actions served the needs of those who prefer to follow. So: "There will be lots of people on Oxford Street, so don’t worry too much about getting numbers. If you list it, they will come. All you need to do is grab a few mates, come up with a cool idea, get any props you need and list the action on the website as normal." "Maybe you want to set up a library in Vodafone? Or flashmob Boots? went the initation." For the Christians among us there was even an invitation to a church service, or "Bail In" at Barclays. I have no doubt that in the minds of many who turned up was a real desire to do something that peacefully that would gain attention and make a real difference. And UKUncut were not the only ones with alternatives to the TUC march and rally.
Sadly the headlines in todays media convey a different story. While anywhere up to half a million people marched and rallied peaceably, the way that a few hundred interpreted UKUncut's open invitation to protest have caught the headlines. So: The Telegraph has TUC protest march: anarchists on the rampage in London runs the Telegraph; The Guardian Anti-cuts march draws hundreds of thousands as police battle rioters ; and the Daily Mail leads the way as ever with the most vibrant description and vivid pictures 200 arrested as hardcore anarchists fight police long into night in Battle of Trafalgar Square after 500,000 march against the cut. On one hand I do understand the frustration that people dwell on the negative, but when you have the sacel fo destruction that took place yesterday, and large groups still continuing to cause major trouble long after midnight, it is not a story I can reasonably expect the media to miss.
So what went wrong. As a peacemaker, I know something about non-violent resistance. It has a long and reputable place in the history of opposing violence and injustice in our all too violent and unjust world. Just think of Gandhi and his opposition to the British Empire in India: scenes of his Salt March, the Salt Satyagraha , from the movie Gandhi inspire me every time I think of them. This classic act of civil disobedience, a simple act of rebellion against an unjust tax on salt even to people who could gather it themselves by their home conducted with great dignity shaped the future of a nation. Regarded as naive and foolish by Indian politicians and their British masters alike, it so captured the imagination of future generations that it inspired people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi in their struggles against injustice. It has a noble history. What we say yesterday masquerading under its name was a parody of that noble history.
To achive its end non violent resistance needs to avoid .... violence. Not just violence against the person, but also violence against property. And perhaps more importantly it needs to be structured in a way that avoids any sense of revenge, uncontrolled anger, and indeed greed and envy. Centrally it is shaped by the self-discipline of the people involved. A sit in that occupies a publically open space may be good, but respects the property of the owner, no matter how rich. For the occupation of Fortnum and Masons to achieve its real objective it must avoid theft and pillage of the shelves that is driven by envy. The dignity of the cause of justice is lost when it is sullied by envy or greed, which is a very different thing.
Self control. I didn't see alot of that yesterday in the scenes from London that played over and over last night. And as such it undermined the greater cause of the protest yesterday against some fundamental injustices in the system. I am not sure we can avoid cuts, but where those who indisputably caused a good deal of the present finacial crisis continue to get away with it and even be rewarded there is a lot wrong. And because that cause of justice was undermined I totally condemn those that went wild on the streets of London.
I stress people who went wild. I don't want to appear totally down on anarchists and the far left. I have come over the past few years to appreciate the passion for justice among friends and colleagues who call themselves anarchists, especially those who come closer to my own views by being Christi-anarchists (Christian Anarchists), and also for some who dwell on the far left, eg Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party, SWP. I don't have to agree with them to respect them, and for those I know that put the cause of justice above an ideology it is my joy to work with them.
I would also note that civil disobedience will by definition at times break the law. In tweeting a few thoughts, Roger Mitchell, a friend who is a radical theologian and church leader responded with the challenge of Jesus turning over the table of the money changers in the temple. (Christian Scriptures, Mark 11.15-18) He has recently blogged on this passage in his own research; I agree with him that Jesus act was a statement that ...
... the whole political and religious system embodied by Jerusalem and its temple has failed to fulfil God’s real purpose, which is the release of love and mercy towards the poor and marginalised, the immigrant and sexually disadvantaged. Instead it has become about establishing its own power and economic advantage. Driving out the merchants and money changers is Jesus’ demonstration against this travesty.
Roger asked how I saw this act of Jesus in light of my call for non-violent resistance. My answer was to stress the self discipline in what he did, which manifested itself in it being a single discrete act of overturning tables to prevent trade. His response pointed out quite rightly that the table was the shop, and did that therefore imply a single act. I suppose what I am getting at is that the protest stopped as its focus was achieved, he did not go on to lay waste the temple.
For me the key is that Jesus was acting under self control and knew when to stop. I do not see that same in so many acts of anger. And to be very honestI do not see it enough in myself. I blogged on that last year when during an election radio show on immigration I had a run in with the deputy leader of BNP Simon Derby. I rather lost my composure, and my own anger got the better of me. When you say the right things the wrong way ... Many asked whether my anger was not righteous anger. At one level it was. But I also believe righteous anger is self controlled and that wasn't. As I noted in my post my Sikh and Jewish friends observing it knew I was not composed. I needed to be loud to catch the microphone which was elsewhere, but once I had the microphone I didn't need that - and by then my loudness was mixed with my anger at this man and the policies he represented. And in that anger was a lot more of my own frustration than there should have been.
People trained in non-violent resistance learn that self control. Its possibly one of the hardest lessons. I am still learning it. But if we are to see this become a force for change we are not going to do it by declaring we are running a non violent protest and inviting all-comers to take part as UKUncut did. To stand in the shoes of Gandhi, Luther King, Madela and Suu Kyi is rather more costly than that.