Civil disobedience or violent criminality?

Sunday 30 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Courtyard Gallery

Well before riots broke out in British cities during the summer, questions were being asked about where political protest ends and criminality begins. Student demonstrations against the increase in tuition fees drew criticism from commentators, politicians and student leaders themselves when some demonstrators destroyed property and even fought the police. And the fairly minor violence that took place in central London alongside the TUC march against public spending cuts earlier this year generated more excitement than the demonstration itself. In both cases, critics argued that since we live in a democracy, there is no excuse for resorting to violence. At least since the 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq, however, many activists have grown frustrated with conventional ‘A to B’ marches, which are all too easily ignored by those in power. So do recent disturbances represent a legitimate attempt to revive democratic politics, or simply a childish desire to ‘smash stuff up’?

Certainly the democratic rights we enjoy today were not simply granted by those in power, but fought for and won by the people, from the Chartist struggle for male suffrage to the suffragette struggle for female enfranchisement and beyond. Such struggles often involved deliberate law-breaking, but are generally regarded as legitimate in retrospect. So is it a failure of imagination to think there is no place for civil disobedience today? Less than a century ago, the rule of law meant women in Britain could not vote; within living memory the law has proscribed homosexuality. Is there a moral case for breaking the ‘unfair’ laws, or for civil disobedience to challenge injustice?

Some argue recent curbs on protesting near Parliament, highlighted by the ‘Democracy Village’ encampment in Parliament Square in 2010, show the need for eternal vigilance, and a healthy respect for protest even on the wrong side of the law. But who gets to decide when civil disobedience is acceptable? In 2000, a group of anti-GM campaigners were cleared by a Norwich court of causing criminal damage to a field of genetically modified maize, after claiming they had lawful excuse to attack the crop on environmental grounds. Does this presuppose public agreement with environmentalist politics? Should different standards apply to less popular demonstrators, such as radical Islamists or the English Defence League? Some campaigners object to immigration controls that criminalise ‘illegal’ migrants. Should they break the law to help such people? Can we distinguish between basic democratic rights guaranteed for all, and a ‘moral right’ to break particular laws in exceptional circumstances? Or are these simply tactical questions, wrongly fetishised by masked hyper-activists and their tutting detractors alike?


Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
John Fitzpatrick
professor of law and director, Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent, Canterbury

Dr Maria Grasso
lecturer in politics, University of Sheffield

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos
assistant lecturer in sociology, University of Kent

Chair:
Saleha Ali
assistant producer, WORLDbytes; co-presenter, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible

Produced by
Saleha Ali assistant producer, WORLDbytes; co-presenter, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Debating Humanism; co-founder, Manifesto Club
Recommended readings
As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe

'Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,' said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. 'We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.'

Nicholas Kulish, New York Times, 28 September 2011

Shoplifters of the World Unite

Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind?

Slavoj Žižek, London Review of Books, 19 August 2011

The Theatre of Protest

Forty years on from les événements, is the UK seeing the blossoming of a new, theatrical protest movement?

Daniel B Yates, Culture Wars, 20 January 2011

Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth

Instead of creating a new world, their actions really fostered a nation riddled with inequality, elitism and political corruption. "Jilted Generation" sets out how the next generation might succeed where this one failed.

Ed Howker & Shiv Malik, Icon Books Ltd, 2 September 2010

The sorry state of political protest

Patrick Hayes speaks to the weird and not-so-wonderful campers facing eviction from the ‘Democracy Village’.

Patrick Hayes, spiked, 20 July 2010

A caricature of a riot

The G20 protest of poseurs against bankers confirmed that anti-capitalism itself has become an empty brand, like KFC or FCUK.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 2 April 2009

They know what we're thinking?

"Depressed by 'debates' where the panel ignore each other? The Battle of Ideas is the real deal - two days of verbal fistfights. Accept no alternative."
Vivienne Raper, writer and editor

follow the Institute of Ideas