Vive la Révolution

23 March 2020

In the past year, there has been a groundswell of support for climate action across Australia, with numerous demonstrations comprising hundreds of thousands of people. While many protests have taken the form of relatively tame marches, others, such as when climate activists glued themselves to the ground to prevent delegates from entering the 2019 International Mining and Resources Conference, have been notably more disruptive. Regardless of the means involved, Australia’s climate protests have been met with similar censure from federal and state governments: the government will acknowledge that while people have a right to protest, these protesters have taken it too far. Protests that risk violence, the government argues, cannot be countenanced. The government’s response poses a question: does violence have a role in political protest, and if so, what exactly is that role?

Despite criticism from federal and state governments, there exists a long and varied history of violence in political protest. Yet, this history is often obscured. One historical case often considered non-violent is the suffragette movement in the UK. Images associated with the movement typically show women marching and holding signsperhaps at their most violent chaining themselves to a railing. Less discussed, however, are suffragettes such as Mary Leigh, a schoolteacher and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union who joined the movement in 1906. She was involved in numerous violent acts in the name of furthering the suffragette movement in 1912, including throwing a hatchet at UK Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and setting fire to a theatre in Dublin occupied by the same man. The suffragette movement has been sanitised by history, with unpalatable images of planting bombs and attacking politicians replaced by stories and pictures of nonviolent civil disobedience. This nonviolent history gives an incomplete account of how the suffragettes created political change. Violent action was a more frequent occurrence than is often acknowledged.

Considering the array of protest actions throughout history, how should we define “violence” in these movements? In the literature on violence (typified by C. A. J. Coady), three definitions of the term violence appear. First, violence is limited to cases of interpersonal force (meaning throwing a punch is violent, destroying property is not). Second, violence is limited to “illegitimate” cases of interpersonal force. For example, police arresting an individual who has broken (or suspected to have broken) the law cannot be violent by this definition, as police have a legitimate claim to detain such individuals. And third, violence is virtually any act that produces harm in an individual or group either intentionally or through neglect. To map this onto protest: the first group does not think protesters are acting violently if they do not attack anyone, while the second may think the protesters are being violent but the police are not. The third, however, might say that both are being violent. 

So, why do some political movements become violent, while others remain comparatively peaceful? The movement for marriage equality in Australia, for example, rarely turned to violence and (eventually) achieved its primary aim. However, the abolitionist movement in the US in the 19th century led, by William Lloyd Garrison, was a key motivation for the American Civil War; while the movement led by William Wilberforce a few decades earlier in the UK remained non-violent. What determines which political movement will turn violent and which won’t? The reality is that these movements are messy. They are composed of large groups of typically discontent people with differing views about how change should be effected. While not all members of a movement will be comfortable with the contributions of the more radical activists, their contributions form part of the effort. 

Analysing the contrasts and similarities between these movements, however, more patterns emerge. The first is the stakes involved in the issue. Giving women the right to vote upended the democratic process in the UK, and many of the politicians opposed to it likely knew their position would be endangered if women could vote. Similarly, the economy of several southern states was closely tied to slave labour. Political movements that do not aim to challenge governmental power usually face less harsh opposition and are less likely to turn to violence, as with the marriage equality debate. But the abolition debate in the UK remains an outlier. Slavery in the UK was central to their economy, but violence was not commonplace. Instead, the debate largely played out between influential people within the government. However, it is important to note that the issue held more weight for the members of parliament, given they were the people with the means to profit from slavery. Other political movements often turn to violence when they do not think their voice is heard, or more often, when they fear their voice will be taken away.

In considering the case of current climate protests, the history of violence in political movements may be illustrative. There have been numerous attempts to crack down on climate protesters, with the Queensland Parliament having passed laws to criminalise locking devices and expand police powers to search suspected activists. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also threatened further measures to restrict the ability to protest, arguing—unironically—that protesters are seeking to “deny the liberties of Australians”. Perhaps as with the political movements of the past, politicians are aiming to restrict debate for fear of what the repercussions of holding political leaders accountable for climate change will be.

To return to the motivating question: what is the role of violence in political movements? There isn’t a clear-cut answer from history. Some movements have been able to effect wide-scale change without violence, while others resorted often to violence to have their voice heard. It is clear nonetheless that no political movement started outside the parliament has achieved much success without inconveniencing the politicians not interested in listening to them. The climate protest situation is clear: climate protesters want to be heard, but the responses from Scott Morrison and the Queensland Parliament indicate that they are not willing to listen. Protester actions may well get more extreme until that dynamic changes.


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