The ethical case for ‘people power’

August 19, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Politics is far too important to be left to politicians. They are often the last people to get the message on social justice and human rights. Much of the time, pressure for social reform is first initiated outside of parliament by campaign groups like Greenpeace and Animal Aid, using challenging, even provocative, methods of protest. These extra-parliamentary activists are frequently the true sparks and catalysts of political change.

What do Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King have in common? They all used direct action protest as a way of winning human rights and social justice.

Pleading with politicians was not their style. They tried conventional lobbying but found that writing letters to MPs and having tea with government ministers did not work.

Faced with an unresponsive political establishment, they staged street demonstrations, organised hunger strikes and sit-ins, refused to pay taxes and ambushed political leaders. By these means, India won its independence, women got the vote and racial segregation was ended in the USA.

Two decades ago, direct action secured one the biggest ever political climb-downs in modern British history. Margaret Thatcher’s much-hated Poll Tax was defeated when millions refused to pay and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets. Opposition MPs had proven powerless to stop the Poll Tax. But when people took power into their own hands, Thatcher’s flagship policy collapsed.

The defeat of the Poll Tax illustrates a very important principle: ordinary people have great power, if they choose to use it. Moreover, democracy is about more than voting once every five years. Having your say in a general election is fine, but not enough.

Something as important as running the country should never be left to politicians. Look at the mess they have created: their loosening of financial regulation paved the way for cowboy capitalism and the current economic meltdown. They have allowed criminal bankers to escape prosecution for the mass frauds they committed. The consequences? Mass unemployment and the decimation of people’s savings and pensions; plus savage cuts in public services, to the point where, to save money, some patients are being refused treatment by the NHS. It’s a scandal of monumental proportions. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with traditional politics. Hundreds of thousands are deserting the ballot box and turning to direct action protest instead. The student protests and “occupy” movements are giving voice to the anger of millions.

Sometimes, it is pointless looking to politicians for help. They are often the cause of the problem. The vast majority of people are against genetically modified food, but the government insists that unsafe crop trials must continue. Three quarters of the public want an elected House of Lords but rebel MPs have succeeded in scuppering every attempt at democratisation. There was mass opposition to the war in Iraq but Tony Blair and a majority of MPs rode roughshod over the people’s will.

When politicians ignore the wishes of the people and break their promises, direct action is the only option left. Who can blame Greenpeace for wrecking GM crops and hunt saboteurs for saving foxes from being torn to shreds by dogs? Their methods got results when lobbying the government had failed.

The arguments for and against direct action revolve around two fundamentally different styles of politics. Representative democracy is the system where MPs are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. This tends to encourage elitism and paternalism in politicians, and disempowerment and passivity among the electorate.

Participatory democracy is, in contrast, about people being involved in the political process in an on-going way, rather than only at election time. They take power for themselves, instead of handing over responsibility to professional politicians. This ensures better checks and balances against the abuse of power and against the way MPs so often neglect public opinion.

Direct action is the highest form of participatory democracy. People take power and represent themselves. They get involved in political decision-making, and through their own efforts bring about social change.

Having taken part in more than 3,000 direct action protests over the last 45 years, the beneficial effects are self-evident to me.

Take, for example, the issue of police victimisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. By 1989, the number LGBT people arrested for consenting, victimless behaviour was greater than in 1966, the year before the so-called decriminalisation of homosexuality. Respectable gay organisations like Stonewall lobbied the police, but were ignored. Then, in 1990, the queer rights group OutRage! began a high-profile direct action campaign to challenge harassment.

We invaded police stations, busted entrapment operations, photographed undercover officers and hounded the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

These were controversial tactics, but within three months the police were pleading with us to join them at the negotiating table. Soon afterwards they began their first serious dialogue with the LGBT community. Before a year had passed, they had agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of men convicted of ‘gross indecency’ (consensual same-sex behaviour) fell by two-thirds – the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. Our campaign helped save thousands of LGBTs from arrest, prosecution and criminal records.

My conclusion? Direct action can be a highly effective way to change things for the better – and sometimes the only way. When well planned, it works.

An imaginative protest can be a very dramatic, headline-grabbing way to draw public attention to injustices that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked. If you can get a protest in the news, it helps raise awareness of the issue and puts people in power under pressure to address your concerns.

Many of my direct action protests have involved civil disobedience – deliberate law-breaking modelled on the sit-ins of the US black civil rights campaigners in the 1960s. Indeed, in the early 1970s, I was involved in sit-ins at pubs in London that, in those days, refused to serve “queers”.

Breaking the law can be ethically justified in three circumstances: when politicians ignore the wishes of the majority, break their election promises or violate human rights.

Sometimes, of course, the majority will may conflict with the protection of human rights. This happened in Nazi Germany, where most people, either explicitly or tacitly, colluded with the persecution of Jews. In such cases, the protection of human rights should always trump majority opinion. No majority has the right to victimise minorities.

Direct action can be a vital mechanism for the defence of democracy and liberty, against the abuse of state power or mob tyranny, as exemplified by the suffragettes and the Anti-Nazi League.

Far from threatening the democratic process, protest from outside the parliamentary system protects and enhances democracy – acting as a much-needed counter-balance to the frequent arrogance, self-interest and elitism of political parties and politicians. Power to the people!

This article first appeared on the website of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights and social justice campaigns:

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This post was written by Peter Tatchell

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