Some Thoughts on Violent Demonstration

In this post I question the effectiveness of violent demonstration. By this I don’t mean ‘violent’ in the broad sense used by some theorists to include verbal attacks and even systemic control, but at the same time I also don’t want to include full-scale militant revolution. This post has come mainly from talking to friends that think that damaging property or attacking authorities may be the only – or at least the most – effective or appropriate way of redressing a serious issue. This also does not include acts of civil disobedience such as the Rosa Parks Montgomery Bus Boycott which although unlawful I do not deem to be violent.

The first thing to notice is that violent protest doesn’t typically redress a problem by force. Short of full scale revolution, violent protest can only really hope to change things by raising awareness of an issue. The pro’s of violent protest are that it will usually lead to increased coverage of an issue, and can demonstrate a level of emotional investment as well as conviction.

The former argument is probably less controversial than the latter, but I have never been as convinced that expression was an important element in violent protest than when I watched a documentary on the Chilean school occupy movement: watching some very well educated, startlingly intelligent teenagers who had occupied a school, say they had come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t condemn the expression of violent protesters meant a lot, because they were aware that their privilege and intelligence gave them no more right to express themselves in their own way than anyone else.

But the question I am interested in here is not whether we should demonise people that engage in violent protest, but whether it can really ever change anything for the better?

For one thing the recent anti-tory demonstrations show, that as much as change through peaceful protest is not assured, significant boost in media coverage through violent demonstration is not necessarily assured either.

Conversely to emotional expression being a positive, violent protest is a relatively inarticulate method of getting a message across: although it may raise awareness that some people are dissatisfied it rarely manages to get across in any detail what they are dissatisfied about. It is usually only if people decide to find out why people are so emotionally invested (which most people won’t) that any meaningful awareness will be raised. As a violent protestor the chances that it will be your message that people will come across if they do any research are very slim, so it’s a good idea to think about what values you are going to be seen to be allying yourself to when you protest. By the same token, typically the majority of protesters would rather protest peacefully; when violent protesters receive most of the coverage on an issue, it obscures the expression of the majority of the protesters.

Aside from not getting a message across, many reasonable people may lose sympathy with a viewpoint if they associate it with violence. People that dismiss all violent protestors as either opportunists, or people un-politically venting aggression are clearly wrong to, but their dismissal does have some base in evidence, and more importantly, regardless of how right they are, if you are trying to reach a broad group of people your actions will still have an unwanted affect.

Living in a world in which those that inherit the most wealth have the most control is not ideal, but if violent protest did work and became the norm, we would essentially live in a community where might makes right – those minorities that are willing to shout the loudest would get their way. It’s quite clear that the Baltimore riots have bought a great deal of attention to an important problem that it may not have received peaceably, but what triggered those riots was not only not democratically voted in, it was in fact unlawful. It’s interesting the amount of people I have talked to about this, that were aware of the riots but didn’t know what they were about.

Unless many people are better informed or change their views in this country, then austerity, privatisation, tax loop-holes and ill-considered anti-European sentiment are only going to continue to resurface. In terms of demonstrating a level of conviction, risking imprisonment through civil disobedience, and tirelessly engaging in peaceful political activism surely show a great deal more effort than violent demonstration because they take a great deal more effort.

In conclusion, I think that although it is often not good to judge people that demonstrate violently negatively, it is very rare that it is an effective way of raising awareness and expressing dissatisfaction of something with any kind of significantly clear message – to either authorities or onlookers – usually it should be avoided if more peaceful or at least civil means are available.

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