Disruptive Protest is a Civic Duty

When the law is wrong it must be challenged. That’s progress

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th August 1999.

Last week I received an intriguing email. It came from someone called “Laura”. She was, she maintained, “a committed anti-corporationist who wants to become more involved in direct virtual action against large corporations”. Could I suggest any campaigns she could join? I hit the reply button and was given the return address: “Jonathan.Ungoed-Thomas@sunday-times.co.uk”.

“Laura”, I later found, had also written to the Genetic Engineering Network, claiming to be “violently opposed to animal testing and genetically modified food”, while her twin sister, Joanne, had sent an identical message to the Safe Alliance, a campaign for sustainable farming. The Sunday Times is clearly harbouring a den of transsexual subversives, bent on the violent overthrow of the very institutions it claims to defend. The paper’s attacks on activists over the past few weeks are no more than a clever front for its own attempt to bring global capitalism to an end.

It has certainly been a convincing act. Last month, the Sunday Times suggested that genetics campaigners were planning to firebomb shops. The only evidence for this compelling story was a flier asking activists to bring a “full tank of petrol” to a protest against GM crops. What this meant, of course, was that they should be able to travel to the field and back without getting stuck on the road. To the Sunday Times, however, it betrayed a conspiracy to commit arson.

In June, the paper claimed that a gentle and inoffensive young man called Chris Grimshaw was “one of the masterminds of the demonstration in the City of London”, who had, it hinted, engineered the violence there. In truth, as the reporter knew full well, Chris Grimshaw’s involvement was entirely peripheral. But he had a priveleged upbringing, confirming, to the paper’s more gullible readers, the time-honoured right-wing conceit that “popular protests” are actually the violent conspiracies of disenchanted toffs.

The Sunday Times has been providing similar cover for its revolutionary activities for years. In 1994 it claimed that “green extremists are carrying out a campaign of violence against road-builders, attacking site workers with spiked mantraps and crossbows”. Needless to say, this was also complete codswallop, but despite detailed refutations and a denial by one of the police stations from which the story supposedly came, the allegations were repeated last month.

But the Sunday Times is not alone in its attempts to re-cast the direct action movement. The City of London Police, having hinted, without any supporting evidence, that the City protest was financed by an heir to the Vestey family, also claim that the demonstration “signals a new era of violent protest, which has implications for the whole country and for policing at a national level.” In truth, it does no such thing. Environmental and social justice protests in Britain remain almost exclusively peaceful, marred, occasionally, by a handful of tanked-up freeloaders. But the claim helps justify the new role the police have given themselves. As the Independent on Sunday revealed this weekend, they now intend to engineer the “long-term attrition of the groups involved”. Britain’s law enforcers are re-inventing themselves as law-makers, abandoning impartial policing to engage in the political process.

They will win public sympathy, and not just because of the diversionary nonsense printed in the Sunday Times. Why on earth, I am asked repeatedly, should people be allowed to plan disruptive protests, which interfere with legal activities and often break the law? Why shouldn’t these movements be undermined and broken up?

The answer is that parliament is incompletely representative. It tends to concentrate on the concerns of target voters and powerful institutions, rather than those of the poor, the vulnerable or the unborn. The legal framework on which it builds, moreover, pre-dates democracy. It was established to defend those who drafted it – the titled, propertied, literate few – from the rightful claims of those they had dispossessed. Property remains nine-tenths of the law, and as rich individuals and corporations seek to expand the realm of private ownership at the expense of the commonweal – patenting the genome, taking over public bodies and public spaces – the law dilates to accommodate their claims.

Protest is the means by which both these enclosures and the laws protecting them are challenged. It forces our representatives to listen to those they have failed to represent. It inoculates the political agenda with new ideas and new perspectives.

When the law is allowed to become the exclusive arbiter of public morality and when politics are confined to parliament, society fossilises. Its inherited iniquities are set in stone, and new thefts from the public realm are honoured and validated. Government becomes, once again, the exclusive province of the propertied.