Mass protests have become a sign of the times. How should we react to them when they turn violent?

By Gabrielle Jones: Political Columnist

We are in an era of protest.

Since 2017 over 100 countries worldwide have seen significant mass protests, the demonstrations in Bristol against the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill over the last week marking the most recent case of civil unrest in the U.K. 

There has been world wide civil discontent in Black Lives Matter, democracy protests in Hong Kong, and Extinction Rebellion, to name only a few examples.

As we have seen, protests can quickly turn violent. Whether this is due to aggressive policing or the seriousness of the issues at stake, violent clashes in mass protests have frequented our news media.

Inevitably politicians scramble to condemn the violent scenes and encourage peaceful, lawful, protesting. However, protesters that feel marred by a deep sense of despair suggest that in some circumstances, violence can be justifiable. Such as, the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol Harbour last summer, split opinion over whether this act of violence against public property was justifiable.

Whether violent protest can be justified is a question which has occupied academics for decades and it is a question we come back to time and again, when civil discontent erupts in the U.K, and around the world.

So, what arguments do both sides of the debate make? Or is violence vs. non-violence a false and unhelpful dichotomy? Is it okay to be somewhere in between?

In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.” – Martin Luther King

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Mohanda Ghandi are the figures that will immediately come to mind.

We associate sit ins, marches, and boycotts as the means of nonviolence. Still today, King’s moral ideology of non-violence is used to promote non-violent protest, backed up by historical evidence that non-violent protests are more effective for lasting change.

‘A courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love’,  summarises the core of King’s moral argument for non-violence, the candid idea that violence cannot drive out violence.

Photo: Amber Kipp

Politicians frequently allude to this principle when pleading for protests to remain peaceful, by unequivocally condemning the use of violence and calling protestors thugs or criminals. Although politicians’ genuine moral commitment to the core principles of non-violence are dubious, as governments justify state violence – the U.K government have censured violent protests but continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and actively support U.S drone strikes in Syria.

In pragmatic terms, non-violent protests are seen as simply more effective at achieving their goals. Violence can be counterproductive and cyclically will only produce more violence.

Public intellectual Steven Pinker argues that history shows us that violent protests have only led to greater violence, using historical examples such as the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions.

In fact, violent protest can increase public support for tougher law and order measures; which is particularly detrimental if you are protesting against existing law enforcement.

Donald Trump’s message of ‘law and order’ during the Black Lives Matter protests had a significant amount of public support and many have already speculated that the recent clashes in Bristol have provided evidence in support of the need for stricter policing.

‘Nonviolence is fine as long as it works’ – Malcolm X

Violence also becomes a spectacle for the media to fixate on. The essence of the protest can get lost amongst the clickbait-headlines and images of rioting, the vital message that protestors initially set out to campaign for is instead drowned out by images of calamity.

Remembering the 2011 England riots, initiated by the killing of Mark Duggan by a police officer. Protests quickly transformed into mass looting, arson, and the deaths of five people. Senior politicians and the media dismissed this as ‘opportunistic thuggery’, rather than a visceral reaction to police corruption, unemployment, and poverty.

As the media storm escalates and protests are reduced to ‘opportunistic acts of violence’, the deeper history of justification for violent protest can get lost.

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