The case against protest violence

November 14, 2001

At a time when the anti-globalization movement needs to be more united than ever before, it is disturbingly divided. The split is over means, not ends, but is nonetheless very worrisome.

The disagreement is over protest violence. Should it be condemned or condoned (explicitly or implicitly) by those who believe protests ought to be peaceful and law-abiding?

This is not as simple a question as it may appear. In any confrontation between supporters of opposing systems or beliefs, some violence is almost certain to break out. This has happened at peace rallies, at anti-poverty marches, at pro-choice and anti-racist demonstrations--at almost all events that pit "pro" and "anti" activists against each other. It would be a miracle, therefore, if anti-globalization protests involving many thousands of people from dozens of organizations and backgrounds were conducted without a single untoward incident.

A completely peaceful event would be even more miraculous considering the deployment of so many heavily armed police looking for the slightest excuse to unleash their arsenal of tear-gas, water-cannons, rubber bullets, clubs and attack dogs. Much of what the media portrays as violence is provoked by such overreactive police brutality. Understandably, protesters subjected to such attacks may then throw rocks or tear-gas canisters back at the police lines, and that can be excused as legitimate self-defense.

It would be naive, however, to maintain that all of the individuals and groups who show up for the protests are committed to non-violence. On the contrary, some take part deliberately intending to goad the police, to pelt them with stones, or provoke a violent police reaction by breaking shop windows or trashing fast-food outlets. These tactics cannot be approved, even tacitly, by the vast majority of participants who wish simply to show their opposition to corporate rule by their signs and slogans, or even through their basic participation. They should not refrain from denouncing the hoodlums or self-styled anarchists for fear of dividing the movement; their silence is itself much more disruptive than a strong anti-violence stance could ever be.

Who are the violent protesters? Are they genuinely concerned about the damaging effects of corporate power and free trade? Or are they simply thugs and roughnecks seeking outlets for their violent propensities? More pertinently, are they being influenced or led by agents provocateurs--by secret police agents assigned to infiltrate and discredit the protest groups?

To ask that last question is not to display paranoia. The RCMP and CSIS have always had trained operatives who specialize in this kind of subversion, as previously secret but now available files attest. (See Whose National Security?, a book about Canadian secret police surveillance of peace groups, unions, students, feminists, the NDP, and all others suspected of being potential "enemies of the state." It was researched and written by three Laurentian University teachers, Gary Kinsman, Mercedes Steedman, and Dieter K. Buse, and published last year by Between The Lines.)

The main argument against accepting violence as a protest tactic is that it retards rather than advances the movement against globalization. If we want to reach the millions of people who still don't see how malignant corporate globalization has become, we will never enlist their support as long as we tolerate--or give the appearance of tolerating--the wild antics of the hooligans and undercover agents among us.

When we proclaim that we are striving to create "a better world," we lose credibility by seeming to imply that this better world can be achieved by resorting to violence. This is not a replay of the French or American or Russian Revolutions, in which oppressive or dictatorial regimes could only be overthrown with guns and swords and clubs. This is a war of words, of ideas, of moral and ethical values. It is a war that can only be won by exposing the many harmful effects of corporate rule, and by showing that a more equitable and democratic alternative is achievable. Our efforts to expose the flaws and failings of globalization are nullified if the alternative image we present is one of a destructive, mindless mob.

To a great extent, of course, we have no control over how the media cover and report the protests. On television, in particular, by keeping the cameras trained on the relatively few ruffians and ignoring the great mass of peaceful protesters, a badly skewed image of the demonstrations can be conveyed--and has been. But this distorted image can be corrected if the leaders and spokespersons of the non-violent majority decisively distance themselves from the violence-prone minority. To be credible, nothing short of an unequivocal condemnation will suffice.

Such a firm stand against protest violence will take courage. It will involve a rejection of the spurious argument that legitimate protest can take diverse forms, even violent ones, and that each protest group should be free to choose the methods it believes to be most effective. (This is absolute and dangerous nonsense, of course, but it can be surprisingly intimidating when hurled by a loud-mouthed "road warrior" at a "street wimp" during a protest planning meeting.)

The ultimate case against protest violence is that it is as stupid as it is counterproductive. It alienates potential sympathizers instead of bringing them onside. It stifles and distorts the important message we want to convey. And it gives increasing legitimacy to the use of police-state violence to quell the protests and even to crack down on basic civil rights.

The ultimate stupidity, of course, is to think that corporate rule can be effectively challenged by rough street-gang tactics. When it comes to violence, the state has all the massive firepower it needs to crush a few hundred--or a few thousand--rock-throwers and window-smashers. Joseph Stalin once asked contemptuously, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" The CEOs and politicians can ask the same question of the anti-globalization movement. It does have one "division," but unfortunately it's a division whose destructive force is being exerted entirely within the movement itself.

The groups that favour and engage in violence are the protest team's weakest links. The sooner they're voted off, the better.