A good question: Protest: How far would you go?
One question, four answers
‘Peaceful protests need a disruptive element’
Confession is good for the soul, as they say, so let me start with two. The first is that as a Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr scholar, I believe in nonviolent civil disobedience. The second is that I believe that peaceful protest is an inalienable right in any society describing itself as a liberal democracy. I would also argue that peaceful ‘protests’ in the forms of demonstrations, marches, pickets etc, are only successful if they have a disruptive element, catching the attention of those in power. Without this dynamic, they are little more than a group of people having a day out. Dr King knew this well, and often used the term ‘dramatise’ to describe how he wanted his protests to be so disruptive that they elicited (belligerent) responses from the forces of the law. This would capture the imagination of would-be supporters and the media, but it led some to contend that his methodology was, in effect, nonviolent provocation.
While we know that peaceful protest can bring about efficacious change (Dr King was a good case in point), our current world order is largely a result of acts of terror and violence. For instance, the west (in the US) was ‘won’ (stolen from the First Nations Peoples) by Europeans with Winchester rifles and Colt 45 pistols, and the US became a major superpower as a result of centuries of ‘free’ African slave labour. And even though the US as a nation embraced Dr King’s civil rights work, it can be argued that the threat of Malcolm X’s (nonviolent) fury forced many (white) Americans into Dr King’s camp. As such, I am mindful that as much as I loathe it, violence – or the threat of it – can concentrate minds. Dr King admitted as much when he noted that one night’s rioting can have more of an impact than a thousand peaceful marches…
Richard Reddie is Director of Justice and Inclusion for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
HANNAH BROCK WOMACK
‘Follow the Spirit’
My initial response to this question is that I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to know the answer, because actions are dependent on context. I live a privileged life with multiple freedoms. What I might do in situations of extreme repression, I can’t know.
But for me now, what guides how I engage in struggles for justice? In Quaker speak, it’s discernment: a prayerful, disciplined attempt to follow the Spirit. I try to stay in touch with God so that I’m being led, rather than acting from ego or adrenaline.
This can be difficult, but I’ve found that my body has been a good guide. Once, I felt compelled to return to the road in front of a row of mounted police, after a Quaker meeting I was part of had been cleared from blocking the entrance to an arms fair. My feet moved before I knew anything about it. That day, I was there to look after others, and could not allow myself to be detained. It took tremendous willpower to move from the road and ensure I wasn’t arrested. Another time, I sang Taizé songs while being dragged from arms company BAE’s AGM. I hadn’t planned to, but cutting through the speaker’s slick presentation suddenly felt imperative, and I started to sing. These actions felt right: civil disobedience, obedience to God…
Hannah Brock Womack is a Quaker activist
‘Our actions matter’
As a companion of Jesus, when is it right to protest injustice? Where is the line between a protest and a riot? Is nonviolent protest a creative Christian response to injustice? Does it mean no disruption to people not protesting? What if we do these things and nothing seems to change? Are we too idealistic, reactionary or left-wing?
I suggest moving away from left-wing sectarian Christianity in favour of acting together on any common issue we can join in with all people of goodwill about: swift action on climate emergency and poverty are my top two. Are these urgent enough for you to risk arrest over, or organise a whole church to take part in as Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Myanmar and US Christians have done in the past 12 months? Our faith matters now. How we come out of this pandemic, and what kind of theology we do in public action and speech, matters. People are watching to see if we will step out further in solidarity with people who are suffering now in the UK.
In the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, clergy and church members were imprisoned, tortured or murdered because they chose to act publicly in protest at the repressive government. People joined a movement pushing for democratic change. The church identified with the most pressing issues of the people of Taiwan: self-government. The church grew in courage, membership and faith…
Kate Gray is Minister of the Dandelion Community, Manchester, and researching a PhD in Christian activism in response to poverty
‘Not everyone can do everything’
The strength of many social justice movements is their diversity. It can only be a good thing when we all bring our different abilities, skills and perspectives to an issue. Working at Christian Aid, I’ve seen the power of public campaigning, and the many different routes that can be taken to bring about change. Effective protests include a variety of tactics, and many have been built around going on marches, signing petitions and writing to your MP. It might be the ‘gentle protest’ of the Craftivist Collective, which uses creativity and art so that craft-minded introverts can speak loudly. Or it might be 84-year-old Phil Kingston, a member of Christian Climate Action, climbing on top of a train at Canary Wharf as part of the Extinction Rebellion. Not everyone has the freedom and capacity to do everything. But being able to rattle the cages of the powerful is how progress has been made in human history.
What is important in any well-functioning democracy is that people are able to express their dissent, and speak truth to power. That is why the proposed new policing legislation the government is trying to get through parliament is so chilling. Criminalising protest because it could cause a single person ‘annoyance’ or ‘unease’ is the act of an authoritarian regime that wants to silence opposition. Protests such as those undertaken by Extinction Rebellion are the last cry of the powerless. Such disruptive actions were the last resort of the women of the suffragist movement and those opposing racist laws in the US civil rights movement. Those people are rightly hailed as heroes, and yet the government seeks to crack down on those people trying to speak truth to power today…
Joe Ware is Senior Climate Journalist for Christian Aid
These are extracts from an article published in the May 2021 edition of Reform