Thursday, January 19, 2006

 

Violence as Political Strategy

The revelation yesterday that a breakaway group from Father's 4 Justice were planning to kidnap 5 yeear old Leo Blair comes as something of a shock. Hitherto this group, founded by Matt O'Connor in 2002, to improve access for fathers not allowed access to their children, had indulged in highprofile stunts with members dressed as super heroes. So we had David Chick dressed as Spider Man atop a crane on Tower Bridge. It caused huge inconvenience but everyone shrugged and rather admired the intrepid Brit doing something typically eccentrically British.

More stunts followed but then, in May 2004 came the bombing of Blair in the Commons with purple flour packed into condoms. It was a clear step up the ladder of the peaceful-violent spectrum. And now this. Matt O'Connor is furious and says he'll close down his group now that extremists have undermined its credibility and efficacy. But it does open up an interesting question of whether violence can achieve worthwhile objectives.

Writing in The Guardian, 14th November 2005, columnist Gary Younge discussed the riots devastating French suburbs and considered efficacy of violent means to achieve political ends. He quoted African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s aphorism that ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ He pointed out that the mostly unemployed ethnic minorities, living in rundown estates and suffering acute racial discrimination, had nothing to lose. Partly because of this, maybe their arson, theft plus a murder or two immediately won government concessions designed to alleviate their problems: better employment possibilities, tax break for companies in sink estates, lump sums for the jobless who return to work, extra teachers and 10,000 scholarships to encourage brighter pupils to stay on at school. Younge comments ‘none of this would have happened without the riots.’

Any amount of peaceful measures would have attracted sympathetic feelings and closer attention but it was the damage to property and the threat to life which galvanized the French government. He goes on to say that ‘When all non-violent, democractic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, redundant or exhausted, rioting is justifiable,’ But he goes on to add: ‘Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishised, because it is a sign not of strength but of weakness. Like a strike, it is often the last and most desperate weapon available to those with the least power.’

He warns that rioting easily becomes an end in itself and something which can polarize, divide and set loose murder and mayhem in society. He issues something like a partial endorsement of violence as a political weapon urging that it be used with restraint and economy. Yet, critics might suggest to him, such methods are effective only because they threaten such irrational and cataclysmic spirals into chaos. The problem is that using the threat of chaos to win concessions is perilously close to unleashing the real thing. Maybe violence is too hot a technique to handle for all but the desperate in conditions that are unambiguosly unacceptable.
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