Extinction Rebellion: a climate of violence

Eamonn Butler

April 29, 2019

The climate protesters who blockaded roads and transport in central London last week insisted that their actions were “non-violent”. Indeed, they even displayed placards with that as a slogan. But they are wrong.

These activities are acts of violence. They should be resisted and punished like any other act of violence – no matter how virtuous those doing the violence claim their motives to be.

As the police finally moved in to make arrests, individuals and news agencies published pictures of protesters being forcibly handcuffed and carried into police vans, and there were the usual complaints about police brutality and the state using violence against peaceful individuals. But that puts things completely backwards.

A liberal country allows people to express their views in public. It even allows them to hold demonstrations that might temporarily inconvenience users of roads and public transport.

But it quite reasonably requires proper commitments to peaceful assembly and to minimise the disruption caused. Fortunately, the UK is still just liberal enough and has still enough commitment to free speech that it allows such protest. (Though both are on the wane.)

A demonstration that has no announced start and no seeming end, which disrupts work and transport in a busy capital, is another matter entirely. It forcibly disrupts road users, including those who have to travel to work by public transport.

Those most affected are less well-off people, who cannot afford to take a couple of days off work as the protesters obviously can, and who rely on buses, early and late, to get to their jobs as caretakers, cleaners, nurses, carers, refuse collectors, shop assistants, cooks, waiters, and much else, and who cannot afford taxis or other ways of getting to work.

To prevent them from travelling and earning to provide for themselves and their families is an act of violence against them. But of course, it is an act of violence against everyone, whatever their walk of life, who needs to travel into the city for business, meetings, teaching, learning, recreation, and anything else.

To prevent people from going about their lawful activities is quite plainly an act of violence – it is using force against them. It might not be the force of knives or firearms or even threatening language. It is forcible obstruction.

The protesters argued that we face a “climate emergency” and that they were driven to these lengths to press for policy change. Of course, we know that the protests will change nothing and are a simple display of virtue signalling.

My great aunt, Violet Ann Bland, went around smashing windows in the cause of female suffrage. It was a noble cause, though it was equally right that she should have been arrested for it, though her treatment in jail was more brutal than we would tolerate today.

But it wasn’t such actions that led to women getting the vote. Rather, it was the realisation, with so many men away in the first world war, that women had a legitimate voice in politics.

Be that as it may, the point stands that such actions, of the suffragettes then and the climate protesters today, are not the force of argument but the argument of force. The whole history of democratic representative government has been the effort to reduce and remove coercive force from the debate on public policy.

We rightly see violence, force, and coercion as evils. Instead, our ambition is to decide things by discussion, not by the brute power of monarchs, the insidious power of cronies, the financial power of lobbyists, or in this case, the obstructive force of unlawful protest.

In a democracy, we aim to settle issues by reason and argument. Yes, it is highly imperfect, but that is no excuse to make it more so by re-instituting coercion into the equation.

Violence and the threat of violence cannot be permitted to direct, or even influence, the public debate and the formation of public policy. It does not matter how high-minded the perpetrators of violence are, or think they are, nor the nobility or correctness of their cause. Nor even that they insist that their actions are non-violent. They are.

And ultimately, after persuasion has failed, the only recourse is to meet violence with violence. In modern democracies, that means the power of the state, because, in the attempt to extinguish coercion in general, we give the state a monopoly of force.

Yes, arresting people and carting them off to the cells is an act of violence. But at least it is an act of violence that is limited and restrained under law. And it is necessary because of the violence that unlawful protests of this sort inflicts upon millions of ordinary, innocent people.


Written by Eamonn Butler

Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.


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