Civil disobedience or violent criminality?

Sunday 30 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Courtyard Gallery

Well before riots broke out in British cities during the summer, questions were being asked about where political protest ends and criminality begins. Student demonstrations against the increase in tuition fees drew criticism from commentators, politicians and student leaders themselves when some demonstrators destroyed property and even fought the police. And the fairly minor violence that took place in central London alongside the TUC march against public spending cuts earlier this year generated more excitement than the demonstration itself. In both cases, critics argued that since we live in a democracy, there is no excuse for resorting to violence. At least since the 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq, however, many activists have grown frustrated with conventional ‘A to B’ marches, which are all too easily ignored by those in power. So do recent disturbances represent a legitimate attempt to revive democratic politics, or simply a childish desire to ‘smash stuff up’?

Certainly the democratic rights we enjoy today were not simply granted by those in power, but fought for and won by the people, from the Chartist struggle for male suffrage to the suffragette struggle for female enfranchisement and beyond. Such struggles often involved deliberate law-breaking, but are generally regarded as legitimate in retrospect. So is it a failure of imagination to think there is no place for civil disobedience today? Less than a century ago, the rule of law meant women in Britain could not vote; within living memory the law has proscribed homosexuality. Is there a moral case for breaking the ‘unfair’ laws, or for civil disobedience to challenge injustice?

Some argue recent curbs on protesting near Parliament, highlighted by the ‘Democracy Village’ encampment in Parliament Square in 2010, show the need for eternal vigilance, and a healthy respect for protest even on the wrong side of the law. But who gets to decide when civil disobedience is acceptable? In 2000, a group of anti-GM campaigners were cleared by a Norwich court of causing criminal damage to a field of genetically modified maize, after claiming they had lawful excuse to attack the crop on environmental grounds. Does this presuppose public agreement with environmentalist politics? Should different standards apply to less popular demonstrators, such as radical Islamists or the English Defence League? Some campaigners object to immigration controls that criminalise ‘illegal’ migrants. Should they break the law to help such people? Can we distinguish between basic democratic rights guaranteed for all, and a ‘moral right’ to break particular laws in exceptional circumstances? Or are these simply tactical questions, wrongly fetishised by masked hyper-activists and their tutting detractors alike?

Listen to session audio:


John Fitzpatrick
professor of law and director, Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent, Canterbury

Dr Maria Grasso
lecturer in politics and quantitative methods, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield; author: Generations, Political Participation and Social Change in Western Europe

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos
lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy

Saleha Ali
assistant producer, WORLDbytes; co-presenter, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible

Produced by
Saleha Ali assistant producer, WORLDbytes; co-presenter, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
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