When can we justify violent forms of civil disobedience? When it’s effective, says David Jenkins

Opinion: Recent instances of civil – and not so civil – disobedience include members of the group Just Stop Oil throwing soup over one of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers paintings in London’s National Gallery; the members of Animal Rebellion throwing white paint over the gates and walls of the Palace of Westminster, and the various ongoing roadblocks that are carried out by Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, who are promising the “most roadblocks ever”.

These events have revitalised questions surrounding the justification for law breaking as a tactic of protest, with George Monbiot defending the Van Gogh action as a way of shaking us out of our “stupor”.

To be clear, throwing soup at paintings – though the painting was protected by glass – trashing national monuments, blocking roads, and much more besides, are all absolutely justified given the scale of the problems being faced and the lack of action to address climate change. But only if they work.

It is important to recognise that (un)civil disobedience is only ever a tactic, that can work in some situations, and will not work in others. The only question worth asking is whether current conditions are propitious for this kind of law-breaking to be effective in pushing through the necessary change.

In order to answer that, first we need to have a sense of what civil disobedience does and, second, define the various conditions under which effective civil disobedience is possible.

Whether we want to call these instances of disobedience civil or uncivil, law-breaking is a strategic decision, made by people who want to change the law and the more comprehensive structures and ordinary ways of doing things that sustain injustice.

Given what we know, both about ongoing and impending environmental crises and the bad faith quality of so many of the actors operating within and upon those formal political institutions, rejecting appeals to the rule of law is understandable. But how, exactly, breaking laws leads to change, is complicated. It is not immediately clear, for example, how we move from destroyed masterpieces to the defeat of Big Oil.

In order to tease out the intended chains of cause and effect, it is necessary to recognise an important distinction within the different justifications that are made for law-breaking as a strategy for resistance.

On the one hand, dissidents break the law and accept arrest to demonstrate, as Extinction Rebellion puts it in its literature, “their absolute earnestness”, which gains them “the respect and trust of the public” and raises “the importance of the issue in the public’s mind”.

For this communicative dimension of disobedience to work, whatever access dissidents have to ‘the public’ needs to be amenable to their purposes. If, for whatever reason, their message doesn’t penetrate, the communicative intentions of their law-breaking are undermined.

On the other hand, breaking the law can be justified because it disrupts the status quo. In contrast to the communicative dimension, protestors interested in disruption just need to be able to prevent ‘business as usual’ for a long enough time to extract concessions from those in power.

Often, these will run together: mass arrests, for example, can express arrestees’ conscientious commitments to refuse to obey unjust laws as well as clog up judicial institutions and prisons; public occupations of highways can disrupt traffic flows, as well as give protestors high visibility.

But they often come apart, such that people can break laws to communicate without disruption – throwing soup on the painting disrupted little other than the viewing of paintings – and, conversely, people can break laws to disrupt without any desire to communicate.

Indeed, when the goal is to disrupt ‘business as usual’, it is not always necessary to break the law. For example, although strikes have not yet been employed specifically for the cause of fighting climate change, they will be key to any broad-based activism serious about changing things, especially within key industries such as logistics, transport and manufacturing.

Saul Alinsky’s threatened ‘shit-ins’, where plans were underway to occupy Chicago O’Hare airport’s toilets to force the mayor to adhere to his commitments, is another imaginative example of disruption without law-breaking.

Moreover, law-breaking disruptions can be done covertly. When protestors feel justified in breaking the law for reasons of disruption, rather than communicating something through spectacular acts of defacement or visible obstruction, there is no longer any obvious reason to perform illegal actions out in the open.

For example, flying drones through major airports’ airspaces – which is illegal – will effectively shut down that airspace until those drones are cleared, thereby massively disrupting a major cause of emissions. Requiring those flying the drones to submit to arrest –as the Extinction Rebellion literature puts it, to send “an honesty signal” that “they are not acting out of self-interest” – would serve only to reduce the number of personnel available to fly drones in the future.

When the plan is to disrupt high-emission industries and precipitate crises for it, related industries, and the state, what this does or does not communicate to the general public is beside the point.

Third, breaking the law, at some point, might have to exceed the restraints of civility, precisely because civility – or even milder forms of incivility, if that is how we should understand the destruction or desecration of property – and related commitments to dialogue, conscientiousness and non-evasion, can become hindrances. (Witness, for example, Piers Morgan’s interview with a member of Animal Rebellion for a taste of how corrupted the arenas within which this communication is supposed to be taking place have become.)

Restraining law-breaking with appeals to civility is done for calculated reasons, ie because it is the best way for some set of actors to pursue their cause in some given situation. But it is naive to think restrained disobedience will always succeed.

Many anti-colonial movements would have been wiped out if their disobedience had been restrained by commitments to non-violence. For present-day activists in capitalist democracies, of course, the risk of precipitating such murderous reactions is low.

As a result, it might be tempting to assume that contemporary conditions mean that (un)civil disobedience is as much as can be justified. But our institutions might be failing for other reasons, reasons that mean murderous state violence is unnecessary in certain jurisdictions because other means have been found to effectively neuter protest.

In such circumstances, more radical – and violent – forms of action may become justified and necessary.

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