There are currently a lot of people saying that protesting right now, or protests that are partly violent or that encounter police violence is counterproductive.
There is absolutely no historical or social scientific basis for making such claims. Those who make them are pretty much always just expressing their own preferences.
I’ll make four points here.
1. Almost all successful protest anywhere in the world have some kind of violent element or confrontations with the police.
Just looking at this country, we can look to the Poll Tax, the Suffragettes or even the BLM protests last year. There are of course also many such movements that end in defeat, like Orgreave. But the reasons for success or defeat are much broader and more complex than whether there has been confrontation with police.
2. The confrontational part is always only one small part of the whole movement, but it is one that receives attention and can put the issue in people’s minds.
That is true for the current moment too. Loads of people are doing things actively to oppose this Bill on and off the streets. Very few of those have been involved in direct confrontations with police but those are the instances that tend to make local and national news. That confrontation/direct action element is then a key part, but just a part of the whole movement/campaign.
3. People who make claims about counterproductive tactics often point to the fact that protests are unpopular. But all protest is unpopular amongst the majority of the public.
Still, much protest is successful. Majority support is not a means to success. Instead, what is important is dedicated engagement and support by many people, but not a majority. Importantly, there are huge chunks of the population that do not support the protests themselves but have started considering this Bill and thinking that it probably is a bad idea. The goal of protestors is this not to become popular, but for their cause to gain support. And that is happening already. It was pressure on Labour following the Sisters Uncut vigil for Sarah Everard and police repression that led to Labour coming out against the Bill.
4. One of the main problems with this Bill is that it’s actually unenforceable.
No state or police force can control protests to the extent that the Bill aims to do. The current protests in Bristol, which may spread to other cities, show how impossible it is to police protest in such a way. Bear in mind that the Bill would render most protest illegal and have severe punishments for lawbreaking protest. That would push the organisation of protest underground, making it more volatile and less coherent. That is actually exactly what is happening right now under Covid restrictions. Thus, continuing these protests become a kind of direct action to show what the future will look like under this Bill.
And one last point on Bristol: mayor Marvin Rees says that Bristol is a pointless site because Bristol MPs are already voting against the Bill.
But if Bristol is a catalyst for protests around the country, showing how unenforceable this Bill is, then that will ultimately cause problem for the government.
Of course, we don’t know that that will happen. It may or it may not. But neither the Mayor of Bristol nor the shadow chancellor know that either. So what they are saying should not be taken with any more credibility than what Joe Bloggs has to say about it.
None of this is decided. There is no clear and obvious way to success or failure. All is to play for, on the streets and in the Houses of Parliament. ■
Dr Oscar Berglund
Dr Oscar Berglund is a lecturer in international public and social policy at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies. You can find him on twitter @berglund_Oscar