Don't Let the Media Redefine the Meaning of Peaceful Protest


With the mainstream media hounding the anti-water charges movement with their calculated 'but is it peaceful protest?' narrative, it's important to clarify just what peaceful protest is and is not.

Peaceful protest is not protest which is placid, docile, quiet, polite, tranquil, serene, gentle, or soothing. It is merely protest which does not use violence.

Establishment figures exploit the many meanings that 'peaceful' can have, and use this equivocation to dupe us into thinking our protests should be docile and polite.

We must not be constrained by the narratives the media and politicians try to cast on us like a fishing net. We have to decide what we want to do on our terms, not theirs.


They treat protest as a trivial sideshow. 'Well sure you can have your little protest as long as it is jolly, tucked miles away from any traffic or shops, no one shouts or curses, no direct action is taken ...' Protest is no joke. It is one of the major means we have to take the power back, and if we are serious about making the world a better place we have to make effectiveness - not respectability - our top priority.

Case in point - the photo accompanying this post shows an anti-water charges protester grasping a GMC Sierra barrier as meter installation workers attempt to grab it back. Yes, this is more rambunctious than holding a placard, but these people really want to stop these meters going in. They don't just want to look like they're resisting. They really want to stop the water charges, they really want to stop their water being privatised. This isn't time to be worrying over etiquette. This is a time to worry about how we most effectively disrupt and destroy Irish Water.

Which leads to the idea of peaceful protest itself. The media and politicians are trying to make us see peaceful protest a virtue (the peaceful part, they are simultaneously trying to make us see protesting as a vice). Peaceful protest is a tactic, not a virtue. Either it works, or it doesn't. At present it is working.

(As a quick preface, the following is meant as a discussion of protest tactics, not a suggestion that we escalate protest into violence.)

This is not something which pacifists would agree with. 'Pacifist' is most often used in a colloquial sense meaning someone who opposes war, torture, the death penalty, and so on. In this sense all anarchists are of course pacifists. But what we mean here is the precise meaning, someone who rejects the use of violence in all circumstances. They would say the ends don't justify the means. Anarchism has had a pacifist strain for a long time, with Leo Tolstoy being the most famous proponent. But most anarchists are not pacifists in this strict sense.

The problem is that peaceful protest doesn't necessarily always work and isn't always appropriate. There would be very few people, and rightly so, who would say we would have no right to forcefully overthrow the tyranny of Stalin or Hitler. In fact you could say that this is a kind of slave mentality: the rulers use massive violence against us, but we would be immoral to use force to end that violence.

Although Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi are commonly upheld as expositors of the One True Tactic of non-violent protest, most people do not know that these peaceful tactics operated alongside non-peaceful tactics, and it was the combination of these tactics which lead to success (this is what's known as 'diversity of tactics'). But the mainstream has been very successful in obscuring this crucial history and presenting us with a cartoon version of the truth.

The idea is not to revere violence and blindly resort to it at the first opportunity. That would be a terrible thing. Violence is only justified when necessary to eradicate a greater violence.

The over-arching point of this is to dispel the idea that we should peacefully protest, not because it's effective but, because anything else would be immoral. That's plainly false. It depends on the circumstances.

Interestingly, in the anti-water charges movement there are people who on the one hand exalt those who rose up in arms in 1916, and on the other hand say that no protest but peaceful protest is legitimate or justifiable. The powers that be are all the more secure for us imposing artificial limits on our own activity. We cannot be afraid to do what's truly necessary. But right now what's necessary are widespread peaceful demonstrations and direct actions organised by communities, and the discipline people have shown in the face of intimidation and heavy-handed ness by Gardai and private security is impressive. This is working.


For a book length discussion of these issues see:
'How Non-Violence Protects the State' by Peter Gelderloos