15/09/2011 11:37 BST | Updated 19/03/2012 06:45 GMT

Protest: Violent or Non-Violent?

As a fervent believer in pacifism, my heart is well and truly thrusting me in the direction of non-violence. However, my head - and (just occasionally) history - tells me that violent demonstrations are more effective than peaceful ones.

As a fervent believer in pacifism, my heart is well and truly thrusting me in the direction of non-violence. However, my head - and (just occasionally) history - tells me that violent demonstrations are more effective than peaceful ones. Just look at the poll tax riots that culminated with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1990. Over 100 members of the British public were injured on that momentous day in March, leading to the arrest of over 400 protestors. Nevertheless, whilst many have since denounced the acts of ordinary working-class folk that day, the riots led to the abandonment of the unpopular tax - of which only 2% of the public endorsed - and contributed greatly to the eventual downfall of Margaret Thatcher. It was an event never to be forgotten.

Last week, Unite union leader Len McCluskey urged for "a campaign of resistance so that the government will take stock". He stated that "the actions that will be taken will be widespread and I don't think we can rule anything out". These provocative remarks have infuriated the right-wing media, with the Daily Mail referring to Mr McCluskey as a "militant". But the real question is, were McCluskey's comments helpful or damaging? Coming so shortly after last months London riot's, did the leader of Britain's largest union need to condone "civil disobedience"? Or, have his words been blown out of all proportion? After all, the term merely alludes to "passive resistance or other non-violent means". Many political debate shows have used his statements as an opportunity to falsely imply that unions encourage and excuse violence and wrongdoing.

Despite my anger at the current level of cuts sweeping through Britain, it has always been my belief that - in spite of the 'successful' poll tax riots - we must remain dignified and passive. Martin Luther King famously said, "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal". And he was right. In order to claim the moral high ground, we - the oppressed - must show that we have principles and compassion. How can we possibly criticise immoral policies when we ourselves carry out immoral acts? Thankfully, history has also highlighted how peaceful activism can be equally as effective. Mohandas Gandhi is proof of that. In 1930, Gandhi began a one man crusade against the British by encouraging ordinary Indians to march in defiance over the British Salt Act - an act that left India without any autonomy over its own salt industry. It is widely considered that Gandhi's peaceful, non-violent actions - or Satyagraha as it was known - led to India being granted its independence in 1947.

Martin Luther King also helped to emphasise how non-aggressive resistance can make a positive impact. King's peaceful marches - not universally championed by the black community - helped mark an end to racial segregation and racial discrimination in America. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. You could argue that what we have seen in the Arab Spring has simply been an extension of Gandhi and King's brilliant groundwork; a homage to their enlightening civil disobedience if you will. So, what does all this tell us about peaceful protest? You can bring down corrupt regimes. You can help alter cultural attitudes and values. And - perhaps most significantly - you can gain sovereignty and self-respect through diplomacy and passiveness. These are all crucial case studies that ought to be taught the world over. Perhaps then we would not be involving ourselves in so many meaningless, avoidable conflicts.

Naturally, for every case study in favour of peaceful protest, someone will tell you that it does not work; and they have a valid point. Take the Iraq war. Over 1million Britons took to the streets of London, Glasgow and Belfast to signal their opposition to military action against Saddam Hussein. Placards saying, "Make Tea, Not War" helped emphasise the strong anti-war feeling within Britain. Needless to say, Tony Blair's Labour government took us to war and all the hard passionate work of those campaigners was seemingly for nothing. Another incident that would suggest that protest is ineffectual was the student demonstrations of last year. Thousands of students took to the streets in protest against the dramatic rise in tuition fees. Regrettably, violence broke out which subsequently overshadowed the justified demonstration. Despite these riots, tuition fees remain at an all time high in Britain.

But it is my belief that this argument is not as black and white as it first seems. Is it simply the case that you either believe in violence or not? Can anyone say definitively that civil disobedience does not work? The problem is that it is not solely the stand-out instances that merit consideration. We should not ignore the protests throughout history that have covertly shaped policy. Benjamin Spock was an influential doctor in the US during the '60s. In 1968, he publicly spoke out against the Vietnam War, inspiring many millions of American's to do so too. Many years later, his autobiography revealed the inspiration behind his stance. He recalled how he had witnessed six mothers standing outside the White House, in the snow, waving anti-war placards. This "troubled his conscience" and forced him to ask himself, "If these women [are] brave enough to protest, why aren't I?" Up until these revelations, those six women thought their protest was a waste of time. Little did they know that their demonstration had altered the opinion of one of America's leading media figures; resulting in a resoundingly anti-war atmosphere spreading throughout America.

The truth is you cannot predict the effects or ripple-effects of your protest until after the event. Indeed, you may never know. What Len McCluskey's remarks have triggered is a clumsy debate over whether violence is ever justified; for we have missed the point completely. What matters more is that we act. We must encourage peaceful protest - which is synonymous with civil disobedience - and tackle immoral policy and leadership. Take inspiration from the likes of Gandhi and King, who, with peaceful methods, managed to accomplish their aims. McCluskey is right; civil disobedience is justified and should not be frowned upon. Yes, it may well (sadly) act as a green light to violent anarchists and yobs, but does football not do the same? Nobody suggests that football ought to be abandoned just because it ignites mindless thuggery. Surely, if anything, basic human rights are worth fighting for.

American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once stated, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has". These sentiments have been proven correct on a number of occasions. The recent Arab Spring ought to bring hope as it has highlighted how unarmed masses can make a stand and bring about real change. Compare their change to that of American President Barack Obama's. He campaigned on the promise of bringing about change, but as the most powerful man in the world, even he cannot match the extraordinary achievements of supposedly weaker individuals - the underdogs. People power remains the only weapon in which to fight authority. Gandhi proved it. Martin Luther King proved it. The masses in Tahrir Square proved it. So who am I to argue against that? So, to all my thoughtful, committed comrades out there, do not remain silent. Take to the streets and voice your opposition; history says it works.

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