From Protest to Resistance

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Simon Hannah argues that protest and resistance are not the same, and it is resistance we need to defeat the system and save the planet.

10 January 2020.

Extinction Rebellion bridge-blocking protest, London, 2019.

A protest is a protest. It is a march, a demonstration, it is slogans and placards. It is designed to register a protest against something – stop this, don’t do that.

Don’t get me wrong. A protest is very important. Protests can make people feel confident, make them feel a sense of community and solidarity. They can also send a message – lots of people oppose this thing. Sometimes people in power take notice. Protests are important to build a movement, to give it strength and a voice, and to bring people in.

But marches and demonstrations on their own don’t lead to serious change. For that you need resistance.

Resistance is when you oppose something through disruption. You prevent the operation of the machine – through strikes, occupations, blockades, and other forms of direct action.

Resistance is a physical act that disrupts the smooth operation of society.

After the anti-poll tax movement, Danny Burns, one of the leading activists, wrote a pamphlet about his experiences in which he drew a useful distinction between protest and resistance. The poll tax movement had its share of protests and petitions, but it was successful because there were tangible acts of defiance against the proposed tax – people refused to pay it, they physically confronted bailiffs and disrupted the court proceedings, and of course there was the famous battle in Trafalgar Square in March 1990 (here).

This is what resistance looks like

Similarly, the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s involved both protest and resistance. Racist segregation laws were openly violated, most famously by Rosa Parks, who refused to move out of a ‘whites only’ bus seat, but then by thousands of courageous black activists who defied violent police and racist mobs in mass direct-action protests.

Compare this to the Stop the War Coalition in its heyday. The biggest social movement the country has ever seen, with huge protest marches and lobbies, but there was little to no civil disobedience that actually sought to disrupt the economy, the military machine, or the government (though there were some university occupations).

The real resistance to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq took the form of armed resistance to the occupation forces in the countries themselves. In contrast, in the struggle against the Vietnam War, there had been a rank-and-file movement against the war by US soldiers, and, of course, mass civil disobedience, notably in the form of draft-dodging, at home. The war was stopped not by protest, but by resistance, that of both the Vietnamese people and millions of young Americans.

The anti-capitalist movement from 1999-2002 was also more radical in its tactics than the later anti-war and anti-austerity movements. The summit sieges from Seattle to Genoa were borderline revolutionary-insurrectionary moments in their attempts to shut down the highest gatherings of global capitalists. This movement, in particular, was dominated by direct-action tactics, from attempts to shut down world summits to symbolic window-smashing at branches of McDonalds.

Of course, workers know the importance of active resistance better than most. What is a strike if not a profound act of disruption to the flows of work, exploitation, and accumulation? You can have a protest and send your boss a petition, but it is independent organisation and action that achieves results. No wonder the British capitalist class has spent 40 years trying to repress grassroots trade union activism and put more power in the hands of union officials, who they know will be a natural conservative drag on any struggles.

Anti-poll tax demonstration, London, 31 March 1990.

Full-spectrum resistance or ‘business as usual’?

This distinction between different forms of action is useful in deciding strategy for any social movement. Extinction Rebellion’s entire modus operandi is based on blockading cities and towns for extended periods. This gave the movement a serious edge in putting the issue of climate change on the political agenda.

Likewise, students walking out of schools and marching into town centres around the world on Fridays to protest climate change is a form of resistance, because they are defying the school authorities, asserting their right to demonstrate, and achieving agency in the historical process.

But these tactics can only get us so far. The police have already developed tactics to minimise disruption and close down XR encampments. As London Mayor Sadiq Khan put it, the key thing was to ensure ‘business as usual’ – a flippant and offensive thing to say in the face of the potential deaths of millions as the climate catastrophe unfolds. The very last thing we want is ‘business as usual’.

The danger is that a one-note tactic of disruption soon ends up in a cul de sac, where it becomes less effective as the authorities develop ways of dealing with it.

The Black Bloc in Seattle was hugely effective, but after a few protests the police learned how to contain those actions too (here). The climate movement’s direct-action tactics are an important starting point, far more useful than a mere protest march on its own. But those tactics have to be linked to a clear strategy of mass disruption of capitalism, involving workers as well as campaigners. We all have to get serious about a stronger anti-capitalist politics which wants to overthrow the current order, democratise our society, and build a green zero-growth economy in the interests of humanity and the planet.

Simon Hannah is the author of a forthcoming book on the Poll Tax Revolt.

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