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Direct action not inaction

Andrew Beckett of Smash EDO says Milan Rai's criticism of direct action campaigns misses the point

October 5, 2009
5 min read

Although some of what Milan Rai says in his article, (Disarming the arms makers,) is accurate, he also seems to be suggesting that direct action campaigns, such as the long-running campaign against EDO MBM (now EDO ITT), do little to build broad-based support for anti-militarism. Rai draws parallels with the militant animal rights movement, questioning whether tactics that can win particular battles contribute to larger successes or undermine building mass opposition – essential for an overall victory.

But the established peace movement has little to teach anyone about ‘overall victory’. The biggest spontaneous outbreak of anti-war sentiment in British history (with a few honourable exceptions) before the Iraq war was channelled by a moribund peace movement into a virtual re-run of the failed campaign against nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The whole thrust of the Stop the War coalition’s approach was that marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square would ultimately compel the government to see sense. A march, a few speeches and a coach home … is it any wonder that our government felt safe to go to war?

Underlying the established peace movement’s approach (and Milan’s argument) is the belief that, despite years in political backwater, they hold the key to the genuine social change. Their vision is inherited from movements in the past that have simply sought bigger demos and more paper sales until a mass base of opposition overthrows existing power structures and brings about world peace and social justice.

This leads to a ‘play it safe’ attitude when engaging with the public and the authorities. Defiance and confrontation are seen as alienating and having ‘political costs’. The public is seen as apolitical and need leading in baby steps towards the correct solutions. In fact the peace movement often seem to confuse the public and the media with the priority being to avoid negative headlines at all costs. By contrast, one of the main inspirations for Smash EDO was the mass outpouring of spontaneous rage that occurred across the country on the day that the war against Iraq broke out.

When it comes to demonstrations, the established peace movement insists they be ‘inclusive’ and safe (which often means coordinated with the police) and above all ‘non-violent’. Add an approach advocating ‘bearing witness’ and symbolism over direct action and what you have is a recipe for ineffectiveness. It is this ineffectiveness that is actually the barrier to creating a ‘mass movement’. Every form of inclusivity is also a form of exclusivity – and building a movement around ‘non-violent’ symbolic actions is very exclusive. The reason that the Smash EDO campaign can get over one thousand disobedient people on to the streets and has inspired new campaigns around the country is that it has gone beyond the symbolic.

Milan claims that Smash EDO has a ‘narrow social base’ and that the Mayday Street Party was aimed at ‘solidifying and enthusing’ this base

(presumably at the expense of wider outreach). There is probably some

truth that the ‘branding’ of the campaign has subcultural resonances. For example, the demo in question was on May Day and involved a ‘street party’ pointing to associations with the Reclaim the Streets movement. But in attacking our ‘social base’ of the great unwashed, Milan not only ignores the narrow social base of his own movement but ignores the wide spread of ages and classes who have been involved in the campaign over the years. He makes the typical media error of mistaking the tip for the iceberg. May Day was just one manifestation of an ongoing campaign that has learned there is strength in diversity of tactics.

The May Day crowd, for the most part, was young and ‘up for it’ and come to anti-militarism through anarchism rather than the peace movement. Outraged by the police treatment at the G20, they were determined not to be trapped like that again. The point of the demonstration was to show that the arms trade and global capitalism are inextricably intertwined, and the list of targets, including Barclays, RBS and McDonald’s (all major shareholders in ITT) meant it was more than just a ‘street party in the park’.

In his article Milan quotes an anonymous source about May Day demo, who said ‘I found that once told, 100 per cent of shopkeepers expressed support, although few thought it would change anything.’

This is what we need to change – the belief that it’s impossible to change anything.

Police repression aimed at the EDO campaign stems from their very real

fear that we may have found a way to change things. The May Day

demonstrations did not incur ‘political costs’, rather, by providing an

arena where people were able to fight back against the war machine, it did something to restore the credibility of the ‘peace’ movement.

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