Gist or Gette: how effective is direct action?

// 16 April 2009

I’ve been ruminating on ‘direct action’ more than usual over the last few weeks. It was promted during my participation in Awaaz’s G20 march, and then hung out at the G20 protests. I had quite opposite experiences at each which has had me reflecting on how action translates to change, or not. Then, over the past few days, I’ve been debating the ethics and efficacy of the ‘pirating’ that’s been happening off of the Somalian coastline for the past year or so following this piece by Johann Hari. This morning I found myself reading about the stoning of some women who have been protesting the proposed new laws in Afghanistan.

My question: how best to express discontent and secure change for women from a system/people that are not listening?

At the Awaaz march, I went on my own, and hooked up with a friendly feminist activist as I walked along, and then lost them, and just kind of went with the flow. It was really positive and uplifting, with singing and music making and general hilarity as people got creative with their climate change costuming. It didn’t feel aggressive or negative at all. I left the demo feeling sad about the state of the world but happy about people’s willingness to speak out and try to make a difference in whatever small way they could.

At the G20 protests, I went along with a couple of inspiring feminists from the Women’s Environmental Network, hoping to touch base with one or two of our colleagues that were already at Climate Camp. By the time we got there, the kettling was already locked in, and everywhere we navigated to was controlled by the police in some way. They were heavily kitted up, with riot gear for instance, but also dogs and these vehicles that I can only describe as ‘army’ because of the way they looked like tanks. There were a few officers here and there speaking with activists, and some appeared to be friendly, truly, but on the whole the impression was one of ‘guarding’ with police generally grouping in packs and ordering people to go left or right or this way or that. It felt aggressive and male.

We eventually managed to get to London Bridge to exit it all, whereupon we found ourselves being corralled anyway: ‘please walk single file down the side of the bridge’. As I walked by the line of twenty or so officers that had spread the width of the bridge and were marching toward us in a line pushing everyone crossing to one side or the other, the guy officer ‘ordering’ us (it was definitely not a request) to walk single file etc barked at me ‘yeah, you’re smiling now, but you won’t be when a bottle hits you in the head’. Wonder if I can be stopped and searched for smiling?

My debates with my friends about the ‘pirates’ largely revolved around whether or not the pirating activity is justified and/or effective for the objectives – including what were the supposed objectives. There is a lot of energy going into shutting down the pirating right now by NATO and rich countries, but I’m not really reading anything about what is going to be done about the illegal fishing and nuclear waste dumping that European ships and companies have been engaged in, which actually created the initial impetus for the pirating. The local fisherman that are losing their livelihoods and the population that have become sick from the pollution, what of them? No stories either on how women are coping, whether they’re taking on the healing/support/livelihood work as everything unfolds and as some of these men go pirating.

So, what options, then, for the women who disagree with the proposed ‘women’s law‘ in Afghanistan? I have heard from more than one source that the changes offer more liberty to women than current tribal laws, but I think it’s fair to say that that’s still really sad. Better than the worst case isn’t really a great situation. What would it take to shift the paradigm, and how could feminists in Afghanistan make it happen? Is direct action a good option for them, stoning or no?

Photo by cathredfern, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Troika21 // Posted 16 April 2009 at 2:03 pm

Honestly, I have no idea why people go on these protests. They are very easy to ignore.

If you want to change leglislation then hire some lobbyists, marching down the street might feel good but it does bugger all.

If Somalia had a government then there would be no pirate attacks, there would be infrastructure to support jobs and work that are not based on stealing cargo-ships.

Its not pollution, or commercial fishing (again, a government would help in these disputes) its that Somilia (and Afghanistan) are both failed states, and they’ve got warlords in charge.

Developed countries are now dealing with the problem the same way they let it get out of hand – by ignoring it until it gets so bad it can’t be ignored anymore, and then only dealing with the symptoms of the problem.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 16 April 2009 at 3:02 pm

Either one passively accepts male domination and control or, as these brave Afghan women have done, publicly denounce the new misogynistic Afghan rape law.

Change does happen but as always never without a long and bitter struggle. The men who have the power will never relinquish this without a struggle as herstory has shown.

Do these Afghan women believe their brave protest action is ‘useless’ because no one is listening? Or are they refusing to passively submit to male oppression and increasing reduction of their meagre human rights.

The Afghan women protesting do not themselves believe this rape law will give them better protection – in fact it is the reverse. It is sometimes difficult to accept that despite ‘direct action’ it appears nothing is happening. But eventually if pressure is constantly applied change does occur.

Remember that male-defined saying ‘all it takes is for no one to resist for “evil” (sic) to flourish. ‘

The G20 experiences can be used to demonstrate that our society is increasingly one wherein liberties are being taken away in the name of ‘terrorism.’ Far too many individuals believe the propaganda rhetoric of politicians but not everyone. This is why the G20 protest action was important, to show how the police are being used politically to bolster pseudo claims ‘terrorism is the real enemy.’ The real enemy is erosion of women’s freedom and rights – but as always any threat to male rights is considered far more important than women’s rights. Afghanistan is an excellent example of this policy.

Jess // Posted 16 April 2009 at 6:21 pm

I wouldn’t want to say that direct action is a good option for women in Afghanistan wanting to protest this law (and on other issues), because the consequences are so harsh. But on the other hand, well, we all of us have so few ways to make our voices heard and direct action is one of them.

Do they make a difference more generally? Who knows – I guess it depends on the protest. Like with the G20 protests, the ones the police chose to crack down on and the ones they didn’t – it may seem futile, but maybe it does have an impact. In that, what would the G20 decide if there were no people taking to the street to call them on what they’re doing?

Has the agenda of the G20 changed since, for example, the major G8 protests in New York and Genoa? Probably, a little bit, and certainly there’s a theory that’s in response at least partly to the site of mass action…

In my day job, I certainly hear bankers say on odd occasions that protests against their impacts have influenced changes.

Generally, direct action can seem futile, in lots of ways, but on the other hand it’s a demonstration that actually you’re not going to just sit back and take it (whatever you’re protesting against).

With the feminist protests in the UK, like MWR and RTN, there’s such a small footprint from them, because of the apparent media disinterest in these protests – the impact seems to be on the people at the protest, the people who happen to be passing by where the protest is.

Charlotte Cooper // Posted 17 April 2009 at 3:39 am

I’m going to take us all the way back to 1918 Spain when hundreds of women gathered on the Almeda, the main street of Malaga to protest against the lack of affordable food for the working people, and the fact that local food was being exported for huge profits while the country starved.

The hundreds of women that joined the march drove away men and children shouting “only the women” believing that as the “fairer sex” they would be treated less harshly by controlling forces in the city.

Women were shot and killed. And no real change was made until further protests took place, but change did occur. So was their effort pointless? Or a catalyst for change?

Is this relevant? I’ve been reading women’s history and it’s playing on my mind.

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