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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK


Head to head: Making waves

Direct action: a democratic principle, or the tyranny of a minority?

Campaigners used to stage a demonstration if they wanted to get their point across. Now, they feel so strongly about their causes they are more likely to camp in trees to stop bypasses; wreck fields of corn to prevent genetically-modified (GM) crop trials; and riot in the world's financial centres, as J18 did when it protested against capitalism in June this year.

But is direct action that breaks the law ever justified? BBC News Online asked Jim Thomas, a campaigns director for Greenpeace, and Sir Michael Davies, a former High Court judge, for their opinions.

Jim Thomas: As former Transport Minister Stephen Norris once commented: "Governments hate direct action, and that is why it is so effective."

[ image: Greenpeace preventing
Greenpeace preventing "irreversible pollution"
On 26 July 1999, 30 Greenpeace volunteers chose to put their personal liberty on the line to prevent irreversible pollution.

Greenpeace has been flooded with calls of support from people thanking them for their actions. Shaken, the government and chemical industry predictably attempted to slur them as thugs and vandals.

It seems that governments hate non-violent direct action of this kind because it highlights cases when democracy has failed.

Astonishingly, the peaceful removal of GM crops before they flower is practically the only democratic veto UK citizens currently have to prevent genetic pollution.

At no point does the regulatory system for GM crops consult or seek public permission to proceed with these open-air experiments. At no point is the public asked to give its consent.

Greenpeace has been campaigning for these trials to be stopped for 10 years. We know that every other legal avenue leads to a dead end: there was nothing reckless about Monday's action.

Throughout history when the public have been ignored or disenfranchised it has taken peaceful direct action, often of this interventionist kind, to change the rules.

There is nothing new about this direct politics of "people power": the American civil rights movement, the suffragettes around the world, the movement against the enclosure of common land all found their legitimacy in the public acting together directly.

[ image: Protests against the Newbury bypass were
Protests against the Newbury bypass were "nothing new"
More recently the movements to prevent roadbuilding, the destruction of forests and the oppression of indigenous peoples have peacefully "trespassed", blockaded and intervened for the common good.

The non-violent direct action that Greenpeace engages in is not lawlessness - we act within strong moral boundaries.

Our volunteers train in non-violence and do not react to violent situations such as being charged at with farm machinery. We accept responsibility for the consequences of our action.

It may be that, in a few years time, the UK public is able to vote for a government committed to banning GM field trials.

However, none of the major parties support a halt on GM crops and people usually vote for political parties that will represent their views on more than one issue.

In the meantime, irreversible genetic pollution is already seeping into our countryside and contaminating our food.

An active citizenship directly stopping threats and installing solutions themselves keeps democracy healthy and responsive.

Healthy, democratic governments should listen to the reasons why the public takes and supports peaceful direct action, rather than fear it.

Sir Michael Davies:I was an anarchist at 18 - I think all people at the age of 18 are probably anarchists.

But as a judge, I believe you have got to realise that society can only live by the rule of law.

[ image: First step towards anarchy? Aftermath of the J18 protest]
First step towards anarchy? Aftermath of the J18 protest
Anything that is a crime against the law of this country, you cannot allow to be justified. Once you start allowing direct action that amounts to criminal offences, then you are undoubtedly on the first step towards anarchy.

What to Greenpeace is a serious wrong which they are drawing attention to by their actions - I might feel quite differently about.

We all have our feelings that some things in life are quite wrong. Once you get into thinking that other people's religions are totally wrong, or social behaviour is wrong - if you take direct action in these areas, you soon find yourself sinking into a morass, from which I doubt there would be any escape.

There are forms of direct action that do not involve violence and destruction. If other ways of drawing attention to a valid point are not available, then you may say they can be justified.

I was involved in the preliminary proceedings of the recent lengthy libel case against fast food giant McDonald's. The two campaigners involved did not take action by lying down outside McDonald's shops: they did it by publishing pamphlets.

[ image: The McLibel case: using the system to make a point]
The McLibel case: using the system to make a point
I think they fully expected the company to sue them, which they did, and they were able to use the proper legal system to put their case over. Although on paper they lost the case, they established enough to make their action worthwhile.

So I think that is not a bad example, which shows that some forms of nearly direct action, which make use of existing institutions, can be quite effective.

Direct action is always done by a small minority of the population.

Even if you get something like the Countryside March, you might get 30,000 people descending on London. Well, if it were 300,000, it would still only be a very small proportion of the population of the country.

There are democratic means of doing things. If a small minority of the population, genuinely and sincerely, indeed bitterly opposed to something, were allowed to carry the day, nothing would be achieved at all.

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