Civil disobedience is not an attack

Paul Henry led TV One’s Close Up the other evening with disbelief that GetAcross – “just a few protesters” – could bring Auckland to “a virtual standstill”, and that the police were “powerless to stop them – almost unwilling to stop them”.

Yes, that is amazing.

But he goes on:

But that’s what happened yesterday when protesters broke through barriers and walked across the Harbour Bridge, raising the spectre of just how vulnerable we are to civil disobedience.

Hang on a minute. “Vulnerable” denotes susceptibility to attack, and this construction therefore defines “civil disobedience” as an attack on society, or at least on Auckland. But civil disobedience as a form of activism, an agent of social change or a means of engaging people in the wider political process is by definition not an attack, but one of the `institutions of societal democracy’ referred to in Pablo’s recent post on the topic; a civic duty, to use Thoreau’s formulation, rather than an act of social destructiveness. That the police didn’t – or couldn’t – prevent it by force seems to me a good thing for our society, and I might add a refreshing change from former attitudes toward peaceful protest.

This wasn’t an attack which weakened society, it was an action which could strengthen it by demonstrating that when you want something, there’s no better way to get it than to make your views known. The GetAcross action didn’t result in violence, property damage, serious disorder or anything of the sort – all it did was show up a critical weak link in Auckland’s infrastructure chain. When a couple of thousand – at most – people on bikes can cause tens of thousands of people to become stuck in traffic just by crossing one bridge, once, there are more serious problems than the protest action. If by simply adding a lane two metres wide, ARTA could prevent this from ever having to happen again – then why wouldn’t they? If not, then aren’t they asking for the weak link to be tested, again and again?


Update: To my great delight, James at Editing The Herald has skewered Garth George’s latest set of authoritarian mutterings about this topic on the sharp spike of the the black civil rights movement. Party on, James.

6 thoughts on “Civil disobedience is not an attack

  1. Imagine the standstill had those people been driving trucks instead of riding bikes…

  2. I remember when Parliament immediately convened after 9/11, Richard Prebble effectively compared civil disobedience (in this case, dropping flour bombs from a light plane during the 1981 Tour) to mass murder by jumbo jet.

  3. Excellent point Lew. Social conservatives and closet authoritarians are unnerved by the challenges to hierarchy, implicit or otherwise. All societies are made up of a mix of vertical and horizontal relationships, but in democracies it is the horizontal dimension that takes precedence, whereas in authoritarian societies the vertical dimension prevails. Democratic societies are highly “flattened” in terms of their collective action; authoritarian societies are not. Hence, apathy and ignorance favour the despots.

    Overt displays of grassroots mobilization and resistance touch on the darkest fears of social conservatives and closet authoritarians that their preferred hierarchies will be usurped (this is as much true for family despots as it is for the business elite and so-called ‘law and order” advocates). They ignore or do not want to accept that an active civil society is a much better hedge against despotic rule in all spheres than is the repressive apparatus embodied, in first instance, by the police (which are merely instruments of the dominant order but which, as the bridge episode demonstrates, can be “turned” in a counter-hegemonic direction by the weight of the popular appeal).

    I guess one good thing to emerge out of the Auckland “weekend of mass action” is that the closet despots on TV, radio and elsewhere have shown their true colours by way of their reactions. As a conservative “outing” device as well as a form of direct action, the marches have proven effective.

  4. Thank you Pablo. Your comment illuminates another metaphor Paul Henry used – that civil disobedience is a “spectre”, being the malevolent, incorporeal ghost of something long dead. Society thinking of its own actions and authority in such a way is chilling.


  5. QtR,

    Speaking of early introductions to politics, my mum bought me a copy for by 12th birthday, which I try and reread from time to time.


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