From battles to end racial segregation to local struggles to protect rare habitats, the captive crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise is following in a rich tradition of peaceful protest.
But according to one of Britain’s foremost experts in civil disobedience, the nature of protest is changing. David Mead of the University of East Anglia’s Law School said that over the past 30 years there has been a radical shift towards protest and campaigns aimed at rogue corporations, not governments.
“The mass protest march isn’t quite dead, but it’s very much secondary,” said the author of The New Law of Peaceful Protest. “Instead, protesters are more likely to engage with particular groups or organisations they dislike, whether they are polluting firms, oil companies or arms manufacturers.”
Brian Fitzgerald, the head of mobilisation at Greenpeace International, agreed. “Corporations can be more responsive to pressure than many governments. Brent Spar and the campaign against Shell in the 1990s was a great early example of this. It was Shell that buckled over sinking the Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea, not the UK government.
“Because corporations have a brand reputation they pour a great amount of money into protecting, they could be more responsive.”
Sadly for the Arctic 30, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As Mead warned: “The consequences of civil disobedience can still be just as dire.”