Cole Moreton: Protest? Don't mind if I do

Direct action is all the rage, but did Fathers 4 Justice spoil it for the rest of us?
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The Independent Online

I must protest. Why not? Everybody else is. It's not just the dissident dads, who threw a condom full of purple cornflour at the Prime Minister last Wednesday and gave us a dramatic new weapon: the French letter bomb. The railway unions threaten the worst strike in 10 years. The firefighters are coiling their hoses again (What do we want? To go to sleep! When do we want it? On duty!). The opponents of fox-hunting say 55,000 people have signed up for a campaign of civil disobedience if their sport is banned. The petrol protesters are contemplating action as the price of fuel rises, and the Government has been playing war games in preparation for the barricades.

I must protest. Why not? Everybody else is. It's not just the dissident dads, who threw a condom full of purple cornflour at the Prime Minister last Wednesday and gave us a dramatic new weapon: the French letter bomb. The railway unions threaten the worst strike in 10 years. The firefighters are coiling their hoses again (What do we want? To go to sleep! When do we want it? On duty!). The opponents of fox-hunting say 55,000 people have signed up for a campaign of civil disobedience if their sport is banned. The petrol protesters are contemplating action as the price of fuel rises, and the Government has been playing war games in preparation for the barricades.

But it doesn't stop there, with the politicians and professional agitators. Forensic scientists, cooks, prison handymen and women are all threatening to walk out for a day because of pay disputes. The women who work in the gift shop at Cadbury World in Birmingham did just that last week. So did pupils at a school in Wiltshire, in support of a teacher who - as his own little protest - had told them their needs were being neglected by the new school management. When he was threatened with discipline 100 pupils walked out. The school was closed for the afternoon. Other staff, predictably, described it as "anarchy".

Meanwhile a four-year-old from West Dunbartonshire has demanded a meeting with council officials over the removal of a slide from her favourite playground. She's threating to rally her friends. Seriously. And for sheer spectacle - coupled, perhaps, with pointlessness - the dozens of pantomime cows who wandered round a number of Savacentres last Saturday surely take the cud. That'll stop Sainsbury's supporting GM crops, won't it?

Pantomime cows make you wonder why so many people are protesting all of a sudden, but they also provide half (the back half) of the answer. It can be fun, and make you feel good. Firefighters will say they were never closer to their colleagues than during those nights spent huddled around a brazier, with car horns tooting in support. Greenham women I know look back with more nostalgia on the times when there were only a few diehards than on the great human-chain protest of the Eighties, when tens of thousands of strangers joined them (and then drifted away afterwards).

You get to feel as if you belong, they say. Instead of struggling on alone with problems that nobody else understands you are suddenly surrounded by like-minded people, passionate about the same causes. Participation in a mass movement is exciting, but even when numbers are low there can be satisfaction. "I don't do this because anyone is listening," says a friend who once had to ask military police to arrest her so she could argue in court that the manufacture of nuclear weapons was a threat to humanity. "I do it because it's right." And finally, it feels liberating, exhilarating, life-enhancing to actually be doing something. Even if they lock you up afterwards.

If you're prepared to take that risk, and what you want to do is be heard, direct action works. Sometimes. In the 1620s, as the Mayor of Norwich sat listening to a sermon in the cathedral about how the poor should know their place, a peasant wished to protest. Nobody remembers his name, but they remember his method. He somehow managed to defecate on the Mayor's head.

His modern equivalent, if you substitute beleaguered commuters for the peasantry, is Simon Taylor, who got up early in the morning to catch a train into London from his home in East Sussex. The 47-year-old arrived at the station in good time, only to be told that his train would not be stopping there after all. Mr Taylor might have expressed his anger in a letter. He might have got a polite reply, even an apology. But nobody who mattered would have taken any notice. And writing certainly could not have eased the boiling rage he felt as he stood there at 6.30am knowing he would miss a vital meeting.

So Mr Taylor parked his car on the level crossing instead, blocking the tracks. Then, as the alarmed signalman set his lights to red and radioed the approaching train, Mr Taylor walked back to the ticket office and said he "wanted to make a point". He certainly did that. A judge has found him guilty of obstructing a train, and will pass sentence soon. The defendant admitted his actions had been "staggeringly stupid". And they were. He could go to prison for two years. But how many commuters, battered and squashed and late and tired of being messed around, read that story in their morning paper and fantasised about how good it would feel to stick one over on the bastards, just once?

There is a certain romance around direct action that Fathers 4 Justice campaigners have sought to exploit, comparing themselves to the suffragettes or Martin Luther King. In 1963 Dr King said that non-violent direct action "seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

The protesters who bared their backsides when George Bush visited Britain last year did just that, creatively demonstrating their powerlessness against a barely elected President in charge of the mightiest army in history. Their feelings of impotence will be recognised by those frustrated by British politics, in which a Prime Minister can simply ignore two million anti-war marchers and the people who instinctively support his own party have no obvious alternative. When people feel disenfranchised they don't bother to vote, or - as we are seeing in increasing numbers - their frustration becomes focused on single issues, and they protest.

David Chick of Fathers 4 Justice fulfilled Dr King's requirements when he climbed a crane near Tower Bridge in October, dressed as SpiderMan. Mr Chick argued in court that the police had tried to use unecessary road closures to turn public opinion against him. He was cleared of causing a public nuisance.

Wednesday's protest was different. Fathers 4 Justice did force society to confront a situation, but it was not the one they had in their own tunnel vision. The biggest result of their action was to reveal security at the Palace of Westminster as a shambles. It was "a very embarrassing lapse", said Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, a man who knows - and presumably cherishes - the value of direct action. As a 16-year-old schoolboy and anti-apartheid activist he led a campaign to disrupt the visit of an all-white South African rugby team. But that was a long time before 9/11. "We are living in a different world," he said on Thursday, arguing with more than a hint of regret for even tighter controls to keep members of the public from harming their elected representatives.

Fathers 4 Justice were winning their propaganda battle before Wednesday. Their choice of time and place for the protest was good. Using the colour purple was clever: it has a touch of episcopalian authority but is attractive and calming. But then they crossed the line between Dr King and Guy Fawkes. Direct action moves towards terrorism at the moment it picks up a stone, or a stick, or a powder-filled condom, and throws it at someone. The moral high ground is lost. There is no need for the target of the protest to confront the message being delivered when it can simply attack the method of delivery. And now the chance is gone for the rest of us to shout or unfurl banners in the House of Commons as citizens have done for centuries. We will never get that close again to the people who are supposed to be in power only because we let them. So thanks, dads, on behalf of all those, from firefighters to four-year-olds, who believe it is our right to protest, forcefully but non-violently, and that sometimes it is the only way to be heard. Next time, for democracy's sake, please just show them your bums.

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