Direct Action for Democracy
Geraldine Aves Memorial Lecture 2002, Royal Society of Arts, London, 16 January 2002.
I want to take this opportunity to challenge and expand traditional notions of what volunteering involves and of what it means to be a volunteer.
Let me start by posing a question. What do Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King have in common?
The answer? They were all volunteers. They volunteered their time and commitment to struggles for social justice and human rights.
Their kind of volunteering is, however, a far cry from the public perception of volunteer endeavour.
The common view is that volunteering involves worthy, compassionate causes like caring for the sick and elderly, and doing good works in the community such as organising day nurseries, tree-planting schemes and junior football clubs.
Volunteering has a cuddly, kindly image. It is not normally associated with the controversies and confrontations that often characterise political campaigns against oppression and injustice.
The cosy, Florence Nightingale image is only part of the picture. We should also recognise and appreciate the hugely important role volunteering has played in advancing civil and social rights. Without the voluntary efforts of millions of people in this country, and around the world, the evils of slavery, colonialism and many other barbarisms would still persist today.
Volunteer effort has been the motor of every movement for human liberation. None of the social gains that we now take for granted would have been possible without volunteer political activism. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, for example, were only won thanks to tireless voluntary initiatives and campaigns, frequently pursued at great personal cost.
Reliance on volunteers is not confined to past struggles for social justice. Immensely effective contemporary human rights groups like Amnesty International are almost entirely volunteer based. Hundreds of thousands of individuals world-wide give up their leisure time to participate in Amnesty's letter-writing campaigns. Through their dedicated persistence, many political prisoners have been spared torture and execution, and many others have been released from detention.
In the long battle for queer human rights, with which I have been associated for the last 33 years, the rolling back of prejudice, discrimination and violence has been secured primarily by the self-help initiatives of voluntary associations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We have come together around a shared commitment to fight homophobia; creating supportive community organisations - such as helplines and counselling services - and political campaign groups that press the case for equality.
My experiences in the queer human rights group, OutRage!, are typical. We are an all-volunteer organisation, with no staff, no office and no formal funding; sustained solely by the voluntary efforts of an idealistic, dedicated core of activists who are passionate in their quest for queer emancipation.
Most of us have full-time jobs. We sacrifice our spare time to campaign for queer upliftment, sometimes placing ourselves at risk of arrest and assault when confronting the perpetrators of homophobia - who are often very powerful and influential people, with friends in high places.
Our campaign against church homophobia is a good example of volunteer political activism. For eight years, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to meet queer rights groups. He even rejected dialogue with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which counts many Anglicans among its members. We had no option. The Archbishop had to be confronted over his support for discrimination against queers. Where could be more appropriate than confronting him than in his Cathedral on Easter Sunday?
Seven people volunteered to join the protest. I was one of them. We understood the potentially serious personal consequences, such as arrest and imprisonment. But as volunteers in a non-violent war for the liberation of the queer nation these were sacrifices we were prepared to make.
It is quite true that I interrupted the Archbishop's sermon and criticised his rejection of queer human rights. I make no apology for that. It was right and necessary to publicly challenge Dr Carey over his opposition to an equal age of consent and legal recognition for same-sex partners. His support for discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace and for a ban on the fostering and adoption of children by lesbian and gay couples had to be exposed.
If the Archbishop had been advocating similar discrimination against the black community there would have been a public outcry and he would have been forced to resign.
Dr Carey's endorsement of straight supremacism and legal discrimination against queers - one law for heterosexuals and another homosexuals - echoes the way the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa used theology to justify apartheid. Like the Archbishop, they argued that one section of the community is inferior and not entitled to human rights.
When black people in South Africa disrupted church services to protest against bigotry disguised as religion they were applauded by most people of conscience and compassion.
In contrast, I was not only widely condemned, but also assaulted and bloodied by church officials, arrested and detained by the police for over six hours, and eventually convicted under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act.
Formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551, this legislation makes any form of protest in a church illegal - no matter how brief and peaceful. These sweeping restrictions on the right to protest are unique. No other institution - not even parliament - enjoys such privileged protection against dissent.
The benefits of that protest were swift and tangible. Millions of people became aware that the leader of the Anglican Communion was a supporter of human rights abuses. Named and shamed, the Archbishop suddenly curtailed his public advocacy of anti-queer discrimination, and hastily met with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for the first time. A while later, he abandoned his opposition to queer fostering and adoption. Voluntary action political protest works!
What motivates us - and other human rights campaigners - to volunteer sizeable chunks of our lives to challenging the suppression of human dignity, welfare and freedom?
Put simply: it is a love of other people and a loathing of injustice. What I would not want done to me, I do not want done to others. If I was suffering, I would hope that other people would come to my aid. When I see others suffering, I feel impelled to respond to their hope for support and solidarity.
Although have chosen for the last two decades to put most of my energies into campaigns for queer human rights, I feel equally passionate about all human rights abuses. Human rights are universal and indivisible. They are also linked inextricably to the ethos of voluntary action.
Human rights activism embodies the same principles and values as more traditional, caring forms of volunteering: compassion, solidarity, altruism and community.
The public benefits can be just as great, or even greater. Some of the gains of volunteer political activism - such as old-age pensions, equal pay and socialised medicine - have an even more substantial collective benefit than orthodox charity-based volunteering, such as hospice care and after-school clubs. They don't bring improvements to the lives of mere dozens or even hundreds of people; they bring improvements to the lives of millions.
There are many different forms of political volunteering, ranging from mainstream lobbying to radical direct action.
In addition to their commitment to the volunteer principle, Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King shared a common commitment to direct action protest as a way of winning social justice. Pleading with politicians was not their style. They found that writing letters to MPs and lobbying governments did not work.
Instead, mobilising thousands of volunteer political activists, they led mass demonstrations and work stoppages, hunger strikes and sit-ins, rent and tax refusals, boycotts and pickets, and civil disobedience campaigns to defy unjust laws. That is how India won its independence, women got the vote, and racial segregation was ended in the USA: by volunteer direct action.
Only a decade ago, volunteer direct action in Britain secured one the biggest political climb-downs of the last century. Margaret Thatcher's much-hated Poll Tax was defeated when millions refused to pay and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets. Opposition MPs had proved powerless to stop the Poll Tax, so people took power into their own hands - and Thatcher's flagship policy collapsed.
This was "people power" at its finest: volunteer direct action in defence of democracy, against a tyrannical, arrogant government that was defying the will of the people.
The Poll Tax was an illegitimate policy for which the government had no electoral mandate. Every survey confirmed its overwhelming public rejection. Moreover, the government that imposed the Poll Tax lacked democratic legitimacy; securing absolute parliamentary power with little more than 40 per cent of the popular vote.
The attempt to impose the Poll Tax against the wishes of the majority illustrates a very important principle: democracy is about more than voting once every five years. Having a vote is fine, but not enough. Genuine democracy involves an on-going process of consultation and negotiation between the governers and the governed. It requires those in power to listen to the people and, when they fail to listen, for the people to make their feelings known - by any peaceful means necessary.
Something as important as running the country should never be left to politicians. Look at their bungled policies: pesticide-contaminated food, unsafe and unreliable railways, BSE and foot and mouth disease, the rationing of medical care on the NHS, cities choking with asthma-inducing car fumes, and a minimum wage that excludes young school leavers.
Politicians always manage to find money to buy armaments and fight wars. Yet they invariably plead a lack of funds when it comes to solving the crises in our schools and hospitals.
No wonder many people are disillusioned with traditional politics. Hundreds of thousands are deserting the ballot box and turning to direct action protest instead. They are volunteering to be active citizens within the democratic process, and to change things for themselves.
People are also abandoning the parliamentary system because it is politically corrupt and unrepresentative. The electoral system reeks with the stench of the rotten boroughs of the nineteenth century.
Like its Conservative predecessor, the current Labour government fell well short of winning even half the votes cast in the last general election. Indeed, a mere 25 per cent of eligible voters backed Labour last year. Yet Tony Blair's government enjoys a massive majority of nearly 170 seats in the House of Commons.
The two big parties have connived together to maintain their own parliamentary hegemony and exclude smaller rivals. They achieve their artificial dominance through a first-past-the-post electoral system that deliberately disenfranchises millions of people. Both Conservative and Labour are content with the winner-takes-all, buggins-turn system that allows them to alternate power.
But the electorate is not content. When given an opportunity to vote under a fairer proportional system, the result is very different. The Greens won over 11 per cent of the vote in the proportional list section the Greater London Authority election in 2000, indicating clear public support for their policies. But under the first-past-the-post ballot for the House of Commons, the Greens have no MPs. The outcome of the GLA election suggests that more people would vote Green - and for other minor parties - if we had a fair electoral system where everyone's vote counted and where minority opinions were fully represented in parliament.
This corruption of politics continues apace, with Labour's proposals that most members of the reformed House of Lords should be appointed - not elected. While nominally independent, the appointments panel is likely to dominated by the great and good from the two main parties, and they will no doubt appoint to the Lords their friends and colleagues from the great and the good - as happened with the farce over the so-called "people's peers".
Faced with such monstrous rigging of the political process, it is not surprising that interest in parliamentary politics and support for politicians is fading fast - as evidenced by the appalling low turn out at the last general election, which was the lowest for nearly 100 years.
Many people conclude that as well as the political system being unrepresentative, it is also pointless looking to politicians for help because it is often politicians who are the cause of the problem. The vast majority of people are against genetically modified food, but the government insists that crop trials must continue, despite risking the uncontrolled release of GM organisms and the contamination of non-GM produce. Not long ago, Tony Blair promised swift action to ban fox hunting, which is backed by 80 per cent of the electorate. This pledge has been now quietly sidelined.
Direct action is justified - and the only democratic option left - when politicians ignore the wishes of the people, break their promises or violate human rights. In these circumstances, direct action is a vital mechanism for the defence of democracy and liberty.
Moreover, direct action can be incredibly effective. Who can blame Greenpeace for wrecking GM crops and hunt saboteurs for saving foxes from being torn to shreds by dogs? Their methods get results, whereas lobbying the government has failed.
The arguments for and against direct action revolve around two fundamentally different ways of doing politics. Representative democracy is the system where MPs are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. When politics revolves around the representative principle to the exclusion of popular participation it tends to encourage elitism and arrogance in politicians, and disempowerment and passivity among the electorate.
Participatory democracy is, in contrast, about people being involved in the political process in an on-going way, rather than only at election time. They represent themselves and act to promote their own interests, instead of handing over responsibility and power to professional politicians. This interaction between popular participation and parliamentary representation ensures better checks and balances against the abuse of power and the neglect of public opinion.
Direct action protest is one of the most vibrant forms of participatory democracy. People act for themselves. They pressure politicians and influence political decision-making. Through their own volunteer self-help efforts they bring about social change. This empowers them as individuals, and it also collectively empowers their communities.
Having taken part in more than 1,000 direct action protests over the last 33 years, the beneficial effects are self-evident.
Take the issue of police victimisation of the queer community. By 1989, the number of convictions for the consensual gay offence of gross indecency - the same law that was used to arrest Oscar Wilde in 1895! - was as great as in 1954-55, during the height of the McCarthyite anti-gay witch-hunts when homosexuality was still totally illegal. Moderate, respectable homosexual rights organisations had lobbied the police for years in a bid to end this harassment, but they were ignored. Likewise, MPs dismissed our concerns. The political system failed us.
Faced with a homophobic parliament and police service, neither of which would listen to reason or show any compassion, we had no choice. In the summer of 1990, volunteers from the queer rights group OutRage! began a high-profile direct action campaign to challenge this persecution.
We invaded and occupied police stations, busted entrapment operations, photographed undercover officers, and hounded the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
These were controversial tactics, but six months later police chiefs began their first serious dialogue with the lesbian and gay community. A few months further on they had agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of men convicted of consenting same-sex behaviour fell by two-thirds - the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. Our campaign helped save thousands of queers from arrest. Volunteer direct action got results when traditional politics had failed to deliver.
It is the same story with my more recent attempted arrests of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Nearly all the governments of the world - including the UK - have signed and ratified the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. But none of them are enforcing it.
In October 1999 in London, and again in March 2001 in Brussels, I attempted a lawful citizen's arrest of President Mugabe on charges that he authorised or condoned acts of torture. I had documents attesting to the torture of two black Zimbabwean journalists, Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka, of The Standard newspaper in Harare. These documents were corroborated by Amnesty International and the Zimbabwe High Court. The legal basis for President Mugabe's arrest was beyond doubt.
When presented with this evidence, the governments in Britain and Belgium wilfully ignored the UN Convention Against Torture. That is why I felt obliged to resort to the direct action tactic of a citizen's arrest. I had tried to get the British and Belgian governments to honour their international human rights commitments. They refused.
Although I did not succeed in having President Mugabe arrested, my two attempts did ensure that media coverage of his trips to Europe was dominated by questions about human rights abuses.
The television images of me being beaten unconscious by President Mugabe's bodyguards in Brussels last year helped highlight the brutal nature of his regime. Many people rightly concluded that if he was prepared to have his thugs batter a peaceful protester in front of television cameras in the heart of a European capital in broad daylight, imagine what he does to his own people in Zimbabwe after dark when the world's media is not watching.
Despite suffering some minor eye and brain damage, my only regret is that I was not successful in getting Mugabe arrested. If the governments of Britain and Belgium had responded to my citizen's arrests by detaining Mugabe under the UN Torture Convention, the people of Zimbabwe might have been spared much of the suffering of recent months. Many lives could have been saved.
It is not too late. President Mugabe still travels abroad on a regular basis. He could be arrested at any time, in any of the many states that have undertaken to enforce the UN Convention Against Torture. If Slobodan Milosevic can stand trial in The Hague, why not Robert Mugabe?
My story of volunteeer direct action is only one of many. All over the world volunteer activists are working to overturn prejudice and discrimination. When we think of volunteering, let's remember their efforts. Without them, many social injustices would remain unchallenged, and many human rights would never have been won.
Geraldine Aves Memorial Lecture, Royal Society of Arts, London,16 January 2002.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 2002. All rights reserved.
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