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24 June 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:19pm

Non-violent protesters always face a violent response – until the system co-opts them

Perhaps one day the climate protesters will get a statue in Parliament Square, too.

By Mags L. Halliday

The woman, dressed in an evening gown, was heckling the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech. She’s hit by one man attending the speech, and her wrist is burnt by the cigar of another, before she is flung from the venue.

Helen Ogston was a suffragette. It was 1908 and the chancellor she was disrupting was David Lloyd George. Afterwards, she told the press that, “I said I would walk out quietly, but I would not submit to their handling. They all struck at me”.

Last week, Janet Barker was also in an evening dress, disrupting a speech by a Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was forcefully removed by a man attending the speech. She told the Guardian that she had said, “I will walk on my own. I am not about to start a wrestling match with you.” The only difference is that Helen Ogston had armed herself with a dogwhip, as she had been expecting to be physically attacked.

During the 1900s, people applauded the violence against Helen and her sister suffragettes, just as some are reported to have applauded when Mark Field MP grabbed Janet Barker. The use of physical retribution by those in power against non-violent protest and disruption is a pattern that recurs throughout history. So is the subsequent co-opting of non-violent protestors as symbols of a just cause, once those in power have eventually accepted their case.

The suffragettes’ first direct action tactics all involved heckling politicians, starting with the first non-violent protest in 1905. Annie Kenney and Christobel Pankhurst attended a speech at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to ask the Liberal Party candidate his position on votes for women. Winston Churchill, the candidate in question, refused to answer, and they were physically dragged from the hall.

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The Liberal Party decided to bar women suspected of being suffragettes from buying tickets to an event at the Royal Albert Hall two months later. Keir Hardie, of the Labour Party, got hold of some tickets and handed them over to the suffragettes. Annie Kenney borrowed evening wear so she could heckle the new Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. She was thrown out.

By 1908, and Helen Ogston’s action, the suffragettes had come to expect physical assaults for their non-violent but disruptive protests. Helen was one of a dozen women in the Royal Albert Hall that night, and Sylvia Pankhurst recalled them returning with torn corsets, scratched faces and bleeding noses. She called the press to document the assaults. The response of the Liberal Party was to ban all women from their meetings.

These acts are distinctive, as was Janet Barker’s at the Mansion House, because they involve individuals walking into places those in power feel they own. They are replicated in acts such as Bayard Rustin, an African-American, refusing to go to the back of the bus bound for Nashville Tennessee in 1942. Rustin stayed in the white-only section: he was arrested and beaten, before being released uncharged. Rosa Parks’ similar act of non-violent protest in 1955 resulted in her being fired and receiving death threats. Today, Parks is remembered as the symbol of a mass movement, commemorated by the very system she was challenging.

Other campaigners have been treated the same way. The 1950s American Civil Rights movement adopted their non-violent confrontations from the bus boycotts and sit-ins arranged as part of the Defiance campaign in South Africa in 1952. Those protests were arranged by the African National Congress (ANC), and encouraged by Nelson Mandela. Many of the ANC were arrested and imprisoned for the non-violent protest.

The early anti-apartheid movement had in turn been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protests whilst he was in South Africa, when it was still part of the British Empire. He later toiok his ideas about civil disobedience to India: at a protest at the Dharasana salt works in 1930, as part of his campaign to break the salt tax laws, the protestors refused to fight back as they were beaten. It created outrage when it was reported in the media of the day.

In 2007, a statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in London’s Parliament Square. In 2015, a statue of Gandhi joined him there.

And last year, to celebrate the centenary of (some) women gaining the vote, a statue of the suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett was unveiled. Around her plinth there are engravings of suffragettes, including Annie Kenney and Christobel Pankhurst: the two women who had started the tactic of disrupting politician’s speeches back in 1905 and had been beaten for it. The people it had once been acceptable to attack have been given plinths by the very power they protested against.

It’s possible that, in the decades to come, climate emergency protestors will also become co-opted into the story.

Mags L. Halliday is a writer based in Exeter.

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