Civil disobedience taken to its limits

Today in London, especially in university campuses, there is an aura of discontent that has led many to take up ‘peaceful’ weapons of civil disobedience. There is, of course, the ongoing University and College Union strikes against changes to pensions that has seen picketing, petitioning, and marches. It isn’t confined to our city though. Students across the world are taking a central role in major political and social movements; from the gun control debate in the US to the now global #MeToo movement.

In this atmosphere of optimism about the power and impact of civil disobedience, I talked to a PHD student at King’s College London, Roger Hallam, who has been taking it to the extreme.

Last November, Hallam and other members of the anti-pollution Stop Killing Londoners campaign painted slogans on the walls of City Hall, resulting in many of them getting arrested. Upon attending one of the meetings of the group, I was struck by how Hallam explained the process of going to prison in a matter-of-fact, been there, done that, manner.

His motive? To get Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London since 2016, to meet with community clean air campaigners and significantly tighten policies to reduce pollution. He wanted to highlight the scandal of illegal pollution but also promote the tactic of going to jail as an act of protest, describing it as “an effective way to bring about change on an important political issue which has a vast majority of public support”

Change has been prevented by dysfunctional political systems controlled by special interests and corporations

Hallam is a strong believer in the power of civil disobedience. He stated how crucial it is given the current atmosphere regarding environmental issues. Despite popular support, change has been prevented by dysfunctional political systems controlled by special interests and corporations.

Civil disobedience is not new concept. This year we celebrated the centenary of women in the UK winning limited suffrage after a long campaign of disobedience. It can evidently take many forms. Those currently allowed under the National Labour Relations Act include unfair labour practice strikes, economic strikes, and many others.

Certain actions such as the use of threat, damaging property, and obstructing police can be taken as a criminal offence. However, when the government and those in power refuse to listen, the discontented masses seemingly has no other option but to take more and more severe action.

Despite this in light of the recent violent disruption of a KCL Libertarian Society event, one has to emphasise that there is a clear line between civil disobedience and the use of violence.

Protesters crash the KCL Libertarian Society’s event

In the end, participation in civic life, even in the form of civil disobedience, is crucial especially when one feels the most powerless against larger than life forces. History has proven time and time again that organised, persistent, and peaceful civic action does incite powerful change. University campuses are ripe with opportunity and resources to truly make an impact on extremely important issues. One just has to believe that their voice matters.

Hallam is planning further direct action over climate change in the coming months. For more information, please follow ‘Stop Killing Londoners’ on Facebook.

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