08 July 2010

Vandalism justified

The mindless vandalism engaged in by "anarchists" at the G20 Summit raises the question of violence against property ever being justified as a means of protest. This question arose at a recent trial in the U.K.

In January, 2009, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, a group of British peace activists gained entry to the EDO MBM arms factory in Brighton and systematically destroyed records and smashed computers and machinery, causing £180,000 worth of damage. They then lay down on the floor and waited to be arrested. Prior to the attack, the activists had recorded their justification on video.

At their recent trial, they were all found not guilty, acquitted on the basis of "lawful excuse." Under British law, damaging property is lawful if carried out in an honest belief that it is preventing even greater damage. The activists argued - successfully - that they had a "lawful excuse" to smash up the factory because it was manufacturing military equipment for Israel which was illegally killing Palestinian civilians, including children. In activist Chris Osmond's words, "During Operation Cast Lead 1,400 people were killed, 350 of which were children. The international community appeared to be completely helpless. The UN could not even protect its own compounds. The only light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Palestine is if ordinary people like us take direct action on their behalf."

The method of these activists was fundamentally different from that of the G20 Summit vandals. They had a specific, appropriate target and a clearly moral objective. They didn't hide behind masks or run away. Like adults, they stood accountable for their actions. And further, as it turns out, they were supported by the law, specifically by Section 5 of Britain's Criminal Damage Act.

Perhaps most importantly they acted on a moral imperative that ordinary people can understand. Decent people are appalled by the killing of civilians, particularly children, and can therefore easily sympathize with those who take action against it. (Given the behaviour of our leading politicians during the Gaza invasion, one might question this, but I take it to be true nonetheless.) Random vandalism, on the other hand, tends to be treated with contempt even by many who may support the cause, whatever the cause of the G20 Summit vandals may have been.

When all is said and done, this is critical. A cause will not progress unless its proponents can convince their fellow citizens of its validity. The activists who wrecked the EDO MBM arms factory were able to convince a jury of ordinary British people that their actions were just. I suspect the G20 vandals would have trouble convincing a jury of their fellow protesters.

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