It is a familiar reproach. If you’re angry, don’t boo, don’t protest, don’t take matters into your own hands. Vote, lobby, report to the authorities, trust the process. It’s the appeal of reasonable liberals and the rebuke of rightwingers. It is the refrain that rings out when demands for justice “go too far”.
As protests after the death of George Floyd got bigger and bigger in the United States — and then began to spread around the world — the focus of conversations in the media shifted abruptly. Now the issue was vandalism and anarchy, in the US as in the UK, where it’s easier to talk about the lawless mobs tearing down statues than the crimes these monuments commemorate.
But this is nothing new. What we rarely hear about all the great revolutions of the past is that they too looked at first like spontaneous uprisings against the existing order — and they too were subject to charges of anarchy, reckless violence, puritanical revenge. So much so that the economist Albert Hirschman described the demand to “follow the process” as “the first reaction” whenever the threat of real change is on the horizon.
The first accounts of the French revolution made no distinction between its positive and negative aspects – collapsing its moral position and its violent manifestations into one. The result was that, for a long time, it was defined and smeared by its excesses. It was only the passage of time that transformed it into “a riot blessed by history”, as Gary Younge puts it. Closer to our own time, the poll tax riots in 1990, now part of a national odyssey of popular rebellion against an overreaching Thatcher government, were originally blamed on anarchists and the far left, with an official account that vastly underestimated the number of peaceful protesters and the degree of police provocation.
Today, it is the Black Lives Matter movement that is being discredited for not staying in its lane, for refusing to “quit while they’re still ahead”, in the words of one broadsheet columnist. But protests happen in the first place because the “proper channels” have failed – in some cases, because previous protests have also failed. When #MeToo first began, it only took a moment for women to be told to report their assaults to the authorities instead of taking their allegations public, lest they destroy a man’s reputation before he could have a hearing.
But it didn’t occur to these critics that the court of public opinion was itself a last resort. When a statue falls, you don’t see the years of campaigning and lobbying and writing that went before it, and came to nothing. When Extinction Rebellion occupies central London, you don’t see the power — corporate lobbyists, complacent politicians, indifferent bureaucrats — that marginalised these concerns for so long that activists knew there was no other way.