According to The Guardian, the head of a right wing group known as the Young Britons’ Foundation has called for trespassing environmental activists to be “shot down” by police.
In October last year, when Greenpeace activists scaled the Palace of Westminster to protest against climate change policy, he called on police to “next time shoot them down … start with water cannon and if that doesn’t work, maybe crank it up a level or two”.
His words are more than just bluster, however, considering that the Young Britons’ Foundation is in the business of training Tory parliamentary candidates.
So what if police did start using water cannons on climate protesters? My hunch is that such brutality would result in what Michael Nagler calls a “paradox of repression.” Environmentalists might gain more public sympathy than they have ever enjoyed before, much like the civil rights movement did after Birmingham.
Does that mean they should welcome the water cannons? No. But it does mean that protesters shouldn’t let threats such as these scare them away from taking action. They pose a threat of their own if they remain committed to action.
What do you think? Am I being to optimistic? Would the general public ignore, or perhaps even applaud the use of water cannons against a Greenpeace activist who scaled a government building or national monument? Would the mainstream media not be sympathetic?
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I don’t think we’re quite there yet (though I’d like to think we are!). Maybe in a couple of years the mainstream would have that reaction. It would at least take some serious persistence for that reaction to manifest itself, which will mean accepting some serious suffering by many many people.
Hi Simon. Thanks for your comment. Here’s another question: Do you think environmental protesters carry too much of a negative stigma for ordinary folks to find them relatable? The black people that were blasted by police water cannons during the civil rights movement were just ordinary citizens in most cases, not committed activists. They dressed like ordinary people and did rather ordinary things, like simply marching. But the traditional environmental activist is anything but ordinary. They sit in trees, scale buildings or national monuments, and use provocative, if not confrontational language. Will this work against them when or if they are subjected to brutal policing? How can environmentalists bridge the gap to the ordinary citizen so as to earn their empathy?
this is very related to what Brian Martin here in Australia has called Backfire.
In the backfire model he outlines the most pertinant dynamics of what you describe as the paradox of repression.
Hope you find it usefull.
It’s an interesting theory Bryan. As a Brit myself, I’m disgusted that the future of the Tory party are being trained to think like this and it maybe proves there are still minor reasons for voting New Labour instead of Conservative in the upcoming election.
But as regards the original question, I’m sure that it would create a bit more sympathy amongst the public with environmentalists. However, I don’t think it’s possible to compare current times with what happened during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.
Although environmental awareness is much greater nowadays, our comfortable modern lives means that people would have to actually rebel against themselves to support many environmental causes. For example, if environmentalist were trying to block a new motorway being built through the countryside in the UK, if it was going to alleviate traffic congestion in the UK and help people get around quicker, I find it hard to believe the majority of the public would be too outraged if they saw environmentalists being water cannoned off the site.
George Monbiot concludes in his book “Heat” that this challenge for people to “rebel against themselves” is one of the major challenges facing the environmental movement and I think he’s definitely on to something.
PS On a technical note, did you know that you can install a plugin for WordPress that allows people to receive e-mail notifications when a new comment is posted? 🙂