I used to have a picture from one of my anarchist websites. 3 frames, with a cartoon illustrating each of the following
A single person asking for change achieves nothing.
A large group might get a response
But simple direct action gets immediate results
This last frame was illustrated by a little anarchist setting fire to the giant man of government standing in his way, thus causing giant man to yell and run elsewhere.
Direct Action, and Civil Disobedience, are complex terms. How they are defined, the context they are used in, how they are understood and interpreted by others.
It's #demo2010 today and between 20,000 - 50,000 (or 500 'radical socialists' if fox news deigns to give it a 15 second segment) students, graduates, researchers and lecturers have taken to the streets to protest the proposed changes to university funding and teaching cuts. It is expected to be the biggest march since the Stop The War protests (which I was at and was pretty fucking phenomenal).
The right to protest, the right of freedom of assembly and the right of freedom of speech are things I will gladly fight to the death for, and I'd be a pretty crappy anarchist if I didn't staunchly believe in these things. Any society that purports to be a 'democracy' of any kind, whether accurately or not, must allow its citizens these rights (amongst others). Protest rallies, marching, striking, petitioning, whether I personally support the cause or not, is all admirable as far as I'm concerned, and whilst, like every other Londoner, the clockwork regular tube strikes and inevitable transport chaos piss me off no end, I will never support those who would restrict any person's, union's, or body's right to strike freely. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety and all that jazz.
As is inevitable with protests, there is always a minority who cause 'trouble'. Be it because they genuinely are that angry and frustrated with society, or because they got bored of chanting and only recognise 'anarchism' as the outdated, defunct, and offensive definition that means rioting and looting at will. And that is what gets reported and is what people remember years down the line. It tars the entire group with the same brush, and certainly in this country, violent disobedience is not tolerated; it tends to go down a little better in European countries for some reason.
Civil disobedience is allowable, that covers simple protest, and striking, because those are disobedient in regard to the rules you have been mandated to abide by in a particular context (such as conditions at work). There is also the less reasonable and accepted methods; rioting, mobs, etc
Direct action, is also, a fairly allowable thing, peaceful direct action has existed for a long time. Slow-downs, sit ins, picket lines to mark denial of entry during strikes. And again it has its less tolerated examples: assault and arson being two.
It's stupid to ruin something respectable with a few ignorant actions using the wider cause as a defence for wanting to be simply uncivilized. It's stupid to become so wrapped up in the chaos and destruction and anger of what you're doing you ignore the reasons you're (supposedly) doing it in the first place and start throwing fire extinguishers off roofs. When people from the NUS or UNITE or whatever call for civil disobedience or direct action from their members, they refer to peaceful protest, but some use that as a defence to argue their counter productive actions are justified and called for.
But then again, how counter productive are they? Simple direct action gets immediate results. It is not laudable, it shouldn't occur, though it also shouldn't be the case that 16 million people world wide need to protest a war, but sometimes it is, and those violent outbursts, make the events so memorable. People remember what happened in Greece because it was aggressive. People remember the Boston Tea Party because it was an unoffical declaration of war from a nation feeling severely oppressed that was a key point in a chain leading to a formal declaration of war. Direct action, in the not-always-peaceful definition of the term, does get results. It gets you noticed, for better or worse, and it gets results, for better or worse. Protesters throughout the ages who have been jailed, reproached, and criminalized for their actions, and suffered for it, have often been the pioneers of those who have brought about a change for the better for the rest of us.
I do not, will not, and cannot condone the actions of a few violent, ignorant individuals whose aim is largely to break some shit and feel all powerful and important for 2 hours whilst the news helicopters circle above and before the riot police club them into submission.
But I do not believe that the action of a lot of people shouting loudly about how unfair life is and waving some placards they made the day before will ever achieve much of any import. A protest march is important, it galvanises people, it gives them something to believe in, it is representative of how unpopular a cause of action is, and in many cases, gives people the means to pool together and achieve legal recourse to defend their causes by forming into a group. But if 16 million people shouting can't stop a war, and if legal recourse can be appealed and retried and appealed and retried all the way up to that nation's supreme courts (and beyond in the case of EU nations), taking years before any significant change is finally agreed upon, I have to believe that direct action, sometimes peaceful, and sometimes not so, is the way forward, because it has so often achieved results where mere complaining to those who are oppressing you in the first place, not surprisingly, results in fairly little being done, beyond maybe a small but ineffectual concession if you bitch long enough and loud enough.
Do I think this protest, or the rioters at Millbank will actually change anything about the proposed funding legislation. Not at all. But I stand by every single damned one of them for having the courage to make people notice.