Does peaceful protest work?

What is non-violent direct action (NVDA)? How has it changed the world we live in? And how is it helping in the fight against fracking?
  Published:  29 Nov 2017    |      4 minute read

Also known as peaceful protest, non-violent direct action (NVDA) can take the form of boycotts, rallies, art, hacktivism and occupations – like Occupy Wall Street. Whatever shape the defiance takes, the unifying factor is non-violence.

There are many examples of peaceful protest throughout history: 

  • Gandhi refusing to pay British tax on salt in the struggle for India's independence.
  • The Montgomery bus boycott against racial segregation on public transport in 1950s America.
  • British anti-slavery campaigners initiating a mass boycott of slave-made sugar in the late 18th century.
  • The camps for climate action exposing major UK carbon emitters – including a proposed new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth which was subsequently shelved.

It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored. 

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. defending non-violent resistance to racism in his letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

Although peaceful, these actions are sometimes unlawful like in 1999 when police made arrests after protesters ripped up a test field of genetically modified crops.

The occupation and criminal damage of Kingsnorth power station in 2007 is another example of a law-breaking peaceful protest. In that case, the protesters successfully argued they were preventing climate change from causing greater damage to property around the world.

Friends of the Earth doesn't organise or participate in unlawful activities. But we recognise the importance they have played in the history of social justice. But let's not forget, lots of peaceful protests are perfectly lawful.

More examples of peaceful protests

The success of peaceful actions isn't always immediate. And sometimes they involve a great deal of personal risk. Just imagine how terrifying it is to stand in the way of a tank, or to march peacefully in a country that turns a blind eye to police violence.

Let's remind ourselves about some of the incredible acts of bravery – and the achievements – of people taking non-violent direct action. 

1. Selma voting rights movement and "Bloody Sunday" (1965)

The Civil Rights Movement campaign to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. The first attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery were aborted when protestors were attacked by police. It became known as Bloody Sunday. The footage of police brutality against the peaceful marchers caused public outrage and a surge in support for the campaign. The march finally went ahead on 25 March 1965 ending with the famous speech by Martin Luther King Junior, "How long? Not long". The story was brought to the big screen in the film, Selma.

2. The campaign for suffrage 

Suffrage campaigners used both violent and non-violent action in the 19th and early 20th century. They eventually gained the vote for the entire British population in 1928. Peaceful protests included women chaining themselves to railings, disrupting speeches at public meetings and in the House of Commons, and hunger strikes. Suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop refused to eat while in prison in protest against not being recognised as a political prisoner. She was released after 3.5 days of fasting. Other imprisoned suffragettes, using the same tactic, were force fed – it was a life-threatening procedure. 

3. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

A military dictatorship ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. During its reign of terror, a number of children disappeared. Their mothers joined forces, determined to find out what had happened to them. Demanding information, they marched in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. And they used other tactics like placing a newspaper advert with the names of the missing children. Their defiance helped to expose the regime's human rights violations to the rest of the world. More recently, ex-officers have been convicted and sentenced. 

4. The Tree Sitters of Pureora (1978)

Conservation activists stopped the felling of native tress in Pureora forest, New Zealand. They built small platforms in the trees and refused to leave them. Some sat in front of trees and others hid under logs. The media attention put pressure on the government. Logging operations stopped and the area became a park. 

5. Battle of Newbury (1996)

Perhaps inspired by the events in Pureora, people took to the trees to try to prevent the construction of the Newbury bypass in Berkshire. Hundreds were arrested in their attempt to stop the bulldozers. They couldn't save the trees though. 10,000 of them were cut down to make way for the new bypass. But despite losing the battle, the campaign was enormously successful. So much so that a multibillion pound road building programme was completely scrapped in 1997. 

6. The Bentley Blockade (ended May 2014)

Singing, dancing and unadulterated elation. When the regional government of New South Wales shelved a gas drilling licence, the community of Bentley rejoiced. Worried about its effects on the environment and their health, they'd taken months out of their lives to block access to the drilling site. People involved in that historic action have been sharing their successful formula with other communities around the world facing environmental threats – communities like the ones that the UK government is trying to force fracking on to.

7. Anti-Fracking Nanas

Everyone listens to their nan, don’t they? If you’re in trouble with your nan, you know you’ve gone too far.
Rebecca Fitton, anti-fracking nana

The anti-fracking Nanas in Lancashire are women of all ages who have become the frontline against fracking. Wearing matching headscarves, they've fronted rallies, gone to court and slowed down fracking operations. Their pictures were all over the media in 2015 when Lancashire County Council rejected fracking. It was a landmark moment and should have been the end of it. But the government overruled the council's decision – despite a lack of public support. Find out what happened next.

Does Friends of the Earth support peaceful protest?

In an active democracy, there is a right and sometimes a moral case for organisations and individuals to take part in protest. Friends of the Earth believes in empowering people to influence the decisions that affect them. That includes supporting their right to take part in lawful peaceful protest.