The Mark Field assault case – and why pacifists should keep disrupting dinners

We won't defeat climate change, war and poverty by asking the likes of Mark Field to throw us a few crumbs from the table.

I woke up on Friday morning to the news that my former MP, Mark Field, had assaulted a nonviolent protester at the Mansion House.

I watched the footage of an upper class man, politically and physically powerful, grabbing a woman by the throat and slamming her against a pillar. He later claimed that Janet Barker, who was obviously demonstrating about climate change and carrying virtually nothing, “might have been armed”.

Field told Barker: “That’s what happens when people like you disturb our dinner”. Not the words of someone fearing assault, but the comment of a hyper-privileged man angry that the plebs had ruined his evening out. The austerity policies that Field supports have deprived some of the means to eat…but we mustn’t disturb his dinner.

By the end of Friday I had read and heard more justifications for naked aggression than I would want to read in a year, let alone a day. Some took to Twitter to blame the  protesters, saying they were responsible for the violence because they had engaged in direct action.           

Our society’s distorted attitudes to violence mean that we confuse violence with conflict and peace with conformity. The protesters were engaged in conflict, not violence. Nonviolent conflict is not easy. It not only excludes physical attacks but rejects verbal abuse and personal hatred. It targets systems rather than individuals.

Those of us who engage in nonviolent direct action hope ultimately for reconciliation with others, but we will never be reconciled with the unjust structures of militarism, capitalism and racism. We seek to recognise our own faults, and our own complicity in the injustices we resist. It is all too easy to overlook that part, and I admit that I forget it far too often.

The violence of the powerful is the norm. It is the means by which conflict is swept under the carpet and the status quo made to appear natural and uncontroversial. The nonviolence of resisters is denounced as a threat to safety and public order.

People who speak about a problem are often portrayed, wrongly, as having caused the problem. You will be familiar with this process if you have ever raised a concern with your boss, only to be treated as if you are the problem.

Nonviolent activism draws attention to conflicts that already exist. As Martin Luther King put it: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

So nonviolent activism can at times be disruptive, uncomfortable and even illegal. At other times, it includes entirely lawful demonstrations and election campaigns. Either way, it involves conflict, not violence. It is condemned by those who cannot distinguish the two, or who think that morality lies in order rather than in justice.

A friend of mine recently surprised a police officer who told him not to walk down a particular street. When he politely but firmly challenged the policeman, the officer pointed out that my friend was wearing a pacifist badge. “Yes,” he replied, “And pacifists don’t let ourselves be pushed around.”

At the Peace Pledge Union we emphasise that pacifism is not about avoiding conflict. To be a pacifist is to be in conflict with dominant values and those who hold the most power in the world.

Sometimes people tell me that they “don’t believe in activism”. Were it not for activism, such people would have no right to vote, free healthcare, sick pay or religious liberty. Their children would be working 12-hour shifts in factories. We have our rights  because our ancestors struggled for them, often in the face of violence from the rich and powerful.

Progress comes from below, not above. It comes through means that match with the ends we seek. We will not defeat poverty, war and climate change through violence. Nor will we do so by asking the likes of Mark Field to throw us a few crumbs from the table. We need to disturb their dinners.

Symon Hill is Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union. He also teaches history for the Workers’ Educational Association.

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16 Responses to “The Mark Field assault case – and why pacifists should keep disrupting dinners”

  1. Dave Roberts

    The problem with this writer and the movement he seems to represent is that they seem to think that the world is against them and in the usual messianic way of those of their mindset they engage in childish and ultimately self-defeating antics like the one under discussion.
    Blocking roads and super-glueing people to various items simply turns people like myself, who readily acknowledges that there is a problem, away. Grow up!

  2. Julia Gibb

    The attack by Mark Field was disgraceful and the concocted justification pathetic.

    However the major issue is that both the Tories and Labour support WMD. Military intervention in other nations affairs, increased spending on weapons of force projection, etc etc
    We have a nation fixated on military greatness and might. The Empire aspiration has been rekindled by Brexit.
    Our media shouts loudly about knife crime while ignoring our support for the bombing of children in Yemen.
    The author should read about the concept of Triage when discussing such issues.
    Royals festooned with medals in full military uniforms while austerity is killing people or he are killing themselves.
    Yes the MP was wrong and should be punished but in comparison to our move to aggressive right wing politics we need perspective.

  3. Cole

    Fortunately Field has a shrinking and small majority. Progressives might concentrate on getting him out at the next election.

  4. steve

    Funny how Tories and their wealthy chums think they are the only ones entitled to free speech.

    Tory spoilt brats are so full of self-entitlement they believe they have a divine right to silence opposition to those who crashed the economy and, given the chance, would crash the climate.

    Well done to the protesters.

  5. nhsgp

    Invade someone’s private space.
    Ignore security
    Do so when your fellow campaigners say put acid in milkshakes attack the others.

    Why shouldn’t you be thrown out?

    Why should women not expect to be treated the same way?

    Look at Prescot and his reaction to being egged.

    Sorry, but if you want to protest in a certain way expect people to react

  6. Symon Hill

    Dave Roberts – Thanks for your comment. I don’t advocate engaging in direct action lightly, randomly and without careful consideration. I think it is a a legitimate part of many campaigns, but only one part amongst many. I think it should be carefully thought through with the ethical, practical and strategic issues taken into consideration. However, it can often be effective. For example, in the Stansted 15 action, several of the people whose deportations were prevented have now been granted leave to remain.

  7. Symon Hill

    nhsgp – Thanks for your comment. I’m not suggesting that there should be no consequences. Anyone who engages in nonviolent direct action recognises that there will be consequences. However, all the other protesters at the Mansion House were removed without being slammed against a wall and having their throats grabbed. I have frequently been removed from places by police and security staff without being treated like this.

    On another point, the fact that something is a private event does not mean it should not be disrupted. Gatherings of drugs dealers making plans are private events but the police (rightly) disrupt them. So are gatherings of arms dealers (for example). They are legal; this doesn’t make them moral.

    Finally, I’d be amazed if you can cite a climate protester who advocates putting acid in milkshakes. What did you get that idea from?

  8. Michael Bates

    To Symon Hill…What a load of Politically Correct claptrap. These protestors Gate crashed a meeting and where dealt with correctly, The stupid female thrown out by the MP was a total air head seeking to make headlines, These PC actions along with others are a stain on our society and bring nothing to the table, So long as there are nitwits like Mr Symon Hill around these PC Zealots will just get out of hand..mike

  9. Patrick Newman

    Should we be surprised at the behaviour of a redneck alpha male Tory? Rik Mayall’s Sir Alan B’stard would have been proud!

  10. Hobson

    This was indeed a private event. That is why disrupters feel the need to disrupt it – it isn’t like a public meeting when you can have a say. This MP is a violent man who needs, minimally, a course in anger management. Maximally to be sued for assault.

  11. Dave Roberts

    Symon Hill.
    Why is it good that asylum seekers remain? Could you explain yourself?

  12. steve

    Tory twaddle-pedlars have certainly got their knickers in a knot over this.

    Clearly, according to them, a clique of bankers and their representatives in parliament should be allowed to continue unacquainted with reality.

    Probably they need to get out more – there’s much more to the world than the dismal vista offered by the Daily Mail and Conservative Home.

  13. KC Gordon

    Well Dave Roberts – what would you do? – how would you protest? – if at all?

  14. Louisa

    The assault symbolises the total lack of respect for anyone who dares to question the arrogance and the assumed entitlement that the Right alone should for ever be in control of our society. The likes of Field will do more than grab a woman by the throat if they felt their power was really threatened. They hate democracy.

  15. wg

    I am peaceful by nature – I was viscerally opposed to Labour’s sending our troops to Iraq – and I would (if I were a Tory at this shindig) have allowed the protestors to express themselves; even if it was a write-off for the whole evening.
    Nothing is gained by reacting in a violent manner.

    But it is quite telling that the so-described ‘Extinction Rebellion’ crowd now seem to be, not about global warming, but “militarism, capitalism, and racism” – quite a leap.

    There is nothing so blind as the social justice warrior preferring to see the poorest in the world burning their environment to cook their meals and being prevented from developing their way out of poverty – yes, through capitalism.

    Symon Hill – you are typical of a class of people, who have had the the benefits and security of belonging to a developed and secure country. Things that you would see taken away from future generations.

    If it had been left to you, we would all be speaking German or Russian now.

  16. Cole

    It’s wonderful Geri g the excuses of the right wingers as they try to excuse the appalling behaviour of Field and Johnson.

    It just shows yet again that they are without decent values and morals,

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