Police Deals and Threats: How Should Nonviolent Activists Respond?
Robert J. Burrowes
On 26-27 August 1994 I participated in a nonviolent action at Fort Queenscliff which was well organised by the group Australian Humanitarian Aid for Bougainville (AHAB). During this action, two points which sometimes arise at actions came up yet again: how should activists respond when police offer them ‘a deal’ or attempt to intimidate them with threats?
At the Fort Queenscliff action, the police deal was as follows: if activists cooperated (by sitting in a marked area when directed) after climbing the fort wall, they would not be arrested. If they did not cooperate (and attempted to complete the action), they would be arrested. And the major police threat was that if activists carried wooden crosses (to symbolise those killed in the war on Bougainville) they would be charged with the serious criminal offence of brandishing a lethal weapon. AHAB, as it has done in such circumstances in the past, rejected the deal and refused to be intimidated by the threats.
In my opinion, an activist should participate in a nonviolent action only if the following two conditions are fulfilled: the tactic is strategically focused (that is, the action has been carefully planned to help achieve a clearly defined strategic goal) and the activist’s conscience impels them to participate. However, once the action has been decided upon and the decision to participate has been made, it is a fundamental principle of nonviolence that an activist should never attempt to escape the consequences of their action.
This sometimes happens when activists misunderstand the purpose of police liaison or are intimidated by police threats (including threats of physical violence). In essence, the purpose of police liaison is to inform the police of the details of the action, to explain briefly why the action is taking place and to explain the nonviolent discipline of the group. While it may be quite proper to negotiate some details of the action (for example, in the action at Fort Queenscliff, it was proper to negotiate where the fort wall was climbed so that it was not damaged) and this will demonstrate the willingness of activists to cooperate whenever possible, it is never appropriate to negotiate any details of an action which will undermine its strategic effectiveness, which will violate its nonviolent principles or which will destroy its integrity (by, for example, negotiating – out of fear – to minimise any adverse consequences for the activists).
Having described the action, explained its goal and given an undertaking to be disciplined and nonviolent, it is then the responsibility of activists to let the police decide their response. They may decide to detain and release the activists, to arrest them or to assault them. To even suggest to the police what their course of action should be is quite inappropriate. This is because an important feature of any nonviolent action is its power to build new human relationships which help to bring a nonviolent world into being. This requires, among other things, that each individual feels morally autonomous: free to choose what is right for them and the world. Consequently, the police must be left to respond as their conscience demands: will they arrest (or assault) the activists as they feel their (police) duty requires or will they act otherwise as their (personal) conscience dictates? What they decide (in the short term) is largely immaterial; what matters is that they are compelled to deliberate and to choose. By acting in this way, and accepting the consequences, activists are reinforcing (rather than subverting) the moral autonomy of each individual.
If arrested, activists are often confronted with the choice of whether or not to accept bail conditions. I believe that this possibility should be carefully considered and the response largely decided before the action. In some actions, resisting bail conditions and going to jail is the most politically effective course of action. In any case, while there are several variables (including the personal ones) to consider, it is still important not to violate the integrity of the action.
If a bail condition is consistent with the action plan (for example, activists had decided to enter a prohibited area only once on a certain day and the bail condition stipulates nothing more than that the activist will not return to the immediate vicinity of the action during the rest of that day), then accepting (and signing) the bail condition would be reasonable. If, however, a bail condition is onerous or may interfere with future (known or unknown) plans, then it should not be accepted. This is because signing a bail condition in these circumstances (whatever the reason) impinges on the freedom to participate in future political activity and such curtailment of freedom should be vigorously resisted.
In summary, once an action has been decided and the police have been informed, each activist should then search their own conscience in order to decide the nature of their participation. If the action involves the risk of arrest and they are not ready to be arrested or to resist inappropriate bail conditions should they be applied, then they should perform one of the other vital functions (such as arrest support) at the action. Similarly, if their conscience does not give them clear guidance, my experience suggests that they are not ready for the action and should play some other role on the day. If, alternatively, and despite any unresolved fears, the conscience of an activist impels them to participate, they must be willing to accept all of the consequences of their action (including arrest and resisting bail conditions if necessary). Either of these courses of action – providing support or risking arrest – is a powerful political act as long as all of its consequences are accepted.
1. For a fuller description of why and how police liaison should be undertaken, see Robert J. Burrowes. ‘Nonviolent Activism and the Police’. Nonviolence Today 37, March/April 1994. pp. 10-12.
This article ‘Police Deals and Threats: How Should Nonviolent Activists Respond?’ was originally published in Nonviolence Today 41, November-December 1994. pp. 9-10.
Source of this document: https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/articles/police-deals-and-threats/