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Oxford Union votes that violent protest is a necessary political tool

On the 9th of November, the Oxford Union debated the motion “This House Believes Violent Protest is a Necessary Political Tool”. French activist Thierry-Paul Valette, a founder of the “Yellow Vests Citizens Movement”, joined the proposition speakers.

The session started with a homage to the members of the Union who gave their lives in the Great War in the run up to Remembrance Day.

The proposition was opened by Theo Adler-Williams, who argued that violent protests were “sometimes necessary”, particularly in countries that aren’t democracies. He mentioned that the Boston Tea Party, the first Pride Marches, and Spartacus’ uprising, amongst others, had all been violent protests. 

He stated that the “tragedy of violence” was at times the only option available, especially when there is no chance to protest peacefully.

Julia Maranhao-Wong, the current Union secretary, delivered the first speech for the opposition. She emphasised the difference between a protest and a revolution, claiming that peaceful protests were largely sufficient in modern democracies.

In non-democratic countries, she argued that violent protests were ineffective because they “cannot produce systemic change” and are only “a tool for inflammation”.

The second speech for the proposition was made by Thierry-Paul Valette, a French politician and activist. He is one of the founders of the “Yellow Vests Citizens Movement” aiming to structure the Yellow Vest movement in France in 2018-19 and negotiate with the government.

Valette recently founded a political party for the European Parliament, whose political orientation he describes as “centrist”.

He began by saying that everyone had the “right to live with dignity”, in reference to “women and children dying under the bombs in Gaza”.

Valette claimed that violence during the Yellow Vest movement was a “response against police violence”, and took a yellow vest out of his pocket. He then said that violence is “de facto a political tool of rebellion”, but that it must be used with other “democratic weapons”, such as the right to vote. 

Sathasivian Cooper, a South-African psychologist who shared a cell with Nelson Mandela for five years after being arrested for anti-apartheid activism, made the second speech for the opposition.

He opened by saying that he will be “speaking against protests, not revolutions”, and that many of the cases cited by the proposition’s first speaker are not protests, but cases of “life or death”.

Cooper then asserted that he could not condone violence, firstly because he had experienced it himself and “did not wish it on anyone”, and secondly because violence can only “cause more violence” which has “severe consequences on society”. He finished by saying that “violence is a learned behaviour, not innate to the human condition”.

The floor was then open to speeches from the audience. For the proposition, speakers said that “[they] don’t like violence, but prefer it to fascism”, and that there was “historical precedent” of violence being a necessary political tool.

For the opposition, one speaker claimed that “violent protests [of the Yellow Vests] had done nothing in France” and that “everyone hates BLM because they are rioters”. A second quoted Ben Shapiro on Israel-Palestine, claiming it was “brilliantly put”, which was met with loud boos from the audience.

The final speech for the proposition was made by Charlotte Fallon, who opened by saying that she was not arguing that violent protests were not “more effective or favourable [than non-violent ones]”, but that they were an “essential option”.

She then said that non-violent protests were to “raise awareness”, and that violent protests brought a sense of “urgency”. She finished by saying that civil protests being effective didn’t mean that violent protests “weren’t effective or more effective”.

The final speaker for the opposition was Ashlyn Cheong, who quoted Gandhi to open her argument: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent”.

She emphasised the side effects of violent protests, especially for businesses and police and soldiers hurt in the confrontation. She claimed that violent protests were an unfair way of getting concessions from the government, that “victory tainted with blood will always taste sour”, and that “if we are fighting for peace, let us fight with peace”.

Aislinn Pulley, a founder of BLM Chicago who was initially scheduled to speak for the proposition, cancelled her appearance at the Union.

The motion “This House Believes Violent Protest is a Necessary Political Tool” passed, with 112 in favour and 103 against.

Image credit: NATO Multimedia Library/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr