The recent case of the Aubonne Bridge Two - the trial of Swiss police officers who cut two activists' climbing ropes during a blockade of the Evian G8 and caused incredible injuries - ended, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the acquittal of the police officers involved.
In the run-up to the trial, in a statement published by their support group, they acknowledged the contradictions in initiating a case against the police, calling it “reformist”, but went on to explain why, in this instance, they felt it important to pursue the perpetrators through the legal system. Their reasons included the need not to forget what had happened, to challenge the democratic image of the state, and to limit the carte blanche of the police, saying, “We think it's important, and right, to at least temporarily use this avenue in this case, even if we don't believe in their system ... it's clear that this can never be the only means we use: solidarity and pressure from the street are our main fields of action.”
Working the system
As PN went to press, the Law Lords had just opened a hearing to determine whether there is a defence in domestic law available to people who commit criminal acts in order to prevent greater crimes under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). Specifically, they are looking at whether the crime of aggression - last used at Nuremberg - is part of the body of international law and whether, if it is a crime under international law, it can be interpreted as such within domestic law.
The outcome will immediately impact on the cases of twenty people who took nonviolent direct action at the Fairford and Marchwood US bases in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In the longer term, the Lords' decision will open - or close - the door to the use of such a defence in future trials in the English and Welsh courts.
Tactics and principles
Campaigners have a spectrum of thoughts and feelings about the very idea of a “legal system” and about using its mechanisms to try to achieve change. There are those who lobby for greater interpretation and enforcement of international treaties and domestic laws as a means to exert control over the violent excesses of states and individuals, and those who see laws, courts, prisons and so on, as inherently violent, authoritarian structures, whose purpose it to exert control over us.
However, even the most principled of anti-authoritarians can find themselves acknowledging the possibilities of turning the courts on their masters from time to time and, equally, even the most law-loving liberals can be heard to mutter rather cynically about the likelihood of success when using the legal framework to achieve positive change.
Most people involved in radical social movements would generously agree that there are a diversity of approaches and that different avenues should be explored at different times - suggesting that there is both space to use the legal framework and to work for its swift demise.
However, this generosity of spirit belies the fact that, in the long term, these positions are fundamentally opposed and probably irreconcilable. It seems that, as well as returning to the universal and unending “diversity of tactics” debate, there also needs to be an open and critical examination of why it is often those without an explicitly nonviolent approach who identify and challenge the inherent violence of the state, whereas those who profess a strong philosophical approach to nonviolence are frequently amongst those to be found not only using organs such as the legal system, but sometimes even displaying faith in them.