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Reflection: Women and Democracy Day @ WHiST

Anne Blair-Vincent

April 2023

On 10th March, CAST were invited to speak at a democracy day event at WHiST where we raised the issue of taking direct action. We met one of our newest members who wrote the following article:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the event on Saturday and reflecting especially on our response both as individuals and as a council. I was particularly struck by the answers to the question about the place of direct action in a democracy and it seems very significant that our subject was women and democracy. As Faye Cunningham said, in reference to the need to participate in democratic elections, women died in order for all women to be given the right to vote.

As everyone will be aware that right was only won after a long and hard-fought campaign by the Suffragette movement. At the time of their actions, many of which were definitely NOT non-violent, the suffragettes were vilified by the establishment and the press.*

Everyone present on Saturday will also be aware no doubt of the long non-violent campaign for Civil Rights in America when again the campaigners were vilified and subjected to horrific violence. Someone recently posed the question about how would we have responded if we had been passengers on the bus when Rosa Parkes refused to move? Would we have wanted her just to move to the back so that ‘ordinary people’ could get on with their journey without disruption? An interesting question for us all to consider…

Bringing non-violent direct action up to date, I would suggest that people of all ages from every part of society have felt compelled to resort to non-violent direct action in response to the failure of our government to heed the warnings of the IPCC, the UN and the IEA about the measures needed to mitigate against the worst effects of the climate crisis. As Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN said in April this year, ‘[c]limate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels is moral and economic madness.

Set this against our government’s plans to award up to 130 new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration as well as opening a new coal mine in Cumbria and is it any wonder that ‘ordinary’ people have felt they have no other option but to take part in civil resistance? All the usual avenues have failed - writing letters and signing petitions have not made the government heed the warnings about the future for our children and grandchildren.

Temperatures above 40oC and wildfires in the South East last summer are just a taste of what is to come and of course island nations in the global south are already feeling the impact of rising sea levels. Extreme flooding caused by climate change left 33 million people displaced in Pakistan last year. Some commentators say that people here will only sit up and take notice when they’re directly affected, I sincerely hope that this is not the case, but I fear they may be right.

The people who have taken part in non-violent direct action in this country have, in the main, been vilified by the government and the press as ‘eco-zealots’ amongst other things and there is plenty of misinformation about ambulance blocking which is casually repeated as truth when in fact, there is always a blue light policy. The actions on the part of the protesters is always completely peaceful, it takes considerable courage to be subjected to the abuse and violence which has routinely occurred during actions.

No one, surely, would take this type of action unless they felt they have run out of options. They include people of every generation, doctors and other medical professionals, clergy - people from every walk of life. When they reach the courts, the results have been widely varied. Some people have been acquitted by juries and by judges who understand that their actions and the impact were proportionate to the cause. Others have been found guilty and have received fines and other penalties as well as prison sentences. One particular judge, has expressly forbidden defendants from talking about their motivation, specifically telling them that they must not refer to the climate crisis in their defence. There are currently two women in prison for bravely defying this instruction and then being held in contempt of court.

In terms of how our council responds to the climate crisis this is clearly not a party-political subject. All councillors should be fully aware of the urgency of the situation and the need to treat it as the crisis that it is. North of the Tyne there was a citizen’s assembly in which a representative group of people listened to the facts about the issue and made recommendations which the North of Tyne is already implementing. This needs to happen in our part of the region too if we’re to stand any chance of making the changes necessary.

So, my final question would be, if you remain opposed to non-violent direct action what are you prepared to do for the generations that will follow us? 

I went along on Saturday not knowing what to expect but it led to me writing this personal reflection. It occurs to me too that, as with many other issues, women bear the brunt of the climate crisis. I would be very happy to meet with any of you to talk more about this and what we can do to bring about the responses necessary to address what is clearly the most pressing issue of our time.

* I’d recommend the excellent documentary by Lucy Worsley on bbc iPlayer about the Suffragette movement.