A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Museum of London as part of my MA in Media, Campaigning and Social Change, where we were fortunate enough to be given access to archives from the Suffragette movement. We looked at scrap books, newspaper clippings, flyers and handwritten letters written by imprisoned Suffragettes to family members. As well as being an emotional experience, it was very thought-provoking. These women made monumental sacrifices to fight for the cause they believe in, namely votes for women. Some of them also committed violent acts. Which made me wonder: how far should we go for the causes we are passionate about? Can violence in campaigning ever be acceptable?
Joachim Raschke said that “A movement that does not make it into the media is non-existent” (1985: 343). Although not literally true, it clearly is the case that a movement or campaign without media attention will lack any widespread resonance, and will struggle to elicit popular support. Whilst the peaceful movement for female suffrage had made gains and attracted attention by the 20th century, some women felt that the movement needed to go further. Thus, under the leadership of the Emmeline Pankhurst, the ‘Suffragettes’ (a name given to them by the Daily Mail) were born.
Mrs. Pankhurst, along with her daughters and many others, became involved in arson, window smashing and other violent attacks – although never on human life. Consequently, many of the women were arrested, treated brusquely by the police and imprisoned. This won them a great deal of media coverage, and increasing sympathy and support from the public.
Of course, by gaining media coverage, campaigns and movements hope not only to garner attention and support as an end in itself, but in doing so, to effect tangible change. Rucht (2004: 27) has pointed out that quantitative mobilisation is crucial to impressing and influencing policy makers and thus, the mass media becomes crucial in garnering public attention and support for the cause. We can see parallels in contemporary movements: the Black Lives Matter campaign has been criticised for its use of violent acts such as window smashing (see video below), yet has become one of the best-known movements for social change in recent memory.
These movements are not comparable, as violence was part of the official strategy of the Suffragettes and not that of Black Lives Matter – but there are similarities. Both were concerned with getting far reaching media coverage to elicit sympathy, support and ultimately policy change – and violence has been part of their success in this endeavour. R. H. Turner wrote that “A combination of threat and appeal serves to gain attention and to create a sense of urgency necessary to overcome the resistance of acknowledging protest” (1969: 821). It would be a much bigger project to assess precisely what the role of violence in these and other movements has played. However, perhaps some violence, in conjunction with clearly defined and popular goals, is a necessary evil in order to be seen, heard and listened to.
Raschke, J. (1985) Soziale Bewegungen. Ein historisch-systematischer Grundriß, Frankfurt-On-Main: Campus.
Rucht, D. (2004). ‘The Quadruple “A”: Media strategies of protest movements since the 1960s.’ in Van de Donk, W., Loader, B. D., Nixon P.G. and Rucht, D. (eds) (2004), Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements. London and New York: Routledge.
Turner, R.H. (1969) ‘The public perception of protest’, American Sociological Review 34, 6:815–831.