On the 12th of March of 1930, Mahatma Gandhi, along with 80 other activists departed from Sabarmati Ashram. They were to march for 24 days, totalling 384 kilometres. Their final destination was Dandi, a coastal village where they were to make salt by evaporating the sea water. Using a protest strategy called dilemma action they were able to outplay the British authorities.
The salt tax
Salt was an essential item on the Indian diet. Their British rulers had a monopoly on its extraction, and allowed it only in their own designated facilities, levying a high tax upon it. This was a heavy burden on the population, especially the lower classes, and an unpopular policy.
Everyone was aware of the activists’ intentions. This left the authorities with a difficult choice: were they to arrest the marchers before they committed any illegality or allow them to gather more followers and commit such an open act of defiance that was sure to inspire others to revolt against the unpopular tariff? The British Empire derived much of its ideological legitimacy from the adherence to its own laws, thus to take pre-emptive action against the protesters would be to self-inflict a grievous wound on their hold in the region.
As the local press put it at the time,
“To arrest Gandhi is to set fire to the whole of India. Not to arrest him is to allow him to set the prairie on fire. To arrest Gandhi is to court a war. Not to arrest him is to confess defeat before the war is begun (…) In either case, Government stands to lose, and Gandhi stands to gain (…) That is because Gandhi’s cause is righteous and the Government’s is not.”
This kind of protest is called a dilemma action. It forces the ruling powers to choose between two options: to make a serious concession to the movement, undermining their authority and permitting an action that might propagate the cause, or to take an active stance enforcing a policy that goes against popular beliefs and values, simultaneously bringing the spotlight to the movement and making it more sympathetic to previously uninvolved citizens. Using this, activists can remove the cover of the status quo that paints state violence as exclusively defensive, being then able to expose the active role in maintaining unjust policies that members of law enforcement have.
A more in-depth analysis of dilemma actions can be found here.
Climate change: a contemporary struggle
The more frequent forms of protest that we have lately been seeing demanding government action against climate change are often one of two types, which fail for different reasons.
The first, more palatable kind, are peaceful, legal and ignorable demonstrations. Allowing them doesn’t concede any ground to the movement and might even help maintain the veneer of a free democratic society of informed and active citizens. The popularity of a policy being insufficient for its implementation does bring to question how much our democratic structures manifest the will of the people, but that is not our focus for today.
The second kind consists of disrupting the activity of common citizens, such as blocking roads and train stations. This one fails because it puts law enforcement and the general uninvolved populous on the same side, reflecting poorly on the public perception of the movement and giving legitimacy to any state-sanctioned violence that may result.
Both scenarios give the authorities an easy alternative that results in next to no progress for the movement (and perhaps even a regression in the second case).
Any serious activist must dispel the notion that a demonstration of public opinion is sufficient to induce significant change. Peaceful, concession-free, ignorable protests rely on the same fundamental mechanism that electoral politics do; if these sufficed we would have no need for activism at all. On the other end of the spectrum, actions that disrupt the life of uninvolved citizens risk making them hostile to the movement. Any effective action that seeks to achieve real goals and to bring more people to its cause must deal the forces of stasis a bad hand, or risk losing the game.