On Thursday night, the Oxford Union voted narrowly in favour of the motion “This House believes violent protest is a necessary political tool,” with 112 voting for the motion and 103 against. The House was at full capacity, with hundreds of students on the main floor and in the gallery above.
Speaking in favour of the motion were Thierry Paul Valette, a French activist and journalist who founded the Yellow Vests Citizens Movement; Worcester College student Theo Adler-Williams; and Regent’s Park College student Charlotte Fallon.
The opposition side was argued for by Sathasivian Cooper, a South African Psychologist and activist who spent over five years in Robben Island where he shared a cell block with Nelson Mandela. Alongside him, St. Anne’s College student Julia Maranhao-Wong and Somerville College student Ashlyn Cheong debated against the motion.
Opening the case for the proposition, Theo Adler-Williams of Worcester College began his speech by informing the House that the motion had been decided months ago, noting that it was well in advance of the Israel-Hamas War. The case for the proposition, he declared, was not about the current war but instead about the “general proposition” that violent protest is a necessary political tool.
Adler-Williams affirmed the necessity of violent protests, in cases such as the Haitain revolution, when people do not enjoy basic human and democratic rights. He argued that to vote against the House’s motion required believing that the Haitian slaves had non-violent options available for recourse. However, he clarified that violence was not needed in every single instance: “It is not necessary to use a crowbar every time you want to open a door, but a crowbar is a necessary tool, because sometimes you need the crowbar or the door will remain shut.”
Following Adler-Williams, Julia Maranhao-Wong opened the opposition by agreeing that protest plays a necessary role in any healthy democracy. The crux of the debate, according to Maranhao-Wong, was not about the necessity of protest but rather about what lines we draw when we decide to exercise that right. She asked the audience “At what point do we recognize that we must be better than that which we protest?” Extreme situations, she said, required “revolution” rather than “protest”.
Thierry Paul Valette spoke next, opening his speech by affirming “the right of peoples to defend themselves and, above all, the right to live with dignity.” He criticized Macron for “overlooking the oppression of [French] citizens in their daily lives” given that “thousands of people live under poverty and thousands of people live under bridges.”
He added that he “didn’t know of any circumstances where men have overcome injustices without being willing to take up arms when necessary.”
Valette further addressed the ongoing war in the Middle East and claimed that Hamas would not exist had it not been for the design to drive people from their homes. It took, he argued, the brutal terrorist attack on 7 October for us to address the condition of the people in Gaza. Toward the end of his speech he declared that “terrorism also wears the guise of democracy and we must react.”
In line with the distinction outlined by the first opposition speaker, South African activist Sathasivian Cooper made his case for peaceful protest. He argued that while violent revolution could be justified in extreme circumstances, a protest – “a statement or action expressing disapproval or objection to something” – could not be justified if violent. The cases of the Haitian Revolution and Spartacus were not protests, he emphasized, but rather questions of life and death.
When discussing the cyclical effect of violence, whereby those to whom violence is done tend to do violence in return, Cooper referenced his own experiences in South Africa. He explained that he had managed to break free of this cycle, stating: “I cannot but oppose violence in all its manifestations for a variety of reasons. Having experienced violence myself I would not want violence visited on anyone.”
Cooper concluded his speech by declaring: “We cannot justify war and violence. It is simply a refuge of those who don’t allow the power of their minds to overcome their circumstances. We cannot justify that inhumanity,” to which the audience applauded loudly.
Closing for the proposition’s side, Charlotte Fallon touched on previous concerns over the effectiveness of violent protest. She noted that the debate motion was “not about whether violent protest is more effective or whether it’s more favorable or whether it should be the first choice.” Rather, it was about whether violence was appropriate for people who had no other recourse. On this point, she told the House that “violence is rarely the answer. But when it is, it is the only answer.”
Distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate resorts to violent protest, she stated that legitimate violence “must be acting in pursuit of the general human interest rather than the special interests of privileged groups.” According to Fallon, one such point of general human interest is ensuring the state upholds its commitment to respecting its citizens as full and equal under the law. When the state fails to uphold this commitment, then “those individuals are justified in fighting for their basic human rights and interests.”
The final speaker for the opposition was Ashlyn Cheong. She began her speech by quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s stance on violence: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the harm it does is permanent.” She inveighed against the cyclical effect of violence and emphasized that “when you support violent protest, you become the monster you sought to defeat.”
Dwelling on the fact that “the ends do not justify the means,” she asked those who support violent protest “who gave you the right to determine what can be written off as a mere expense in the grand scheme of things?”
Cheong highlighted that violent protest often serves as a useful pretext for state retaliation, diminishing its effectiveness. She argued that when protestors demonstrate peacefully state violence prompts international outrage, whereas protestors who demonstrate violently do not typically enjoy the same international sympathy.
In summarising this position, she told the House, “by remaining peaceful, you create hurdles to the state’s use of brute force.”