Several things have come together in my mind recently which tell a story about the process of social change – first, an interview with the British radical politician Tony Benn in which he rehearsed his story about the process of change, second, the first screening in the UK of the PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, shown in the US in 2011, and third the case of the Arctic 30 Greenpeace campaigners. Together, they seem to tell a story about the role in creating change of the body, the person, who puts themself knowingly in a place of danger. Tony Benn first. His quote goes like this:

“How does progress occur? To begin with, if you come up with a radical idea it’s ignored. Then if you go on, you’re told it’s unrealistic. Then if you go on after that, you’re mad. Then if you go on saying it, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have been in favour of it in the first place.”

Benn’s model of change, which I’ve blogged about before (though it seemed to new to the Guardian interviewer) seems to come from Schopenhauer via Gandhi. It’s a memorable idea, but it has a big gap in it: what is the mechanism by which  ideas move through the phases?

   Freedom riders

Hence the interest in the Freedom Riders. They are far better known in the US than they are in Britain – the PBS documentary was part of a series of high profile events that marked the 50th anniversary. The story, in summary, goes like this.

A small civil rights organisation, CORE, decided to have a small group of people, some white, some black, ride the interstate coach system through the South and use the coach station facilities as if they were desegregated. The Supreme Court had ruled that they should be desegregated in 1946, but the ruling had been ignored in the South. As one of the interviewees said in the film, CORE was daring the Federal government to enforce its own laws.

They travelled in two groups, one on Greyhound Buses, one on Trailways buses. The Greyhound was burnt out by Ku Klux Klan members as it arrived in Anniston, Alabama, and passengers were fortunate to escape with their lives. The riders on the Trailways bus were ambushed and beaten as they arrived in Birmingham while the police looked on, apparently by prior arrangement. By this stage the White House was involved: John Seigenthaler, Robert Kennedy’s representative, was despatched to retrieve the Freedom Riders from Birmingham bus station and get them to safety.

The buses are a-coming

But students in Nashville decided to continue the protests. (In the film one of this group says memorably, “You shouldn’t start something you’re not prepared to finish.”) After a stand-off a second riot ensued in the Alabama State Capital, Montgomery, again with the connivance of the police, in which Seigenthaler, supposedly observing, was clubbed unconscious. More negotiation, and the Riders went on to Mississippi, where the governor promptly sent them to jail as soon as they tested the segregated facilities at Jackson’s bus station. Not just any jail, but Mississippi’s notorious penitentiary at Parchman Farm. And right through the summer of 1961, more riders kept coming, and being jailed – “the buses are a-coming” went the song – until Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, got the Inter-State Transportation Board to enforce its own regulations.

All of this brings to mind the current Greenpeace campaign in the Arctic, which led to arrests and detention for the Arctic 30, now bailed by the courts in St Petersburg and, it’s reported, about to be amnestied by the Duma.

Having the body

Since the Enlightenment, the limits of what the state is allowed to do to bodies – in terms of killing them, harming them, coercing them, detaining them – have been surprisingly restricted, and fiercely contested. The roots of this go deeper into history: think of the notion of habeas corpus (“you may have the body”).

In British history, there is a clear line between the massacre of peaceful protestors at Peterloo and the 1832 Reform Act, while Penn’s jurors won the right of the jury to choose its own verdict by being willing to be jailed rather than suborned by the judge. Women’s suffrage was won by – among other things – women hunger striking rather than accepting the legitimacy of their sentences. And not just in Britain. In South Africa, for example, the killing of Steve Biko in detention was the end of the beginning for the apartheid regime. Gandhi also well understood this, with his protests against the British imperial salt monopoly.

Political exchange

Again and again, social and political progress comes when people put their bodies in harm’s way, forcing states and authorities to test the limits. Don’t mourn: organise, as the Wobblies used to say. The bodies become a means of political exchange.

I’d expected to find more on this when I researched it online. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place, or maybe the whole notion of the body, and the questions it raises for the body politic, is such a deep discourse within the Roman and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions that we barely notice the assumptions it includes. Or possibly, since in law we are not allowed to own other human beings (bodies), we are not allowed either to own our own bodies (opens pdf), the whole issue becomes a recursive hole.

On the ground

Location also seems to matter. Putting yourself in harm’s way seems to work better in public space, and is often part of a strategy of contesting the status of that space. The US inter-state coach system was a form of public space (yes, privately owned, but incorporating a whole nexus of rights about travel, supported by law and Federal regulation). The Arctic waters in which Gazprom would like to drill are similarly contested: Greenpeace contests the rights of Gazprom to drill in these waters. Similarly, much of the impact of Occupy – in both the US and the UK – was down to their testing of physical space that seemed as if it ought to be public space, but turned out to have been privatised at some point during the last thirty years.

Daniel Kreiss and Zeynep Tufekci, make the point (pdf) about Occupy, but it is a broader one:

Occupy self-consciously appropriated the innovative tactic of materially claiming public space. The contested idea of the street provided the performative context, and the pavement and mass media the platforms, for activists to occupy the public sphere. Through this collective, embodied presence of activists, Occupy has claimed symbolic street power and effected cultural change.

[Update] And just to extend this idea further, bodies themselves – because we are not able to own the bodies of others, or restrain them – with some limited exceptions accorded to the state – bodies themselves become a form of public space, especially when people choose to join them together for a public or political purpose, and put them in harm’s way. [/u]

Questions of legitimacy

So, going back to the Freedom Riders, in the end the question of managing the bodies, of ensuring their safety from harm, attracted the notice of the White House. And the stakes kept getting raised as commitments were made and then broken. Alabama ended up under martial law.

In the case of Greenpeace, the “bodies” have been the subject of media scrutiny, diplomatic pressure and online activism ever since the Russians arrested them, as they made their way through the legal system. Even in a legal system that lacks a certain independence from the executive, the bodies are there and need to be processed. And every step along the way, they raise questions of legitimacy.

There’s a longer discussion to be had here about the role of non-violent protest in this. For the moment I’ll only note that it seems to be more effective, precisely because it reveals the violence that is implicit in the state but is not normally visible, while not compromising the legitimacy of the protestors. John Siegenthaler recalls trying to persuade Diane Nash to call off the second wave of Freedom Riders. “There’s a principle here, Mr Siegenthaler”, she told him, “and that is that violence should not be allowed to be allowed to triumph over non-violence.”

Risky business

The final observation is that messing with bodies, doing harm to them when they’re found in harm’s way, is a risky business. It’s risky for the bodies, of course, but it is just as risky for the state. The Governor of Alabama put himself and his State beyond the patience of the Kennedy administration in Washington; the segregationist governor of Mississippi built in Parchman jail a cadre of hardened and committed civil rights activists whose impact was felt throughout the ’60s and beyond. The death of Steve Biko in custody catalysed anti-apartheid feeling worldwide. The beatings of Gandhi’s salt protestors was another brick removed from the credibility of imperial rule in India.

Even Russia, which tends to be tends to be dismissive of external opinion, has had to dig itself out of a self-made hole. Reading Putin’s remarks during the bail hearings – about the “noble cause” of the Arctic 30 – one thinks that maybe he wishes that he’d just had them sent home.

The PBS site for the Freedom Riders documentary has an outstanding set of resources on the protests, including the opportunity to stream the whole film. Or, if you are in the UK, arrange a screening through the UK distributor, Kush Films. The image at the top of this post is © Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace, and is used with thanks.