Today's Vandal Will Be Tomorrow's Hero There Are Times When Breaking the Law and Risking Prison Is the Right Thing to Do. Active Citizenship Keeps Democracy Responsive and Healthy. Governments Should Listen to It, Not Fear It

Article excerpt

On Monday 30 Greenpeace volunteers chose to risk their liberty in an attempt to prevent the inevitable and irreversible pollution of our agriculture by genetically modified crops. A week earlier some 400 people did the same thing in a GM field in Oxfordshire, and on Wednesday a Genetix Snowball campaigner was sentenced for the same reason. Their decision to take this step is active citizenship of the kind Tony Blair should be promoting.

At Lyng in Norfolk, where the decontamination action took place, about 130 people crammed into the village hall three weeks ago, almost all of them to express their sometimes angry concern that a GM experiment could be carried out on their doorstep without their agreement - without even advance consultation. The farmer involved did not come to the meeting, did not hear those concerns and did not respond to them.

But standing up at a local meeting, in front of friends and neighbours, to criticise a powerful local figure like the local landowner takes a certain courage. A courage that deserves more attention from the media than that provoked by the temporary incarceration of one volunteer, lord or not. It is easy to satirise such protests as publicity-seeking; the harder question is why people have to go to such lengths to provoke so necessary a debate. Greenpeace has been flooded with calls of support from people thanking them for their actions.

The Government and the chemical industry, shaken, have predictably attempted to label us vandals. As the former roads minister Steven Norris once said: "Governments hate direct action, and that is why it is so effective". Governments hate non-violent direct action because it makes clear when a democracy is failing. Astonishingly, the peaceful removal of GM crops before they flower is practically the only democratic veto UK citizens currently have to prevent genetic pollution. At no point does the regulatory system for GM crops consult or seek public permission to proceed with these open-air experiments.

At no point have the people given their consent. Government has consistently ignored the overwhelming national mood against GM crops. The private interests of a small handful of chemical companies have been raised above the public's right to an uncontaminated environment and access to organic and non-GM food. Greenpeace has been campaigning for these trials to be stopped for 10 years - we know the dead-ends down every other avenue. So there was nothing reckless about Monday's action.

Throughout history, when the public has been ignored or disfranchised it has taken peaceful direct action, often of this interventionist kind, to change the rules. The examples are legion, and today's vandals often become posterity's heroes: from the Tolpuddle martyrs to Gandhi.

Greenpeace should know - we have acted to protect Antarctica from destruction and to prevent the North Sea from becoming a dumping ground for oil platforms, now officially banned in EU legislation. When government and industry have sanctioned the release of toxic waste into rivers, we have blocked pipes; when they have slaughtered whales in defiance of international legislation, we have disarmed their harpoons.

There is nothing new about these direct expressions of "people power": the American civil rights movement, the suffragettes around the world, the movement against the enclosure of common land, all found their legitimacy in the public acting together directly. …