Most people would agree that inflicting serious physical harm on government officials as a form of protest is unacceptable and should be a criminal offense. However, it’s very much up for debate whether or not acts that are not seriously physically harmful — like egg, pie, and flour throwing — are acceptable ways of expressing opposition to officials of the state. An important question regarding the issue is “Where is the line on such forms of protests drawn?” For instance, is kicking a public official in the leg acceptable?
Legally, forms of protest that involve even the slightest amount of physical contact are considered criminal offenses in most territories. However, a few countries continue to consider some of these forms of protest as being covered by the blanket of free expression.
Are any of these acts acceptable? And if any are, which ones should be considered legal and which ones shouldn’t? Perhaps, a look at ten examples of government officials being attacked, although not substantially being physically harmed, by protesters will help people make up their minds on the thorny issue.
10. Minister John Elferink (Australia/2012)
In August of 2012, just hours after an 18-year-old man on a pub street had been seriously hurt by a blow to his head, Minister John Elferink and opposition leader Terry Mills were granting an interview about proposed assault legislation. Mills had just uttered the line “There is no excuse whatsoever for someone who finds himself in a position where they resort to violence,” when a man approached the officials from behind and kicked Elferink in the leg. The former police officer Elferink then grabbed his attacker and tried to make a citizen’s arrest. The man, however, tried to flee, causing Elferink to tackle the man to the ground and another man to wrestle Elferink away. That in turn allowed the assailant to make his escape. It was only when a police car finally arrived that Elferink proceeded to search for the man and his companion.
9. Secretary Ruth Kelly (United Kingdom/2006)
In February of 2006, then Education Secretary Ruth Kelly attended a hearing at the Salford Magistrates’ Court. She was due to provide evidence against Simon Wilmot-Coverdale, who pled guilty to using threatening behavior against Kelly in April of 2005. During that encounter at Bolton West, Kelly was hit by an egg thrown by Wilmot-Coverdale.
As Kelly was leaving the court premises, she was once again hit on the head with an egg, this time one thrown by 43-year-old Michael Downes. Of the attack, Kelly simply said, “This is just one of those things that comes with being a politician.”
8. Minister Clare Short (United Kingdom/2001)
In 2001, Britain’s International Development Secretary, Clare Short, visited the University of Wales in Bangor to deliver a lecture on globalization. In the middle of delivering her lecture, a man suddenly approached her table. Anticipating some sort of attack, Short covered her face with a piece of paper. Exactly what the man did was unclear, but as he was being apprehended by an officer, several other anti-globalization protesters approached the table to dump a pie, among other things, on the British official. The North Wales Police later reported that a 34-year-old Manchester woman had been arrested and charged under the Public Order Act.
7. Minister Richard Prebble (New Zealand/1988)
In 1988, then New Zealand’s Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, Richard Prebble, attended a meeting at Christchurch — at that time a city suffering from high unemployment. Unionists jeered the official when he arrived at the meeting, and as he was granting an interview, 69-year-old Christopher Cooper, threw an egg at Prebble’s forehead. After the incident, Cooper was unapologetic despite being slapped with a disorderly behavior charge. He defiantly stated that he would throw ten more eggs at the minister if given the chance. Prebble, meanwhile, blamed Member of Parliament Jim Anderton for inciting the crowd.
6. Minister Phil Woolas (United Kingdom/2008)
In 2008, the United Kingdom was suffering from various economic and ecological crises, which then Immigration Minister Phil Woolas partly blamed on the influx of immigrants into the country. Woolas’s response to the situation involved asking employers to hire British jobseekers first before considering new immigrants, and he even further suggested that the British population be capped at 70 million. That was the context behind a pie being thrown into Woolas’s face as he attended a debate at the University of Manchester on October 24 of that year. The perpetrators of the protest action, members of Manchester No Borders, explained that the pie was part of the immigration minister’s prize for receiving their first-ever No Borders Eco-Nationalist Award.
5. Secretary Peter Mandelson (United Kingdom/2009)
In 2009, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson was about to attend the launch of a low-carbon summit in London when a protester threw green custard into his face. The protester, Leila Deen, was a member of Plane Stupid, a group that campaigned against the installation of a third runway at Heathrow. She claimed that the extreme protest action was her “last resort” after the democratic process failed to halt the building of the third runway, which environmentalists strongly opposed. Mandelson, meanwhile, dismissed the stunt but expressed concern that the substance thrown at him could have been nastier. Nevertheless, Deen was not charged for the incident.
4. Prime Minister Tony Blair (United Kingdom/2004)
In 2004, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons suffered a security scare after Tony Blair was hit by condoms filled with purple flour during his weekly question-and-answer session. The purple flour that ended up dusting Blair and causing the venue to be vacated didn’t cause significant harm, but security personnel imagined that the situation could’ve been much more serious had the condoms instead been filled with anthrax or ricin.
Two members of Fathers 4 Justice, Ron Davies and Guy Harrison, owned up to the stunt and revealed that they were trying to call attention to how the MP had failed to help fathers gain access to their children through the courts. The protesters, who were later arrested, had gotten their tickets to the session through a charity auction, but Baroness Golding admitted that the guests were hers and offered her “unreserved apologies” for the incident.
3. President George Bush (American in Iraq/2008)
In 2008, just weeks before he handed over the American presidency to Barack Obama, George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq to sign a new security agreement between Iraq and the United States. However, news about the main purpose of the trip was overshadowed by an incident involving shoes being thrown at the American president. This took place during a news conference granted by Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki. At the event, Iraqi television journalist Munadar al-Zaidi suddenly stood up, threw one of his shoes, and in Iraqi shouted, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog!” The shoe narrowly missed Bush, who effectively ducked from being hit. Al-Zaidi wasn’t done, however. He threw his second shoe and shouted, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!” The journalist was then wrestled to the ground by security personnel and removed from the conference. He was later charged and sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a foreign head of state during an official visit.
2. Labor Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (United Kingdom/2001)
On May 16, 2001, then Labor Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was walking to a theater in Rhyne, North Wales, when a protester threw an egg that landed squarely on Prescott’s head. The protester, later identified as cancer patient Craig Evans, was then punched in the jaw by the government official, and the two ended up locked together in a struggle as Prescott was trapped against a wall. When the two men were separated, Prescott was led into the theater, where he said,
I was attacked by an individual. In the melee that followed, I clearly defended myself. I believe that someone is now being questioned by the police, and it would be quite improper and quite wrong to add any further comment.
Meanwhile, newspaper surveys showed that the public supported Mr. Prescott’s retaliation, while Prime Minister Tony Blair explained away the incident by saying, “John is John.” It was not the first time that protesters had targeted Prescott; the band Chumbawumba poured a jug of ice water over him as he attended the 1998 Brit Awards.
1. Minister Vitaly Zhuravsky (Ukraine/2014)
Ukrainian Member of Parliament Vitaly Zhuravsky was already a controversial figure for authoring a bill clamping down on anti-government protesters and another one criminalizing libel. Adding to the public’s animosity towards him was parliament’s ratification of economic ties with the European Union and the vote in favor of a plan to offer limited self-rule to the separatist eastern part of the country. Those negative feelings finally bubbled over on September 16, 2014, when Zhuravsky was seized by an angry mob as he was walking outside the parliament building at Kiev. The former minister of Viktor Yanukovich’s parliament was powerless as a group of men grabbed him and threw him head first into a bin half-filled with trash. Unsuccessfully struggling to escape, Zhuravsky was held down by his forehead while others threw rubbish, water, and even an old tire over him as the crowd cheered.