Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Voices from the Occupation: Jail Bankers, Not Protesters

Today, Kier Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions for the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidelines for prosecutors stating the importance of discretionin progressing charges against peaceful protesters. It can be seen as a call to cease the criminalisation of peaceful protest in this country.  Indeed it has been branded the 'protesters charter’ by critics.  Today’s article sets out precisely why the protection of the right to protest from those seeking to criminalise it, is as important today as it ever has been.

There is No Such Thing as a Protester

Something strange happens when a protest or campaign starts up.  The Media, politicians and people talking by the water cooler draw an arbitrary distinction between ‘protesters’ and ‘the public’.  During my time with the Occupy Movement I have noticed people occasionally do this on camp, referring to ‘the public’.  In fact, in the court case for the eviction of the St Paul’s site and other across the UK and elsewhere, the case has been expressed as the rights of ‘the public’ to use the space occupied by ‘the protesters’. 
The thing is, there is no such distinction in reality.  In reality, we are all ‘the public’.  A person does not hand in their citizenship to their country when they decide to join a march, a sit in or a protest camp.  They are expressing their citizenship, they are saying ‘I am a citizen and I disapprove of what you (government/media/organisation) are doing’.  To isolate these people into a mental box labelled ‘protester’ is, I think, to psychologically and emotionally distance ourselves from our fellow citizens.  They are not one of us any more, they are one of them. 
It is just as important not to do this in reverse; people protesting should make every effort to avoid drawing lines in the sand between themselves and the people not protesting. 
There is no distinction, there is just a pool of citizens, some of whom are protesting at one point or another – and some of whom are not.

Criminalising Dissent

A string of recent laws and legal provisions in the UK, from SOCPA to Section 60 stop and search powers, to Control Orders and their replacements TPIMS – have sought to criminalise dissent.  There is now a legally enforced perimeter around parliament, meaning all protests within that perimeter are illegal unless authorised by the state.  You can even be charged for Carrying out an Unlawful Demonstration on your own.  This means it is, in the eyes of the law, a prosecutable offence carrying a penalty for a person to walk into parliament square and shout ‘This government is terrible and we want them out!’  
I was arrested last November for the first time in my life, for sitting down, alone, outside parliament.  I had no weapon, banner, flag or megaphone.  I shared a court date with a chap called Simon who was arrested the same night for Aggravated Trespass.  Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Aggravated Trespass.  What he had actually done, as the prosecution stated, was to walk through a section of fencing into parliament square (a patch of grass outside parliament) holding a rainbow flag saying ‘Peace’ on it. You can see the video of Simon's arrest below.

Simon plead guilty.  I plead not guilty as I felt I was innocent of the charges against me.  Simon was released the same day with a conditional discharge and a fine.  I later had my charges dropped as the CPS agreed with my lawyer (representing me pro-bono) that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the case.
Most people engaging in acts of civil disobedience understand the possibility they will face arrest for their actions.  Ultimately, whether we like it or not, as things stand the police force is there to protect the interest of the state – the state being the government in situ, not the citizens.  Therefore, if a British citizen takes it upon themselves to sit down in Topshop and stop people shopping in a store which refuses to pay its tax bill – they find themselves, absurdly, on the wrong side of the law.
However, the purpose of the legal system is to retain independence from both the state and its security guards (the police) and apply law sensibly.  This is why this move from the CPS is potentially so important, it is a clear signal from the CPS that the right to peaceful protest should and is protected by the legal system of our country.

Good Protesters and Bad Protesters

Protest is messy.  Protest is inconvenient.  Protest is designed to disturb and interrupt the normal operations of the organisations or institutions one is protesting against.  Therefore, if you make it illegal to do so, and apply that law indiscriminately – you make protest illegal by default.

For some, the cognitive dissonance of this is such that they have to create a distinction called – the good protester and the bad protester.  The bad protesters are the people who hold sit ins, shout, resist police efforts to move them along – or follow the simple yet effective Occupy policy of ‘don’t go home’. The good protester, is the peaceful protester. However, 'Peaceful' is, in this case, warped to mean docile, obedient, polite and of absolutely no inconvenience to anyone at all.  If you are not this, you are a bad protester.

The reaction from government to the successful Boycott Workfare campaign was a prime example of this.  An inauspicious list of Tory and Lib Dem cabinet members patrolled the news channels and programmes stating it was a small group of ‘professional protesters’, ‘leftwing protesters’. ‘Socialist Worker Party members’ and the latest from SarahTeather: ‘an educated liberal elite’ who think they are too good to stack supermarket shelves.  I have to say, rather rich coming from a privately and Oxford educated ‘Liberal’ Democrat member of the political elite, who went straight from University to a policy wonk job in Westminster.
The point is: politician after politician starts their sentence with ‘We all believe in the right to peaceful protest but...’ and ends with a reason to waive that right in this instance on the basis that this is about those ‘bad protesters’.
In fact, can you name a single protest, strike or act of civil disobedience in recent history which, at the time, was welcomed by parliament?  No? Of course not.  I was discussing this with Toby Young on BBC Radio 5 live the morning after Occupy London were evicted from St Pauls.  He stated Occupy was not a ‘proper’ protest, I asked him what he would consider one of those to be.  After a pregnant pause, he cited the Arab Spring.
Something tells me, if Toby is so appalled by a few tents and scruffy people milling around St Pauls, he might well explode if we had been running the streets overturning and setting alight police vans, smashing windows and occupying multiple towns in our tens of thousands – while calling for the removal of the Prime Minister.  He might also have cited Nelson Mandela’s stand against Apartheid South Africa?  Nelson Mandela and the ANC used explosives toblow up electricity substations and pylons to disrupt and inconvenience theapartheid regime.  Perhaps the Suffragettes?  Young women threw themselves before horses, locked themselves to railings to protest for women's right to vote - the word itself was coined by the contemporary Daily Mail as a derogatory term.  What about the civil rights movement?  Martin Luther King Jr was arrested multiple times for his part in acts of non violent civil disobedience and the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead no doubt to bus drivers losing their jobs as business dried up on the segregated bus service in Alabama.  All of these protests were cited in their time as at best annoyances and at worst treachery. Yet are taught in history classrooms across the world, as vital movements which helped create the more just world we have today.

The distinction between good and bad protesters is also false, set up to make protest illegal for anyone who ever actually wants to protest.  A theoretical right to protest is no right at all.  It is a sop to the faint of heart who want to sleep peacefully at night knowing all is well in the garden.  It’s not, we need to grow up and deal with it.  Injustice ignored is injustice perpetuated.

At the End of the Day, When All is Said and Done and the Cookie Has Crumbled...

As it stands, UkUncut, The Occupy Movement, Boycott Workfare, Save our NHS, Pats Petition and Our Olympics are a rainbow coalition of concerned citizens.  That is all.  They are human beings, profoundly distressed by a corporatized government run amok.  They see injustice, point to it and call their fellow citizens to action.  It might well be enough for some to ignore these injustices or cry into a big glass of red wine among friends about them – but a loud, large and ever growing number of people are literally taking to the streets, be it the high street or Downing Street, and putting their faces and voices in the spotlight.  All this, under threat of reputational, legal and physical sanction.  Old, young, black, white, multifaith and no faith, able bodied and disabled.  The protests keep coming. 

We have a great deal to be grateful to people who protest.  The fact we have a parliament at all rather than an absolute monarchy, the right to vote for men, the right to vote for women, the NHS, a state funded compulsory education system for all upto the age of 16, the weekend, the 37.5 hour working week, the minimum wage, the right to an employment tribunal, the right to be black, Irish, gay, and have the right to use the same public and commercial services to the same standards as white, straight, ‘British’ people.  The Magna Carta itself, the foundation and sole constitution of our country, was drafted by citizens who travelled to St Pauls and camped in tents to devise a means to hold the King to account.
There is no man, woman or child alive in this country today not impacted by successful protests of the past.  All these protests were condemned in their time and hailed as the instigators of social progress later.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done and the cookie has crumbled – we are quite happy to inherit the rights won by those protests, but all too quick to judge the protests of today when they make us late for work, or mess up a square, or make a noise, or simply point at something we don’t want to look at while we’re busy trying to have a good time.

JesseJackson when speaking of Occupy said that they are the canaries in our minds (like the bygone canaries used in mines to detect gas), warning of the dangers.  This description stands for all those protesting injustice where they find it, in the UK and the world today.  We should be heeding the canaries, not throwing them in jail.

Monday, 5 March 2012

It’s our Party and we’ll Cry Foul if we Want To - The Call for Civil Disobedience During the Olympics

It’s our Party and we’ll Cry Foul if we Want To
The Call for Civil Disobedience During the Olympics

There was a furore in Fleet Street and Westminster alike last week when Len McCluskey, leader of the UKs biggest union (Unite), called for civil disobedience during the London 2012 Olympic Games. In the same week, the Our Olympics Campaign group set up to coordinate efforts to Reclaim London 2012. There have since been justifications and repudiations as to why it is neither right nor appropriate to take such action. Today’s article answers to critics of civil disobedience and sets out why it is both right and appropriate to protest in and around the Olympics this year.

In Summary: The Case for Civil Disobedience

The case for civil disobedience over the Olympic cans be put fairly succinctly. The country (and the world) was plunged into ‘austerity’ by a decision to push private debt onto the public books in 2007/8. Since then, our government has engaged in ideological policy to dismantle the welfare state including education, the police and the health service under the guise of this austerity. The very corporations most benefitting from or responsible for this situation are sponsors or contractors of the Games. Therefore, where better to protest all of the above, than at their party – which we paid for by the way. Frankly, the only argument put forward against taking such action is a call not to spoil the party, and be unpatriotic. I argue that this is our party, we paid for it, and we can cry foul if we want to. Loudly, so the whole world hears.

Now let’s take a look at the full facts of the argument for taking action this summer.

London 2012: A Taxpayer Funded Ad Campaign for The World’s Worst Offending Corporate Criminals

A good place to start is taking a look at the sponsor list for London 2012. To even the untrained eye, this reads like a who’s who of corporate cruelty and misdeed.


Fresh from a recent history of causing gross environmental damage and death to man and beast alike, which saw its former Chief Tony Hayward resign in disgrace after mishandling entirely the communications around the catastrophic spill in 2010. I covered the BP story in 2010, writing about their misdemeanours and complete disregard of health and safety procedures, together with the costs of such behaviour. It was announced this week that BP pay only $7.8bn of their $20bn compensation fund to those impacted.

Dow Chemicals

Dow are well known for corporate misadventure over the years, but in particular they are the owners of Union Carbide. Union Carbide were responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, which left 500,000 people captured in a noxious gas cloud after the company’s dilapidated plant leaked. I wrote a full article on BP and Union Carbide detailing the horrendous industrial accident which left tens of thousands of men, women and children dead and a toxic legacy for the town of Bhopal in India. Dow refuses to pay real compensation to the hundreds of thousands of victims. Devastating injuries, blindness, death, increased still births, children born with birth defects and general ill health continue in the contaminated town.


Now, to have a fast food chain and contributor to the obesity epidemic like McDonalds sponsoring an elite sports event such as the Olympics should sound alarm bells for anyone. If the aim of the Olympics is to promote health, fitness and encourage children into sport – how is chugging McFlurrys and Big Macs consistent with this messaging? This company should be nowhere near the Olympics and by being allowed in, McDonalds lay claim to an image which they have no entitlement to.

Lloyds Banking Group

Lloyds Banking Group is one of the banks which received a hefty bail out from the tax payer purse during the financial crisis. It is possible to claim that Lloyds would not have required this bail out had they not taken over the beleaguered HBOS brand which sank under the weight of its exposure to toxic debt in 2007/8. However, the core Lloyds business posted losses this year due to compensation payments it was required to make after losing a high court battle. Lloyds was found guilty of misselling Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) to its many customers over a number of years. Customers needed to be compensated after spending high and unnecessary sums on PPI when they were either unaware they had even signed up for it, or were not fully informed of what they were signing up to. Hardly a paragon of virtue and ambassador for British Corporate ethics.


ATOS, a private health conglomerate are sponsoring the Paralympic games and their chief now sits on the Paralympics board. ATOS have been the bane of the existence of many people finding themselves unable to work due to mental or physical ill health. Recent ATOS horror stories include signing a woman fit for work who committed suicide under the pressure within weeks. This person was not alone. Several stories have reach the media of vulnerable people who have been found to have self harmed or attempted suicide as a result of the stress caused by undertaking ATOS medical screening, work assessments and/or suffering withdrawals of benefit; among them Paul Wilcoxson (33), Leanne Chambers (30), Paul Reekie (48), Christelle Pardo (32...and son), Elaine Christian (57), and David Groves (56). Real people, breaking under the pressure of a company brought in to beat people back into the workforce by hook or by crook, regardless of their ability to cope with the mental or physical pressure. It seems absurd and offensive to many, that a corporation infamous for its disregard for the rights and wellbeing of the disabled, should be basking in the reflected glory by sponsoring an event for the disabled.


The security giant G4S won the contract to manage security around the London 2012 games. G4S have been doing alot of work with government recently. My recent article covered the story of Lincolnshire Police Authority approving a £200m deal over 10 years for G4S to run a police station in their patch. This means a private, unaccountable firm in charge of the control room and despatch, the custody suites aswell as the ‘back office’ functions such as HR, Finance and IT. Within days it was announced two other police forces (Surrey and the West Midlands) are out to tender in the same process. G4S already manage custody vehicles, prisons, and probation services – now they are beginning to take over police stations. This is the privatisation of one of the most critical public services we have, handed over to commercial interests.

Lolly, Legacy and Land Grab

There have also been huge concerns raised about the sheer cost of the Games, as it has evolved from a great sporting event to some kind of international beauty parade, with an opening and closing ceremony to match to state pomp of say, North Korea. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been blown on fireworks, light shows and hula hoops. Yet, we were told during the Welfare Reform Bill debate that it was impossible to spend much smaller sums keeping disabled people in their homes. The estimated bill for hosting the Olympics in 2005 was around £2bn. By 2007, this rose to almost £3bn. Then, it spiralled to £9.3bn. So, whilst the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, might be gleefully informing us of a £500m potential underspend, this is on the back of a £7bn overspend. Think I’ll keep the champagne corked for that one.

The promise of the investment was a regenerated south east London, great sporting legacies for the local community and more green space for the community to enjoy. In short, we were paying not just for the Olympics, but an investment in our future.

However, with the majority of the Olympic sports venues being handed over to private ventures after the Games – this promise seems pretty hollow to the most disadvantaged groups in London, who are struggling to fund eating and bus trips to school, let alone entrance tickets for football matches and concerts.

The biggest promise, at national level was the Schools Games. This programme, funded to the tune of £162m a year, promoted sport in schools, and encouraged schools to train up their students to compete in a children’s Olympics. The Schools Games would take place in the Olympic Park, and continue as a tradition long after the 2012 Games.

Enter Michael Gove. Despite the percentage of children engaging in 2 or more hours per week of sport rising from 20% to 85% between 2003 and 2010 – the Education Secretary cut the programme in his first months in post. Amid public furore, he partially reinstated funding by just half, asking schools (already struggling to balance a blighted budget) to find the other half themselves. Even this funding line will end this year.

When the show is over, important marshes will be left destroyed, public spaces privatised with entry costs out of the reach of the local community, and the importance of decent sports education and facilities in our schools abandoned. I don’t know about you, but £9.3bn strikes me as a little steep for that.

A Megaphone for the Disenfranchised, Voiceless Majority

The Our Olympics campaign states several value propositions on the welcome page of its website. They read as follows:

“We believe this government, and governments before it, are systematically disassembling critical social safety nets which it took us centuries to develop.

We believe that taxes should be spent delivering public services for the majority, not being redirected into private sector providers for minority profits.

We believe that we can Reclaim London 2012, by making it the greatest act of civil disobedience of our time.
We believe non violent civil disobedience is the megaphone for the unheard majority. Let's make sure they hear us at London 2012.”

The call to action over the course of the Games, is about saying to the world that there is large scale discontent in Britain about the way its people are being treated.

The Welfare Reform Bill and the tone of the pro-debate sought to make villains of the vulnerable; disabled people looked at as scroungers out for every tax payer penny they could get their greedy mitts on, rather than human beings in need of support to work, or not.

The Health & Social Care Bill (NHS Bill) sees a de facto privatisation of the NHS as it drives ever greater numbers of services into private hands, meaning taxes which should fund services are redirected to provide profit to private interests.

The Government’s workfare programme (which several of the sponsors participate in) amounts to tax payer funded forced labour.

We are still waiting, with absolutely no sign of hope, for a single person responsible for the financial crisis of 2007/8 to be taken to court for their actions, and not one piece of legislation has been passed to regulate the derivatives market which collapsed the world economy overnight.
No, instead, the private debt which would have crashed these banks, was transferred into public debt, and the tax-paying public is being asked to pay, through austerity, for the crisis.

Worse, they are seeing their services not only cut, but privatised so that they get less for more.

It’s Not About Being Angry, It’s About Being Seen & Heard

David Mitchell, wrote an article for the Guardian newspapers Comment is Free section this week entitled ‘There's a lot wrong with Britain, but that's no reason to spoil a good party’. He said that we should simply enjoy the party of the Olympics and forget about our woes for a bit, take a break from protesting and just let it all hang out.

It reminded me of Martin Luther King Jrs famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail. This letter is considered one of the greatest arguments for non violent civil disobedience ever composed, so I invite you to read it in full. However, in it, MLK rails at the ‘white moderates’. In the letter, he attests that the white moderates are in fact a greater barrier to the civil rights movement than the hardest faced bigots in town. Why? They have no stomach for non violent civil disobedience.  Because they, with their refusal to rock the boat, their reluctance for mess and conflict, always look to the vulnerable groups to be patient, wait, and some day one day get handed their rights. David Mitchell and those who argue the case for 'dont spoil the party' are the white moderates of our day.  It is all too easy to say: 'Not now, later.  It will all be okay in time.'  MLK says time, in itself, is not an agent of change. Time is merely the passing of moments. It is what we choose to do with those moments that makes the change.  People making choices, not time. To think otherwise is simply pointless wishing, and an abdication of responsibility for being the change maker.  While David might be content sneering at Bankers on his weekly panel programmes, this won't bring the change.  Every single human being impacted by these appalling decisions of recent years has the absolute right to make a stand for themselves, as no one else is standing for them.

We are walking in the footsteps of giants. But this is our time, we are it. This is our struggle. Our endeavour is to reclaim our public spaces, classrooms, hospitals and police stations.

During the 20th century, anti-apartheid campaigners used civil disobedience at and around major sporting events, including the Olympics, to highlight the injustice of apartheid.  They were not popular.  They were called trouble makers, dirty hippies, wasters, crusties, radicals and told to get a wash, a job and stop ruining everyone's fun.

Today, we have an ever developing campaign of economic apartheid, on a global scale with local impact. And it is our turn to disobey.  We won't be popular either.  But who really cares?

I love sport, I love the commitment of each and every athlete who has trained for years to hone themselves into shape for this competition. I also love a good party. But I will be supporting the civil disobedience during the Olympics. Why? Because of all of the above. Because we have come to a point where the government are calling people ‘job snobs’ for expecting a day’s wage for a day’s work.

We can wave our banners, we can march, we can make noise, and who says we can’t enjoy ourselves at the same time? I believe in retaining a sense of humour and a big dose of joy, always. Yes we’re intent, yes we’re outraged by these policies, yes we are determined to make London 2012 the greatest act of non violent civil disobedience of our time. And yes, we will be laughing with each other as we work together to make it happen – and celebrating like we won the 100m when we achieve it.

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