Civil disobedience and degrees of protest

Please note: The news media and others use the word violence to mean both attacks on people, and attacks on property. I believe this is misleading, and attacks on property should be referred to as vandalism, however when I am talking about what other people have said, I will use the word violence if that is what they used.

On the 26th of March the TUC held the March For The Alternative in protest against government cuts to services. UK Uncut were also active that day, first joining the march, and later as the TUC marchers listened to speeches in Hyde Park they occupied shops in other parts of London. While all this was going on a group of people dressed in black and with covered faces, a tactic known as Black Bloc, broke windows and threw paint bombs at shops and banks, and sprayed anarchy symbols wherever they could. The news coverage has been all about this vandalism and later fights with the police. For more information from people who were there, please read these accounts.

It is important to understand that there were distinct groups at these protests. The TUC and all the associated unions, UK Uncut, and anarcho-syndicalists. There were also various other groups and events such as Turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square and Stay for One Day. (In Hyde Park.) Members of UK Uncut are rightly annoyed that the news media and government ministers have repeatedly confused the groups and referred to UK Uncut as violent, blaming the vandalism on them. UK Uncut held an entirely peaceful protest inside Fortnum & Mason, (who are accused of avoiding tax) not damaging anything and even tidying up after themselves. A police officer was recorded on video stating that UK Uncut protesters were “non-violent, sensible.” (02:15 in the video below.)

Diverting slightly for a moment, let me say that the charge of Aggravated Trespass for the Fortnum & Mason occupiers seems very odd. Fortnum & Mason is a privately owned shop, open for business. This gives the public an implied license to enter private property, so on entering, UK Uncut were not trespassing. In this situation a person can only be considered to be trespassing if they are asked to leave. They were not asked to leave, and in fact as the video above shows they were actually prevented from leaving by the police for a while. The charge of aggravated trespass also requires that a person enters the land with the intention of disrupting the normal activity there. In this case, customers were able to continue browsing the shop and even drinking tea. The arrest of 138 peaceful protesters while ignoring most of the people smashing windows is baffling, the lying to them before hand, and their treatment afterwards even more so.

After the march many people including the TUC condemned the vandalism and violence, and seemingly, all groups that protested separately from the main march. Arguments broke out between different groups that otherwise would be united in opposition to the cuts. People were accused of hijacking the march. Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK said on his blog UK Uncut are right in protesting – but it would have been better not to do so on Saturday, which seems to be the opinion of many union members.  Some members of UK Uncut distanced themselves from black bloc protesters, while others did not. On the 28th of March Lucy Annson, a UK Uncut protester, appeared on Newsnight and refused to condemn the violence at the march. This video is the Newsnight interview.

Following the march MP John McDonnell started Early day motion 1146 stating “That this House congratulates UK Uncut for the role it has played in drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax evasion and avoidance and to the need for firm action to secure tax justice.” It was signed by 27 MPs. During Prime Ministers Questions on the 30th of March David Cameron was asked to comment on UK Uncut. Here is what he said.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. First of all, we should be absolutely clear that the scenes in central London of property, shops, banks and livelihoods being destroyed were completely and utterly unacceptable. The police should have our full support for the way they policed the march and the action they took. I think that it is important for people to understand that UK Uncut refused to condemn this violence and Opposition Members should remove their names from the early-day motion.

After this statement five MPs withdrew their support for the motion.

A growing number of people are expressing the idea that the anti-cuts movement should have solidarity across all forms of protest. The idea being that you don’t have to support a groups tactics, but if you support their aims then you should not condemn the group either. Early on in this argument the Brighton Solidarity Federation wrote A letter to UK Uncutters from the ‘violent minority’ In it they stated “We think the whole idea of dividing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protest serves only to legitimise police violence and repression. As we saw on Saturday, repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions – there is a long history of peaceful pickets and occupations being violently broken up by police, from the Chartists to the Miners Strike.” Vince Cable stated that he would not change policy as a result of protest. He said “No government – coalition, Labour or other – would change its fundamental economic policy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind.” Given this statement many will argue that more drastic tactics are necessary anyway.

This Comment by Kate Belgrave on an article at Liberal Conspiracy gives some insight into this solidarity.

Some of us are aligned to no particular groups and are simply pleased to see protest against cuts breaking out in all shapes and forms. Want to kick in a window? Fine. Join Black Bloc. Want to sit-in and close a bank down? Good – sign up with UKUncut. Want to march with a big group of union members? Excellent. Head out with the TUC. It’s all part of the same thing – an angry reaction to Conservatism. Nobody owns any of it. Nobody has the right to say how protest should look, or what does and doesn’t work, or to try and define the tone. Some of us see the thing as a whole, not as a bunch of competing bits.

Tim Hardy wrote a very interesting article at Beyond Clicktivism: Solidarity Forever. In it he wrote about the Saint Paul Principles. In his words: “These are a set of principles of unity for resisting the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) agreed in February 2008 by those planning to confront the RNC.” These principle are set out below. I agree that these represent an excellent model that all anti-cuts groups would do well to follow.

The principles are:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.


Cameron spouting tabloid-worthy lines on DLA

Today during Prime Ministers Questions David Cameron once again repeated the line that Disability Living Allowance needs reforming because many people receive it long term without changes. His statement today:

“Everyone on all sides of the house should recognise that DLA does need reform. There are 130,000 people on DLA who have not had a claim revised at all since the benefit was introduced in 1992. There are three quarters of a million people who have had the same claim for ten years and no contact from the department.”

Camerons premise here is absurd. He is appealing to a tabloid mentality in order to push through Personal Independence Payments. DLA is incredibly hard to claim. I know this because I have in the past claimed it myself, for a variable and invisible health condition. I eventually won DLA on appeal after a long battle, and was given it for only two years. At the end of that two years I did not re-apply, because my health had improved slightly and quite honestly, I couldn’t face the claims process again. My father also claims DLA, because he has serious back problems after suffering a prolapsed disc years ago. Following surgery, scar tissue around nerves cause him permanent pain. His spine is deteriorating and he is two inches shorter than he used to be, and has one leg shorter than the other. He has been awarded DLA permanently, and rightly so, because his spine and his leg are never going to re-grow.

The fact is, Personal Independence Payments are a drastic step back in care. Their main aim is to reduce payments. Given that DLA is already so difficult to claim that many people in need can’t face the process, this is a shocking abuse of the sick and disabled. Adding yet more checks, through ATOS, no less, for people that will never get better is simply loading them down with stress that will badly affect their health. The blind are not going to suddenly regain their sight. Amputees will not find their limbs re-appearing. When DLA is awarded permanently it is for a reason.

David Cameron needs to drop these claims which are damaging people more when they are already broken. His statements are irresponsible and misleading, and I think they are deliberately so.

Party Politics: Green is where it’s at

I first voted in 1997. I voted LibDem. The LibDem policy of increasing income tax by 1p and increasing education funding made sense to me. I didn’t really know any other policies! By 2001, however, I had been outraged by Labours RIP Act 2000 and the issue of personal freedom had become the focus of my politics. Added in to this was my thoughts on making sure that society looked after everyone fairly and equally, with all shouldering their fair share. I soon realised that Labour would continue to destroy civil liberties, and that the Conservatives would not look after everyone equally, and so I continued to support the LibDems. I joined the Liberal Democrat party in 2005 and got involved in campaigning locally. By 2008 I was disillusioned with the party as I had come to realise that although I agreed with a lot of their policies I definitely disagreed with quite a few as well. I am not sure why I didn’t join the Green party at this point. Probably through a perception that they could not succeed. I was convinced to rejoin the LibDems at the start of 2010 and the only reason I did not help campaign for our local LibDem candidate for the general election is that I was too ill and all my energy was going towards starting an IT business.

We all know what happened next. Complete betrayal by the LibDems as they joined a coalition with the Conservatives. Make no mistake here; the LibDems put the Conservatives in power. If it were not for them, we would not have a Tory government now. In fact I should not have been surprised that they could choose a coalition with the Tories. It took until 2010 for me to find out about Orange Book LibDems, who I should have known about a lot earlier. It turns out that the Orange Book tells us of many policies that we are seeing happen now, including the destruction of the NHS in favour of private providers, and other policies such as implementing environment polices through the free market, and stepping back from Europe. If I had known of the Orange Book, I would never have voted LibDem.

We can see this economic alignement through a test called the Political Compass which presents party policy in a different way, by splitting out a party’s social scale from the traditional Left-Right economic scale.

UK Political Parties 2010
UK Political Parties 2010

Viewed on this test, you can see that the LibDems are actually quite similar to Labour and the Conservatives in being right-of-centre, differing mainly in being less authoritarian than those two. My own test results, however, put me in the bottom left quadrant, making the Green party the nearest one to me on both economic policies and in personal freedom. Also interesting is the three main parties position over time. I could have supported the Labour party in 1972 if I had been around then.

English party positions over time
English party positions over time

This video illustrates just how similar the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are.

So what do I want in a political party?

  • Respect for personal freedom and civil liberties – no using terrorism as an excuse!
  • Clamping down on abuses of people and society by private business
  • Nationalised rather than privatised services
  • Everyone looked after (Health, Education) out of general taxation
  • Everyone paying their fare share
  • Respect for the environment, before we all drown or starve

What don’t I like about the others?


  • Believe in privatising everything – NHs, local services
  • Ruthlessly cutting public services
  • Targetting disabled and sick people by scrapping mobility, time-limiting ESA and scrapping DLA for PIP
  • Introducing the Welfare Reform Bill before the DLA consultation even finished
  • Lying about the deficit and the debt
  • Endlessly blaming everything on Labour – “The mess we inherited from Labour”
  • Cutting taxes for big business and creating a tax haven
  • Scrapping legislation


  • ID cards, and worse, the ID database
  • Brought in ESA to replace Incapacity Benefit and gave the contract to ATOS
  • Destroyed civil liberties – control orders, RIPA, 30 days detention without trial
  • War in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Censorship of internet connections with the Internet Watch Foundation
  • PFI – paying for decades, paying much more, paying £300 to change a plug

Liberal Democrats

  • Chose to put the Conservatives in power
  • Orange Book LibDems are economically aligned with Conservatives anyway
  • Destroying public services
  • Many broken election promises


  • Anti nuclear


  • Fascists and racists. Need I say anything else?


  • Anti EU
  • Anti Immigration

I have arrived at a conclusion that I should have accepted years ago, that the Green party are the only party that I can vote for. The only thing I disagree with them on is their opposition to nuclear power, and I’m coming to the conclusion that no business can be trusted with this even if we do need it.

Peaceful occupation and arrest – An account of #ukuncut on #march26 by @magiczebras

@magiczebrasThis guest post is an account of UK Uncut’s actions on March the 26th by @magiczebras


Only a handful of people knew where we were heading on Saturday, I personally had no clue where we were going. Just before 3.30pm I was simply handed a card with a red dot on, a sign that I should follow the red umbrellas several people were holding. Once we arrived in Fortnum & Mason we spread out across the shop, and the vibe was pretty jubilant – I’d had doubts we’d make it and I suspect I wasn’t the only one, if you were in London you’ll know the day was quite crazy.

After about half an hour people started to settle, the majority of us on the ground floor. I talked to people I knew on twitter and sat around talking with my friend, who left at around 5 to get her train. People did drift out but the majority stayed. The police hadn’t asked us to leave and we were peaceful. A few people may have wanted to cause damage but were quickly talked out of it by members of UKuncut, we didn’t want to harm our reputation for being a peaceful protest group. I’m so proud of all my fellow members, we were all exceedingly careful not to break things and received thanks from police officers for tidying around before we left.

At around 6pm it was democratically decided we leave, so we all linked arms tight after being told we could leave peacefully together. We were kettled immediately. There was a lot of confusion, at first we thought they’d let us go in dribs and drabs, then we were told we’d be arrested. I was put onto a coach with 17 others and we drove around London until it was discovered Islington had 15 free cells and Camden had 2. I was first out, requiring medical attention because I had low salts. Everything was taken from me, I was stripped to my underwear, given clothes, put on constant watch because, due to anxiety, I kept absent mindedly clawing my arms and I slept when I got to my cell, still being watched. I was woken at 2am to see my appropriate adult, get my DNA taken and see a doctor (5 hours after I’d started requiring one). He gave me a sleeping pill and got them to feed me.

I slept more, was woken with breakfast which I threw up on my clothes – I didn’t have time to get to the toilet. They couldn’t give me clothes or a blanket so I lay in my underwear and slept more. My mother arrived sometime later, her nerves fraught and I waited to be charged. I convinced myself it wouldn’t happen, they’d let us go, but obviously they didn’t. I was charged with aggravated trespass, made to promise I wouldn’t kill myself, or hold them accountable if I attempted, given my bag back (they retained my mobile, iPod and clothes as evidence) and we left. I’m in court on Monday, 12th April at 9.30am, where I will be tried. Looks like I’ll be joining to Armchair Army for the forseeable future.

A day in the life… of an armchair protester

I am exhausted. I’m so tired that I can’t get out of bed right now. This is because I spent yesterday supporting the March For The Alternative and UK Uncut in any way I could from home.

My living room became a media hub. Along with my sister (@apricotmuffins on twitter) I watched multiple TV news sources, twitter, blogs, emails and news websites. To do the job we had four computers, six screens (including the 32″ TV) and phones, laptops etc. Both of us had Tweetdeck running with six columns of tweets and hashtag searches.

Late on Friday I was drafted in to help out with the virtual protest map from Disabled People Against Cuts. This is a map of many people that could not protest because of illness or disability. After a chat on Skype with the organiser I got to work adding emails of support to the map, eventually getting to sleep after 3am.

Saturday morning, I had promised to spend an hour with my wife over breakfast. I stuffed myself full of painkillers around 9am, and drank coffee. I sent my wife to take coffee to my sister (who lives next door) and wake her up ready for our day of virtual protesting.

A quick check of twitter showed that my automated scheduled tweets about the protest map were being retweeted at a good pace, drawing attention to it. I replied to a couple of tweets to clear up some confusion that my scheduled tweets had caused – people had assumed that I was awake!

Then at 10am I staggered out to the Lantern eating house for breakfast with my wife. To resist temptation, I handed my phone ever to her to keep it away from me! We enjoyed a nice breakfast and I managed to talk about things other than the protest.

Back in the house at 11, my sister and I set up for our protesting. She moved her computer into my house while I frantically tried to fit an extra hard disk into my PC to handle all the TV recording that I would be doing. Unfortunately my new gigantic heatsink was making this difficult! Finally at a little past 11 we were up and running. I sat at my desk with my PC, my old iMac on a table behind me. I set my PC to recording Sky News, and my iMac recording BBC news. My sister was watching on the main TV, switching between channels as they showed anything relevant.

Our biggest task of the day turned out to be keeping the DPAC map up to date. Logging in to the email account showed 54 messages waiting to go online, with more pouring in. I set my sister up with the email and map and showed her how to add people, and we attacked that task. I did the ones with pictures myself as it was a little more involved. Some where frustrating, since they didn’t include their location which made it difficult to add them to a map! Others had misunderstood and sent us long messages, promotions for events and other things which were not suitable for our map of solidarity.

All the while we were carrying out this task we were also watching twitter and the TV for updates about the march. Any time an interesting comment, update or insight came up on twitter I retweeted it to my followers. When the TV showed us anything interesting I reported that on twitter as well. As the day developed, I started to grab screenshots from the TV news and put them up on twitter. Although I was recording everything, the only clip that I managed to get online was a part of Ed Millibands speech. I’ve got hours of footage that I hope to publish a bit more of later.

This whole process was very intensive. I have to admit it was very difficult for anyone else to speak with me since I was completely immersed in what I was doing. Our atmosphere, much like the march, was one of excitement. Unfortunately this was all very draining for me. I eventually had to stop for a rest, in spite of the constant supply of caffeine and codeine. My first rest was 10 minutes on the sofa but still watching the TV. It wasn’t really a rest for me, but it was enough to keep me going a bit longer. My second rest was rather forced on me since I had completely run out of my ability to stand or walk, was scrambling up bits of what I was writing, and forgetting what I was doing. Lots of drugs, tea, and half an hour flat on my back in pain, and then I forced myself back to the computer for the final stint.

For the final part of the day we were retweeting as much of UK Uncut as we could, although there wasn’t a lot available. I put together a blog post with some text and a lot of screenshots from the TV news. I wanted to produce a report on UK Uncut but I just didn’t have enough information, and the photo sharing site that they were using seemd to have crashed under the load.

Finally, I was just too tired to continue. I stayed at my computer a little longer, watching twitter but mostly zoning out. I eventually went to my bed around 8pm, and spent a lot of the eveing drifing in an out of consciousness.

This was my day of protest. I can only hope it made a difference somewhere.

March for the alternative: events and TV images

You may have noticed that today is the day when the unions are marching against the cuts. News media coverage seems good, with BBC News and Sky News both giving fairly constant coverage to the march. Although organised by the TUC, there are many organisations on the march. A great number of people are in Hyde Park listening to speeches, but there are so many people that the march was still arriving at 4pm! Estimates of total numbers soared to 400 – 500 thousand people in attendance. Read Why I’m marching tomorrow by @kaygeeuk, Why I’m marching tomorrow by @stavvers or New Statesman – Why I’m marching today for an overview. The march has been widely reported as a carnival atmosphere. Music, bands, vuvuzelas and other fun things. Such as a Trojan Horse!

Trojan Horse
Trojan Horse. Picture by Lucy Peel

Crowds in Hyde Park at 14:33

The marchThe march

The march

The march

The march

Ed Milliband spoke to the crowds in Hyde Park around about 2pm. Well, the ones that had arrived, anyway. March organisers have been criticised for having Milliband speak since he does not completely oppose the cuts, and many are disappointed that Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green party, was not invited to speak.

Also at 2pm, UK Uncut broke away from the march and went to Oxford Street to occupy shops. Unfortunately this was overshadowed by a group of approximately 150 people dressed in black and wearing masks, who threw paint and fireworks outside Topshop and Topman and then went on to vandalise the inside of HSBC at Cambridge Square. Metropolitan Police claimed that lightbulbs filled with ammonia were thrown at them, although we have seen no evidence of this.

Attacks on TopshopAttacks on Topshop Attacks on Topshop Attacks on Topshop

Around 4pm about 5,000 UKUncut protesters occupied Fortnum & Mason and surrounding area. See Press release: UK Uncut Occupy Tax Dodgers Fortnum and Mason. BBC News covered this including a phone call to BBC producer Almeena Ahmed who was inside with UK Uncut.

Later a fire was lit at Oxford Circus as a trojan horse was apparently burnt.

Oxford Circus at 16:30

While UK Uncut where inside Fortnum & Mason, some of the black-clad protesters who had earlier thrown paint and fireworks and sprayed graffiti, climbed onto the roof to hang banners and spray more graffiti. The BBC alleged that they were from the Socialist Worker Party among other groups.

People on roof of Fortnum & MasonPeople on roof of Fortnum & Mason


Front row of the rally in Hyde Park
Front row of the rally in Hyde Park. Picture by @March26March

Many people that could not make it to the march for reasons of illness or disability took part in a virtual protest. Their names, messages and occasionally photos were listed on a map set up by Disabled People Against Cuts. (Disclaimer, I helped out with putting the names up.)


DPAC Map of virtual protesters. (Click for DPAC page)

DPAC has also launched Disabled People Make History.




I have seen enough of it through the years. I have been around many friends suffering from it. I have sat and listened. I have given advice, if I have had any. I have tried to be supportive, not abandon anyone. I have seen the marks of self harm, seen lives fall apart from it.

I have never suffered from depression myself. Until three months ago.

I shouldn’t be surprised really. A few years ago my doctor asked me if I was depressed at all. I replied that I didn’t think so. “Why not?” he joked, and we both laughed. But after eleven years of illness I suppose it is about time. And circumstances have certainly conspired to make sure of it too.

I spent much of the second half of 2010 lying in bed recovering from surgery after getting an abscess in a very painful place not once, but twice. I had a virus, probably flu, in both November and December, and so severely that I spent weeks in bed. Then I had a complete ME relapse in January, together with new neuropathic pain, and haven’t recovered yet. I’m getting really incredibly fed up with this bed. And then there is the whole mess with my wife being unable to get a job despite being a qualified science teacher, and taking work cooking and cleaning whenever it has been available has led to complete chaos in our benefits with us being pursued for “overpayments” and going to court next month over the council tax that we don’t think we owe. I have had to apply for ESA, which means that I have to fill in an ESA50 form detailing every single part of my life and my bodily functions, and once I have done that, I have to attend a Work Capability Assessment that will put me through hell, damage my health, and then ignore or twist everything that I said. And while I am laid up in bed, my business has suddenly got some customers after a year of struggling to pay bills, never mind wages, and I can’t do a thing about it. Then today, another blow. We received a Notice Requiring Possession. We are to be made homeless. And when I phoned the letting agency, Timothy Lea & Griffith of Evesham, I asked about a flat in the same block that our friends are moving out of. “I’m sorry, we can’t recommend you to another landlord” was the reply. “Try the housing association.”

As of today I officially can’t cope. I took out my anger by shouting at my wife and swearing at the woman foolish enough to call me to try and help me “claim back unfair loan insurance.” I spent much of the day crying. I just want everything to stop.

So I’m depressed. I have bloody good reason to be. And I finally have an understanding of what all those friends went through. It isn’t just a matter of being a bit unhappy. It isn’t just being fed up. In the last few months I have experienced utter despair. Complete desolation. Thoughts of how everyone I know would be better off without me. Thought processes that take my circumstances and run away into plans to bring about my own death. Working out how to make sure that I actually die, so that no one thinks this is a “cry for help.” Quite honestly, it’s only through the roar of supportive message sent to me through twitter that I didn’t try to end it all today.

And yet, I know what is happening to me. It’s like another me, watching the first me go through this and diagnosing it as it happens. I know the thoughts are wrong, aren’t true, but I still see myself falling into that black hole and can’t do anything to stop it. Rational me can see everything as it happens. Irrational me sometimes just wants to die. I have anti-depressants, but I would hazard a guess that they aren’t doing enough.

I have no conclusion to this. I’m really not asking for sympathy, or any other help. I just wanted to say it all somewhere.

Concealing the pain

“If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.” — Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy

“How are you?” my friends ask. It’s a standard thing to say, a social convention. It’s a convention I find incredibly difficult. I can respond with a lie, of course. I’m almost expected to. “I’m fine!” or “Not bad” will fill the gap in the conversation and allow us to move on.

But I’m not fine. Those days I call a good day? I’m still more sick than a healthy person can imagine.

I say I am recovering, and I am. I am much better than a few weeks ago when I could not get up from my bed, could only lie there crying with pain. Now I can get up, sit in other parts of the house. Last week I even went for a ride on my motorbike! But yesterday when my sister came over for a coffee I nearly fell over after opening the door. I staggered away and managed to stay on my feet by grabbing the walking stick that I keep next to the door. Sitting on the sofa as my sister made the coffee, I was firmly told to stay sat down every time I tried to get up to do anything, because she knew just how ill I was.

A couple of days ago some friends came to visit us and stayed for 90 minutes or so. To begin with, I looked normal. I told them how I was feeling better, how I was improving. Half way through their visit, I got up to get something from my bedroom. I was unsteady on my feet, so that the second time I went to get something I was told not to bother. By the end of the visit, I was very visibly exhausted. Barely standing, face contorted with pain and fatigue. My friends concern was obvious.

Those two examples aside, who else would know what I go through? How would anyone see what I look like when so sick? I only go out when I am feeling good, so others will only ever see my absolute best and most healthy points.  If they don’t come round when I am struggling in the morning, if they don’t spend 90 minutes with me until I am completely drained, they will just see a healthy person. I compound the problem by telling others that I’m fine or that I’m not bad, so they have it by my own admission that there is nothing wrong with me.

I highly recommend this blog post by Sue Marsh – The Sickie Friend Slam-Dunk. She explains how even people that see some of her struggle still judge and condemn her. I put it to you that if you know someone that says they are sick, that you don’t know the half of it. You have no idea what they go through when you aren’t looking. You don’t see them crying out in pain, falling over, failing to get to the bathroom in time, the mountains of pills that they have to take. Don’t judge based on what you see. And next time someone says “I’m fine!” just have a think about what they really mean by that.

Politics, Civil Disobedience, and UK Uncut

A couple of weeks ago I made a big fuss about UK Uncut taking over Vodafone’s World of Difference blogs.  I was very critical of it here on my blog – see UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support. (I have actually edited that now to remove a lot of my initial criticism.) For the reasons why I was so critical, have a look at what Tim Hardy said in his response at Beyond Clicktivism in Activism is Serious Business. The main cause of my reaction was the seriousness of the potential offence. Computer crime can have some fairly serious consequences.

But this leads me to an important question: How far can protesters go to make their point? All the famous protests in history, all the ones that made a difference, involved civil disobedience. The American Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, and much that Gandhi achieved involved civil disobedience.

Several issues are raised:

  • How serious is the offence committed for the civil disobedience?
  • What is the threshold of injustice at which civil disobedience becomes justifiable?
  • Should civil disobedience target only unjust laws, or should protesters break other laws to make their point?
  • Can protesters break a law to argue for the imposition of another law?

One of my concerns is the severity of the law breaking. The actions of UK Uncut so far, in occupying shops and banks and refusing to leave, are civil disobedience. The protesters are trespassing once asked to leave by a shop manager. In England, trespass is largely a civil wrong not a criminal offence. To me, that makes it a less serious issue than damage to property or violence against people, which are criminal offences. Although seemingingly trivial, the unauthorised access to Vodafone’s blogs is potentially a breach of the computer misuse act, and therefore a more serious criminal offence. The difference is mainly academic in this case, but what about other more serious law-breaking? How far should it go? I don’t know.

What about deciding when to break the law for a cause? Is there a threshold at which it becomes ethically acceptable to break the law? In 1849 Henry Thoreau said in his essay, Civil Disobedience:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now.
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

Many people are opposed to speed limits; they could argue that their speeding is civil disobedience against speed limit laws. Is that acceptable? Some people do not pay their council tax in protest at bad service in emptying their bins. How about that? Should civil disobedience be restricted to protesting against loss of freedom, or only breaches of human rights?

It seems to me that civil disobedience becomes acceptable once a person has found a group of other people that accept it! The larger the group, the more acceptable, perhaps. Obviously there will always be a group of people opposed to these actions, otherwise it wouldn’t be disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, you can bet that an awful lot of white people thought she was wrong.

Some would argue that the only laws that should be broken by the protesters should be the laws that they are protesting about. This would rule out occupations, refusing to obey police with a section 14 order, and all sorts of other protest methods. I have come to the conclusion that protesters must break other laws to make their point. Although the right to peaceful protest is enshrined in law, the government and the establishment work very hard to make it meaningless. An example being the current protest method allowed by the police: Arrive, march from A to B along routes checked by the police, getting in no ones way, then go home. All innocuous and quiet and not offensive in the slightest. And completely useless for achieving political aims, even when a million people attend. More is needed, but more may be illegal. And so laws must be broken to get results, or even to get noticed by those responsible for the injustice being protested against.

UK Uncut are arguing for a change in the law to clamp down on tax avoiders. Inherent in this argument is a respect for the law – how can anyone argue for large companies to obey a law on paying tax if they themselves do not respect the law? Civil disobedience can only make sense in this context if the laws broken in protest are carefully selected. Go too far, break the wrong law, and the argument will fall apart and public opinion will turn against the protesters.

And so, I have concluded that UK Uncut must break laws to achieve their aims. Since they are not directly protesting against specific unjust laws which they could break in protest, other laws must be broken instead. I think it is important to consider precisely which laws to break very carefully, or risk losing public support. But after much thought on the subject, and despite my initial reaction to their actions, they still have mine.

Further reading

Civil Disobedience – the history of the concept

Civil Disobedience – an essay written by Henry Thoreau in 1849

The Role of Civil Disobedience in Democracy