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


Police increase their chilling effect on protest

There is a big march of protest coming up on the 26th of March, March for the alternative. It has been called by the TUC, but will be attended by many other groups opposed to our governments ideological choice of deficit reduction through savage cuts.

This march is looking to have at least two hundred thousand people attend, hopefully more. I encourage everyone reading this to go along. The less-mobile are well catered for too with special gathering points and a shorter route if required. You can even hire a scooter for the day.

There is an aspect that I am unhappy about though, and that is the way that the march is being policed. The guardian explains in its article Police prepare for more kettling at cuts protest.

First of all we learn that the police have designated a “Containment manager.” On the face of it, this is a positive move to make sure that the police are doing everything correctly. But actually, it’s a scary move. It shows that they expect to use containment (kettling)  at these protests. Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens is quoted as saying “Containment is only used where there had been violence or where there is imminent violence.” Is there anyone left that believes this line? Containment has been used on too many occasions in recent months, in inappropriate conditions, adults and children alike, and even on people that were obeying orders to leave. (The Westminster Bridge kettle, 9th December 2010) It has certainly not been used as a last resort unless the police had no other plans at all!

We also learn that the police are providing training to 2,800 TUC stewards on how to defuse conflicts to delay getting the police involved, and how cope with sit-down protests. Defusing conflict is a useful skill, but I am confused who they expect to use this skill on. Do they think protester will be fighting protester? Or are they expecting to defuse conflicts between protester and police? Because if a police officer is ordering someone to move, kettling someone, shoving someone away from a picket line or hitting someone with a baton, I’m fairly sure that neither protester nor police officer will be inclined to listen to a TUC steward.

As for coping with sit-down protests, what do they mean by cope? If the TUC aims to prevent such things from happening, I expect a lot of unhappy people. If trying to protest and make a point without being violent, sitting down and linking arms with others so as to avoid being moved is just about the only option left. The police seem to think they have a right to order protesters to move, and so it seem, do the stewards.

The police have also announced that they will once again hand out leaflets to “inform people of the official march route.” As we have seen before, deviating from the official route is seen as reason to introduce kettling. But why? The leaders that agreed the route do not speak for everyone. Many protesters do not want to simply march from A to B, or follow the route that they are ordered to. They may well want to spend time in an area where certain politicians are more likely to see them. What right have the police and the TUC got to order people to follow their route? What right have stewards, who have no power, got to tell people what to do?

The police have taken a small positive step in that the TUC and Liberty will both have representatives in the MET central operations room and Liberty will observe the event. Remember though, that policing at previous protests was considered flawed enough that there was an inquiry by a parliamentary joint committee on human rights. In the face of this, Hugh Orde, chief of the ACPO, wants to see “more extreme” policing, and Lynne Owens, assistant commissioner of the Met, promises to act “more robustly.” CS spray has been used at protests twice now. Section 14 notices have been used to arrest people that refuse to leave. The police have introduced “hyper kettling” where they actually reduce the space available to protesters until the are crammed so tightly that they cannot breathe. Their moves are authoritarian, continuing the chilling effect that policing is having on our right to protest. I have heard from many people who say that they will not go to protests and certainly will not take children, because of the actions of the police. If that isn’t a chilling effect, I don’t know what is.

Given that trouble mostly seems to flare up when the police make contact with the protesters, here’s my suggestion to them. Stay away. Don’t go near the protests unless there is some actual violence or vandalism that you need to address, and even then, go away again.

Try it. It might just work.

Related Articles

Threats of more extreme policing prove that they still don’t get it

Section 14: Police try to order you around

The right to protest, even if it’s inconvenient

Related Links

March for the alternative

Police prepare for more kettling at cuts protest

Section 14: Police try to order you around

The Met police are once again printing a leaflet to distribute at anti-cuts protests. (Don’t click that link yet!)

Advice seen this morning suggests that it would be a bad idea for protesters to take and read one of these leaflets because it will legally bind protesters to a section 14 notice.

DO NOT accept any leaflets from the police on the protest unless you wish to be legally bound by a section14 notice. REPOST! #demo2011 #dayx

So what is this Section 14?

Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 gives police the power to order protesters to confine their protest to a certain place, keep the numbers down, and tell them when to stop. More information from freebeagles.org:

Does a Section 14 or 12 notice have to be in writing?

A Section 14 or notice only has to be in writing where it is issued in advance by the chief constable of police. It does not have to be in writing when it is issued at the time of the assembly by the most senior officer present.

Section 14 – Public Assemblies

As with Section 12, the senior officer may impose conditions on public assemblies, which he considers are reasonably necessary to prevent serious public disorder etc. But unlike Section 12, the conditions he may reasonably impose are in this case limited to specifying:
a) the numbers of people who may take part,
b) the location of the assembly, and
c) its maximum duration.

I find it outrageous that the police have been given this power in law. I do not believe it should ever be in the police’s power to issue orders to people, only to investigate crime and to make arrests to facilitate the trial of those that commit crimes. There is an argument that they can inform people of the law so that they are aware of what is a crime and what isn’t, but giving them extra powers to order people around and making it a crime to disobey is yet another marker on the way to a police state. (There is also the issue of restraining people in the interests of public safety. Discussion about police powers is for another day, however.) There is a way to avoid being prosecuted under section 14, however. In this case, ignorance is an excuse. Since a protesters must be aware of a section 14 notice to be found to contravene it, simply do not take or read any leaflets from the police, and do not listen to any announcements that they may try to give. More info again:

Can I be arrested if I have not been told about the conditions?

It is an offence knowingly to fail to comply with one of the Section 12 or 14 conditions. So it would be a defence to say that you had no actual knowledge of the conditions – eg because you had not been told or, in the case of a notice issued by the chief constable, there was no written notice.

The police sometimes use a megaphone to issue a Section 14 notice at the scene of an assembly, Activists arrested for breach of Section 14 are often subsequently acquitted because they simply could not hear what the police were saying and therefore had no knowledge that a Section 14 notice was in existence.

Do we live in a police state? (Short version)

The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. People often say that we live in a police state. Others, myself included, would say that we are certainly headed that way. But what do the words actually mean? Well here is what the dictionary says about it:

Police State: A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures. (From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

So do we live in a police state? Lets look at some evidence. I made a long list of areas that the government, past and present, has been very authoritarian about. Some in particular stood out to me as indicative of a police state.


A poster used in London in 2002

Social and economic interference

In addition to all the examples of government control of political life which I have already detailed, there are also the economic and social factors. Our government is very keen to change the way that the public behave through the use of tax. In particular they use this method on petrol and other fuels, on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. They also plan to introduce a charge to couples that make use of the Child Support Agency when splitting up. Since there often is no choice but to go through the CSA this amounts to a tax on splitting up in the eyes of many and is seen as a government attempt to make people stay married. There has in the past been a married couples tax allowance which some see as doing a similar job. The government is also known to use Nudge Theory to try to change our behaviour. They also want to censor our internet connections by default to remove pornography. (Extreme pornography was made illegal in 2009.) Some of these things are specific to a Conservative government, but most of them apply to all governments that we have had.

When I wrote down this list I was staggered by the length of it. I had expected a few minor items, not this many. The examples on this list add up to our rights being systematically abused and removed for the benefit of those in power and those who chose to serve them, and to force on all a moral code accepted by only some. Surprisingly, in light of all that I have detailed here I do not think that we have a police state yet, but we do have a highly authoritarian legacy of laws from the last government and the current government does not look to be changing much of it.

So what does a full-blown police state actually look like if we don’t have one? Belarus is probably the most horrific example from recent months. When Lukashenko appeared to have won the last election the people were not happy. There were riots outside parliament. The police shot and beat up rioters. Then they arrested all of the opposition leaders and all the protesters. They tracked down people that were there by taking location information from the mobile phone networks. Even the children of opposition leaders were not safe and one child was taken away from family by the government. That is how bad a police state can get. More info: Link 1 Link 2 Link 3

We are not in a situation like that of Belarus, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, we should be wary of this slow-but-increasing erosion of our rights and civil liberties. Through the last decade the public has been encouraged to be afraid of “terrorists” so that governments may pass whatever laws they want for their own convenience. This masks the cancellation, selling off and privatisation of our public services. It seems that many people in our society actually want this level of authoritarian control from their government and with the level of governmental and police control, we could very easily cross the line into a police state. We must stamp it out now before that happens.

This article is also available in a longer version.

Little Brother: find out what you have to lose.

Earlier this week my wife was reading a book by Cory Doctorow. She showed me a note inside the book, which said something like “A free download of this book is available under the creative commons license from the website.” Having recently got a Kindle ebook reader, and having no money, this seemed like a good idea and so purely by chance, I ended up reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

Before I write a proper review of it,  all I can think to write is GO AND READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW.

The book tells the story of a teenage boy that is swept up the the US Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Imprisoned, mistreated, then released without charge, he tries to return to normal life but notices the authorities turning his city in to hell in the name of fighting terrorism.  This is a story about fighting for freedom, fighting for a normal life, and fighting against government authorities undertaking horrific acts all the while imagining that they are doing the right thing. So many aspects of this book ring true. Teenagers and kids getting fed up with government. The use of the internet to organise things. Personal video recordings showing things that the mainstream news media does not. The scenes where riot police used CS gas on a crowd of hundreds of teenagers were just a little too possible for comfort.

This book, gripped me, made me laugh at the antics, made me cry at the bravery and freaked me out at the portrayal of how easily people can commit atrocities in the name of good. (Admittedly, i currently have some kind of cold/flu/virus thing and a fever, so the emotional roller coaster might be caused by that.)

If you are disillusioned by the current state of affairs, read this. If you are not, read this and then ask the question “how far are we from events like those in this book?” Little Brother is essential reading to find out what you have to lose.

You can get this book, and others, free of charge from Doctorow’s website. If you don’t have an ebook reader then there are a vast number of ereader apps for phones and computers. I can suggest Calibre if you are using a PC. Oh, and if you like the book, go and buy it. Prove the authors theory on copyright correct.