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.


Shame the police – by supporting them

I have been very vocal in condemning the police for their actions at the series of protests against tuition fees last year. I wrote in some detail about police violence and about their alleged use of an old van as bait to incite violence and provide an excuse for harsher policing. It was obviously a popular view, since those posts on my personal blog got some 14,000 views in a few days and are still more than half of my traffic.

It may surprise you to know, then, that if and when members of the police go on strike and march in protest against budget cuts and loss of jobs, I think those of us in the anti-cuts movement should be protesting alongside them.

The police do an important job in our society. They aren’t all that effective, they aren’t without their defects, but I believe that many police joined up to help people. Yes, some police are violent thugs, some go looking for violence. Since violence is what sells the news, that gets talked about, but most police aren’t like that.

Some police procedures are unjust and illiberal. Apart from kettling and stifling the right to protest, they also have Forward Intelligence Teams taking photographs of innocent people for unofficial police records. They arrest people for the sole reason of taking their details which they would not otherwise be allowed to do, then “de-arrest” them but keep the details. They keep DNA and fingerprints of those cleared of crimes. I think it likely that those procedures are a result of orders from the top, and to counter them needs a change in the attitudes of police administration, or perhaps simply a change of those at the top.

The few nasty police, the ones that like violence, they are likely to be the ones doing things like hassling photographers when they have no right to and making up laws on the spot to support their way of thinking and intimidate. Those are the bullies. Those are the ones that we want out, but right now our fight is elsewhere.

I think what happened at the protests on the 9th of December last year is a typical escalation of violence between two sides that cannot back down. Petty little things turn in to stubborn commands and refusal to comply, which is met with increasing anger on both sides. Eventually the police are hitting people and some elements of the crowd are giving a typical reaction of a young person perceiving injustice against them or their friends, and fighting back. It’s built in to both sides. In this situation neither side can see that backing off would cool things down. It’s the typical response seen in family feuds (“He said she said”) and wars between tribes, or countries. (“They slaughtered us!” “They massacred us first!”) Ultimately I believe that apart from a few violent idiots and bullies on both sides, the rest of the police involved in violence at the protests were caught up in this self-feeding loop of stubbornness and tribal defensiveness.

I have witnessed this effect still in action even now when talking to various people that were involved. Some activists are of the opinion that police marches against job losses should be countered with protests against police violence to “shame the police” and that the police should be kettled in retaliation for what they did.

I offer the counter argument that the anti-cuts movement should march and protest in support of the police. Those police are ordinary people with families and rents and mortgages. At previous protests the crowd have shouted “Your jobs are next!” to try and gain police support. Well now their jobs are next, and it’s time to do for them what they wouldn’t do for us.