You don’t need anonymity to have power

(Originally published by Bright Green)

I originally wrote the piece “Why I don’t mask up“, to which Majsaleh responded “We don’t need martyrs” – this is my reply.

In response to the article We Don’t Need Martyrs, I agree with some of the points raised, and conceded as much in the comments thread of my original post, but disagree with a number of the others.

Firstly, I am not calling for people to martyr themselves for the cause. People should take precautions against threat of arrest. I have, however, had a number of conversations that have lead me to the conclusion that wearing a mask does not breed solidarity and has become a default for protests.

I conceded in the comments section of my article that when used as a specific tactic there could be occasions when concealing ones identity might be important. Redwatch is another example of this, or indeed protection against tear-gas. Masking-up is not, however, a guarantee against prosecution or of anonymity and has in recent protests been the cause of people’s arrest; snatch-squads and undercover officers target people with masks. Many people who were involved with the Great Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were identified and later arrested and charged based on their clothing, including masks/scarves.

I chose the example of the Seeds of Hope action specifically because they were both very accountable and very well prepared. The acquittal was indeed a good outcome but the defense had been well thought out in advance, to the extent that they knew they were likely to spend 6 months on remand before the trial and that the likely outcome would be a 6-month prison sentence. So in that case, it didn’t particularly matter, though acquittal is obviously the best outcome. I concede that perhaps Seeds of Hope was a clumsy example but it was also most definitely a protest. But if you look at other examples where real change has happened, those movements have been accountable. The civil rights movement in the US, the Indian freedom movement led by Gandhi being the two tired clichés but still apt.

The assertion that masking-up does not separate you from the people you are standing with is something I do not agree with. For the person masked up perhaps that is the case, but for many people it is not. If you cannot identify with someone, it is hard to have genuine solidarity with them. That isn’t about being personally recognizable; it is about others being able to see something or someone they know in you, having a point from which to build solidarity. This can start with agreeing on an issue but to extend it further, people need a stronger connection. I don’t necessarily mean the person standing next to you on a march, I mean the person at home watching the news who agrees but isn’t yet out on the street or the person with children who is worried about violence. A lot of people simply don’t view those masked-up as allies, and it is exactly that which you accuse me of being, self-indulgent, to assume that everyone on a march knows your intentions.

Very often protests are about who you are, not personally, but collectively. Teachers, doctors, students, firemen, public-sector workers, these are all groups of people that have been out on protests. They gain strength from being a group. If they were all masked and anonymous then they would be labeled“protesters”, quickly dismissed by the politicians and mocked by the media.

Masking up is used tactically by some, but if hiding your identity is your main concern then it is not the be-all and end-all. The police employ highly sophisticated electronic surveillance systems to track people. They don’t need to see you to know where you are. GeoTime, software being trialed by the Met, tracks IMEI numbers on phones, IP addresses, social networking, GPS data from mobiles and satnavs and even financial transactions, including which machine you get cash from. If anonymity is really what it is all about, the we have a long way to go.

Direct action is not about asking for a change to be made, it is about making that change yourself – by your actions you force a change. Stopping a coal-fired power station from pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, dismantling parts of a bomber heading for Afghanistan, throwing computers used to test and control nuclear missiles into a lake, driving a speedboat between a whale and a harpoon ship. These are examples of effective direct action.

Recently we have seen people on protests masking up and smashing windows, ostensibly in the name of an economic damage deterrent – you cost the company money, they stop doing the thing you oppose. But this is on such a small scale as to be of negligible impact to the companies. Santander can withstand a few broken windows.

UK Uncut, which I have been critical of in the past, built a movement out of open, accountable protest and they have put tax dodging on the political agenda. Yet they have avoided the personality cult that affects many groups on the left.

So my point is this: there are occasions when a tactical decision to conceal ones identity would be the best course of action. As a default setting for protest, however, it is not conducive to building solidarity and, whilst it can be liberating for the person wearing the mask, it is very inward-looking to assume that people see you as an ally and that they know you are there for the same reasons they are.

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Why I don’t mask up

(Originally published by Bright Green)

During the protests over the last year and a bit certain trends have cropped up amongst both those newly radicalized and those old hands that have been involved in protest movements for many years. One in particular has been singled out by both protesters and the law as one to watch; wearing masks.

More protesters are wearing them and the law has responded by using undercover police snatch-squads to arrest people wearing masks. Under s.60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act the police can require you to remove a mask and arrest if you refuse to do so, they may also use “reasonable force” to remove your mask. But as the police become more and more oppressive, protesters are becoming more radicalized.

I do not, nor will I wear a mask on a protest. For me, the power of protest comes from being accountable for my actions. Those actions that inspire me the most are those where people say, “Yes, I did this, I’d do it again because I am right”.

In 1996 four women broke into a BAE Systems factory in Lancashire and took hammers to a Hawk fighter jet destined for Indonesia. After smashing the jet beyond use, they didn’t leave the scene; in fact they waited nearly 2 hours before a security guard arrived. They even had to call a journalist to call the security to come and get them. They spent 6 months on remand and were eventually found not guilty as by their actions they prevented the use of the jet against Indonesian citizens protesting against the government.

This is, obviously, a very different situation to the recent protests that have seen masked-up black blocs smashing the windows of high-street shops, banks and obscenely posh hotels. But what it demonstrates is the power of accountability.

A friend recently posed me the question “why should we be accountable to a state and a police force that isn’t accountable to us?” For me, it is not the state that I am being accountable to it is the people with whom I stand in solidarity.

If I refuse to be accountable for my actions, I cannot justify them openly and defend them in the light of open criticism. If I am not acting in solidarity with others then I am acting unilaterally, the equivalent of telling someone that I know better than they do.

The amount of support I have received after my conviction over the Fortnum & Mason protest in March has been almost overwhelming. People who would never have questioned the police and judiciary before have seen how corrupt it is, how biased against dissent. This is because they see us as the same, they can recognise their friends, children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers in us. And they support us because we are accountable to them.

Fortnum and Mason Protestor Arrests Are a Sign That Protest Policing Needs to Change

(Originally published by Huffington Post)

In the last year dozens of young people in the UK have received criminal records and jail sentences for protesting. This week I received a conviction for my part in a protest described by Chief Inspector Clare Clarke of the Metropolitan Police as “sensible and non-violent”. My crime was to sit on the floor of a shop. It just so happens that this shop is the Queen’s grocer, Fortnum & Mason, and one does not mess with the supplier of the royal tea.

Back in March 2011 I joined several hundred others in occupying Fortnum & Mason in protest at the tax avoidance scheme employed by its parent company Whittington Investments. For this I was arrested, held in a cell for 18 hours and ejected onto the streets of London having had my phone, my clothes and my shoes confiscated – though they did gave me a delightful white tracksuit to wear and some plimsoles.

We were charged with trespassing with intent to intimidate staff and customers of Fortnum & Mason so as to deter them from carrying out their business. During the trial we heard from witnesses who described the scene in the shop variously as “chaos”, “exciting”, “amusing”, “loud” and one even said we were “…sitting about reading poetry”, ‘intimidating’ poetry mind you, about how if we taxed the rich we wouldn’t need to cut spending.

After hearing the evidence District Judge Snow ruled that by not leaving Queen’s corner-shop, although we ourselves did not intimidate anyone, our presence whilst others did meant that we were guilty by virtue of what the law terms “joint enterprise”. The broader implications of this ruling are simply that anyone present at the time a crime has been committed who doesn’t actively disassociate themselves from that crime is potentially just as culpable.

By this same logic the staff of any bank that dealt in collateralised debt obligations, the bundles of toxic loans, are guilty of causing the financial collapse.

In the digital age, protests such as the Fortnum & Mason’s occupation are increasingly organised over Facebook or Twitter. If you attend one of these and someone does something illegal, this ruling states that you can be arrested and convicted for not leaving the scene immediately.

The sentence handed to me and each of my nine co-defendants was a six month conditional discharge* and an order to pay £1000 towards the cost of the prosecution. The prosecution’s total costs were around £17,000, that’s £17,000 spent to convict 10 people for the heinous crime of sitting on the floor of a posh shop. That’s £17,000 more than has been spent since this protest chasing the biggest tax dodgers, £17,000 more than has been spent bringing the bankers that have destroyed the global economy to account.

The government and the police have, over the last 20 years or so, been pursuing a policy of increasingly criminalising protest. They no longer see it as their role to facilitate protest, they see their role as to police protest, to regulate and control it. This new interpretation of the law could see many hundreds more arrests and convictions of people whose only crime is to attend a protest and many thousands more intimidated into keeping their mouths shut. This ruling betrays the clear priority of the government and the police; to ignore the crimes of the rich and persecute those who dare to shout about them. There is only one way to challenge this and it is not in the courtrooms, but on the streets.

For more information or to support the campaign visit http://fortnum145.org/2011/06/26/donate/

*A conditional discharge means that if a new offense is committed during the period, in this case six months, then the person can be re-sentenced for the original offense and as well as the new one.

Fortnum & Mason convictions are unacceptable assault on protest

(Orginally published by New Internationalist)

In Courtroom 7 of Westminster Magistrates Court on Thursday, I joined many others convicted so far this year for protesting against unjust austerity measures. For my protest, I walked into a shop and sat on the floor. It just so happened that this shop was Fortnum & Mason’s – the Queen’s grocer – and owned by a company guilty of millions of pounds worth of tax avoidance.

District Judge Snow ruled that by failing to leave the Queen’s corner-shop while others behaved in an intimidating manner, we were guilty of what the law terms ‘joint enterprise’.

The broader implications of this ruling are simply that anyone who is present when a crime is committed, and who doesn’t actively disassociate themselves from that crime, is liable to be considered equally culpable.

When I thought about this, after the ruling, a number of other ‘joint enterprises’ came to mind.

In 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapse plunged the global economy into a recession that has brought entire countries to bankruptcy, sparked the destruction of public services, and left millions world wide jobless, homeless and disenfranchised. But the financial services sector still trundles along seemingly oblivious.

As my co-defendant Adam Ramsay has pointed out, previously when banks have caused recessions, heads have rolled (metaphorically speaking) – but not on this occasion. The scale of the prosecution this time would be astronomical. By the same logic that informed the judgement that we received on Thursday morning, anyone at a bank who traded in the bundles of toxic loans known as collateralized debt obligations, is potentially guilty of causing the financial crisis through ‘joint enterprise’.

Next year PC Simon Harwood will face trial for manslaughter over assaulting Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009. By the same logic that we were found guilty for the acts of others, any police officer present when Ian Tomlinson was assualted by PC Simon Harwood, by not disassociating themselves from the policing of the protest, is equally to blame for his death.

In the digital age, actions such as the Fortnum & Mason’s occupation, are increasingly organised over Facebook or Twitter. If you attend one of these events and someone does something illegal, the Fortnum ruling says that you can be arrested and convicted for not leaving the scene immediately.

The government and the police have, over the last 20 years or so, been ramping up a policy of criminalizing protest. They no longer see it as their role to facilitate protest in a democratic society. Instead they see their role as one of regulation, control and suppression.

This new interpretation of the law could see many hundreds more arrests and convictions of people whose only crime is to attend a protest and many thousands more intimidated into keeping their mouths shut. There is only one way to challenge this and it is not in the courtrooms, but on the streets.

Why Media Spin is So Dangerous for Society

The recent Camp for Climate Action at RBS’ Global HQ outside Edinburgh was typically reported with all the originality of Die Hard 4. The right-wing media rolled out the usual cliches; hippies, unwashed, posh, idiots, students etc. And the left-wing media was, mostly, supportive. Nothing new there. But then the media seemed to turn on Climate Camp. Articles on the, usually supportive, Guardian website were extremely critical accusing the camp of stifling free speech and reporting our lack of interest in Twitter as a failure of the camp as a whole.

There were also many newspaper reports that were simply not true. The Sun ran with the headline “RBS Rioters Battle Cops” illustrated with a photo of some protesters next to some police. Had The Sun used a wider crop of this image their readership would have realised the inaccuracy of the article. The protestors are not ‘battling’ the police (they all have their backs to the police) but are steadying a prop siege tower that was wheeled, painfully slowly, toward the police line. There was certainly no rioting, at all, anywhere on the site. It is a wonder that the Sun ignored the siege tower, for many of us on site we thought that it would be the image that dominated the media coverage.

There was a significant amount of coverage surrounding the phantom “oil slick” on the A8 outside RBS’ head office. This was alleged by the Lothian and Borders Police, though no evidence has turned up to suggest it actually happened. Regardless of the lack of evidence, media outlets jumped on the story and reported it without a moments thought for editorial integrity.

Again, as in years before, the police paraded a “cache of weapons” in front of the media, this year it was a hammer and a chisel, though it is still unclear where these came from – there is no press release from the Lothian and Borders police relating to the items. In the Sun article on the Climate Camp, with no regard to journalistic integrity or adherence to the truth, these were instantaneously pluralised, making the alleged crime appear greater.

Another disturbing example from The Sun comes slightly further down the page. Not only do they repeat the totally unfounded accusations that Climate Campers where responsible for the phantom oil-slick on the A8 but they, either deliberately or unknowingly, attribute more legitimacy to the story through their formatting of the quote from the Police.

The placement of these comments suggests that both the police spokesperson has made this entire comments and that someone from Climate Camp has taken responsibility for the phantom oil incident – for which, to say they have not is an understatement. In fact the two statement refer to two completely separate events that happened many miles apart from each other.

These are just a couple of examples from one article in the, famously right-wing and reactionary, Sun newspaper. Though suspiciously absent from it’s website this weekend is any reporting on the activities of the National Front with a PR strategy English Defence League in Bradford. Whilst this might be commendable (personally I think fascists should be kept as far from the media as possible) their history on reporting of the activities of the EDL suggest they might have other motives.

In July this year, they reported on the arrest of EDL member John Broomfield on charges of plotting to bomb a mosque. The circumstances of this incident are subject to question as there were no charges made, but the reporting of it seems to downright support the EDL, particularly when compared to the reporting of the Climate Camp.

The emphasis throughout the article is on the accused being innocent, whilst this may be the case, were the accused of Asian descent I can’t help but feel this might be slightly different. The image used to portray Broomfield shows him ‘defiant and patriotic’ in an England t-shirt. Look at any of the articles about Muslims accused of terrorism and they are all police mugshots.

“So what?” I hear you cry “a right-wing newspaper being right-wing, big whoop”. Thing is, though, the trend in all media is towards reporting assumptions, based on cliches and stereotypes, regardless of what actually happens. So what are peaceful protests become “riots” and “battles”, all Muslims become “terrorists” and racists are heralded as working class heroes. This sort of reporting is dangerous because it legitimises these stereotypes. It is naive and wrong to say that people don’t believe things just because they are in the media, people only believe things when they are in the media.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he references a psychology test that demonstrates how the reinforcement of images in society really can shape how people see each other. People gave significantly more positive responses to word association tests regarding black people when they had spent 30 minutes before the test looking at pictures of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King.

What this shows is that the views of the EDL are based on media lies. Since the majory of UK media only, or biased to the extent that they might as well only, report negative stories about Muslims and immigrants we perceive them negatively. And so it is the same for protesters at Climate Camp, the reporting turns on them, so the people don’t support them and the association with climate change becomes negative.

If you listen to the media it seems we are almost on the verge of a race war, yet there is little (no) evidence to suggest this is actually the case. The vast majority of people get along fine and immigration is a huge benefit to the UK economy, not to mention to society.

This is why I am so angry with The Guardian for turning on the Camp. The Guardian, more than any other mainstream media outlet, has supported the Camp for Climate Action. But last week it chose to put out a series of very negative articles about Twitter “backfiring” on the Climate Camp and alleged attempts to stop freedom of speech, no doubt partly in retaliation for journalists being called “weak and cowardly” and “lazy” in a media guide, even though it was written by Guardian regular George Monbiot (does the failure to research that prove them lazy?). I don’t think the Guardian has a responsibility to always support the Camp, but they, like every other media outlet, has a responsibility to be apt and not misleading.

It seems so many of the ills of modern society can be traced back to mass representations; obsession with celebrity, fear of Islam (and the perception of any Muslim as a terrorist), mass consumption, political/environmental/sociological apathy. So this is my plea: please media, just FUCKING STOP IT! If we fill the media with positive images our wider perceptions will change and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to do this.

Read the response from Climate Camp to the Guardian articles here, here and here.

“Football fans should be forced to pay policing bill” says Councillor

Councilor William W. McBraveheart today made a statement saying that football fans should be forced to pay an extra fee on top of their tickets to cover the cost of policing football matches in the future.
“Why should the innocent citizens of the area who have no interest in football have to foot the bill for entertaining a bunch of drunken hooligans”.

At recent games the policing costs of football matches have been known to cost more than a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money. Each game requires huge numbers of police on standby in case of violent clashes between the hooligans and police. There is also the cost of further policing into the evening after the matches and as the hordes of intoxicated yobs descend on city streets to wreak havoc – frequently causes fights and property damage.

Chief Constable B. Acon of the police force said “we have to deploy hundreds of police for each event and pay overtime, this means it can be extremely expensive to police football matches, often costing upwards of a trillion pounds.

“if we were to recover that cost from the boozed-up thugs themselves it would mean the taxpayer does not have to foot the bill” he added.

As football matches are a frequent occurrence the annual bill for policing of these events can run into the squillions of pounds. A spokesperson for the Football and Beer Alliance said “wehaaaayyy, yeah f**kin wicked mate, gonna smash the f**kin copper in the face”.

Councilor McBraveheart added “if we are able to make those responsible for crimes pay for the policing they are responsible for it takes the financial burden off the taxpayer and the accountability away from the police force, allowing them to be more effective at tackling crime and domestic extremism like the inebriated rapscallions responsible for football violence”.

British Police Equipped With Thumbcuffs?

I was filming a protest a couple of weeks ago outside the International Chamber of Commerce where some activists had come along and locked/superglued themselves to the entrance in protest to the ICC representing corporate interests at the Copenhagen climate change talks. Whilst there I noticed one of the officers had on him what looked like thumbcuffs. I asked one of the officers, whom I presumed was the most senior officer on site at the time as the others were defferring to him, what they were, after a short conversation about whether the Met uses thumbcuffs during which he said “I shouldn’t think so, I haven’t seen them for years” (when did the Met use thumb cuffs?) he told me that it was a device for cutting seatbelts. Hmm, here’s some photos, decide for yourself.

I passed this on to a friend, who passed it on to a colleague who passed it on to a journalist who did some investigating. He contacted Scotland Yard for comment on this and an explanation into the thumbcuffs. Scotland yard said the unit these Police staff (not officers) are from are called the Method of Entry unit and are specialists in removing activists and entering locked premises. They had been on a training exercise that morning that had been about removing protesters that had locked themselves together using thumbcuffs when they were called to the action at the ICC. The officer should probably not have had these on him, but they are not used in normal service.

So there we are, not a scandal about British police using torture equipment on protesters, but a mistake by a specialist police unit and an interesting insight into the Met’s structure and training systems.

**Update 13-01-10**
The activists arrested during this demonstration were yesterday found guilty of aggrevated tresspass and fined £200. Their protest against the biggest corporate lobby group in Copenhagen highlighted the influence of corporates over the climate conference. If you can, please help them to pay their fine and legal fees, join the Facebook Group.

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