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.

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 & 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.

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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