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.

ACPO: police “may be required to commit crimes to achieve the aims of the government”

The Mark Kennedy/Stone case has been in the news, particularly the Guardian, a lot but the police statements have rather confused me.

I first heard about Mark back in October through a friend of a friend and, whilst I was a little stunned that it had been someone so involved, I was not surprised there was an undercover cop in the movement (in fact I earned the nickname “Paranoid Pete” in SFTUK for worrying about security and infiltration). Someone I consider a friend and committed activist in the US is an ex-informant, so I am well aware they exist.

Call me cynical but what did surprise me was the quickness that everyone, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, from George Monbiot to former undercover officers seemed to roundly condemn parts of, if not all of the operation. I was positively gobsmacked with the speed at which it was announced that the three baines of every protester in the UK; the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) and the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET) would be moved from the unaccountable and opaque Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and into the Met “as a direct result” of the Mark Kennedy case. Well, I was for a while, until I read that this had been on the cards since November last year. So what was pitched as a punishment for mismanagement is in fact a pre-planned merging of units conveniently timed. So no one wins here, except the police who escape with not so much a slap on the wrist but more of a tickle under the arm.

What I am really worried about now is what the new “…domestic extremism command…” in the Met will be. Police never give up a power once they have it, I find it hard to believe anything will really change.

Something caught my attention in an article on the Guardian’s website today; ACPO stated:

Historically, there appears to have been a reluctance for anybody else to take a role in the authorisation of undercover officers and informants in circumstances where they may be required to commit crimes in order to achieve the legitimate aims of the government.

It was the last part of that statement “they may be required to commit crimes in order to achieve the legitimate aims of the government”. This is interesting for two reasons: 1) it appears to be the police advisory body ACPO stating that the government can break the law to get its way and 2) it is remarkably similar to the definition of civil disobedienceA symbolic, non-violent violation of the law, done deliberately in protest against some form of perceived injustice.

It would appear, initially, that these are very similar ideas and that I am hypocritically justifying protesters breaking the law and castigating police and governments for it because I am sympathetic to the protesters’ cause. But there is a key difference in when a protester breaks the law and when a government does it.

It would be great if the law could apply to everyone, universally. But so often there are exceptions that have to be made for one reason or another. What differs between when activists break the law to prevent a greater crime or highlight injustice is that they do it clear in the knowledge of the legal repercussions they face and full willingness to accept them. That is where the power of non-violent civil disobedience comes from. When the police frame, beat or kill protesters, when MPs make fraudulent expense claims, when ministers, lords, businessmen and companies evade tax they use every excuse and every loophole to wriggle their way out of facing justice.

When governments and police break the law they do so to control, to abuse and to distort.

The police, the media, their agenda and the law

Police van in student protest by ChrisJohnBeckett AT-NC-ND

Police van in student protest by ChrisJohnBeckett

The police know that if the media is against them, they will have to be seen to act if not to actually change. But despite brief media outrage and public calls for reform, the police maintain very little accountability and act with impunity in most situations, particularly with regard to protests. And they are using the media more and more to justify their tactics.

Police need to be able to do their jobs and they need to be able to make decisions on the spot to resolve situations peacefully. They must, however, use their powers lawfully and appropriately, take responsibility for their decisions and be held publicly accountable for their actions. We have seen what happens when they the police are allowed to act with impunity; people die.

The police media tactics have been under some scrutiny in recent years, fired up by ‘conspiracy theories’ about undercover officers, deliberately un-boarded windows, false press statements and strategically positioned police vans. Things is, all these ‘conspiracy theories’ frequently turn out to be true.

It was recently revealed that it was an undercover officer who snitched on the Nottingham 114. He had been living as an activist/undercover officer for 9 years and had built up considerable trust in many of the people he met and became friends with. Recently two Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) officers were spotted in plain clothes at a UK Uncut protest at a branch of Vodafone. Last year Commander Broadhurst of the Metropolitan Police said in evidence to parliamentary committee “The only officers we deploy for intelligence purposes at public order are forward intelligence team officers who are wearing full police uniforms with a yellow jacket with blue shoulders”. These sorts of operations demonstrates the police force’s assumption that protesters are criminals and that dissent must be crushed as well as their contempt for even the slightest attempt to hold them accountable.

During the G20 protests in London there were two particular incidents that are relevant. The first was the kettling of protesters outside the Bank of England. Whilst this is a tactic of questionable legality, it was the positioning of this that I want to mention. Knowing that there was considerable anger towards the Royal Bank of Scotland, the police made little, if any, attempt to move protesters away from the un-boarded windows of a nearby branch. Sure enough, those windows were smashed. For the day of the protest this was the predominant media image and provided the police with a perfect excuse for their heavy-handed tactics.

Over at the Climate Camp in the City the police kettled several hundred protesters outside the European Climate Exchange. They knew that this was the intended location of the protest well beforehand yet when the swoop happened there were two police vans parked right outside. I have been to many protests and their usual tactic is to hide the vans full of officers round the corner from the protest, well out of sight. For them to be left unattended at the exact location of a protest is unusual to say the least, though these vans were not damaged. This was exactly what we saw at the anti-fees protest in London a couple of weeks ago. A police van was left unattended in the middle of the kettle and sure-enough became the target of much of the protesters anger. And who can blame them when they are intimidated, beaten, kettled and charged down by mounted police, simply for exercising their right to protest. It is worth noting that there were a number of black-clad masked protesters egging people on to smash the van, whilst a large group of school kids tried to stop them. Is has been alleged that these were undercover police ‘agitators’.

Statements made by the police to the media about protest events have been consistently proved to be false. During the G20 protests newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a member of the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group. The initial response of the police was to blame the protesters. They claimed that their attempts to help Tomlinson were hindered by protesters throwing ‘missiles’. A video released later disproved this and showed the police initially made no attempt to help Tomlinson back to his feet. The ‘missiles’ turned out to be a single plastic bottle which was thrown from way back to which the protesters responded by turning and shouting not to throw things.

During the Camp for Climate Action in Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders Police made allegations that ‘protesters’ had poured an ‘oil-like substance’ on a main road near the camp. This was widely reported in the media and was roundly condemned. There was, however, no evidence to suggest this had actually taken place. There were no arrests, no witnesses, there were no reports of traffic disruption to the council and no protesters claimed they had committed it, something almost unheard of within the Climate Camp movement. At the very least, if it did happen there was nothing to suggest whoever did it was connected to the camp and so this was a grave distortion and a slander on the reputation of the Camp.

The police’s desire to control the media is evident. Recently I was attending the Crude Awakening protest at Coryton Oil Refinery. As I approached the road that the protest was on I was stopped by a police officer and questioned. The officer asserted (note, did not ask) that I was a journalist and informed me that “this is a police cordon, press are not allowed past”. When I questioned the officer he replied “I am not going to discuss this with you”. I eventually argued my way past the officer, with the help of a few friends, but there were many other journalists that did not want to argue with the police and were prevented from reporting on the protest. This runs counter to the Metropolitan Police’s own guidance on the press which states:

2:”…it is much better to provide the media with a good vantage point from which they can operate rather than to exclude them… Providing an area for members of the media does not exclude them from operating from other areas to which the general public have access.”

3: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record…”

4: “…we have no power to prevent or restrict media activity.”

Recently it was reported that the police are seeking powers to shut down websites engaged in “criminal activity”. As we have seen with so many other police powers this will be used to extra-judicially crush dissenting voices and intimidate protesters. The police do what they want and find a power to justify it later.

They are not, however, totally untouchable.

The police came under fire back in 2008 for their indiscriminate use of stop and search powers during the Kingsnorth Camp for Climate Action. They searched everyone entering and leaving the site, both protesters and journalists, and confiscated hundreds of items including tent pegs, toilet rolls and other innocuous items. They were using Section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 which allowed them to stop and search anyone they had reasonable grounds to suspect might be a terrorist. This was recently ruled to be unlawful and a breach of Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (right to privacy).

This, however, has not deterred them. They simply moved on to another in their arsenal of stop and search powers, including Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act and most recently Section 50 of the Police Reform Act. This last piece of legislation is their current favourite as it has one major difference to the others; unlike s.1 PACE and s.60 CJA, if you refuse to give your details they have the power to arrest you.

I have come up against this particular law twice in recent weeks. Once when I was at a protest at the Lib Dem constituency office in Oxford where I was approached by a FIT officer and told “intelligence has identified you as being part of an anti-social event on a previous day” and asked for my details. I argued and the officer eventually let it go. Then again when I was filming a protest at a Barclays in Oxford. Afterwards I was grabbed by two police officers, marched to a third officer and told that filming the protest was “anti-social behavior” and they would therefore be taking my details, if I refused I was told I would be arrested. There have been many other instances of people being stopped under s.50 at the recent student fees protests. This is exactly the same situation as with s.44 & s.43 of the AT Act, the police using a law brought in for a ‘justifiable’ reason to collect intelligence on and intimidate protesters.

The police are succeeding in criminalising protest, silencing dissent and stopping freedom of the press. The IPCC are not enough to control the police. As with the banks, self-regulation when rule-breaking is the norm simply does not work. There needs to be proper public accountability.

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.

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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