Passive vs Active Activism

You may be wondering, how can ‘activism’ be passive? Activism as a word implies activity; some kind of purposeful act that will (hopefully) lead to political change. But behind all the protests that are happening on the streets is a group of individuals online, tweeting, retweeting, blogging, writing to MPs and signing petitions.

I am a great supporter of the majority of the actions that have gone on recently. I know people involved. I agree with their reasons for going. I’ve been to one or two protests myself. But I’m not on the front line, going to every single one, seeing first-hand how protests develop or being hit by overly aggressive police officers. I am usually found at home, in front of a screen, typing away. I’ve often thought about this and asked myself, ‘What is my role in this? How do I fit in? Why would people want to follow me, or find me useful?’ and I think a tweet @latentexistence made earlier today explains perfectly my role in any kind of rising dissent.

You don’t have to be a leader, to shout loud, or be the most innovative or creative person to be an important part of a community. In fact, if anything, we’re putting the ‘unity’ in ‘community’ (I’m cringing at the cheesiness of that but I think it’s true!) – we are connecting those who aren’t involved, with those who are. Connecting those on the ground to others on the ground; to people who are nearby who might be able to go and help if problems arise.

And as a tweet I’ve just read points out, most importantly, online activism broadens participation, to those that may not physically be able to make protests. To those that are perhaps not near enough to get to one. Maybe they are disabled. Maybe they just don’t have a car, or money for transport. Either way, I think we each have our place. Some are on the front line, shouting into megaphones or educating the public by handing out leaflets… And some of us stay at home, watching, waiting and tweeting. Keeping everyone informed.

It’s an interesting community.

The two sides of protests

Yesterday whilst protests were going on in Egypt, in Manchester and London, a story of the nastier side of a faceless and leaderless movement got lost in the feeds on Twitter. One girl from Glasgow was left shaken up after protestors – who were presumably ‘regular’ protestors – accused her of being an undercover police officer as she protested at a UK Uncut event. At the same time as I’m writing this, I’ve just heard that after yesterday’s peaceful protest in the capital, UK Uncut protestors are now being pepper sprayed by police in Oxford Street.

There are two equally horrid sides to protests – the police brutality story (as I’ve written about elsewhere) but also the dreadful treatment of protestors by those who are supposed to protect them – it is, after all, in the spirit of protests to demonstrate solidarity.Recent events have made protestors even more paranoid about undercover police infiltrating UK Uncut and it is highly likely this is what prompted protestors to follow a female protestor home.

Whilst understandable, there is flawed logic behind this. Police have no need – when it comes to UK Uncut anyway – to infiltrate the movement. Everything is transparent, from Twitter meetings, to announcements on their website and on facebook. Everything is open and recorded in full view of the public.

So why the suspicion? It does make me wonder, how many supporters will groups like UK Uncut lose if they treat their fellow protestors in this way? And what can even be done about it – these are leaderless; there is no one to run to if you are treated badly. We’ve already seen that being leaderless and autonomous can potentially damage the energy at protests – yesterday a few protestors in London gave up and went home after confusion about the actual purpose of the protest – and now it risks alienating the very people it is attempting to garner support from. Perhaps autonomy works well as a short-term tactic but needs to be directed and made concrete over the coming months.

Parallels and Perspective

We’re not even a month into the new year, and already we have seen some inspiring action across the world. In Tunisia, the people protested against their government. In Egypt, protests are still going on (for up-to-date news, watch English Al Jazeera, they have been fantastic in covering it) against Mubarak’s rule. As I type, a Vice President has just been sworn in. Protests in London and across the UK have also started up again, now everyone has recovered from the laziness of Christmas and gotten back into the swing of things. In some cases these protests in the UK have led to clear police brutality (video from Leeds).

The most subversive protest of all

Iconic photo of a middle aged woman kissing a policeman - in Egypt this week. Copyright: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP.From MSN's Egypt photoblog

What is interesting is that in all of this we have faced constant snide remarks of “Well, in the US this happens all the time!” “It’s not as bad as in Egypt. You should be grateful you have freedom of speech to say that!” and so on.

I appreciate that comparisons can be helpful. For example, we should be emboldened by those in Tunisia and in Egypt. We should think ourselves lucky that we do not face what they face on a daily basis; that by and large we live in a more democratic country. And we should take heart from their uprising. It’s hope for our own. However, comparisons of “What are we grumbling about? They have it so much worse” are extremely unhelpful and patronising.

The implicit message in that is that we don’t know how good we have it; by being angry at things that are not life-threatening or ‘as bad as’ elsewhere that apparently means we are ignorant and this somehow detracts of diminishes the underlying message of the fight for freedom elsewhere. Which of course, is untrue. I don’t think for one second that people who protested in London today are unaware of the Egyptian peoples’ struggles. The protest evem made its way to the Egyptian Embassy – whether you agree with that or not – and this shows a sense that UK protestors see themselves as belonging to a wider community of protestors. So by no means ignorant of problems elsewhere. In fact, they are now aware, more than ever, that we live in a ‘global village’.

The way I see it, arguments of “why are you protesting when other people have it worse?” are – to go off point for a second – exactly the same arguments used against people who suffer from depression. “Why are you so unhappy, you have legs and arms!” (as someone who suffers from depression, I know this argument all too well!)
I think it’s important to not assess protests, or political unrest, or angry citizens in terms of justifying and comparing to other countries. What is important is that we all feel angry – whether we are in Egypt, Tunisia, elsewhere (I know other countries are going through similar phases) or in the UK. Whether we are being dragged from homes and murdered by the state, or whether our local library is being closed down – we all feel betrayed by our government. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter that people elsewhere ‘have it worse’ – NEVER let anyone tell you that you don’t have a right to feel angry, or betrayed, or upset! You have a right to be angry at anything you please, if it affects your life and you don’t like it.

What’s more, I’m finding myself enraged by Americans who keep somehow coming up on my radar and chiming in with “Call that police brutality?! Look at THIS!” – it’s not a competition to see who treats their citizens worse. In America, police taser people, but this doesn’t mean that it’s ok for protestors to be hit with batons at protests in the UK. I don’t want the police in my country to start using tasers. I don’t want for us to slip into that without a fight, or to turn round in ten years when they do use taser guns on protestors, and say “I didn’t see this coming! Why didn’t anyone say anything?!”

So yes, comparison gives us perspective in a world where things get blown out of proportion all too often and easily. But it also makes us less inclined to progress; to develop ourselves further. What good does it do us to look at people who are worse off, and feel bad that we are angry about things which, in the grand scheme of things, are not as bad? We need to feel angry. We need to progress. We need for things to change. And perspective-givers only hinder this by making us feel like whatever we want to fight for is not legitimate. I say, if you feel it, then it is.

Why are we against privatising forests?

Saw this post earlier explaining the benefits of privatising forests in the UK and I felt an overwhelming urge to respond. The post asks, why are people so against private involvement of our forests? “Private ownership can be much better than without private involvement. There are also many instances where private land is much better looked after than communal areas.”

Let’s be clear here: Forests are already owned, by the Forestry Commission, the “government department responsible for the protection and expansion of Britain’s forests and woodlands” (quoted on website). They plant trees, manage woodland on our behalf and sustainably harvest wood from them.

The argument set out in Toryradio’s post above is that private land (ie gardens in this case) look nicer than the communal grassy area nearby which has been untouched.

The problem in selling off forests is that the fear is buyers will not be picked out – forests will be sold to the highest bidder. The carelessness with which this is being done is frightening – if an energy company wants to buy it to chop trees down for energy, then they can do. If a property development company wants to flatten it to build houses then they can. One hopes that this won’t be the case, but this is the worst-case scenario and what a lot of us fear.

Comparing national forests to personal gardens/small open spaces is ridiculous. Gardens are individual spaces cared for by individuals, and communal patches of green are left abandoned because I suspect councils’ don’t have enough money to care for them. I highly doubt that residents care much for it either. It’s a token square patch of land – here you go, have your green patch so that we can say we are environmentally friendly and everyone has access to some green land..

On the other hand, forests are vast, beautiful ecosystems (let us not forget there are other users of the forests apart from ourselves) which we can all appreciate – the sort of place we can take our children for a picnic, go bird watching or just enjoy the outdoors. Companies view assets such as forests in a very different way – in fact, to them it is perhaps not even a forest – merely land to be used. Something to build on. Something to make money from. Not something that can be opened for the public to enjoy for free. Why would you let people in for free!? Shocking…

Met’s protest leaflet debunked

Very late on this but the Met released a PDF of a leaflet they were handing out on 19th January at the EMA protest in London. The aim was to “inform demonstrators of what to expect from the police”. I am sure that a few of us could have bunched together and produced something equally – if not moreso – “informative” at a lesser cost. The bottom line is: The police are beyond the law and will do what they damn well want to, whether you are in the wrong or not. They may as well have written that on a small piece of card and handed it out.

I’ve taken out a few interesting points, based on my experience at the tutition fees demonstration in December last year. (I’d write the whole thing out but I think you get the idea!)

What to expect – I don’t really want to quote from this section as it’s very long and you can see it for yourself on the PDF, but basically it explains that police are at protests for ‘your safety’ and to ‘prevent crime’ etc.

On the march to Parliament, near Leicester Square, I noticed policemen hurrying up the pavement either side of the people marching, and I had the foresight to run. I outran a line of police, and when I looked back all I could see were people being hit with batons. I still don’t know to this day how this is justified. It seemed to me like an attempt at kettling people – but only succeeded in diverting protestors down small roads. Which of course, gave rise to the outcries of “They didn’t stick to the agreed route!” – if you prevent people from walking down the ‘agreed route’ then of course they will find another way. Similar reactions at Trafalgar Square when, prevented from walking down Whitehall by a line of mounted police, protestors turned right towards Buckingham Palace (but only to continue towards Parliament). I remember seeing alarmed Tweets of “THEY’RE GOING TO BUCKINGHAM PALACE!” I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say protestors couldn’t be less interested in the Royals who, contrary to beliefs of older generations, are more irrelevant and outdated now than ever.

On Kettling – “Containment is used as a last resort… The containment will be in place for no longer than is necessary to deal with the issue. The officers will be mindful of your welfare and they will attempt to let you know what is happening..” It goes on to say that if you’re suspected of being involved in disorder, you’ll be questioned.

If this is the case, why were people being kettled at 2pm when nothing was happening? Why were people ‘contained’ on Westminster Bridge for six hours? Why were protestors only allowed out when they had given their name and had their photos taken? Is protesting or being at a protest now tantamount to “disorder”? Last time I looked it was a democratic right. Also – giving information about yourself to the police is not compulsory, and from what I heard, they used the threat of arrest to get information from protestors.

On violence – “If you are near an outbreak of violence or disorder move away and create a distance between you and those taking part…Give [police] room to work.”

Interesting, this one. If there is an outbreak of violence, it tends to be as a result of police kettling tactics (as mentioned above, kettling started at 2pm when no violence was taking place) so how is it possible to ‘create a distance’ or ‘move away’? Those that were near violence and disorder were right next to police lines – being beaten back by police into the crowd. How do the Met expect people to move away from that? Not to mention that a high proportion of the violence was perpetuated by the police themselves.

Call me paranoid but having been pushed for no reason by policemen, and having witnessed scores of people being beaten at the protest, I don’t trust the Metropolitan Police in the slightest. This leaflet is yet another attempt to discredit and silence the protestors’ narrative of police brutality – a narrative that was so prelavent in the blogosphere yet systematically dismissed and swept under the carpet by the mainstream media.

Supporting OMBH

I’ve been alerted to this by my friend Steve – his post on ME is here – and thought I should really add my two pence as someone who is classified as ‘disabled’. To explain: The consultation on the reform of the Disabled Living Allowance ends on Valentine’s Day, so One Month Before Heartbreak has been set up to collate blogs from disabled people talking about their experiences, whether they have received DLA or not.

I’ll keep it short, I promise. I just couldn’t not say anything.

I’m classified as ‘disabled’ at University in a couple of ways.
1) I am high-frequency deaf, and have been all my life. I can’t hear bus bells, birds singing, most alarm clocks, fire bells… I also have a slight speech impediment that developed because I couldn’t hear the difference between certain letters.
2) I was diagnosed with clinical depression in late 2006 (incredibly long story but the short version is I was on medication on and off until January 2010)
3) I contracted glandular fever in May 2008 and spent the next 2 years constantly ill. Glandular Fever, also known as mononucleosis, or the ‘kissing disease’ (though I personally didn’t contract it through kissing anyone! Mine was much less pleasant – I almost certainly caught it through travelling on the Tube across London every day…) It has affected my life at University to a great extent – though thankfully, this has not developed into ME as is sometimes the case.

I feel like a fraud discussing Glandular Fever or depression as disabilities (contentious issue, I know), so I’ll stick with something I won’t get flack for – deafness. A lot of people who know me will say “Wow, I never knew she was deaf!” – I get told that all the time. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it or label myself as deaf, because I feel that it detracts from me as a person and I don’t want it to get in the way really.

I am not profoundly deaf but it has affected me as I’ve grown up – it made me very reclusive as a person and made me shy away from group situations. At primary school, I was forced to wear hearing-aids at school by a well-intentioned teacher, and bullied relentlessly for it. I will always remember being chased around the playground by the school bully, who caught up with me, yanked them out of my ears and threw them on the floor. Not much of a surprise that I absolutely loathe them and I do everything to avoid actually explaining my deafness to people (though oddly enough i find that people just think I am stupid). I just get on with life, and if I miss things, or people think I’m stupid… It’s their loss, I guess.

It’s an ‘invisible’ thing – in fact, everything I suffer from or have suffered from is ‘invisible’ – it’s not like having a broken leg. It’s not like being in a wheelchair. People can see wheelchairs and casts, and they treat you differently for it – whether positively or negatively. Does this make it harder for me? I can’t really decide.

On the one hand people don’t judge me immediately. In fact, people are often horrified that they don’t know “Oh, I’m so sorry! I had no idea!” (Well, I didn’t expect you to be a mind reader!), and then shock turns into admiration at the fact that I have “coped so well”.. And whilst I appreciate the sentiment, I am hardly going to give up on my dreams because I’m deaf – being classed as ‘disabled’ doesn’t mean I am stupid, thankyouverymuch.
On the other hand, others not knowing means I spend a lot of time putting up with people who don’t believe me, or explaining it to people. “How can you be deaf if you don’t wear hearing aids?” Ohh, bless you, you only understand stereotypes. SURELY I can’t be deaf because I don’t have hearing aids. I clearly must be a compulsive liar! Throughout school if I missed registers, substitute teachers would shout “Are you deaf or something?!” – Um, yes… I am actually. You can go and fetch my school record and it will show you exactly what I can’t hear..

There is still a stigma surrounding disabilities, especially the more invisible ones like mental illness. They’re rarely talked about, though so many people suffer from one form of mental illness at some point in their lives… What worries me is that those discussing and making decisions are so far removed from reality and real people that they can’t even begin to understand what being disabled is like. To me, disability doesn’t mean you are UNable to do things. It just takes you longer, takes more effort – and more importantly, requires more patience and understanding from other people.
How can they make a decision on DLA reform when they have never had to fight twice as hard to achieve the same as those who aren’t disabled?

Running in circles

Another bout of arguing on Twitter. Or is this still the same argument that started after Netroots? My essential point (I will explain in further detail in this post) is that whilst I respect people on both sides of the argument, I think arguing really detracts from the general message and takes attention away from what we are trying to achieve. I know that I for one am getting bored of seeing the same arguments being made, the same accusations being thrown everywhere. Can we not accept that Netroots happened, that errors were made and that they will be rectified as much as possible at future events? Feedback is a good thing; constant arguing and fighting over the same thing a) drags other people down b) distracts us from what we need to be doing c) uses up a lot of energy that could be better spent elsewhere and more productively.

The Labour problem – I think we are generally in agreement that Labour (as a party) are not going to be our saviours in this case. They have not proven themselves thus far – and I agree that any encouraging cries of ‘Join Labour!’ should be treated with scepticism. What makes very little sense to me is that in rejecting invites to join Labour you are also discounting and alienating them from the movement. This is no longer about which political faction or party you voted for and we can’t afford to treat it that way. We’re all going to be affected by cuts in some way or the other, and personal politics, sexuality, religious beliefs… Whatever it is that divides us should not be used as an excuse to exclude people who could help in their own way. So what if you don’t agree with the way that one person says cuts should be tackled – is it really worth alienating and losing someone who highly supports anti-cuts protests?

So, people are annoyed that there appear to be leaders. Did it not occur to you that this would naturally happen? Those with the most influence, who are published, who create and publicise events, or have a lot of followers, will naturally be seen as ‘the voice’ of the movement, or spear-heading it. Whether they should, shouldn’t be, or do or don’t want to be – they are, and that is the fact. If you don’t want to be seen as the leader of the movement, then stop talking about it. It’s quite simple, really.

What do you think the value is of attacking these people who are ‘leaders’ of the movement? That they might give up? It’s all very well being principled and refusing to work with people you don’t like but that is hardly going to get you anywhere when you constantly bash those people who could help a lot – perhaps not directly, by going to protests – but by using their influence to spread the word about what is happening.  As much as I might disagree with the methods of their approach, I take the view that they are simply facilitators. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is a difference between leading a movement and attempting to facilitate others’ involvement in the movement. I don’t think anyone is attempting the former but have simply ended up labelled as such.

I am aware that certain groups feel marginalised, left out of the debate, and helpless. (I feel that way myself, because I’m not sure how exactly I fit into this whole puzzle either). But there are specialised groups – local groups, groups with specific aims and focusses – nationwide that might be able to help you; that may be able to help you to better broadcast your voice. I listed some here but there is a brilliant database of local direct action groups on FalseEconomy. Constant bickering on Twitter makes me want to just give up the fight entirely. We’re not going to get anywhere if it continues.

Instead of in-fighting (and that’s what it is – because we are all on the same side essentially) and arguing about why things have happened or how it should have been done differently, we need ideas, creativity and solutions.

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