Condemning condemnation: if we carry on with this rhetoric we’ll see these riots again

In 1981, Michael Heseltine begun his report on the complex issues facing the city of Liverpool with the following words: “It took a riot to make the Cabinet take inner city problems seriously”.  Well we’ve had days of riots from Tottenham to Hackney, Salford to Gloucester.  Sadly it seems that the chances of this Cabinet taking inner city problems seriously remain decidedly, sadly, but most of all, predictably slim.  The root causes of the violence of this past week are bigger than Mark Duggan, bigger than racial tension, and bigger than the cuts.  The stench of divided communities lingers as strongly today as it did amongst the charred remains of Toxteth thirty years ago, but the problems have become more nuanced whilst the establishment has got only more crude.

I don’t have the education or acumen to even start to give an account of why we’ve seen communities tear themselves to sad shreds, but the signs that something is amiss have been starkly clear.  If we did not predict the riots, then it is because we chose not to see the febrile ingredients which have laid bare for decades.  Look at the areas where the most multitudinous and extreme acts of violence, looting and arson occurred.  Do we presume to say that we were unaware of the rates of child poverty in those areas, of the number of stops and searches carried out in those areas, of the number of communities who know a black man that died in police custody in those areas.  Again, if you so presume then you do so out of a wilfully disengaged ignorance – and the political classes are carrying on in this vein because they know that this very disengagement has played a far more pivotal role than the sexist idea that this is due to fatherless homes.

It seems clear that the social structures that many of us call society did not exist in the same format within the communities of predominantly young underprivileged people that lashed out earlier this week.  A pseudo-gang culture has been rife in these areas for a long time, where emulation of this country’s consumerist obsession has been pervasive.  Such sub-cultures evolve out of a disconnect with society in general – an implicit mass excommunication that, it seems natural to presume, is an inevitable repurcussion of a society where the richest 10% are 100 times wealthier than the poorest 10%.

And this is not a new phenomena – reckless and feckless politicians have been speaking of “feral youths” for many a year.  Under Tony Blair we witnessed the proliferation of the ASBO – a legal instrument that sought to further marginalise disconnected communities.  Marginalisation naturally produced a concentration of ties between those subject to them – and so the ASBO became a badge of honour.  The mind boggles that the New Labour government did not see this coming.

But of course there was no need for them to do so. The ASBO was a performative tool – it was there to show that Blair would banish those who did not fit into society out of society.  And here we are.

And here we will remain.  Where do we think the rhetoric of anger, of disconnect, of “pure simple criminality” will take us?  Do we believe that condemning actions will bring perpetrators into the fold and make them repent?  Do we condemn to construct or destroy?  Do we condemn selfishly or selflessly? Are the looters that are “scum” forever so branded?  Cast out and aside?  Not one of us?  We reject the actions of these people because we refuse to face up to owning them.  We pile on the scar tissue to the injuries against our communities and forget to heal.

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Protest and Riot: hard questions for the activist

Riot police, broken glass, masked-up youths.  A new generation takes advantage of social media to organise a mass expression of anger and dispossession and hurt.  We’ve seen this before, haven’t we?  It wasn’t so long ago that the phrases “feral youths” and “London’s burning” were being bandied about in the media and the community of our nation was at a loss to figure out how it came to this.  There are evidently very critical differences between the student protests of last winter, the violence of the anti-cuts rally on March 26th and what we have seen these past few days, but there are also crucial similarities that have to be engaged with.  Activists must face up to the link between their recent actions and the riots we have seen on the streets in recent days that have scarred communities across our country.

Let me firstly stake my position as an activist.  I took part in the student protests and in the anti-cuts rally.  Although I myself have never committed an act of violence during those events, I have always strongly defended the right of those who choose to do so.  I’ve talked at length before on this blog about why I choose to defend this form of direct action, so will avoid any repetition here by reiterating my beliefs on the matter.  Suffice to say, I still believe that those who smashed the windows of Millbank or pushed against police lines in Parliament Square were right to do so.  This post is not a critique of violence in direct action.

One of the notable and encouraging aspects of the recent anti-cuts and student fees protests was the sudden political awakening of a formerly disengaged generation.  London swarmed with young people who had never before taken an interest in politics, let alone express themselves as political animals, whether it be at the ballot box or at the picket line.  Amongst the smoke and debris there was a glimmer of hope that we were finally turning against the tide of apathy.  A sense of empowerment was rife amongst the first-time protesters and acts of vandalism and violence played a crucial part in that realisation of citizen power.

Although at times the more experienced activists were overwhelmed by the pace of these newly actualised citizens, they also cultivated a very specific kind of protest that was quickly adopted and disseminated.  For example, the use of social media to organise, mobilise and encourage continual protest whilst escaping the detection of the police.  Likewise, the availability of legal advice and tips on what to do when confronted with the police or if we thought we might be at risk of arrest and what to do in the case of being arrested.  Perhaps most importantly, many (and I count myself amongst them) put forward the case for violence – we defended it, we encouraged it and we legitimised it.

The root causes of the riots we have seen are murky, but I am in no doubt that the acts of violence committed as a form of protest earlier in the years played a role in the present outbreak of violence in the form of looting, arson and, it would seem, murder.  We must ask, as activists, what responsibility we bear for the actions of the looters, the arsonists, the murderers.  Outright rejection of any correlation or link will not suffice – it is wilful ignorance or shameful cowardice.

Of course, we can defend ourselves: we can say that there has been no political purpose to the riots in Brixton, in Salford, in Gloucester (of all places).  I’m not so sure, actually.  True, the rioters may not have benefited from an education which allows them to posit a nuanced political argument as to why they have destroyed the communities they live in – but it is sheer arrogance to deny their explanations (“to show the police they can’t mess with us”, “to fuck up the rich people”, “to show the government what’s what”) the label of “political purpose”.

We can say that smashing the windows of tax-dodging Vodafone stores or Tory HQ bears little in comparison, as a form of protest, to looting local independent businesses before setting them alight.  And I would largely agree – but I wonder how many saw the former and were galvanised to do the latter.

If the riots have been influenced by violent forms of protest – if activists have contributed towards a context in which mass violence of the kind seen this week is more likely – it was certainly never our intention.  Our intention was to encourage others to take a stand to protect their futures, to reverse their disempowerment, to show them that the state is subject and the people are sovereign.  And we gave them our tools with which to achieve these aims.  But did we giver them our purposes?  Did we educate?   Did we spend as much time teaching these young citizens why we use these tools as we did how to use them?  And where are we now?  Are we in those communities?  Are we helping those communities?

I worry that we committed so much time to organising protests, getting slicker and slicker in how we out-foxed the police, smarter and smarter in whatever new social media format we expressed our message, that we forgot to talk to kids on the corner of our roads and learn what was happening around us.  We operated at a macro-level, our heads in the sky contemplating the big ideas and big plans which would get the maximum press exposure, and forgot that local communities don’t operate in headlines.

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If the press is in the gutter, it is because we held it to our chests as we laid there

I wish I had read the News of the World.  I wish I had allowed myself to pore over every headline and form a compendium of every reductive, regressive and revolting argument they ever espoused.  I wish I had these collected, at my disposal, to lay before the British public as exhibits ad infinitum of where the dull immorality of that rag was really rooted.

For those of us that flinch to see an average tabloid headline, the hacking scandal and its repercussions have been a Pyrrhic victory.  The closure of the News of the World gave me the fullest and most long-lasting natural high I’ve ever experienced but, as ever, the grey morning clouds of reality have brought a comedown of soulful listlessness that far exceeds my former joy.  That the News of the World should fall because of a practice that was known and acknowledged across the media world, because of a scandal that has been rolling, drip by drip, for close to ten years, and ultimately because  of the typical frenzied response of a public that only deigns to bare its teeth when ‘murder’ and ‘schoolgirl’ fall neatly into a headline – that these emotive but ultimately superficial arguments should prove to be the silver bullets to pierce this beast leaves my appetite for revenge against that tawdry immoral rag whetted but far from sated.  I imagine the families of those murdered by Al Capone felt something similar when the Chicago boss was finally put in the dock for tax evasion.  Though the outcome may be correct, the process and reasons by which that outcome was reached are lacking.

For those who see the hacking of phones as an ethical transgression, one has to question in which direction their moral compass pointed when the paper ran a story about the troubled actor David Scarboro, with pictures of the psychiatric unit where he was receiving treatment.  Were they convinced by the oft-quoted public interest argument?  Did that argument still convince them as strongly when he committed suicide shortly after, having abandoned any hope of escaping the press?  After all, no phones were hacked there.

Even that snapshot of the depravity that pervades British “journalism” is wide of the mark in offering a full account of why we should have washed away the newsprint from our fingers long before the Dowler family began to pull on our tabloid-crafted heartstrings.  As with any good Gothic horror tale, the true nauseating anxious terror trickles into our bellies as we look into the mirror.  Live Pavlov and his dogs, the Murdoch press cultivated a public discourse that salivates at gossip, scandal and any opportunity to raise the pitchfork from our armchairs.  And we have happily, knowingly, consensually lowered ourselves into an intellectually vegetative state so that we may be better titillated.  As much as I despise the Murdoch machine, it has been a relationship of symbiosis.  If the press is in the gutter, it is because we held it to our chests as we laid there.

And we have not yet moved an inch from where we lay.  This weekend, as we learnt that we have an especial talent in producing right-wing “journalists” fit for quotation in a mass-murderer’s manifesto, the Sun rushed to inform its readership of the “’Al-Qaeda’ Massacre: NORWAY’s 9/11”.  An anti-Muslim extremist smilingly murders children and our bastions of free speech present the atrocity as Islamist terrorism.  This is our press – this is the level of our public discourse.  And from our gutter, we stir not once.

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Theresa May claims the police have learnt the lesson of the tuition fees protest, but has she?

The protest of the 9th December as the House of Commons voted to raise tuition fees was certainly a watershed. We witnessed a generation that had hit puberty as one million marched against the Iraq war to no effect and had grown up under an elective dictatorship that saw citizens and their votes used as a means rather than an end finally mature and take the only recourse available. We also saw the continued use of kettling and heavy-handed tactics that resulted in increased tension, only propelling those who had felt no need to cross boundaries suddenly pushed into radicalism within mere hours. Mental images of the most clichéd fictional authoritarian state seemed to come into manifest fruition as angry men on scared horses charged against the people they are sworn to protect on streets that had not exits. Orwellian warnings were immediately apposite when hundreds of black-clad police with long-shields lined up to cause as much pain as possible and as anonymously as possible – there’s no need to show your face if you striking people with the authority of the state behind you.

But the police had to recognise they had gone too far as reports came out of how many people had experienced their brutality. Not simply black-clad individuals who profess to be anarchists, but also journalists, lecturers, parents. It became apparent that the movement was cross-sectional. Capitalist society may be happy to see working-class disaffected individuals quite literally trodden under the foot of police who have yet to learn the appropriate use of force, but suddenly pricks up its ears when the middle classes are struck as well.

As the stories streamed in of school children being dragged along the ground for simply trying to protect their future, whilst in the background the story of the events leading to Ian Tomlinson’s death emerged, the tide turned on the status quo of quashing the democratic right to protest with overblown tactics.

And so the policy was changed. The police took on board the suggestion that kettling people did not calm anyone down – neither the protesters nor the frustrated police officers on the ground. They recognised that attempting to spin the deprivation of basic rights was acceptable if you referred to it as ‘containment’ was no longer going to work. They saw for themselves that there’s a reason these rights were fought for and achieved – even the most reticent individual can get passionately angry when denied those rights.

Last Saturday, the police employed a softer approach. Despite a huge turnout, and a substantially engorged group of people willing to use vandalism and occasionally violence as a legitimate means of protest, the feeling on the ground was far more relaxed and much less tense than the 9th December. Though windows were smashed and confrontations between police and protesters occurred, there was nothing like the collective vitriolic outrage towards the police as had emerged at the tuition fees protest. The only time I felt concerned for the safety of either protesters of police was when the police became confrontational.  It appeared that a useful lesson had been learned regarding police tactics.

It is therefore deeply regrettable that Theresa May should choose this moment to claim more police powers may be required and will be allowed. Although immediately shocking, upon reflection this statement seems appropriate from a Home Secretary that suggested water cannons would be used against citizens that protested in future, only to hastily backtrack when she realised even the hard right-wingers thought she was being a bit of a stupid twat.

At least this proposed revision of policy falls neatly within the government’s general approach – an abject failure to link policy with reality.  Consistency at all costs.

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GET FIRED UP 7: THE FINAL CALL – RISE LIKE LIONS…

So there we have it.  Foreign policy hypocrisy, the continued public funding of privilege, devastating our National Health Service, blatant disregard for the exploitation of vulnerable women, misdirection of the most shameful kind, and the incontrovertible truth that there is an alternative.  But if you still need reasons to march on Saturday, I have two points for you to consider: first, many of the people who are being crushed under the well-polished heel of George Osborne are either too scared or too poor to protest on Saturday – they need someone to speak for them; second, the government doesn’t want you to protest.

It is unfortunate that the only protests that seem to matter, the only protests that the media really takes notice of, are those that take place in London.  Yet it is those living outside of London, specifically those living in the north of England, who will lose most because of this government.  Public sector employment fell almost twice as much in Northern England than Southern England.  If these trends continue, when the recovery finally comes it will not come for everyone.  We may believe that at long last prosperity has returned, but the poverty and desperation that has been successive governments’ gift to those in the northern regions will remain.  As the manicured grip of the Chancellor exerts its dogmatic will on the veins of the public sector, those in the direst of situations find themselves weaker and weaker – but they deserve a voice as well.  Many who want to march, and who need to march, will be unable to pay the costs of travelling to London for Saturday’s march or will, as ever, been shackled to their homes because of dependents with which the government refuses to assist.

Some disability protesters are simply unable to take to the streets.  For those that can and do, those on the disabilities living allowance are afraid to exert their democratic right to protest – they fear that if they are seen doing so they will have their Disabilities Living Allowance removed.  Fit enough to protest?  Fit enough to work.  How can we have allowed such a sick perspective to permeate through our society?  A small but passionate group of people protested against the removal of DLA in January.  Members of the Disabled People Against the Cuts group were kettled during this protest – was this necessary?  Practical?  Only in achieving the end of fear and intimidation.  And these people too need a voice.

So, march on Saturday for those who can’t.  Embrace the sublime concept of using your voice for those who are voiceless.

But above everything you should march because the government doesn’t want you to.  It doesn’t want to see protests and it most certainly does not want to be influenced by protests.  It does not want a strong society, but a compliant society.  And we have still got a long way to go before we can say that the situation is otherwise.

Protest is a democratic right.  But protesting isn’t merely registering disagreement or disapproval.  Protest ought to have a consequence.  Instead we have submissively bought into the idea that once you’ve marched from A to B, you’ve done all you can.  Either the government listens and changes its course or it ignores you and changes nothing – but our voices are not to be listened to only when the government chooses.  Our voices are sovereign, and when we say jump the government had better say ‘how high?’

I would be overjoyed if marching and demonstrating and saying ‘not in my name’ was enough to bring about the change of policy that we desperately need.  I would consider myself a part of a cohesive, progressive, and truly democratic society if that were the case.  However, if those tactics don’t work – and they haven’t so far – boundaries have to be crossed.  Lest we forget, it is the government that chooses whether peaceful protest is effective, and consequently forces our hand to more radical measures – whether that’s occupations, vandalism, or merely not moving when the police tell you to.  If it’s a choice between giving up or taking more extreme measures, I know firmly where I stand.

And if we trespass against the State, do not fool yourself that we have cast the first stone.  The government started this fight when it began to commit acts battery and rapine against our democratic rights and shirked away from its duties.  In a democracy, a government cannot act against its own pledges to the citizenry; it cannot act against the will of the people; it cannot act against the people themselves.  If we allow a pledge to become a lie, our votes are nothing – they are shells absent of substance, worth or consequence.  And we become nothing.

We must mature as citizens and realise this fight extends past fiscal policy.  We must ensure that no political class receives our allegiance when it does not act for the good of society.  Cast ideology aside – this is about who rules, regardless of political hue – and the answer must always be us.  Our government.  Our parliament.  Our choices.

“Rise like Lions after slumber,

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many – they are few

Get angry.  Get passionate.  Take action.  Take a stand.  Push boundaries.  Cross boundaries.

Get.  Fired.  Up.

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Get Fired Up 6: The Chancellor’s Choices

Context.  It is always about context.  And the context in which yesterday’s budget was delivered throws the dogmatic but ultimately misguided approach of George Osborne into sharp relief.

Unemployment is expected to rise every year by 200,000.  Youth unemployment is the highest its been since records began.  As of 6th April taxpayers will be charged an extra £4bn in their national insurance as the rate rises from 11% to 12%.  Growth was down last year, is down this year, and will be down next year.  Inflation will remain between 4% and 5% this year.  Steady as she goes?  Goes where exactly?

And alongside context let’s take in a bit of immediate hindsight.  We’ve had the headlines about fuel duty, basic income tax allowance and anti-tax avoidance measures – none of which will make up for the dire exacerbation of the nation’s poor finances Osborne has wrought.  Now let’s take account of where we stand in post-Budget UK.  The IFS today reports that the average household will lose £750 as a result of measures the Chancellor has taken since coming to power.  So ignore the headline-grabbing fuel duty or basic income tax threshold and ask yourself, are we creating a better or a worse society in which to live?

Time and time again we have been told that cuts are necessary, that these cuts are necessary.  We are told it is necessary to restrict the number of people domestic violence centres can help, to end HIV-prevention schemes, to take away debt advisory services.  We are told that these measures are inevitable, that there is simply no money left.  Yet when market-research shows that a reduction in fuel-duty is a vote-winner, suddenly the cash appears.  So, is there really no alternative?

By 2015, the poorest 10% of the population will be 6.5% worse off as a result of the cuts.  The richest 10% will lose out by 3%.  There is no necessity about this distribution of pain.  It is callous, it is cowardly and it is a choice.

With the money we’ll save by screwing over the poorest in society, we can lower corporation tax – bringing it to a level substantially below that of the US, Germany and France.  As we allow deprived children to languish without remedy, we’ll pump funds into attracting big corporations into London – apparently to reverse the flow of companies fleeing our shores, although it is now reported that the proportion of companies coming to London is higher than those leaving.

With the money we’ll save by allowing 200,000 children to be shoved below the poverty line, we can avoid pursuing the £14bn owed to us by tax avoiders.

With the money we’ll save by implementing the RPI/CPI stealth tax, we can get rid of the 50p top tax rate in the coming years.

These are the choices that the Chancellor has made.  It’s a case of deserting the vulnerable and aiding the invincible.  It marks Osborne out as a man who has that particularly unsettling kind of cruel cowardice – he won’t stand up to the banks, to the rich, to his friends but he’s happy to kick sand in the eyes of the weak.

So.  Get.  Fired.  Up.

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Get Fired Up 5: Budget Day – Government Misdirection Highest Since Records Began

So.  Budget Day.

The increase to basic tax allowance is laudable.  A charge for non-doms is good.  Closing tax-avoidance loopholes with the aim to claw back £1bn is in the right direction.

But baking me a few cookies does not mean you can carry on royally screwing me over when you think I’m not looking.

Only Osborne could deliver this showering, nay light and unsatisfying drizzling, of distractions as if he had answered the calls for social justice in one fell swoop and with one empty budget speech.  In reality, Osborne has, if anything, given substantive reasons to march on Saturday by truly adding insult to injury in thinking that we will forget the unnecessary woes wielded upon us by an ideologically driven government at the first sight of an extra 90p per week for income tax payers.

And of course, even this measly attempt to compensate for increasing costs of living, with inflation at a 28-month high of 4.4% and the record £10bn deficit last month, is a fiction.  As a result of changing the rate at which we measure tax thresholds from RPI to CPI, it will be more difficult for savers to save – with a reduction of 22% in the planned increase for ISA limits.  This will be coupled with seeing the effects of £18bn disappearing from child tax credits, child benefit, disability and other cuts.  If you hold on to any fact, let it be this: the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that as a direct result of the government’s fiscal plans, 200,000 children will be pushed below the poverty line.  Put Osborne is front of those guiltless children and let him boast about his ‘budget for growth’.

And whilst we are expected to dance for joy that that now we have to earn over £150 per week before we start paying 20% in income tax, we might jig slightly less emphatically when we realise the tax rate for large corporations on tax havens is now to be at 5.75%.  And Osborne certainly indicated who his friends really are with indications that he plans to remove the 50% top tax rate.

Similarly, can we really be grateful to a Chancellor that cuts fuel duty by 1p when only a few months ago he added 3p to price of petrol with hike in VAT?  Even my rudimentary mental arithmetic can work out that all we’ve witnessed today is a 2p increase to the price of fuel.

So, we are directed to believe that this is a budget to be thankful for.  I beg you, do not be fooled.  This budget is at best neutral.  When spending and tax cuts are taken into account it marks no change in real terms for the individuals who are struggling through an economic climate that, lest we forget, was the fault of politicians pursuing greater rewards for the few in corporations and banks.  And that means we are in exactly the same position as we were before the budget – subjects of a government that refuses to acknowledge that there is nothing good about a society which garners profits for corporations as youth unemployment escalates, children are pushed into poverty and the vulnerable are expected to wait in the cold until the empty concept of a big society is realised.

It is easy to be distracted by the media-frenzy of budget day and easy to be duped by the breadcrumbs that the government chooses to proffer.  So I recommend you carry out your own personal budget day.  Take out the receipts and see how much more you have to pay to live as the result of a misguided economic policy.  Consider the prospect of your children leaving university in light of reports that student debts could reach £83,000 by the time the changes to tuition fees are introduced.  And hope that you never have the misfortune to be disabled under a government that approaches the situation whereby 90% of claimants under disability living allowance cannot cover their costs of living with a 20% cut to that allowance.  An extra 90p a week is nothing to be thankful for.

Please.  I beg you.  Get.  Fired.  Up.

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