Sunday, 27 March 2011

Day of Dignified Protest

This is a brief first-hand account of today's protest in London against government cuts. It will probably differ markedly from those in the mainstream media for these reasons:

1) It will be a personal perspective from someone who was there.

2) It will not contain any police press releases, parroted verbatim.

3) It will actually be reliable.

My day started with a wake-up call, early for a Saturday morning, at 9 am sharp. Cups of tea were made. Music was played. Breakfast was eaten. Appearances agonised over. I reassured my girlfriend that she looked great; great enough to attend a revolution. No, really, she is hot. Anyway, we took the train and disembarked at Waterloo.

We met up with a few hundred other UK Uncut supporters at the National Theatre, South Bank, at 1130am, before eventually setting off over Waterloo bridge and up to the Strand. The atmosphere was that of a carnival, with people in fancy dress, carrying flags, playing music, handing out leaflets and shouting slogans. At the Strand, there was some confusion about which way we were supposed to go. Marches can be quite choatic, with everyone following everyone else and only a few people knowing the correct route. Some of us headed up to a pre-arranged rendezvous point in Soho Square, after a much-needed pint in a local pub, whilst the main march continued through Trafalgar Square and on towards Hyde Park, where the main TUC rally passed off entirely peacefully.

Pre-kettled Clown. Photo by Noa Bodner
Unison Banner. Marching families. Photo by Noa Bodner
It turned out that all the banks and shops on Oxford St had already closed their doors, so we convened for a mini-rally and comedy gig in Soho Square, headlined by Mark Thomas. Fun times, no problems. There were about a thousand of us here, not all of whom would consider themselves UK Uncut activists. A group of perhaps a hundred or more went off to occupy Fortnum & Mason, another shop run by tax-dodgers (for tax-dodgers?). I wasn't with them, but went along later to see what was happening. The occupation was very peaceful, according to sources inside, with whom I was in contact, but there was trouble in the street outside, where a minority of people (presumably radical anarchists), not UK Uncut, were trying to vandalise banks and the Ritz Hotel.

UK Uncut comedy gig and rally in Soho Square
Comedian Josie Long at UK Uncut comedy gig in Soho Square. Photo Noa Bodner.
Comedian and disabled campaigner Lisa Egan, Soho Square. Photo Noa Bodner.
Comedian (or dangerous subversive?), Mark Thomas at UK Uncut gig, Soho Square, clearly surrounded by violent anarchists. Photo Noa Bodner.
Independent columnist, Johann Hari (in blue shirt, left) chats to comedian Chris Coltrane during Josie Long's set.
A surprise appearance from the royal couple at UK Uncut's Soho Sq comedy gig. Photo Noa Bodner.
Big Brother's floating eye-in-the-sky above Soho Square. Hope they enjoyed the gig. Photo Noa Bodner.
BBC reports insisted that police were clashing with UK Uncut supporters, which is just a total lie. I don't know whether this was just lazy journalism or deliberate police misinformation, but it was definitely a falsehood. Later reports from the BBC talked of police coming under 'sustained attack' in Trafalgar Square. I saw no evidence of this at all. What I did see was BBC footage consisting of about three brief shots repeated on a continuous loop, masquerading as 'live coverage', in which I could see no violence of any sort. Eyewitness reports from the scene, from reporter Laurie Penny and friends of mine, are consistent in agreeing that the great majority of those trapped by police in Trafalgar Square were peaceful and not breaking any law. In spite of this, they were attacked by riot police.

A lone protester knocked over by riot police in Piccadilly.
A mixed group of protetsers in Piccadilly, mostly peaceful, although clashes are taking place at the back right of the shot between police and a very small group of anarchists attacking a LLoyds bank.
I did also see evidence of vandalism by a very small number of protesters - nothing to do with UK Uncut - who decided to smash a few windows, daub graffiti and throw paint bombs: an Ann Summers store, the Ritz Hotel and a few banks were damaged. There are also reports that a Porsche dealership was attacked. I was annoyed and very disappointed by this, as I knew that the media would blow it out of all proportion and that it would detract from the real message of the day. I also suspected that the facts would be misreported and that there would be an attempt to pin blame on peaceful groups, such as UK Uncut. So it turns out. 

Damage to Banco Santander in Piccadilly, by a small group of anarchists.
It irritates me enormously that some small groups do feel that a protest is not a protest unless there's some criminal damage involved. In my view, that's not anarchism, but just vandalism; totally counter-productive, selfish and bloody stupid, because it buries the message. However, these groups numbered only a few dozen at most, on a day when half a million people marched peacefully in London.

(Update 4/4/11: This article was written in the immediate aftermath of the day, when my feelings were running high for many reasons. I've decided to leave it unedited, but would add that my initial irritation has subsided over the following week. I neither condemn nor approve of those who took part in damage to property on that day for political purposes, but I do feel it was unnecessary and counter-productive. Their actions have been blown out of all proportion and decontextualised by the media, and that is the point. Then again, I always strongly oppose the use of physical aggression against people - including the police. I note that most - though not all - of the physical aggression appears to have been initiated by police in riot gear).

On the other hand, UK Uncut has shown that there is a place for peaceful direct action. It works, it gets the right kind of attention and it magnifies the message, rather than burying it. This still carries the risk of arrest, of course. Indeed, many of my friends were arrested today after occupying Fortnum & Mason's in Piccadilly. I'm guessing this would be for the crime of 'aggravated trespass', which was invented by the last Conservative government mainly for use against ravers and anti-roads protesters in the 90s.

Moses only needed ten commandments. John Major added an 11th in 1994: 'Thou shalt not commit aggravated trespass'. Now, we all know not to covet each other's oxes, but I doubt many of us even know what 'aggravated trespass' means. It's amazing how many new crimes have been put on the statute books since then. The proliferation of such crimes makes a very telling counterpoint to the deregulation of the financial sector, the explosion of offshore finance and the opening of ever larger loopholes for tax avoidance. As ever, greater freedom for financial capital is accompanied by less freedom for people.

When histories are written, the protesters who were arrested for occupying Fortnum & Mason will be remembered as heroes, whilst the vandals will be forgotten. Tonight though, we have to contend with a lying, duplicitous media.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Postcard from Nassau

Sorry it's been a while since my last article and I feel it's time for a poem. I wrote this one a little while ago, as I was mulling over the detritus of the recent global financial crisis and also wondering how it related to the other events of the past decade. I tried to write something which succinctly illustrated how the threads of various themes have intertwined to create a coherent tapestry of the years from 2001 to the present day. I think I almost succeeded! This is about as close as I ever get to writing free verse, by the way:

Postcard from Nassau

Here am I 

hanging dollar bills out
in the sun to dry.
George and Tony send their love.
George says “Stop! It’s hammock time.”
“That guy kills me”, says Osama,
laughing like an AK47.
He’s playing Risk with Tony, who just smiles:
“How many virgins do you get in heaven?” 

We all love Osama –
more than virgins, more than beer,
more than liberals love Barack Obama.
If there’s a bond more powerful than love,
it’s fear.

Give my love to Lehman Brothers,
AIG and Goldman Sachs.
Praise be to Dick, and Paul - and Dick.
God bless Rupert and his hacks.
My golden parachute opened like an orchid,
petals stitched by tiny hands
chained in darkness in Shenzhen.
I can even hear the silkworms singing
“Here we go round the mulberry tree”,
in happy voices, thinking they are free.

They all love Osama –
more than virgins, more than beer,
more than buddhists love the Dalai Lama.
If there’s a bond more powerful than love,
it’s fear.


Notes: Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas, which is a tax haven, as well as being a tropical holiday isle. It also used to be a major centre for money laundering, drug running, gun running and tax evasion, until the Cayman Islands overtook it in the more dubious respects. Shenzhen is a free economic zone in Southern China, famous for its sweatshops, corruption and lack of workers' rights. I doubt silkworms stop to think much on the nature of freedom and their relationship to it, but I hope that the rest of us do. Dick and Paul and Dick are Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle. Oh, and Tony Blair is mainly famous for smiling ... and starting wars ... never play Risk with Tony.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Democracy, Hypocrisy and the Arms Trade

Last week, David Cameron showed that he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'democracy', when he described Kuwait as being one. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, since Cameron also wants to reduce the number of MPs in parliament by about 10%, thereby making every vote worth 10% less. If this is a good idea, then surely reducing the number of MPs by 100% would be ten times better? Still, the number of MPs is only one small factor in what determines the quality of a democracy. Merely having an elected parliament does not make a country 'democratic'.

Economist Intelligence Unit produces a comprehensive report on the state of democracy around the world, in which every country is scored on numerous indices, grouped into five major categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. It then produces an overall score and ranks countries by this, dividing them into four major groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. I must point out to Mr Cameron that Kuwait is, unsurprisingly, in the 4th division and designated as an authoritarian regime, according to the EIU, on a par with Morocco and Ethiopia, well below Russia and Pakistan (both in the 3rd division). On the plus side, Kuwait is doing quite well this season, in second place in the 4th division, so there is hope that it may some day get promoted to a 'hybrid regime'.

Cameron was trying to justify arms sales by saying that democratic countries were entitled to defend themselves. His extremely broad definition of 'democracy' makes it perfectly clear that we will, in fact, sell arms to absolutely anyone who wants them, for whatever purpose. Until a few weeks ago, we were still selling arms for internal repression to Bahrain and Libya. Bahrain is only 8 places below Kuwait and Libya is 10th from bottom of the world democracy league. Over the past three years, the UK has sold over £13 million worth of arms to Bahrain and
£73 million worth to Libya.

We have also sold over over
£1.85 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia over the same period, which is even below Libya in the league table. By the EIU's measure, there are only 7 countries in the entire world that are less democratic than Saudi Arabia, including the Central African Republic and rock bottom North Korea. If North Korea were to embrace capitalism and stop scaring its neighbours, we'd be selling arms to them too. The only reason we've temporarily stopped approving sales to Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain is that those countries are now in open revolt, which would make it a bit embarrassing. In short, they're all good friends and customers until their people rise up or they oppose our foreign policy interests, just as Saddam Hussein did. For more detail on these states and their reliance on Western arms sales, see this excellent blog post by Cafe Thawra.

What this illustrates is that there is absolutely no moral imperative when it comes to doing business. More importantly, there is no affinity whatsoever between capitalism and democracy. In fact, the two are often in conflict. If we want a thriving arms industry, we can have no moral qualms at all. Our foreign policy also has no ethical dimension and it has never had one, whatever self-righteous nonsense Tony Blair may have spouted about bringing democracy to Iraq. For the record, Iraq is still well short of being a democracy, and is now classed as a hybrid regime, bottom of the 3rd division, only two places above Kuwait: that's after a decade of occupation and a war costing countless lives. Things may be better than they were under Saddam, but not by all that much. Is Afghanistan doing any better? No. It's doing much worse: still classed as an authoritarian regime, one place above Sudan. It seems we're not very good at imposing democracy on the countries we destroy, which just confirms that spreading democracy has nothing to do with the reasons why we are there.

David Cameron's new-found enthusiasm for democracy in the Arab world is purely a response to media pressure and public opinion. It's all highly inconvenient, because until now we have been happily arming autocrats to the teeth. It's not that we don't have strict official guidelines for approving arms sales; it's just that we completely ignore them, in routine acts of nauseating hypocrisy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Britain itself is not as democratic a country as it should be. The UK only just makes it into the 1st division of 'full democracies', with a score of 8.16 (the threshold is 8). If we are not careful, we will follow two other big arms exporters, France and Italy, down to the 2nd division of 'flawed democracies'. One of the reasons why the UK is slipping towards the relegation zone, according to the EIU report, is that there has been an erosion of civil liberties in recent years, partly as a consequence of the spurious 'War on Terror'. Only South Korea and the USA score worse than the UK on civil liberties in the top division: this is New Labour's legacy. Likewise, the 'Land of the Free' turns out to be nothing of the sort. The other reason for the UK's poor rating is our pitiful record of low turn-outs in general elections and generally low level of political participation, no doubt due in part to our appallingly undemocratic voting system, which no other full democracy uses, apart from Canada and the US, which also has a problem of low participation.

So, when British and US leaders claim to support democracy in the Arab world, the hypocrisies are multiple: they show a total lack of understanding of what democracy means in its broad sense, both at home and overseas. Support for liberation movements in Egypt and Libya cannot coexist with support for absolute autocracy in Saudi Arabia, bolstered by arms sales. Nor should the erosion of civil liberties in the UK be used to excuse the fact that Israel, officially a 'flawed democracy', has a civil liberties record worse than that of Uganda. Israel may still be the only democracy in the Middle East; but that is mainly thanks to the support Western leaders have shown for tyrants. Contemporary events serve to expose these hypocrisies and we can only hope that they will lead to greater democracy here, as well as in the Arab world.

Addendum: If you want another example of hypocrisy, consider the oft-repeated fear of many Western commentators that the Arab uprisings will lead to Islamic fundamentalism in those countries. Now, guess which Islamic country is the most fundamentalist theocracy in the entire world, by far? Here's a clue: it's the same state to which the UK has sold £1.85 billion of arms in the past three years. Yes, Saudi Arabia again. The Saudi authorities make the Taliban look like a bunch of liberal atheists. Indeed, the Taliban took inspiration from Saudi Wahhabism. The West really doesn't give a hoot about fundamentalist Islam. It does give a hoot about whether these countries will support them in the UN, buy their arms and, most importantly, allow their oil companies to exploit their natural resources.