Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Watching the watchers

Last Wednesday, during the anti-tuition fees march, hundreds of people occupied Millbank (the location of Tory Party HQ) while thousands more cheered them on, in an amazing piece of direct action protest. While this was going on, a few people broke windows, there was a small amount of push-and-shove with the cops (with some students getting nastily batoned) and one person stupidly dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof (for which he was angrily booed by the crowd).

Rather than report this for what it was - an inspiring, largely spontaneous mass occupation with a bit of (understandable) property damage - most of the media chose to describe it as "a descent into violence", and sadly a lot of people who should know better (including the NUS President) seem to be parroting that line. I wish the fire extinguisher thing hadn't happened, but to condemn thousands of protesters for the action of a single person is disgraceful.

Many people who were there will now feel worried about becoming victims of a high-profile witch-hunt simply for taking part in a bit of civil disobedience. More windows get smashed on an average Saturday night in London than at Millbank on Wednesday, but elements of the media are treating it like the crime of the century, and launching vendettas against the people involved. The Government are about to gut the education system, strip away legal aid, privatise huge swathes of our public services and hurl millions of people out of work, off benefits and into poverty - we need to get our priorities straight here, and go after the Government, not the people who are standing up against the cuts!

I personally would not have broken the windows at Millbank. Property damage has its place as an activist tactic - for example, the "decommissioning" of arms factories, weaponry or bulldozers - but I suspect this particular occupation would have been more effective without it [3pm update - I've been reminded that the broken windows did achieve something useful by making the protest far more hard-hitting and high-profile - see the comments below]. However, I still want to support the people who did it - they were young people watching their future being stolen from them, and so were understandably angry (and, as this video shows, several of the windows were broken simply to let more people in). All of us who oppose the cuts should be looking to stand together in solidarity. To be successful, this anti-cuts uprising is going to need everyone, from polite letter-writers to marchers to occupiers, and while it's fine for us to debate tactics amongst ourselves - and sometimes disagree - we can't allow ourselves to be divided and ruled. Everyone who cares about stopping the cuts should show their support to the Millbank invaders.

One group who've been doing just that are FitWatch. They were originally formed in 2007 to prevent on-the-ground harassment of protesters by police "Forward Intelligence Teams" (FITs) - those officers who photograph and film you just for attending a demonstration or going to a meeting, and gather vast reams of intrusive information on campaigners. After the Millbank protest, FitWatch posted some advice on their website for anyone who was at the occupation and was worried about police harassment. The police responded this Monday by closing the FitWatch site down.

At which point, the social networks kicked into action. Within hours, hordes of outraged people had reposted the offending advice on their own websites, blogs, and Facebook pages. After a flurry of media coverage - i.e. a load of free publicity - the FitWatch site came back online today, only to seemingly be suspended once again. [Update at 3pm - the new Fitwatch site is working fine, it was just a "DNS transfer issue", apprarently. Woop!]

I'm told this is just a temporary glitch, and that some browsers just can't see the site yet. Hopefully that's correct, and the site will be visible to everyone soon. In the meantime, you can check out their advice to the Millbank protesters here. As lots of people have already reposted that one, I'm going to put up another FitWatch article that the police would rather you didn't see - all about the police trying to use the student demo as an excuse to return to the heavy-handed tactics that led to the death of Ian Tomlinson at last year's G20 protests:

Police seek to capitalise on student demo to justify further repression and their own budgets

Although the actions of the students last week were inspiring and empowering, it should come as no surprise the media savvy police are using it as an ideal opportunity to both fight back against cuts to their budgets and to counter the recent bad press regarding protest policing.

The NCDE domestic extremist units are claiming they have suffered in the cuts. Former head of NCDE, Anton Setchell has retired, and head of NETCU, Steve Pearl has been given the boot, and both have been replaced by a cheaper, junior model - Detective Chief Supt Adrian Tudway. Steve seems particularly upset about getting sacked and has been whining to the Telegraph about how, if he was still running the units, their intelligence on the riots would have been better.

As usual, he is talking nonsense. The police didn’t predict the disorder because it wasn’t planned; the march wasn’t hijacked. I read the same websites as the cops, I know lots of activists, the intelligence we all had before the demo would have been similar. Yes, there were rumours of civil disobedience, and autonomous blocs, but this is true of every major demonstration. It would certainly have been true on the entirely peaceful February 15 Iraq demo, and there was no particular reason to believe this would be any different.

This is a desperate attempt by an unpopular unit to appear relevant and we must not be fooled. NCDE are bleating about cuts when only a few weeks ago they were squandering money sending Ian Caswell to Plymouth to monitor and photograph Trident Ploughshares pacifists.

The lack of police action at the protest had nothing to do with the cuts. Ever since the bad publicity surrounding G20 and Kingsnorth Climate Camp, the MET have taken a softly softly approach towards protest, and it was always obvious that eventually this would fail and it would be used as an excuse to continue repressing and harassing protesters. One senior police officer, speaking to The Guardian admitted the protests had done them “a favour”, stating “In the past we have been criticised for being too provocative. During the next demo no one can say a word.”

The students who occupied Millbank are not domestic extremists, they are angry, brave and passionate people who care about what this government is doing to the country. They have grown up witnessing the futility of being herded from A to B and listening to the platitudes of irrelevant politicians.

Ordinary people are angry, with even a Daily Star poll showing the majority in favour of the students rioting. The fight back is on, people will not be repressed, and no amount of intelligence on the usual suspects from a redundant unit is going to make a difference.


merrick said...

I do think the breaking of windows was useful. Had that not happened it would've been an A to B march that nobody noticed. Whereas now there's a lot of talk about the impact of the fees, of the withdrawing of free education, of the level of anger with the cuts.

Tory HQ is about the best target I can think of - most people voted against their manifesto, and in turn that manifesto did not spell out the scale and speed of the cuts.

The dropping of a fire extinguisher was extremely stupid and should be condemned. It could have killed someone with a massive blow to the head. But it should also be put into context as one spontaneous action.

Imagine how we'd feel if the people on the roof had planned for days to take fifty fire extinguishers up and drop them. That's basically what the police did. Every truncheon blow to the head runs the same risk of death, but the police are doing it in a premeditated way on a far larger scale.

Danny said...

Yeah, I've been giving it some more thought and actually the broken windows sent a really important message - it's hard to think of a clearer way for those students to tell the Tory party what they think of their policies! I guess I'm just frustrated at the ludicrous media coverage of the broken glass - but as Jim Bliss points out in his blog ( they do only seem interested in covering protests where something gets broken or the police start hitting people.

I was feeling a bit more optimistic when I wrote the original post above, and was assuming that a mass occupation would be newsworthy in itself, without the broken glass - but having thought properly about past coverage of similar protests, now I'm not so sure!

Anonymous said...

A well measured and thoughtful article. No the fire extinguisher should not have been thrown and it was an act of crass stupidity. Someone could have got killed, and it was lucky no one died or seriously injured.

This was not the work of anarchist nor a mob out of control nor the work of a tiny minority. It was anger. The people slowly pushed forward, the police slowly pushed back, until access to the building was obtained. All to the cheering of those still outside.

What is a few broken windows to broken lives?

Nothing happened to justify the hysterical witch hunt that is being whipped up by the media.

The NUS leader is a creep. A carpetbagger looking for a safe parliamentary seat. He should be kicked out.

A far more measured approach by the leader of the London Students.

FIT intimidate by their surveillance, discourages people from attending demos.

From what I saw of the Fit Watch site before it was taken down was sensible advice: you have the right to remain silent, consult a lawyer. Hardly perverting the course of justice.

veganpanda said...

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

Mahatma Gandhi