Tag Archives: postaweek2011

Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

March 26 saw this country’s biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. Over 500,000 people marched through the streets of London, shutting down the capital, to protest the government’s ruthless austerity measures. A small group of protestors, known as Black Bloc, broke away from the main march and engaged in direct action including smashing the windows of banks and the Ritz hotel, and throwing paint and smoke bombs. The police retaliated with violence, and riots ensued in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

The right and the mainstream press have branded the Black Bloc “thugs”, “hooligans” and pariahs. The liberal left bemoans how they “ruined” the otherwise peaceful protest for everyone else. The radical left denounces any criticism of the group, espousing solidarity and unity, and defending their “legitimate anger.”

None of these narratives is accurate nor adequate.

Whether you agree with Black Bloc or not, we need to discuss their actions, try to understand why they did it, critically engage with it and then make a decision. Knee-jerk reactions whether from the right or the left are useless. Let’s start a conversation about this…

Property damage: the theory

The right argues property damage is violence. The left argues it isn’t violence.

For the right, property rights represent the fundamental cornerstone of a civilised society. The argument, dating back to John Locke, is that if property is privately, rather than collectively owned, it will be better cultivated and more productive. This will improve society for everyone.

For the left, property rights are the bane of any civilised society. They prevent human beings engaging with each other as human beings, rather than as owners, producers and consumers. We must abolish private property, the argument goes, so that we can all own the earth’s resources collectively; generating freedom for those who have been oppressed by the capitalists’ monopoly over property.

So for those on the right, an attack on property is an attack on society. For the left, an attack on property is legitimate and justifiable.

What’s the answer?

Well, there isn’t one. It’s up to you to decide what you think. The point is, however, in a liberal capitalist society where the majority believe in property rights, an attack on property will be interpreted as an act of violence. The question for the left is, do their opinions count or are principles more important?

The practice: a self-defeating tactic?

An important point to remember in all this, is that Black Bloc is not an organised group – it is a tactic. Anyone who dressed in black and masked-up on March 26 was a member. While clearly targets had been picked in advance – The Ritz for it’s connotations of capitalist hierarchy, the banks for causing the current economic crisis, Starbucks for its globalised corporate greed and banality, Anne Summers for its profiteering co-option of sex and its misogynistic advertising – the members of the group were not coordinated.

This lack of coordination, for me, is one of the fatal flaws of the Black Bloc tactic. Anyone could take part in it. While the left argue that everyone in Black Bloc was politically motivated, there is no way of knowing if this is true.  Unfortunately (at the risk of sounding like a right-wing reactionary) there are people who enjoy smashing stuff and engaging in violence against other people. To believe that people will only get involved in property damage for political purposes is naïve.  There is no way of knowing if such people will turn up ready for Black Bloc, and their actions (if ill-considered or simply out-of-control) could seriously damage the credibility of the anti-cuts movement. I’m not saying that this happened on March 26; but now that Black Bloc is not just a tactic known among left-wing radicals but is very prominent, it could easily be hijacked on future demonstrations. Everyone wears a mask – so there’s no way of knowing.

We saw on the November 10th demonstration, where 50,000 students marched through London, how the media focused on the actions of one person – Edward Woollard who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at Millbank.  One person’s ill-judged violent act stole the headlines and has etched itself on the public consciousness, firmly entrenching itself as the narrative of that protest.  In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement.  It could even be (and would likely be) an agent provocateur

A second problem comes back to the theoretical discussion: what’s more important – the opinions of the majority or Marxist or anarchist principles? Black Bloc defences of their tactics take the following line: all successful movements of resistance have used violence. Look at the Suffragettes, smashing windows, even using bombs, or the violence of The Chartists or the Poll Tax riots. Popular opinion didn’t matter then – it came later – and they were vindicated.

While I have sympathies with this argument, I’m not sure it applies now. Many people are getting active against the cuts – 500,000 marched in London and thousands more have been involved in UKuncut actions, university occupations and local anti-cuts groups. There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off. When the cuts start to bite, more and more people will want to engage in these already abundant activities. Violence, whether it is property damage, could scare them off.

What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right. Why did the government do a u-turn over selling-off forests? Because conservative constituents were against it. Why are they now back-tracking on the NHS reforms? Because traditionally conservative doctors are opposing it. Everyone, whether red, blue, yellow or non-affiliated, has good reasons for being against the cuts. Getting everyone involved and out on the streets will stop them. Violence – whether you consider it violence or not – will alienate all but the most committed activists.

The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear.  They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part.  It has already given Theresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers.  This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic.  While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just  a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying.  Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.

My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital.  If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.

More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…

This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors.  Everyone else has sided one way or the other.  What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend. This is my first tentative attempt at doing that. I hope to simply start the debate and I intend to write more on this as it develops.

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Filed under Democracy, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

Crackdown on Student Occupations

Another wave of student occupations has sprung up this week in the run-up to the national anti-cuts demonstration on March 26th. Media coverage has been scant – occupations are old news now, and the story is being eclipsed by Japan and Libya. But it’s time that the brutal crackdown on students became news.

On Tuesday, the police turned up en masse at Glasgow University to evict a small group of students occupying the Heatherington Research Club. The BBC reports there were 80 police officers, 18 police vehicles and a helicopter, to evict 15 students. There were clashes between the police and protestors. One woman allegedly had concussion and another was taken away in an ambulance. As the chaos mounted, more and more supporters of the occupation showed up, with around a hundred students protesting in the university quad in the afternoon.

Glasgow University Management has since sent an email to staff and students expressing their regret over the action. The Principal, Anton Muscatelli, has said that the events were “deeply unfortunate”. He claims that staff called the police in to peacefully end the seven-week occupation, but “Unfortunately that was not the outcome, and the police then took the actions that many colleagues and students witnessed. I regret this and the train of events that was set in motion. I fully understand the concerns that many of you have that the action was excessive and unnecessary.”

Why, however, would you call the police to peacefully end an occupation of fifteen students? What did he think would happen? Using excessive, disproportionate force is not the way to peacefully end a peaceful protest; it’s surely just asking for trouble.

At the UCL Occupation, university management is using psychological rather than physical force against students. The students are occupying the university registry (the administration wing) in solidarity with the University and Colleges Union (UCU) strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week.

Management responded by threatening students with disciplinary action and with the full imposition of legal fees arising from the occupation and any other costs they deem to have been incurred. Instead of taking legal action against “persons unknown”, as is the usual practice, they are claiming to have CCTV footage of individuals involved and they will hold each of them liable for the costs. The students tried to negotiate with management, but they have flatly refused to budge from their threats, prolonging what was supposed to be a short-lived occupation in support of the strike.

Clearly university managers across the country are getting tired of this year’s spontaneous wave of direct action. But instead of bullying students either physically or emotionally, why don’t they listen to what they have to say?

Students are standing up for educational establishments, so that they continue to receive state funding and that lecturers and other staff don’t lose their jobs and pensions. They are also standing up for future generations of students, so that they too can go to university and not be lumbered with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. They are fighting for their own futures, against austerity measures that will slash available jobs and gut the public and education sectors which many of them hope to go into.

University management surely has an interest in maintaining state funding. It also has a pastoral duty to its students, and responsibilities towards staff as employees. The universities should be supporting the student protestors, not blindly doing the government’s bidding. If management welcomed the protests and got behind them, it would make the whole movement more powerful and deeply challenge the government cuts to higher education.

Their heavy-handed, domineering responses violate their responsibilities to students and striking staff. It makes no sense for them to battle their students in this way. They need to be open, to listen and to stop using bully-boy tactics. And if they don’t, anyone supportive of the students must help fight their corner.

UCL Occupation are asking people to sign their petition to end management’s threats of victimisation of individuals.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests, Uncategorized

Consensus Decision-Making at the UCL Occupation

On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about education cuts entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” A resounding “yes” was the answer, and so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

But what did it mean to occupy a room? How long would we be there? What would we do next? Luckily, there were a few climate camp veterans among us, who swiftly took action and showed us how to organise.

The first thing we did was have a meeting. At this meeting we decided on our list of demands. Most importantly, however, we implemented the process that would drive the occupation until the end; in fact, we are still using it in our meetings now. That process is consensus-decision making.

What is consensus decision-making?

UCL Occupation

Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. There will be a few speakers for and against a topic, then questions from the floor, a chairperson to mediate all this, and finally a binding vote. If you are in the losing group, you simply have to accept that you lost and move on.

Consensus decision-making, by contrast, is non-hierarchical and inclusive. Typically, the group will sit in a circle formation, with a facilitator or two at the front (if there is a front!). The idea is that everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak; and because the set-up is in the round, it feels less intimidating than standing up in front of a panel of speakers and a room full of inquiring faces. Everyone is “in it together”.

Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. If just one person says, “I disagree, I veto this proposal”, then it won’t pass. We hardly ever encountered this at the occupation, because whenever there was a disagreement we talked it through until the proposal was sufficiently amended so that everyone agreed.

The role of facilitator is to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets their turn. The facilitator cannot make substantive comments themselves (although sometimes we did, but made it clear it was in a personal capacity rather than in the role of facilitator). They keep the meeting moving forward, may restrict the time of discussion for topics, try to draw out those who haven’t had their say and try to limit those who never shut up!

The participants use hand signals, rather than clapping, to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting. Waving your hands in the air (like jazz hands) shows approval. Waving your hands towards the floor is disapproval. And wavering hands, shows wavering support.

There are several tricks a facilitator can use to check the mood in the room. A “temperature check” is where they ask everyone in the room to do the appropriate hand signal for how they are feeling. This way they know that everyone in the room is engaged and whether it’s an appropriate time to “move to consensus” or whether to continue the discussion. When we move to consensus, we see if there is consensus on a proposal in the room. If there isn’t, the debate continues; if there is, the proposal passes.

Working groups

If we had tried to make every decision about everything, and discuss everything that needed to be discussed at General Meetings, the entire time would have been spent doing that. Instead, we designated working groups for particular topics. The core working groups emerged during the occupation as media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen.

Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. I think at one stage I was a member of about six working groups! Some people devoted themselves entirely to one working group for the whole occupation– such as a few dedicated members of the media team, the techie team who were the evil geniuses of the occupation, and the events team who assiduously organised a timetable of lectures, comedy and gigs to keep us entertained. Other people floated between groups, depending on the time they could give and their interests.

While working groups worked autonomously, if there was an important decision to be made they had to bring it to a General Meeting to get consensus. For example, camera crews frequently wanted to go on demos with us, so the media team would ask the general meeting if that was ok or not. The demands team worked on negotiations with management, so regularly fed back to the General Meetings projecting draft documents onto the big screen and adding amendments from the group until everyone was happy with it.

Why did it work?

This organisational model worked for several reasons.

Firstly, people joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost. If there were no working groups, a lone techie may have built us a website; but they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with a team, delegating specific tasks to those who could do it, and knowing who to talk to for info on media, events or demands.

Secondly, the general meetings provided an open forum for working groups to test their ideas but also for people who weren’t involved in those groups to have a say about what they were doing.

Thirdly, by getting consensus on decisions rather than voting, it meant we were all co-authors of the group’s actions. Nobody felt hard-done-by and no individuals could be blamed if something went wrong.

Everyone could have their say. It wasn’t about “experts” giving their opinions, or the usual suspects dominating debates; it gave the opportunity to those who wouldn’t normally speak to feel included and listened to.

Fifth, rather than stating your opinion on something and sticking to it, to open dialogue allowed people to listen, learn, change their mind, be persuaded and to persuade. The consensus decision-making model encourages open-mindedness.

Finally – no leaders! Because anyone could speak, make a proposal, facilitate a meeting, join a working group, suggest an idea, reject an idea, call a meeting, make an agenda or change the agenda, there were no leaders. Everyone was an equal part; at least, what you put in, you got out.

What are the drawbacks?

Ok, so this sounds amazing. Too good to be true even. There must have been some problems? And there were…

Meetings could go on forever! The meeting we had on the first night of the occupation lasted for four hours!!! However, this problem was ameliorated to an extent as the occupation progressed. The process was tightened up and amended to suit our group’s needs, and people learned what to expect from meetings and whether to bring something to the whole group or the relevant working group.

At times people got frustrated with the model. One night we had a one-and-a-half hour process group meeting debating whether or not to implement voting rather than consensus. A few people thought consensus meetings dragged on too long and that we weren’t making enough clear decisions. We had a trial of voting at the meeting the next night, but the group decided to stick with consensus.

Facilitating meetings could be a draining and unrewarding experience at times. If there were lots of people who repeatedly wanted to speak, it became a tricky question of whether to stop recognizing them.  There was also the problem of people being sneaky. To make a point, you simply raised your hand. But you could also make a direct factual point to correct someone’s comment (putting both hands in the air, with your index fingers parallel), or a technical point to mention something external to the meeting e.g. there’s a fire we need to leave (making a T shape). These hand signals were abused. Of course, as a facilitator you don’t know someone’s abusing them until they speak; but you still get the blame!

Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda and how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. Also, those in the media team who coordinated external communications also could have been seen in this light. Of course, anyone could join any working group, but these perceptions still emerged and occasionally caused friction.

Because a working group could be set up anytime on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them, with nobody knowing who belonged to what group and what the group was doing! This lack of coordination was important in terms of anonymity in the face of UCL management – they couldn’t pin anything on anyone. But it did become frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in outreach, for example, and had no idea who was in that group or where they were.

Finally, while the aim of the consensus model is to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, at times the discussions did come to be dominated by the same faces (and they were usually male). Some of the younger, female, and ethnic minority members of the group could feel a bit intimidated. On one occasion a group of three first-year women asked me to bring up a point at a meeting because they were scared of being shot-down by the vocal older men in the group. The facilitators tried their best to overcome these issues; but unfortunately you’re not going to overcome all of wider society’s nefarious power dynamics in two weeks no matter how inclusive you try to be.

Would I recommend it?

Before the UCL Occupation, I had chaired lots of meetings at school and university Model United Nations and debating societies; but I had never used the consensus decision-making model. After a little initial discomfort at the seeming lack of structure, I soon settled into it and now much prefer it over any model I’ve used before. While consensus cannot overcome the power relations of unequal societies, it is much better at doing this than traditional hierarchical models of meetings. The open discussions were fascinating and challenging. I frequently found myself changing my mind on issues based on what others had said, or discovering new ways of looking at things. The model really encourages you to see things from another’s perspective, to listen respectfully and respond honestly.

It can be a drawn-out process but ultimately I think it’s worth it. Consensus decision-making is truly democratic and avoids the dreaded tyranny of the majority. And despite the issues I raised with the model, the occupation’s success resided on the fact that we could bring all these issues up and discuss them openly; or at least set up a working group to deal with them! Best of all, consensus decision-making makes potentially boring meetings fun!

This is a longer version of a guest post for BeyondClicktivism.

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Filed under Democracy, Education, Student Protests

Gender based (state) violence: why the sexual infiltration of social movements is a violation of human rights

The police tactics right from the beginning of the student movement have been abominable.  They’ve kettled us, charged us with horses and beaten protesters with batons.   Police have patrolled university campuses.  They’ve infringed our civil liberties through only allowing protestors to leave a kettle by taking their photo.  They’ve infiltrated our lines of communication.  And they’ve consistently made out like we’re the out-of-control, violent ones.

But the revelations about police infiltrations of Climate Camp are taking the infringement of rights to new and profoundly disturbing levels.  According to a Guardian interview with a former undercover agent, police officers were ‘cleared’ to have sex with activists.  This is wrong.  This is very, very wrong.  Why?

1. Consent and rape law

Sex without consent is rape.  The definition of consent in UK law is “if she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”.  The victim must have had the freedom and capacity to make the choice of whether she wanted to have sex with the man in question.  If the perpetrator is knowingly concealing their identity they are withholding relevant information from the woman, thereby reducing her capacity to make an informed and free choice.

The women and men who had sex with undercover officers may well have consented at the time.  But they consented on the basis that the person they were having sex with was a fellow activist – someone they thought they knew and could trust.  The police officers were lying about their identity; the activists didn’t know they were having sex with police officers.

‘Rape by deception’ or ‘rape by fraud’ is outlawed in several states in the USA.  “The rationale is that the identity of the victim’s sexual partner is part of the act to which the victim consents” (Christopher and Christopher, 2007).

The traditional paradigm for deciding whether fraud vitiates consent, constituting rape, is the distinction between “fraud in the factum” and “fraud in the inducement”.  Fraud in the factum means that the victim consents to the act X, but the perpetrator in claiming to do X, does Y instead.  For example, if a doctor penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis, claiming it is a medical instrument, it is fraud in the factum.

Fraud in the inducement means where the victim is fraudulently induced into the act X, and the perpetrator does X.  For example, if a doctor claims that having sex with the victim is of medical benefit.

Fraud in the factum legally constitutes rape in many US states.  Fraud in the inducement does not.  However, modern rape law is changing because there is an emerging consensus within US legal theory that this distinction is arbitrary.  Its influence is dissipating and some legal jurisdictions refuse to acknowledge it, arguing that all types of fraud used to obtain sex are illegal.  The feminist lawyer, Susan Estrich, has influentially argued that the same restrictions that apply to fraud to obtain money should also apply in rape law.  Also, the recognition that rape constitutes an infringement of sexual autonomy, rather than constituting a crime of violence, supports this shift in the definition of consent.

As far as I am aware, rape by fraud is not an offence in UK law.  Although deception of a person with a mental disorder to procure sex is a criminal offence and can result in life imprisonment.

There are strong reasons in favour of criminalizing rape by fraud.  Even if you don’t agree with the criminalization of this act, it’s hard to argue that it is not immoral.  And even if you don’t agree that it was immoral, there are other factors at play in this specific case.

2. Human Rights

The primary role of the state is to protect its citizens.  However, states can and have used the power entrusted in them against their own citizens.  Human rights are restrictions on the state to protect individuals against unjustified interference by the state, or to enable citizens to make claims on the state to fulfil their basic needs.  They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is binding in international law.

The police force is an instrument of state power used to coerce citizens to protect other citizens.  Police officers are agents of the state.  As such, they have violated the following human rights:

Article 3.Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

‘Security of person’ meaning not to be physically violated by state agents.

Article 5.No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Using people for sex to gather information is cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Article 18.Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Members of left-wing and environmental movements have been denied their freedom of thought and conscience, to the extent that police think they can physically exploit them to garner information.

Article 19.Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

We all have the right ‘to hold opinions without interference.’  The police infringed this right by interfering sexually and emotionally with activists.

Article 20.(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

People at Climate Camp had the right to assemble peacefully.  The police violated this right by covertly infiltrating the movement.

Article 28.Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

The UK government is not providing a social order where our human rights can be fully realized if state agents are secretly infiltrating protest groups and having sex with people to get information.

Article 29.(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

The only limitations to our human rights must be determined by law and must be grounded in protecting the rights and freedoms of others – having sex with activists under false pretences is not legal and protects the rights of nobody.

So, the state has violated SEVEN fundamental human rights.  This is illegal.  It is a violation of international law.

3. Motivation

Why would the police violate individuals’ human rights in this way?  What motivated them?  A possible explanation is that they are trying to undermine these movements in the eyes of the general public.  Consider this quote from the article:

“As regards being with women in very, very, very promiscuous groups such as the eco-wing, environmental movement, leftwing, or the Animal Liberation Front – it’s an extremely promiscuous lifestyle and you cannot not be promiscuous in there.”

In any group of people you will get promiscuous, averagely sexually active, non-promiscuous, and abstentious (by choice or by chance) individuals.  To claim that certain social movements (all dissident movements) are extremely promiscuous is absurd.  This is a political move to make us look ‘bad’ in the eyes of the moral majority.

This ridiculous claim also provides the police officers with a ready excuse to have sex with as many activists as possible.  Both for their own pleasure and to get as much information as possible.

4. Sexual exploitation by the state

Sex was seen as entirely instrumental to uncovering information about the movement – “Sex was a tool to help officers blend in, the officer claimed, and was widely used as a technique to glean intelligence.” It was a “tool” for the exploitation of activists to further police ends.  The instrumental use of women’s bodies (sexual exploitation) to gather evidence against them.

Imagine how you would feel if you were used in this way.  Humiliated?  Degraded?  Like you’d let your friends down?  Ashamed?  Sullied?  Used?  Exploited?  Traumatised?  Violated?  Even if you don’t believe this was rape by fraud, this doesn’t sound like a consensual sexual experience to me.  This sounds like exploitation by the entity that is supposed to protect you.

It is up to each of the affected parties to determine how they feel about and define what has happened to them.  From a moral perspective they were induced to have sex by fraud, and from a human rights perspective their rights have been violated by the state.  If they wanted to argue that they have been raped and their human rights violated, I believe they would be perfectly justified in doing so, and they can certainly argue they have been sexually exploited by the state.

5. The Feminist Perspective

Feminists have argued for decades that the state is gendered, and its gender is male.  The state is male because it was created by men, for men, to further men’s interests.  This seems obvious when you consider that women only recently, historically speaking, have been granted the same rights as men – such as the right to vote or own property – or were protected by differentiated legislation that took into account their specific needs – legislation against marital rape, discrimination in the workplace and the equal pay act.  For women’s voices to be heard and our interests taken into account we have had to fight and fight and fight… and the battle continues.

The Guardian article claims that both male and female officers were sanctioned to have sex with activists.  But so far, the only police that have been revealed as being involved have been men and I would hazard a guess that the majority of police officers engaged in this particular activity were men.  I don’t have evidence for this.  I cannot verify it.  But I would be extremely surprised if the majority of these cases didn’t involve male officers (maybe I’ll be proved wrong, we’ll see…)

If it turns out to be the case that this was a majority male activity, from a feminist perspective, it represents the move from the metaphorical violence of the male state against female citizens to the actual physical, sexual violation of women’s bodies to maintain state control and dominance.  Of course, the male state regularly turns a blind eye to gender-based violence – the conviction rate for rapists in the UK is 6%, and police rarely prosecute for ‘domestic’ violence despite the fact 1 in 4 women will experience it in their lifetime.  But state agents violating women’s bodies to glean information in order to better control dissent is an utterly shocking violation of women’s rights. It is the ultimate means of the dominance, pacification, and coercion of women citizens.

For all these reasons, the undercover infiltration of social movements and the sexual abuse of their members is wrong – morally and legally.  The police have raped citizens, violating fundamental human rights.

Some of the women involved are considering legal action.  They hope to prosecute the police officers and their superiors for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.  The courts will not recognise this as rape.  They will probably not recognise the violations of human rights involved.  They will definitely not link it to wider structures of male domination in society, or recognise the attempt to undermine leftwing movements’ reputations.  But that does not mean all these dimensions of this crime do not exist.  They do.  This should not be going on in a liberal democracy, not in any country.

Links: http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/index.php

http://www.thehavens.co.uk/

http://www.womensaid.org.uk/

http://www.eaves4women.co.uk/

Protest Mon 24 Jan – http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=140764372651295&index=1

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Filed under Gender Based Violence, Human Rights, Student Protests

The leaders on EMA

The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a small weekly means-tested grant for college students of £10, £20 or £30.  It was brought in by the Labour government to provide an incentive for the most disadvantaged school students to stay on in education.  It costs £560million per year.  Money well spent?  This is what the leaders of the three main parties had to say about it…

The Tories – Prime Minister David Cameron

Supports EMA? Yes


Labour – Ed Miliband

Supports EMA? Yes


Lib Dems – Deputy PM Nick Clegg

This party election broadcast doesn’t specifically mention EMA.  But I found on the website The Student Room a comment on EMA written by Nick Clegg in September 2010.  In it he says he would scrap EMA bonuses (a £100 bonus giving to EMA recipients if they go to all their classes and perform academically) but that it’s important for ‘fairness’ that weekly EMA payments are maintained –

“EMA bonuses have been stopped, allowing us to pay the weekly EMA to more young people. We think that is the right way to distribute the money at a time when big reductions are needed in public spending. In terms of financial support beyond 2010/11, we’ll be considering longer term arrangements as part of the wholesale review of public spending that is being conducted this autumn. With the nation’s books in such a bad state we now have to look at every single pound Government is spending to make sure that absolutely none of it is wasted, making sure we use it in a way that reflects the things that we, as a society, believe in. That includes greater fairness in our education system.”

Supports EMA? Yes

 

So, they certainly used to think EMA is worth the money.  And the stats back them up.  In a poll commissioned by UCU in which 713 EMA recipients were questioned, 70% said they would drop out of their course if the grant was withdrawn.

Here we have seen the leaders of the three main political parties – three privileged white men – standing up for the most disadvantaged school students in the country.  We’ll see what they really think and who they really stand up for in the Commons tomorrow…

 

Please surprise us MPs!

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Debunking the Daily Mail Myths

There is a ‘common sense’ view that currently prevails in the UK about university education.  I’m calling it the ‘Daily Mail’ view.  It consists of three myths:

1. Too many students go to university.

2. Too many people have degrees making it harder to find skilled jobs for everyone.  A degree is paradoxically essential and useless.

3. Most students waste their time at uni drinking, partying, getting STDs and not really doing much work – all at the taxpayers’ expense.

In conversations about the protests, I have encountered all of these arguments.  They are all myths.  Here, I want to provide you with the counter-arguments so that next time you come across one of these myths, you will know how to destroy it.

Myth 1 – Too many students go to university

Thinking that too many students go to university represents a particular view of education.  For proponents of this view, education has purely instrumental value.  The value of education is its ability to lead to a job and generate economic growth.  This logic is repeatedly asserted in the Browne Report.

The ability of a university degree to get a person a job and improve economic growth is only one of its values.  Education has further instrumental values.  People with higher levels of education are more likely to be healthy and to be satisfied with their work and leisure time.  Education creates citizens who are publicly engaged – the higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote and to volunteer (i.e. take part in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’).

Education makes society safer.  More than 50% of male offenders and 71% of female offenders in the UK have no qualifications.  Nearly half of prisoners have literacy skills below level 1 and 65% have numeracy skills below level 1.  Education improves a person’s chances in life and sense of self-worth, making it less likely they will turn to crime.  Also, education can generate a new start for those in prison: skills, training and knowledge can turn lives around.  As Victor Hugo put it, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

However, education has more than mere instrumental value – it has intrinsic value.  It is a good in itself.  The value of education cannot be quantified.  Education does more than prepare a young person for a particular job, or provide a means to a safer society or a more engaged citizenry.  Lest we forget…

Universities are for education not job preparation.

Many people study for a degree out of interest or curiosity.  A degree in Art History or American Literature, for example, could be a way of exploring a life-long interest in the subject.  This is particularly true of mature student, who aren’t necessarily doing a degree for career advancement but out of interest.  With tuition fees rising to £9000 a year for undergraduate study, what mature students will burden themselves with that debt if they have a family to look after or a mortgage to pay?  A degree will become a luxury that only rich curious people can afford.

I want to point out that this is not an elitist argument; I am not saying that people with higher education are somehow better.  The point is, everyone should have the choice to partake in higher education.  People learn in different ways and university isn’t for everyone.  But universities are sites of learning from which nobody should be excluded, and they certainly shouldn’t be excluded because they can’t afford it.  Education benefits the individual and society: it should be encouraged and it should be accessible for everyone.

Myth 2 – Too many degrees distorts the jobs market

It does seem to be true that employers increasingly require candidates to have a degree, and yet lots of people with degrees can’t get jobs.  Any graduate scrambling around for whatever temp or bar work they can get will attest to this.  But there are two points here.

Firstly, we’re in a recession! Getting a job is hard for everybody.  Degree or no degree, it’s tough out there.  And unfortunately, this is only going to get worse.  With the government slashing public sector jobs, redundancies are going to be a big feature of 2011 – mainly redundancies for women as they make up the majority of public sector, part-time and temporary workers.  Not only that, but the drastic cuts are going to slow economic growth because there will be higher unemployment, therefore less people paying tax and spending money, making overall recovery slower.  If the government invested in job creation (Keynesian economics 101) we would get out of recession quicker.

Also, recent graduates are finding it hard to get work not because they have a degree, but because they don’t have enough work experience.  This is due to age, not educational attainment.  This is why the young get hit hard in a recession.  You could reply that young people should therefore spend less time in education and get into the job market quicker, but this leads to my second point…

My argument in the previous section was that education is about learning not job preparation.  Students get value from their degree that doesn’t necessarily translate into getting a job…

There is no such thing as too many degrees!

And anyway, if people stopped going to university and went into the job market quicker, the job market would still be saturated, just with less qualified people.

Myth 3 – University students are just out for a piss-up

Dismissing students as sponging layabouts in contrast to hard-working “tax-payers” is typical of late-capitalist society.  This devaluation of the role of ‘student’ finds parallels in the devaluation of other social groups.  For example, single mothers that live on state benefits are viewed as spongers depending on the welfare state, having increasing numbers of children just to exploit well-meaning tax-payer.  Not only that, but they’re probably committing benefit fraud, just to screw the middle-classes even further.

In late capitalist societies, where the market economy is valued above all else, any activity that is founded in a different value-system from “the bottom-line” is considered deviant, unwanted and unsuccessful.  Hence child-rearing (an obviously essential part of any society if it is to reproduce itself) is assigned a second-class status.  Similarly, studying (an activity based on intellectual or personal development) is deemed a parasite on society.  Learning?  Thinking critically?  Creativity?  Why would we want that?

This is unless, of course, education is re-conceptualised as a necessary evil that citizens endure before becoming profit-producing members of the formal economy.  If we re-conceive education in these terms it becomes useful to market capitalism.  And if going to university is extortionately expensive, only those members of society who are economically profitable can afford it; hence eliminating the unwanted elements from social advancement (economically unproductive reproducers, artists and thinkers).  This is exactly how the Browne Report perceives education.

The status war against certain groups is, therefore, unsurprising.  Undermining students supports the government’s argument for restructuring economic distribution – why would such a non-valuable group as students require state support?  If they are “successful” enough (i.e. earn enough money) they’ll be able to pay for their own education.

To fight this insidious tactic…

Students must reassert their value.

We have to find confidence in the work that we do and maintain both its intrinsic value and the value it has socially.  It is true that there are students who are just out for a good time.  But they get kicked out, or get terrible grades which bites-them-in-the-ass in the job market or if they want to study further.  I have worked extremely hard for my education.  And I defy anyone to study fulltime and work two jobs, and tell me that’s an easy life.

So, there you have it.  The Daily Mail myths are founded in an instrumental, economistic view of education (surprise, surprise!).  This short-sightedness is a product of our era.  But we must resist it.  Next time you have these myths beaten down your throat, you will know how to fight back!

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Lessons from NetrootsUK

Inspired by the success of the American movement Netroots Nation, UK blogs and organisations False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC, amongst others, decided to organise the first NetrootsUK conference.  The aim was to harness the power of the progressive left blogosphere and online anti-cuts activism.

The conference was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips, and to network in person.  After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share some suggestions:

1. Scrap plenaries – the first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches).  The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy).  These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead.  However, it had exactly the opposite effect.

The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people.  For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation.  Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.

2. Representativeness – There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’  What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism.  One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum.  Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.

Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing.  There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference.  I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.

3. Participation – The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering.  The workshop sessions varied on this.  Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led.

Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice.  For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security.  Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.

However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based.  Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event.  In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed.  In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together.  Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.

4. Don’t become London-centric – It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based.  However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.

5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions – In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’  The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there.  We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this.  As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement.  It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.

And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post.  NetrootsUK was a great event.  I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks.  This is all really positive stuff.  But in every event there are lessons to be learned.  That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions.  We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda.  However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.

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