Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How to direct action?

I couldn't make it to the protest in London last Saturday (stupid charity meetings), though I understand it went quite peacefully. For my part this comes as good news as it means that none of my friends got beaten up (as far as I know, haven't actually heard from everyone who I know was there since Saturday...) though not everyone agrees. This post describes itself as "an intervention in defence of direct action", thought it is specifically defending the tactics of the "black bloc" protest movement.

I'll come to the tactics employed by different groups in a second, but I feel that the poster starts badly, by describing their fellow marchers as, "supposed comrades" [emphasis mine]. Surely it makes sense to embrace, not alienate these people, for as long as we have a common cause? Especially when 138 of the 147 protesters being charged by the police were involved in the peaceful direct action at Fortnam & Mason. While the poster argues that, "The dichotomy between “protester” and “anarchist” or “troublemaker” is entirely false" these words are not synonyms (neither UK Uncut nor the TUC is anti-capitalist), and if politicians and capitalist commentators can still disagree on the very nature of the situation but still protest under the same banner, are the anarchists really unable to? It seems like a shame, especially when UK Uncut specifically ask them to. And did the poster really expect everyone who came to the march to get involved in violent direct action? Even those who brought their kids, or came in their wheelchairs, or to protest at cuts to their pensions?

Putting any such considerations aside though, what would be the ideal level of protest? If the protest really has had no effect on government policy, even those of us who want to work with the current system must surely acknowledge its limitations? Perhaps it serves well to raise awareness, but if as Vince Cable says the government is consulting with trade unions does this make us the suffragettes to their more-effective-but-less-glamourous suffragists? UK Uncut claim to be hitting organisations where it hurts (their wallets) by closing business for a period of time, and acts of peaceful disobedience to the law have a long-established and respected pedigree - Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr. And clearly they're rattling cages, or the police wouldn't have made so many arrests.

But what for those of us who want to change the system, not its current manifestation? Violent resistance has an equally long list of heroes - Judas Maccabeus, Robin Hood, Malcolm X - and the tactics of the black bloc are very clearly deliberate, down neither to "mindless hooliganism", nor to being "out of control", nor even to a wish to "vent frustration", all of which I've seen suggested in the past few days. The police are the obvious body to be the target of this violence, and our poster considers the police operation have been a success because they "[meted] out so many more injuries to protesters than were sustained". But the Police were protesting too, and here again is the risk of alienating potential allies in the current battle of a longer campaign. So is this form of violent protest wrong? And if it's wrong in the UK, why are we supporting it in Libya?

There are peaceful ways of changing regimes, but they are longer and slower. If anarchists believe that the current system is causing suffering then they may see themselves as having a duty to act as quickly as possible, but that doesn't mean that other methods don't work, or that they should be dismissed and ridiculed. People exercising the power they have to effect change within the constraints of the law should be encouraged not reviled, or else they'll stop. As Alice Walker said, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Still no size 15 heels though.

I'm not averse to standing out for a good cause. A few years ago I dressed as a clown for Comic Relief (and so that I didn't have to do any work for the day). A couple of years ago I spent a day wearing an orange jumpsuit for Amnesty International (and to embarrass my sister and assorted Archbishops). Pictures of both are available on Facebook, if anyone cares to look.

This year for Comic Relief the staff and pupils at my school were invited to wear something red for Comic Relief. I had been planning to revisit my clown outfit, but found that it is with my parents at the moment, which didn't actually leave me with anything red in my wardrobe. Which was disappointing. Fortunately, some of the other male staff had already agreed to have themselves made up by the girls during morning break, so I joined in to raise more money. The girls had provided red lipstick, red nail varnish and glittery eye make-up (as well as red hairspray, which I declined on the grounds that my hair is already red, and that it would clash. Which would have looked ridiculous).

This was, of course, a lot of fun. The first thing we all did was to traipse off late to staff briefing, leaving the Headmistress standing open-mouthed mid sentence, which was entertaining. She later stopped again to tell me, "Nik, I've just noticed your eyes...", which someone later swears was accompanied by a coy flutter of the eyelashes. Not convinced myself, but hey. The rest of the day went in much the same manner - girls who I was teaching gawped for a while, a singer who I was accompanying at a recital that evening stopped herself mid-sentence to ask what was going on, and even my French housemate asked me somewhat tentatively when I was still wearing it the following day (funnily enough I don't own any nail polish remover myself).

But what really got me was my own reaction to the nail varnish. It turns out that hands are a body part which we see quite a lot, and almost every time I did I did a mental double-take, trying to work out whose hands they were. Putting on a seat belt, drinking a pint, but especially playing the piano or organ. At the organ, as well as getting a thumbs up from one of the RS staff for playing The Kinks' "Lola" as a recessional, I kept having short internal dialogues which went something like this;

"Playing a hymn, playing a hymn..."
[glance down]
"Oh. I wonder who's playing the organ. Must be my Mum or my boss."
"Oh no, wait, it's me. I remember."

It wasn't long enough to disrupt the playing (I don't think), just a very strong inability to mentally identify them as my hands, because they so clearly belonged to a woman. They're big and not especially elegant, but the red nails clearly marked them out as female. This sense of disassociation was obviously very unnerving, far more so than fielding questions from the girls about being gay or being a "tranny" (and yes, I did correct their use of language in that instance). I was slightly nervous about going to the pub after the recital, and about going to Tesco, but not enough to make me reconsider going. But briefly glimpsing the hands tying my shoelaces? Stopped me in my tracks.

There aren't any answers or questions here, just musings. And I'm not saying that it would stop me doing it again of course...but I really didn't like the lipstick. Felt all manky. And I had to take it off to play the bassoon anyway. Maybe I should just stop at the eye make-up.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Excuses excuses.

Eight years after the start of the Iraq war, International forces (surely calling them, "Western forces" is nonsensical while Qatar is considering getting involved?) have become involved in Libya. Precipitated by the breaking of a declared ceasefire, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have emphasised the unilateralism of the action, the latter stating, "British forces...are part of an international coalition to enforce the will of the United Nations." He also underlinedthe legality of the action, presumably to head off any comparisons with the Iraq war. He mentioned the support of the Arab league, as well as the UN.

So is this wide-ranging agreement the tipping point? Cameron postured but didn't interfere when Gaddafi's troops marched steadily eastwards, with the Colonel talking about taking Benghazi (the heart of the uprising), "house by house". But nobody has interfered in Bahrain, in spite of Saudi and UAE troops being brought in to suplement the Bahraini military quelling protests against the regime. The UN human rights chief has condemned the reported "arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces", but there has been no emergency summit to draft resolutions. Neither has anyone interfered in Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo who lost a democratic election has refused to step down. His supporters recently shelled a market killing dozens of civilians, an action with the UN has now called a "war crime".

So if the condemnation of the UN isn't the green light, what is? Cameron has further justified action in Libya by saying, "We have all seen the appalling brutality meted out by Col Gaddafi against his own people", adding that it is a "just cause" and in "Britain's best interests". I'm not convinced that the "appalling brutality" has much to do with it. Where is the action against North Korea, which has a ridiculously long list of human rights violations, including (according to Human Rights Watch) "routine public executions [and] the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people, including young children"? What about a country whose treatment of asylum seekers is so bad that it has to use tear gas to subdue their protests, as Australia did this week? What about countries which stand accused of colluding in the torture of its own citizens, like the UK? Do we really believe that we are fighting in Libya because it is a just cause, and we are not fighting elsewhere because there are no others?

Which leaves us with this conflict being in Britain's best interests. Both Obama and Cameron were elected on a promise to withdraw troops from existing theatres of war, so this long-range support for an already existing military force is an easy way of being the good guys. The UN resolution does not talk about regime change, but about enforcing the will of the Libyan people, and while Hilary Clinton has talked about a "unified" Libya, and Cameron about getting rid of Gaddafi, the military means to carry this out has not yet been discussed (publicly at least).

Perhaps we shouldn't be interfering at all. We've supported militia groups from a distance before, whether the defeated Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War or the victorious Taliban in 1980s Afghanistan, and to say that it turned out well would be something of a lie. But if we are going to get involved we have to know why we are doing it, and what we are doing. Hypocrisy has been a terrible sin for thousands of years, and life being unfair is almost the first complaint we learn as children.

In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers will be in Libya; not so much with the foreign military in their modern technology and at their great distance, as with the people on the ground, who will care about the long-term political implications of what is happening as much as we will care who buries them.