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Showing posts with label protest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label protest. Show all posts

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Defend Education's Demonstration and the Aftermath

Photo © 2014 James Phillips

The protest at the University of Birmingham had its troublemakers, but we should make sure not to accuse everyone there of violence and vandalism, and should recognise all of those at fault in this multi-faced debate.

This post is going to be very different from my others and will describe Wednesday’s events and aftermath from a very personal perspective. Attending the event as a journalist reporting for the University newspaper, Redbrick, I became subject to the same treatment as the protesters I was with. Although I sympathise completely with the demands of Defend Education, my attendance at the protest was as a completely impartial reporter. This article, posted on my personal blog, is a true account of my thoughts and feelings about the day.

The demonstration was never going to be a peaceful protest. It is almost impossible to actually hold a peaceful protest – one where aggression is absent – because of the passion that drives such events. Here it was anger towards the university at their continual attempt to shut down political conversations, anger at their choice to spend £60,000 on injunctions rather than raising the wage of the lowest-paid employees, and anger at the initiation of disciplinary procedures against six randomly selected students from the peaceful occupation of the Senate Chambers last year. This aggression cannot be held back otherwise the protest would be pointless. However, the physical aggression we saw from both sides – the protesters and the security staff – was unnecessary, damaging for the group’s reputation and a major set back for this opportunity for change. We only have to look at how close the group's demands came to becoming part of the Guild of Students' Beliefs and Commitments to understand this.

Defend Education’s potentially game-changing demonstration was hijacked, as we have seen multiple times before, such as at the 52,000-person strong march against tuition fees in London in 2010, which ended in the violence at Millbank. What could have been a loud march around campus, even ending in a new occupation or a strengthening of the existing one, was immediately ruined by the minority who chose to break into the campus’ well-loved icon: Old Joe clock tower. If there was one thing that the demonstration could have done to annoy the majority of students at the University, it was the defacement of this beloved symbol – the graffiti painted on to the base of the tower has angered even those students who would have ended the day still completely oblivious to this growing campaign. The unfurling of a 50-foot banner from the top of the clock tower, a clever move, would have been accepted, but this vandalism won’t be forgotten or forgiven. We are already seeing a rallying call for a clean up operation much like that seen in the aftermath of the London Riots of 2011. This act has unified students against the campaign group, rather than with the group.

To add salt to this injury, the demonstration moved around campus trying to gain access to the Aston Webb building through multiple entrances. The use of smoke grenades and fireworks to cause disruption (I can only assume in an attempt to cause confusion that could be used to gain access) was another step too far and any aggression from the security staff in response is overshadowed by this fact. Spectators will say that the security staff were only defending themselves and the University buildings from this threat. Maybe this is correct, but the level of aggression from the staff was disproportionate, and only angered protesters even more. When students are being allegedly shoved to the ground, some by their hair, this obviously exceeds what would be categorised as a proportionate response. So, noone is off the hook here: those who threw the smoke grenades and fireworks, and the security staff who violently responded are as equally as bad as each other. The eventual entry to the Great Hall did involve the violent breaking down of a rear entrance to the Hall, and this is certainly another example of actions that have damaged the campaigning group’s image, but we must remember that damage to property is trumped by the damage to persons that we had already witnessed, and were still yet to witness.

We must remember, however, that a small and unknown minority of the protesters committed these violent acts and that we cannot simply lump the entire demonstration into the same group. Arguably, the others are complicit in their acts by continuing to demonstrate and not distancing themselves from the actions but after some meticulous planning and large-scale coordination, to abandon the protest would have disheartened many in the movement and was simply not an option.

Once in the Great Hall, aside from the construction of a barricade made from equipment set-up for the Give It A Go Fair (another action that meant sympathy with the campaign was lost from students, although it’s not entirely clear whether protesters knew this was the case), the group were entirely peaceful, simply singing songs and co-ordinating next steps, despite the intimidation tactics used by security staff filming from overlooking balconies.

The arrival of the police caused a further loss of morale from those in the protest. As we were forced to stand outside in the cold and rain, without access to food, drink or toilet facilities or several hours, tensions heightened, protesters became agitated and some became unwell. Despite our pleas for some humanity, we were detained with no charge, and some who needed medical attention were refused it. The police can deny it was a kettle as much as they like but if one goes by its definition – the containment of protesters within a police cordon, with police deciding when and how protesters can leave – it is most definitely what happened on that dismal evening. Those who had committed the crimes that we were accused of – aggravated trespass, criminal damage, assault -, those who were just protesting and those who were there reporting, were all considered as guilty as each other. As a condition of leaving the kettle, we were all (illegally) given a choice: to give our details to police, or to be immediately arrested and taken to the police station. 13 people chose the latter, and ended up spending up to 30 hours in detention for a refusal to give over their names. This use of illegal tactics immediately put the group at a disadvantage and shows another classic example of intimidation tactics, designed to dissuade people from taking part in these legitimate activities again.

We must also take into account the University’s attempt to play psychological games with the protesters and other students, using divide-and-rule tactics. The University’s plea for sympathy over social networks and the follow-up message from the Vice-Chancellor now dominate the market for empathy from students. While students at the protest were being detained, charged and taken to court, unable to defend themselves on campus, the University slyly and successfully continued its campaign to discredit the group and, thus, their demands.

Hence, this leads me to my final point. It is incredibly disappointing that the Guild of Students, a union designed to represent students, support students, and fight for better conditions for staff and students at the University, has taken the stance it has. Having read through the President’s personal statement, I can agree with her that the way her distress was ignored by protesters was appalling and that should not be tolerated. But, similarly, those within the police kettle who needed medical attention were ignored. The censure of the Vice President (Education) at the Guild Council took place without the Vice President being able to defend herself and ignores the mandate on which she was elected: to fight against fees and cuts, and for better student representation. Of course, this latter point is a matter of interpretation, but this is the Vice President’s interpretation of mandate and, on that basis, she was fulfilling it. Further, she was doing the Guild’s job and supporting those students who had been illegally arrested, whilst the Guild ignorantly condemned the entire group of protesters.

Despite being a supporter of Defend Education and their demands, I agree that the demonstration was an appalling display. The violence and vandalism that happened had no place within the remit of a peaceful protest. Protesters did themselves, and the cause, no favours by resorting to it. The movement’s growing credibility was destroyed that evening when the clock tower was defaced, security staff were assaulted and an event designed for the benefit of students was postponed. This is not to say, however, that everyone at the demonstration is to blame, but just the minority who had their minds set on vandalism and violence from the start. Furthermore, the reaction from security staff, the university and the illegal arrests made by police show that they behaved just as inexcusably on, and prior to, the day. This is not an event that should be, or will be, forgotten.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Last Night's Protest was More Than Fireworks at the Palace

It is far from the status quo, but anti-austerity protestors are beginning to find their feet in the world. 

Anonymous activists and supporters took to London and other cities across the world last night to demonstrate their increasing anger and frustration with the longstanding ruling elite. Among them was Russell Brand, recently announced a revolutionary, and Caroline Lucas. Green MP for Brighton.

Protestors took to central London last night smartly donning the mask inspired by Guy Fawkes beginning a Bonfire to Austerity (literally) on Westminster Bridge. Their protest was one of many over recent years that aims to highlight the corruption of mainstream politics, the disgusting destruction of the environment and the malice of the banking industry. These are the people that Russell Brand gave an increased public voice for last week in his widely watched interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

These are incredibly important points; as dissatisfaction with politics continue, and people become more apathetic with the three untrustworthy options they are presented with, an alternative is necessary: a revolution. Now, perhaps we’re not talking about a full-scale French-Revolutionesque enactment, but we are talking about, as Brand put it, a ‘revolution of consciousness’ where people become vastly more aware of the atrocities and unethical attitudes of the government acting in their name. This is what will get us real change, whether this be through a new political party like the Greens, or through a new form of political control and governance it does not matter.  Unfortunately, this wanted effect on our consciousness and thought is difficult when those who most shape it are those who seek to retain the current power structures – the media – who are cozied up in the beds of the powerful.

Anti-austerity and anti-government protesters are stuck in a terribly biased situation. The media will want to run negative piece after negative piece and the Government of the day will simply ignore such arguments. When the opposition, who so profoundly announce support for their aims (like taxing the rich more heavily and imposing more regulation on the banking industry), gains Governmental control, still nothing will change. And while the population tacitly grants its support by voting in an election, nothing will change. A minority force like Anonymous is powerless by itself, but has no major player on their side.

It comes as no surprise that the right-wing media focus on the slightly more obstructive and violent methods adopted by a minority of protestors last night, hence detracting from the real message intended. The Daily Mail leads with ‘Funnyman-turned-activist joins protestors as they aim fireworks at Buckingham Palace’, for example. The media sets out to shut down minorities, and to dissuade against anything that challenges what is the status quo. One would like to think that this is regardless of newspapers, but this is shockingly, and sadly, untrue.

Now, certainly, the danger involved in setting off a firework in a very crowded space and towards a residential building makes the act ridiculous here. But we must remember that behind every method there is a genuine message: here it is that we must stop propping up our Monarchy using public funds when people are dying in the streets with no money, no home and no support.

Last night’s protest in London, and across the globe, was historic for the sheer number of anti-government protestors that assembled for it. Adorning the face of Guy Fawkes, protestors associated themselves with a force for change and challenging the establishment. Their next task is to rid themselves of those who dirty their image through violence and start recruiting more members of the public.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Vote Today Presents Us With a False Dichotomy

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 Video provided by the BBC

Today's recall of parliament reveals Cameron and Obama's deep want for imminent attacks in Syria, in response to the alleged use of chemical attacks by the Assad regime on its citizens in recent times. However, the debate uses a false dichotomy, presenting the options of military intervention or to sit back and watch as black and white. These are not in fact the only options available to us as a country and there are further choices we can make to act in a moral manner.

Cameron used a speech which he did not intend to use and, as such, his rhetoric seemed forceful, defensive and led by his own briefing. His body behaviour, too, demonstrated a deep desire to come across as in charge of the debate, as his decisions were undermined by his own party members, other members of the house and public opinion. Deafening his ears to criticism that he brought the house back for a pointless debate, Cameron set out his argument for the motion and military intervention, citing the Joint Intelligence Committee's report that it was 'highly likely' that the Assad regime were those responsible for the attack. However, he had to concede that this motion was based on a judgement, not evidence, and therefore that there was no 100% certainty about it. He dodged questions asking how an attack on Syria would actually deter a dictator, who has already showed a lack of shame and worry, from continuing to use chemical weapons. Driven by the legacy of the Iraq War, Cameron refuted any claim that an attack in Syria would be similar, saying there would be no troops on the ground, and no attempt at regime change. As members around the house quizzed him on his statement, Cameron maintained his claim that 'if nothing is done, we're more likely to see chemical weapons used' and, strangely, argued that there was no need to look at evidence throughout.

Cameron's speech was seen widely as relatively weak and as reluctantly sticking to a brief, with many speculating that there was still a want to launch an attack soon. What was clear from Cameron's speech, though, was that he was certain that the conclusions of the JIC and the US were enough to launch a unilateral intervention without the approval of the UN Security Council.

Miliband presented a far more heartfelt, solemn and emotional response to the motion as he tabled Labour's amendment, which included a requirement to hear the results of the UN tests, and that there be compelling evidence for the case. Despite a difficult staff, Miliband commanded a well-thought-out speech, but still presented one side of the dichotomy, refusing the idea that anything other than military intervention is viable, simply stating that we needed to be 'clear-eyed' before heading into war. Labour are not ruling out military intervention. Although he demonstrated far greater understanding of the real priority of such an intervention, Miliband failed to take notice of the fact that a diplomatic peace-keeping solution poses far less risks to life than military intervention of any sort. What did ring true though is that Miliband seemed more in touch with the Conservative Party than Cameron was, demonstrating the deep dissatisfaction from Tory MPs with Cameron's original war intentions.

'Evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence' proclaimed Miliband to choruses of support, over some members complaining about the delay in response. Any response should be time-limited, have clear objectives and a legal course and for that the UN should not be seen as simply as an inconvenience, he stated. Yet, Miliband's speech, despite proving better than Cameron's, seemed just a bid to follow the appropriate course, and avoid a repeat of the Iraq war. The cynics among us will argue that this is a result of wanting distance from Blair and Iraq or wanting to shine on the good side of the argument, playing to his party's and the population's concerns. But a hidden message was made apparent; even if the UN Security Council do not approve military action, the Labour party would be prepared to commit to it anyway.

It comes of no surprise that Nick Clegg did not make a statement, but his party members were particularly vocal, with many sympathetic to Labour's amendment, or the amendment, not discussed, tabled by Caroline Lucas, detailed below.

George Galloway, ex-Labour, now Respect, and anti-war campaigner, spoke passionately against supporting either side of the war, referencing the video uploaded by the Free Syrian Army of a commander eating a man's heart, and the war crimes of the Assad regime. He continued by arguing against ordering our army to war, claiming that only 11% of the population agreed with such a decision. Shouting at the house, Galloway seemed to oppose almost anything stated yet seemingly proposing no solutions.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tapped into perhaps what is being felt by the majority of citizens across the country as she noted that military intervention is not the best way forward for either the Syrian citizens at the centre of the violence, or the citizens of the UK. She noted that the original motion put to the House by the Prime Minister had changed due to the demands of other MPs and the citizens of the country. Lucas also stressed that any military intervention must require any sanctioning by the UN Security Council, even with the Labour amendment, and that this is simply seen as an inconvenience rather than a due course of justice. She declared that the summary of the legal advice granted to MPs was unacceptable and that members should be given more. She stated that she remained to be convinced that any military action would deter rather than escalate the horrors within the country, questioning what we would do if Assad retaliated to our attacks rather than back down. She argued that only a diplomatic solution would address the situation - unfortunately, her own amendment will not be given any time to be discussed today and thus, members of the house are given only black and white options. Members are 'misguided' when they state that not intervening with our military, ignoring the case that can be made using diplomacy and humanitarian aid.

What seemed to overarch the debate was the question of 'Why now?' as MPs wondered why the use of chemical weapons should cause an escalation of our response, when the deaths of over 100,000 did not. Surely, one death is as equal as another death. Furthermore, there was detailed concern regarding the response of the Syrian regime, and the further implications of any attack by Western nations. Indeed, a BBC correspondent has tweeted images of Israel handing out gas marks as they prepare for the potential of Syria retaliating to an attack by Western nations by using weapons in Israel.

It is extremely pleasing to see that MPs voted, twice, against any step towards military intervention. Many MPs, during the debate, recognised the third option that is an increased attempt at diplomacy, humanitarian aid and forcing the two sides apart peacefully to find a solution. Unfortunately, the result in the Commons means there will be no action of that sort either, but we can at least relish in the fact we have not started another conflict which results in the deaths of many innocent people, and the potential for wider conflict across the world.

We must now seek the third option of peaceful diplomacy, stop angering the Arab world and reduce our reliance on the Western might. We must also hope that the US do not take the unilateral route they have announced they are considering today.

I wrote to my local MP to detail my concerns around the vote today, the text of which can be read below:

Dear MP,

I am writing to you as a constituent with deep concern regarding the possible military intervention of the UK and other parts of the western world in the Syria crisis and I am hoping that you will listen and take my concerns into account when placing your vote in Parliament this Thursday.

Although I agree that the Syrian crisis is an incredibly appalling situation and that there is a strong case for intervention of some sort, I believe that military intervention is a dangerous path to head down. Learning from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, we must note that these conflicts have not yet ended, people continue to die each day and deep resentment of the Western world has come about as a result of these confrontations.

Furthermore, with hundreds dying each day in Syria, the case for intervention should be centred around their suffering rather than the might of the West. If we are to bombard the country with bombs and cruise missiles, we must ensure that they are only used against targets which sustain the country’s military capabilities - no citizens should be killed in the process. We must also provide on-the-ground humanitarian aid to victims of the violence on both sides and seek to reunite displaced children in the country and those who have fled - this should be our highest priority.

However, it is also incredibly important that satisfactory evidence is reached to ascertain that the use of chemical weapons was under the instruction of the Assad regime and that a multilateral agreement is reached with the UN or NATO before we commit to any military intervention. In the meantime, we should act to ensure that those injured are given proper treatment and attempt to implement a ceasefire.

My preferred outcome of the debate on Thursday is for the UK and other western nations to act as peacekeepers, working with either side of the conflict to reach a diplomatic situation, allowing for no more bloodshed and, hopefully, a consensual agreement that can lead to a better situation for all those involved. Most importantly, it will allow the absolutely necessary humanitarian aid to be granted and for displaced children and adults to return to their war stricken country and find their loved ones.

Too many have died in this conflict, and the UK should not oversee or be the cause of any further deaths.

I do hope this message reaches you before the vote and that you take my concerns into account.

This article is a work in progress and will be updated as further developments are made.