Sunday, 16 January 2011

'Why do left activists keep pushing for confrontations with the police?' - a reply

In response to this article, let's start by making two points about context.

Firstly, it is published at Liberal Conspiracy, which has a track record of attacking the radical left in the student movement and more widely. The site is edited by Sunny Hundal, who is particularly noted for silly red-baiting. Whatever the author's intentions, the context of its publication therefore positions it as an attempt to undermine the radical left, especially its role in the student movement. This is regrettably reinforced by the scattergun nature of the polemic, attacking several different left-wing groups indiscriminately.

Secondly, I'm a fairly prolific blogger myself but I think that criticisms of the movement's democratically agreed decisions should, first and foremost, be raised in the democratic forums available. In this case the best opportunity for Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, a London-based student activist, would be this afternoon's London Student Assembly (LSA).

But this tweet  - 'how was LSA this afternoon? Bollocks as ever?' - from the article's author makes it clear that he missed the meeting and instead opted to express his views in the blogosphere, despite having presumably no knowledge of what this afternoon's LSA discussed and decided. That isn't the most constructive approach.

The article contains a number of allegations, without evidence to back them up. This is unhelpful and distracts from the issues. Claiming that key student activists are in the pub when there's serious trouble with the police is not a political argument. It is personalised assertion.

The post is headlined 'Why do left activists keep pushing for confrontations with the police?' Jacob comments that the police are responsible for violence, but that headline is unambiguously framing protest organisers as (at least to a significant degree) responsible. It's inaccurate and lets the police off too lightly.

Left-wing activists want to mobilise the largest numbers possible in effective demonstrations. The issue of dealing with police abuses is one that has arisen in the course of pursuing that aim. Nobody is motivated by wanting to confront the police. Jacob is mistakenly presenting an (admittedly important) secondary issue as the central political question.

This also leads to the article being one-sided and devoid of context. But these tactical issues need to be considered as part of a larger struggle; remove them from their context and they become distorted.

In wrestling with how to respond to police violence a number of issues are involved. In this earlier post I suggested there were five key aspects to consider, all of them important. Yet Jacob is, inexplicably, preoccupied with just one of them (point 5 in my post). This leads him to present an extremely incomplete picture and lose any sense of perspective on the issues involved.

What of the central argument that students shouldn't protest in Parliament Square? The reason why it is chosen in the first place is not because of enthusiasm for a fight - it is due it being a site of symbolic and real power, especially worth targeting on the day of a contentious Commons vote. It is unarguably where students should be protesting (if unsure of this, take it from someone like me who's 300 miles away in Tyneside: nothing looks better, and inspires more, than protest taken directly to the big sites of power in the capital).

Choosing it as a location only becomes debatable when you factor in the danger of police violence. But abandoning it, due to such fears, concedes important ground to the police. It should be asserted as a democratic right to be able to protest outside Parliament.

It's also a peculiar argument as it appears to assume - wrongly - that a demonstration elsewhere would somehow be immune from kettling or other police misconduct. Simply changing the venue wouldn't resolve the problem of state violence.

Jacob claims: 'Almost all of the factions are complicit: SWP, Counterfire, AWL, Workers Power, Revolution, and the Socialist Party.' But the decisions he dislikes have been taken by well-attended meetings of the London Student Assembly, a democratic and inclusive forum which stretches well beyond the organised left groupings.

It's traditionally a popular smear in the right-wing media to de-legitimise democratic decisions made by trade union members by suggesting that far-left puppetmasters are pulling their strings. Leftwingers certainly shouldn't be deploying such a tactic when criticising the democratic wishes of the student movement, the unions or anything else.
It's important that forums like the London Student Assembly engage seriously with the challenge of how to minimise risks for protestors. This includes considerations like stewarding and legal observers. It is one part of a much bigger discussion about strategy.
Confrontations with state power will be inevitable in the process of fighting for political change - just ask your average Tunisian. Such confrontations will generate some tricky issues. Shying away from confrontations altogether - or naively thinking they can be entirely peaceful affairs if organisers would just read the advice on Liberal Conspiracy - just isn't credible.  

Note: On Twitter, Jacob has said the article has been "butchered by editing" and he may publish a different version at The Third Estate. Obviously I have no idea what has been amended.



  1. I'll post a fuller response later (when I'm not stuck in the library with Lukács) but just to quickly say that the reason I wasn't at the LSA this afternoon was because I was at a Green and Black Cross meeting (y'know those people who do all the bust cards, track your case through the legal system, do there best to make sure you have a decent solicitor, take witness statements, do legal and protest briefings in all sorts of places, co-ordinate information on police tactics, provide action medics for injured protesters etc etc etc.)

    As for whether this afternoon's LSA is relevant, the piece was actually written a few days back. Anyhow, need to get work done but will do you a fuller response later.

  2. I think the editing is important not just because it gave a distorted impression of the argument, but also because a number of things you mention here don't apply to the original.

    Sunny writes the headlines for example. He also took out some concrete suggestions from the post which gave the impression Jacob thought confrontation with the police should be avoided at all costs and that he did not have other proposals.

    I think with the original it was clearly about some tactical decisions (and my understanding is that he did raise some of these at the LSA) but after editing it feels like an attack on protesting and protesters.

    Anyway, I'll let Jacob print the original so you can see what his argument is which, while I think you may well still disagree I think the nature of your concerns will be different.

  3. I don't think this is really a response to the question at all.

    Everything else which you have read into the post aside, Jacob summed your argument for the same old route march on twitter earlier, he said: "It's central and it has a symbolic endpoint"

    All of which is true, but London is an iconic city full of many many places with symbolic significance - some of them perhaps *more* relevant that parliament in this context.

    My reading of the initial facebook note, which subsequently became this post, was that there are place just as symbolic in London which are not dead ends, which don't lend themselves, like P.Square does, like white hall does, to being blocked-in completely, very quickly and therefore diminish the ability to take direct action other than fighting the police, which is a consistently loosing battle.

    Tower Bridge, Speakers Corner, Regent Street, Oxford Street, St Pauls, The Bank of England, etc. etc. are all legitimate places which these events could take place - particularly on a Saturday (e.g. the 29th Jan) when parliament is not sitting, and the relevance is then lost to a greater extent. Shouting at an empty building isn't a great way forward.

    I don't think anyone would argue that marches to parliament are *never* justified. I think that on the 9th December it was the right place to be. I think that with other marches, on different days there is an argument that it should be in different places, opening different opportunities.

  4. Jacob - I look forward to your comments. I'm not at all critical of you missing the LSA - and I also welcome your involvement in Green and Black Cross. The issue, for me, is to do with lambasting the decisions taken by LSA without even knowing what has happened in today's meeting (in this respect the exact timing of publication is probably unfortunate). But the broader issues vis-a-vis LSA are to do with apparently a) dismissing it as an alliance of far-left groups, and b) therefore inevitably something worthy of attack. This misrepresents what is in fact a vital democratic body for the movement and, as I say, plays to right-wing stereotypes.

    Jim - yes, clearly the headline is outside Jacob's control and is angled to suit Sunny Hundal's agenda. That suggests there may be a tactical error in offering the piece to LibCon, considering Sunny has clearly and openly positioned himself as a critic of the left within the student movement. I do also think that listing 6 groups on the revolutionary left - and saying they are all worthy of criticism - is bound to feed the idea that the article is an attack on the left. That's unfortunate, given that Jacob is a Marxist and active in the movement.

  5. Doug - I certainly agree that Parliament Square shouldn't be seen as an essential location. I'm not aware of anyone arguing a principle that all student protests should go there. It's a tactical decision. But, really, if it's a weekday demo which co-incides with a vote in Parliament then you'll have to put up an exceptionally strong case to persuade people NOT to go there! Choosing a different 'iconic' location is unlikely to be a good idea.

    That's relevant to the EMA demo this week. It's not, as you say, relevant to the 29 Jan demo (a Saturday). I don't know what the route is for that day, but certainly Parliament would be a less obvious target.

    Having said all that, the specific tactical issue of 'Parliament square or somewhere else?' is not the main focus of Jacob's article. The main focus is on the culpability (or otherwise) of student organisations in the fact that many protestors have been attacked or kettled by police. The specific tactical issue about Parliament Square is located in that context.

  6. Ok, sorry, this probably won't be in as much detail as it should be, partly because there is an ongoing process/democracy issues in the LSA that needs to be addressed, but I'll make a start and hopefully the discussion can be productive. Just to add, the original version of the piece is now on LibCom and on The Third Estate. So, where to start?

    Well to start with this is a movement fighting in a new context and that new context happens to be an awareness of direct action. Now, I'm not saying illegal shit has never happened on demos before - of course it has - but there is a particular aspect of this movement contextualised by climate camp, UKuncut, university occupations, struggles in Europe, that is particularly keen on this stuff and this needs to be taken into account. This is no longer such thing as an A to B march because there cannot be. And actually much of the left is totally ill-equipped to deal with it. Part of the problem is that a lot of these decisions are made according to the "old rules"

    The other side of this is that we can go "all out against the police tactics" like what happened on November 30. That run round London resulted in the world's worst press coverage for the politics of education cuts. Our message got lost in the police tactics and the response. So we need to find a way where we're not doing A to B marches and not just fighting the police - this is what I'm aiming for and I think this is what the left needs to be aiming for.

    BTW, if you want an example of not understanding this new context, here's one. On your advice to activists you suggest one of the worst thing you can do: "We need to share and widely disseminate any evidence - pictures, video, testimony - of police behaviour on Thursday.
    Changes in communications technologies in recent years mean there's a mass of evidence, and we have the means to circulate it in a way that was unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. Getting the material out there is vital. If in doubt about this, remember how the Guardian posting video footage of Ian Tomlinson's death changed the terms of debate following the G20 protests."

    You do know that from the legal side of things one of our biggest problems is the fact that people are posting incriminating evidence of themselves and their mates all over social networks/flickr/twitter - this advice is really not cool without a "make sure there's not anything incriminating there, and if you're not sure then either don't put it on the internet or send it to GBC/someone who will know" - we know the police are trawling these sites, and are using pictures/vids posted as evidence. But yes, that's just an example, but signifies a wider problem.

    Just quickly, on the thing about people being in the pub, I can name them here but that would be totally unproductive. Hopefully they'll read the argument and stop voting for dangerous locations or will stick around when they do vote for them. We can't change the past, just the future. I'm sure you can find out yourself if you really care so much, but I don't do politics like that.

  7. You suggest we shouldn't step down to the police on protest in Parliament Square. I'm kind of inclined to agree insofar as I think public protest is really important but this must be contextualised in the series of compromises we make. When I say "mask up" that is a compromise - I hide my identity because to be identifiable makes me weak in a protest situation. Going into occupation shouldn't be done alone because it makes you weak even if you're politically correct. You see the issue - we're constantly in a brutal one-sided dialogue with the state with regard to how we behave and how we protest and some things always give. In this context the argument to protest elsewhere looks a bit more understandable. We should see it as "empowering" because being able to protest is exactly that, just as me hiding my identity can be empowering, despite it being a symbol of universal domination.

    As for the "going elsewhere won't mean we won't get kettled argument" - of course not, but there are places we can go that makes it difficult, and actually there are lots of people in the movement who spend a lot of time thinking about these spaces. We can't guarantee we won't get kettled anywhere. What we can guarantee is we will get kettled if we go down Whitehall to Parliament Square. I'm not kidding. And it might feel great to "assert the right to protest outside Parliament" but that needs to be counterposed to the weakness of a movement in which people come to protest once and never come back because they had such an awful time (I speak to a lot of people in this position.) It's just Parliament - it's not worth getting a boner over.

    Ok, on to the issues about the LSA. I don't know if you've ever been to an LSA meeting but they are a terrible terrible experience. Every time it is awful. They go on for hours and hours and hours, they decide very little, ninety percent of what is said is factions taking digs at eachother about stuff that no-one else in the room knows or cares about, each point demands a speaker from each faction in case anyone feels left out, and it all feels thoroughly disempowering to anyone not in the know. Watching as half the people leave in the first 2 hours each time is enough to tell me it's not going right. Having a discussion for two hours with 100 people that finally decides "we'll meet at Trafalgar at 12 and the slogan is 'save EMA'" is a waste of everyone's time, and loses us a great deal of credibility. Look, don't get me wrong, I wish that assemblies could work, but this is just not working. It has got to the point now where basically the only people who turn up are from the factions and organisations. Anyone else can't be arsed and has no reason to stay. Its claim to legitimacy is worth about as much as my scrotum, its decision-making capacity is about equal to that too. Oh and have you ever tried to change the mind of someone from one of the factions in those meetings? Well because they're lined up against each other most of the time to change their mind would be like "betrayal" or some such rubbish. It's totally depressing. Anyhow, until these people take a serious look at how they're behaving, about quite how many people they've alienated (I'm guessing about 200 people have been to LSA meetings who will never ever come back) this just isn't going to work. And that's not even mentioning the crazy machismo...

    Anyway, it's 2am - I may or may not respond more tomorrow depending on how masochistic I'm feeling.

  8. Alex, I'm not suggesting there is a pre-ordained plan for the student marches to all use, at least in part, the same route which runs down Whitehall to parliament square, however, they have all used this route - 10th Nov, 24th November, 30th November and 9th December all used it and all, with the exception of the 10th November had problems within a few hundred metres of each other. Is this correlation or causality, and how might we establish which it is?

    There is a discussion to be had over whether or not the decision to use this route is of benefit, and more than that, does using this route damage the impact of our protest. Protest has many functions (I don’t feel any need to go into detail here) one of them must be to disrupt the day to day lives of those not involved. The press is all well and good at putting out it’s carefully framed narrative of events, but it can’t be relied on for the truth – I disagree with Jacob about the 30th November, I thought that the way in which the police were given the run around all day, with protesters acting autonomously around London was an effective way of taking the message(s) out to the wider people in a way that the press coverage could never do, in a way the straight A-B march which was planned could never do.

    In using the Whitehall-parliament route, which is designed to be easy to shut off and block from traffic, which allows it to be blocked off from the rest of society – this is in effect sidelining ourselves and our message, ensuring that the media are the sole conduit for information for almost everyone in the country and it seems we are complicit in this process.

  9. Hi Jacob, I'll just address 3 issues you deal with in your comments - I'm in no position to comment on the workings of the LSA or a couple of other things you refer to. The final comment also relates to the points made by Doug Rouxel.

    Firstly, I thought the 30 November protests - in London and elsewhere - were very successful. Despite a lower turnout than either 10 Nov, 24 Nov or 9 Dec - partly due to weather, partly just because of the momentum of the movement - they made a good impact, mobilised significant numbers and sustained the movement after a remarkably successful day of action the previous week. Protestors, from reports I read, handled the police very well - and I don't accept that confrontations with the police prevented the message getting out.

    Secondly, I agree that it's stupid and reckless for people to put online video or pictures which will incriminate them. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that alongside the advice I gave back in December, though I'd (naively) assumed it was obvious. But I stand by the view that disseminating evidence of police misconduct is a good idea - this was illustrated powerfully, just after I published that post, when the video of Jody McIntyre being mistreated went viral.

    Finally, the issue of choosing routes and locations in London. I'm in no position - being based in the North East - to judge the efficacy of these, how they compare with each other, etc. I agree completely that an assumption of using a particular route - 'we have to go to Parliament' - should NOT be made, and that other possibilities should be explored. The Parliament option is stronger on a weekday than a weekend - I've been down for many Saturday demonstrations over the years and don't recall ever ending up in Parliament Square - and is especially appealing if it's the day of a vote on fees (9 Dec) or EMA (coming up on Wed).

    I suspect a number of factors have influenced Parliament being a recurring target. One reason is that democracy has become a big part of what the movement is about - the sense of disgust and betrayal at Lib Dems for now supporting a policy they ALL pledged to oppose has foregrounded the issue of politicians' betrayals and the question of what kind of democracy we have (and what kind we should have). Frankly, students have wanted to take their message and anger as directly as possible to the politicans. That also largely explains the occupation of Millbank and why it resonated with people.

    Now, this doesn't necessarily seal the case for going to Parliament Square - my point is simply that you need to acknowledge why almost everyone else wants to go there so much, despite the fact they've had so much trouble with police. Otherwise you have an incomplete picture.