Tag Archives: Open Democracy

Suffer, little children

If you should find yourself musing on the immigration question this election-tide and wondering if we are, in fact, in danger of being swamped, seen as a soft touch or provider of free swan burgers to all the world’s poor and huddled masses, reassure yourself with this story:

M was arrested, and locked up in Cardiff Bay Police Cells, in extreme distress, dwarfed in man-sized padded clothing to protect him from self-harm. His seat was booked on a flight bound for Afghanistan…

In the dark early hours of Tuesday 2nd March, M was taken with an adult detainee by caged van on the 109 mile journey from Cardiff to Oxfordshire and Campsfield House, an adult detention facility run by the government’s commercial partner Serco. He shared a dormitory with seven men.

M is 14.  Except the authorities think he is lying and he is actually an adult.  See what you think of the picture accompanying the story.

You could argue that we can’t take in everyone that wishes to come here.  You could mention that harsh treatment is an essential deterrent.  But if you try to argue that terrified children should be taken from their beds in the early hours, caged and told they are being sent back to the war zone they have fled, I would think that you had lost all touch with what it is to be human.  May you be lucky enough never to be in need of compassion from strangers!

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Fighting fire with fire

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that police acted in self-defence in Genoa but the family of killed protestor Carlo Giuliani have been awarded damages because of the Italian state’s failure to hold a proper inquiry into the planning and management of the police operation at the summit, the BBC reports today.

It is a curious decision, to say the least.  Most of the law of self defence hinges on what can be considered reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. The BBC repeats the police line that Mr Giuliani was attempting to throw a fire extinguisher at the vehicle when he was shot in the face by armed police.  If you were to shoot a burglar in the face as he attempted to throw something at you, you might find the law less understanding than it was in this case.  Activists present in Genoa published their own record of the incident which they say casts doubt on this interpretation of events (warning: sensitive viewers may not wish to view all of the photographs on this site).  Depending on your perspective, you might argue that he was holding the extinguisher to cover his face rather than to throw it.  Perhaps the police officer had a foam allergy.

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What is clear is that on both sides, the atmosphere was highly charged in Genoa.  Writer Paul Kingsnorth, interviewed about the demonstrations said,

I’ve never before seen the level of police violence I saw in Genoa, and I’ve seen quite a lot

Police agents infiltrated the ranks of demonstrators, other ‘so-called activists’ were seen trashing, burning and looting property.  He also noted,

there was an enormous level of violence on both sides

and what this lead to was an incredibly disproportionate response:

Genoa became a one day police state. The state took draconian actions to protect itself. It suspended the Schengen agreement (on open borders in Europe). It built massive fences around the central ‘red zone’. It had armed anti-terrorist groups everywhere.

Consider what this actually meant. Here are the leaders of the world, the eight supposed leading democracies having to resort to military measures to protect themselves against half a million of their own people. You can see that something is wrong here, and it’s not enough to talk about violent activists. It is clear that there is a great gap between the leaders and the led, and that’s something that radicalised a lot of people – including me.

This same attitude was in evidence at the London G20 protests earlier this year, in which another man was killed.  In the days before, both sides were feeling the tension, with reports circulating of explosives being seized and the police responding with a breezy ‘we’re up for it!’  It was akin to watching gangs of football hooligans, also now back in the news again.  No longer content to allow a fracas to occur naturally, today they prefer to arrange these things on the internet or by text message: ‘CU on Threadneedle ST, there’s gonna b bloodshed.’  And lo and behold, there was.

So there should be little surprise that half of the people interviewed by YouGov for Christian Aid believe that the police are too heavy handed, or that just under a fifth of respondents have been put off protesting by police tactics.  No one should be surprised, but there should be a sense of disquiet.  Lawful protest about issues that matter to us is a cornerstone of the democracy we are trying to export around the world but one that is increasingly being stifled at home.

Climate change, illegal wars, banker bonuses, global poverty and other significant issues tend to be obscured at the ballot box but brought into sharp relief when a huge groups of people get together to shout about it.  Yet from Wat Tyler to Peterloo to more recent times, the powers that be have reacted to us flexing our democratic muscles with violence.

It is perhaps understandable that the forces of law and order reserve their harshest ire for protests by anarchists, missing the original translation from the Greek and focussing on the perceived chaos and disorder instead.  Or perhaps understandable: as one correct translation is ‘without government’, government forces are unlikely to stand by while you try to will them out of existence.

The roots of the word ‘anarchy’ are an archos, no leaders, which is not really about the kind of chaos that most people imagine when anarchy is mentioned.  I think anarchy is about taking personal responsibility for yourself.  I believe that fascism is about abandoning your personal responsibility to the group or to society.

You say, ‘In unity there is strength,’ which inevitably will become, ‘in uniformity there is strength.’  It’s better if all those sticks are the same size and length, because then they’ll make a tidier bundle, which consequently leads to the kind of fascism we had in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

-Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell)

So the police today are nervous because another protest is to take place and they have not been advised of the location.  The protestors are nervous because they are not up for intimidation tactics like having their details taken illegally and kettling.  This writer is hoping that both sides can calm the frayed nerves and take responsibility for their actions so that no other names are added to that litany that includes Carlo Giuliani and Ian Tomlinson.


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Politics will make you mad

you don't have to be... but it helps

you don't have to be... but it helps

A couple of different commentators in the same paper today (read it while you can – it is still free!) musing on the possibility of politics not being for the sane.  Over here, there is Rachel Sylvester pondering if politicians are born mad or driven that way by the need to pander to the demands of the electorate and over here, David Aaronovitch considering if Obama’s opponents are off with the pixies, reduced to heckling at open forum meetings and concocting ever-more bizarre conspiracy theories:

Why did — and does — a section of the American Right insist that its opponents are not just wrong, but actually illegitimate; not just mistaken, but anti-American?

Recent events could lead to the drawing of an inevitable conclusion that every person involved in politics anywhere in the world is up to no good, things have ever been thus and that nothing can ever change.  Yet, that’s not the attitude that got ordinary people the vote in the first place and isn’t the thinking that sees the people of Iran risking all for a greater stake in their country’s future.  Instead the question needs to be: what next?

Now that my own idea of heads on pikes on London Bridge and armed uprisings seems to have been dismissed out of hand (you lightweights!), it is both interesting and heartening to see some proper proposals coming forward.  I am sure that to most sensible people, the thought of constitutional reform fills them with a kind of dread and horror, but I hope it is clear that if we don’t want to continue being lied to, killed and ripped off, there is little else for it.

As I concur with the thought that wanting to achieve higher office should automatically disqualify you from it, I was interested to read proposals to use lots to select representatives in the House of Lords from two writers, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty in their book ‘The Athenian Option’.  Mr Barnett considers the expenses scandal and its implications in this article on Open Democracy:

You could smell their fear of losing their claim to leadership as the populace howled with derision. Yet they also played for time: we are on your side they said, like all good therapists. Now go back to your “real lives”…

The most difficult problem, the one that demands organisation and invention, is how to bring people together so that each can see that they are not alone, their anger is healthy and justified and not in need of therapy.

It is clear that we are all going to have to get off our collective arses if we are not to find ourselves in the same situation in a year’s time, after a general election in which we have merely swapped one bunch of misfits for another.  Unfortunately, no easy answer presents itself, we are going to have to take control.

Real Change is one group attempting to explore ways in which reform could happen.  They don’t want to set out some conclusions and have you say yes or no to them, they would prefer you to tell them what you think.  So what do you think?  Do any of us know?  Is it even possible to have that kind of conversation when the political weathervane points ever more firmly towards the ridiculous?

In my cynical moments I think I know the answer, but I want to be proved wrong.  I want politics to be for all of us, not just the ones who didn’t inhale, the ones who never had a real job and the ones who are in it to live up to their fathers.  A final word, as ever, goes to Joe Strummer:

You gotta be able to go out there and do it for yourself.
No one’s gonna give it to you.

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