Protest - and then organise

Protesters in Bristol protest against criminalising protest. 

The Ecologist
The House of Lords voted down the worst excesses of the Police Bill - which would have criminalised meaningful protest. But we need to keep protesting - and keep organising.

Why ask corporations to stop doing things, when without their workforce they simply can’t do anything at all.

Dancing along the streets, in the mix between a rickshaw playing a remix of DJ Zinc’s Wile Out and a pink-feathered brass band led by a pink-sousaphone player keeping time with the Beatles’s Yellow Submarine. Bristol knows how to party, how to protest - how to protest-party.

The demonstration on Saturday was part of a national mobilation called in response to the Conservative government’s autocratic Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (Police Bill) and its many amendments. The proposed legislation attacks the right to peaceful, “disruptive” protest, and attacks nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities by making trespassing laws even more draconian.

The barrister David Renton, writing for The Ecologist, pointed out that the Bill “compels the police to make decisions about whether protests can go ahead, and therefore forces the police to become a visible and controversial actor in ordinary political debate”. This analysis was used by Baroness Fox of Buckley, the crossbench member of the House of Lords, as peers yesterday voted down some of the worst amendments. 

Peaceful

Days before the debate in the House of Lords, I joined thousands as they gathered College Green, Bristol, in front of City Hall and adjacent to Bristol Cathedral. This public space has previously hosted Greta Thunberg and the 30,00 strong throng that came to call for urgent climate action.

It was also the starting point for the Black Lives Matter protests that included the felling of the statue of the slaver and murderer Edward Calston. Occupy Bristol was sited here back in 2011. These are the very kind of protests that the government wants to crush. 

Why ask corporations to stop doing things, when without their workforce they simply can’t do anything at all.

Respected activists within the environment and social justice movements, including journalist George Monbiot, the Green MP Caroline Lucas and Mark Serwotka, from the PCS union, are warning that the Police Bill represents a step towards autocracy. Many people expressed fears that democracy itself was now under threat.

The speakers at College Green pointed out that - somewhat ironically - the Police Bill had actually galvanised and brought together some of the disparate communities and campaigners fighting for justice. The placards also spoke to shared concerns.

The climate movement, mobilised by Extinction Rebellion and others, the anti-racist movement including BLM, the feminist MeToo movements, Gypsy communities and others were now even more closely aligned against what is perceived as an existential threat.

The protest filtered out of the green and into the streets, taking over the roads and ascending into the carnivalesque. Drivers temporarily trapped with their cars remained in good humour as they waited. The police - whose powers would be greatly enhanced - kept a very low profile, clearly not intending to use their existing powers against the peaceful procession.

Powers

The refrain from the protest, from the partying, was that protest works - and that is why the government is now attempting to ban it. The latest legislation comes in the wake of the decision by some affinity groups in Extinction Rebellion to evolve tactics from mobilisations that block main roads to more strategic targeting of the infrastructure of capitalism itself.

This new strategy has taken the form of blockades outside the gates of the printing presses of the Rupert Murdoch empire, including the Sun and Times newspapers. It has seen similar actions at the burger factory supplying the nation's McDonald’s restaurants over a few days. We have also seen the emergence of Insulate Britain, independent of but clearly a product of Extinction Rebellion strategic mobilising.

The protest in Bristol was certainly uplifting. The elaborate fancy dress, the brightly coloured handmade placards and Samba bands. These joyful and defiant scenes were repeated across the country. But the question of whether protest of this kind is effective is now being tested by the government. And we need to be clear about how we respond.

And protesters across the country can credibly claim some impact on the debate that took place in the House of Lords after the UK wide day of protest. Peers voted against making “locking on” a imprisonable office; the introduction of a new criminal offence of blocking major transport works and against a new offence of interfering with the use or operation of key national infrastructure such as airports, railways and printing presses. 

The Lords also voted down amendments that would give the police even more extensive stop and search powers, powers that are already consistently used disproportionately against people of colour, and against powers to ban any named individual “with a history of causing serious disruption” from attending specified protests.

Kill The Bill placard
Kill the Police Bill. Image: Marianne Brown / Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. 

Civil

Baroness Jenny Jones, of the Green party, told the Upper Chamber that the UK Government’s attempt to criminalise acts of protests was “oppressive” and “plain nasty”. She asked: "How do you seriously think a protest is going to happen without noise?" 

But the protesters cannot rest on their laurels. Dominic Raab, the Tory justice secretary, is already promising to reintroduce the amendments when the legislation returns to the House of Lords. The fight over the legislation benefits the current government, with the Tories appearing tough against protesters, a useful way to manage the news cycle. So as we recover from the protest, and the party, we need to think seriously about the effectiveness of protest, and how else we can defend our rights. 

Jane McAlevey, a US based trade unionist and social justice activist, has recently published No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age. She argues that there are three very different methods of attempting social change: advocacy, mobilisation and organisation. An effective campaign can use all three - and use them together. But McAlevey suggests that organisation is necessary for substantial, society-wide change - including mounting an effective defence. 

The environmental movement from the birth of the Sierra Club in the United States has primarily used advocacy in an attempt to influence or pressure political power brokers to introduce new legislation - often regulations - designed to prevent or shut down pollution or civil rights abuses. This work is often done by educated professionals working from swanky offices, with the public mostly relied on as a source of donations and occasional letter writing.

This strategy has historically brought about much needed advances, and had some traction when politicians had a patrician leaning, or had to listen to trade unions, environmental charities and civil society or risk losing the support of their voting base, or the support of a more liberal media. But this era is very much behind us.

Profit-making

The corporations - including the tobacco, energy and gambling industries - have since mounted an extremely effective and well resourced counter attack to the Sierra Club and other civil society campaigns.

The logic of capitalism has meant that since the 1970s many industries are now dominated by a few big players, forming complex monopolies that control the market. These behemoths also have enormous political and financial resources. They have, for example, founded and funded thousands of think tanks who bombard lawmakers with fake science, phoney policy and convenient excuses - attacking taxation, environmental policy, of course, climate science.

Naturally, the most polluting industries are most active in blocking environmental policy. This includes the tobacco companies that, through the sale of their products, kill 500,000 people in the US every year - and millions the world over. It also includes the oil industry that kills millions directly through air pollution, and also threatens our life systems because of the CO2 pollution that is driving climate breakdown.

Politicians can no longer bend to environmental advocacy because they are effectively owned and controlled by industry, and the most polluting industries among them. They cannot work with environmental advocates without standing up to companies that provide funding, campaign finance, ideological cover - and nice jobs for retiring politicians. 

And at the same time, corporate bosses cannot bend to their customers or environmental campaigners because cheap energy - in the form of fossil fuels - has become necessary to profit-making. The incumbents controlling the private sector could design CFCs out of production, but the same is not true for CO2. ExxonMobil controls much of the known oil reserves, but cannot control the production of solar panels. The move to ‘clean’ energy is an existential threat to the biggest corporate entity on earth.

Tactically

Advocacy has run its course. The next alternative for the environment movement is mobilisation. And indeed, much of advocacy - the skillful use of lobbying on the side of good, usually by highly educated professionals - has often depended on its relation to the participation of thousands - and occasionally millions - in street protest and direct action. The success of Extinction Rebellion is attributable to its attack on established environmental charities for relying on advocacy - and the work mobilising for direct action protest. 

But - so far - even mass mobilization has not resulted in the change we need. Extinction Rebellion is now at a crossroads. The UK Government was reasonably quick to declare a climate emergency but there is absolutely no sign yet that the climate campaign will successfully force the state to hand policy decisions to a “people’s assembly” made up of randomly selected residents who have been taught the basics of climate science and policy.

And the example par excellence of mass mobilization that failed in its stated aim is the anti-war movement. A failure that was almost impossible to bear. Millions of people around the world marched in February 2003 to “stop the war”. The Stop the War Coalition claims two million marched in London. But the US, supported by the UK and others, rained “shock and awe” down on the civilians of Baghdad, and an estimated one million Iraqis were killed.

We should not simply conclude that the biggest protests in human history failed, and therefore protests do not have any effect. Alastair Campbell, spin doctor to Tony Blair, has spoken publicly about how the mass demonstrations shook the government to the core, and the Labour prime minister very nearly withdrew support for the war because of the huge public disgust. But Blair did not blink. The bombs fell. There was shock and awe. 

The failure of the Stop the War movement can be understood as a failure to transition from a movement of mobilisation to a movement of organisation. Morag Reid, a 46-year-old university lecturer from Birkenhead, spoke to The Guardian five years after the protests fizzled out. "Every six weeks, we were being called upon to get people to go down to London on a coach - and tactically, it became pointless," she said. "It was, 'Another one? And another one?' And of course, the media gave the impression that opposition to the war had decreased, but it was interest in going on endless marches to London that had gone down."

Community

But this failure can also be attributed to the political context of the time: the fact that consecutive Conservative governments had devastated the trade union movement, institutions of working class organisation built over generations, and even the Labour party had become an institution run by professional politicians with no interest in community organising or protest mobilisation. 

Margaret Thatcher said there was “no such thing as society” as she used neoliberalism to make her pronouncement a reality. The deliberate attack on the National Union of Mineworkers, the other unions, and many civil society groups that effectively challenged the power of capital was by design: it was called the Ridley Plan. If your organisation survived this strategy, one conclusion is that that the government was not then concerned about your opposition. Blair followed, and was the beneficiary of the loss of effective organisation in our towns and cities.

If advocacy does not work, and if protests even of millions cannot alone change the minds of our political leaders, what then? 

The third and final option, according to Jane McAlevey, is organisation. Her book mostly concerns the trade union movement in the US and only inadvertently touches on environmental concerns, for example describing the victory of workers in a pig factory farm fighting for better pay and conditions.

But the lessons she has learned and shared can and should be taken up by the environmental movement. McAlevey looks to trade union organising, and specifically at organising that empowers the worker both as the person in the workplace who actually does all of the things but also as a member of a wider community, often a town dominated by the employer, but also as a church goer, as a parent of the local school, as someone concerned about pollution both locally and internationally.

Mutual aid

There has been a very deliberate strategy by the media to portray protesters as trust fund kids, or middle class tourists passing through the political terrain. We are also accused of being hypocrites if we use smartphones or drink shop-bought coffee. The aim is to drive a wedge between the protester and “hard working families”, the “just about managing”.

But the inescapable paradox of capitalism is that while we protest the government at the weekend with all the energy and sincerity available to us, most of us return to work - to creating and recreating capitalism - on the following Monday. We might even be creating the thing that we are protesting against. Working for Amazon, for Starbucks, for McDonald’s.

We can advocate, we can mobilise. We are - in effect - simply asking politicians and corporations to do things differently, while we work all day making sure our employers can carry on in exactly the same way. We might not work for the police, but however indirectly we all help keep the system going. 

So McAlverey argues that in order to really change things, we need to get organised. And the best place to organise is in the workplace. If we think capitalism is destroying the earth through the production of too many useless things, then where better to contest the devastation of the environment than at the point of production and sale: in the cafe where we work, the mall, the office and the factory? Why ask corporations to stop doing things, when without their workforce they simply can’t do anything at all.

This solution involves organising in your own workplace. But it can also involve solidarity or allyship with people working in other workplaces, including for the energy industry. Moreover, we all need housing and food. A barrier to workplace organising is the fear of losing a job - of being driven into absolute poverty. Any action in the community - from mutual aid to fair rent campaigns - where we bring more security to people's access to food and accommodation allows workers to fight harder at work.

Dock

The truth is organising in workplaces is hard work, and can be dangerous. The threat of losing a job, especially when renting is so precarious and poor references can lead to real hardship, is very real. But the existential desperation felt by millions of people as we face the threat of climate breakdown, the authoritarian turn of the government, and the failure of advocacy and basic street protests to stop wars and stop climate breakdown shows there are no soft options - or as McAlverey puts it, no shortcuts.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker in his Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals also discusses the difference between organising for power and mobilising for protest. The Occupy Wall Street protest was, he claims, divided between those who emphasised the “prefigurative politics” of developing a utopian, direct democratic, performative manifestation on the doorstep of capitalism and those who emphasised “strategic politics” with the aim of building organisation through networks with trade unions and other community institutions.

He claims the former is mainly interested in the “lifeworld” of the protest itself, serving the needs of those who attend especially for a space outside of the capitalist grind, expressing their individuality and creativity, their values of inclusivity and kindness. He says: “What was especially worrying me about the dominant culture within Zuccotti, though, was how these processes and their accompanying prefigurative rituals came to stand in for strategy for many Occupy participants.”

The protest in Bristol danced through the streets, around in an enormous loop, turning in on itself to return to College Green to hear yet further speeches about how we must stop the police bill or face a future of authoritarian rule. And the more I enjoyed the moment, the more concerned I felt at the performance of it all. The fact the following day Bristol would return to our new normal, the protesters having returned home, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, would only be vaguely aware of our fleeting presence. Was this only performative, how would this bring about change? Would the votes in the House of Lords stand?

Professor David Graeber, the recently deceased academic and author, commanded enormous respect in the Occupy movement. He is often quoted in memes stating: “Protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well. Direct action is digging a well and daring them to stop you.” This pithy line brilliantly describes the act of the protesters who during Black Lives Matter pulled down the Calston statue and rolled it into the dock.

Poetic

People living in Bristol had spent years asking the council to remove the statue, as highly offensive to those who are descended from slaves, the places and cultures that experienced slavery and also those who feel the celebration of slavers through town statues is an afront to basic humanity. The council failed to act. So instead of advocacy, in the middle of a popular mobilisation, some in the crowd moved from protest to direct action. The statue no longer stands.

The challenge that now confronts the environment movement is more complex, more profound - simply a much bigger logistical problem. We don’t have to build a well, or remove a statue. We have to tear down the global fossil fuel complex and its entire infrastructure, and then we have to build new renewable energy networks - and a new economy that will make good use of these resources.

The Police Bill intends to make protest a hard option. Those who attend a demonstration and do something as simple as “locking on” to a fellow protester will face almost one year in prison, if the government does get its way. We are being robbed of the opportunity to dance in the streets and feel like we are doing something that makes us feel like we are making change, standing up for what is right, supporting others facing harder lives than us.

But in making protest a hard option, it makes the step from simple street protest to workplace organising and direct action a much smaller one. In doing so, it might directly persuade hundreds of thousands of young people terrified of climate breakdown and disgusted at colonialism past and present to spend less time playing samba and more time recruiting workers to unions that will strike, that will stop the production of goods that are destroying their lives while also destroying our global environment. 

It would be ironic. It would be poetic justice. 

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.

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