Archive for violence
I wasn’t there. But as soon as I’d finished work for the day, I glued myself to my laptop, obsessively refreshing news websites, trying to follow the ticker-tape madness of the #demo2010 and #Millbank Twitter feeds, watching the reactions pile up on political blogs. I don’t often fully embrace or participate in the social media commentariat, feeling generally pretty sceptical of its significance and self-obsession, but this time I was right there buzzing alongside every other laptop-shackled numpty. Because this time how the protest was portrayed, how the public(s) reacted, how the news reported — these things seemed more significant. The British public(s) are starting to fully digest the meaning of the coalition government’s programme of ideologically-motivated, economically insane and destructive cuts — and starting to get angry. We’re well behind continental Europe and its movement to resist austerity measures, but I don’t want it to be true that Britain is just going to keep calm and carry on: I want us to struggle. And Wednesday’s protest gave me some hope that we will.
So the reporting and reaction was important to me, because I want to see the public discourse turning, I want to see a wider understanding of the need for anger and resistance, I want to see more support for protesters, even when their direct action can seem frightening to many. And, by and large, I did see the first glimmers of a change in the discourse, at least in the centre-left press. But, as always, inevitably, that hope was buried beneath a mountain of garbage, of clichéd and misleading and irresponsible and editorialising journalism — journalism that failed its duty to enhance public understanding, that, by resorting to hackneyed narratives and obfuscating clichés, actively sought to confuse, prejudice and disempower the general public.
This is nothing new (although the damning ubiquity of one photo was a particularly horrible example of lazy journalism). And in fact there was, as linked above, some better reporting than usual. But I am so tired of this. I used to want to be a journalist, and my first job was on the local paper, but the venal charlatanry of the British media drained every such desire from me. I don’t feel there’s much I can do about this but howl into the void. So I decided to make a game instead, so that at least next time I would have something to do.
The Bingo Card
click to expand
1. Whenever a major protest occurs, a new game begins;
2. To tick off a square, you must find an example of the cliché in the print, broadcast or online media (blogs, youtube and social networks not included);
3. The first person to score a BINGO (five squares in any direction, including diagonal) and e-mail the sources to harry DOT lodestone AT gmail DOT com wins a prize. The reason for the sourcing is not just so that the adjudicator can check your card, but so that we can also e-mail the media outlet or comment on the article to let them know they’ve been bingod;
4. Some variations in language may be allowed, at the adjudicator’s discretion, but may lose out in the event of a tie-break;
5. Bonus points may be awarded in a tie-break (see overleaf, or for particularly excellent submissions), entirely at the whim of the adjudicator.
Protest Violence Cliché Bingo by Harry Giles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This has been released under a Creative Commons License not because I’m particularly fussed about my ownership of the piece (I mean, it’s bingo) but because I want to actively encourage people to share this bingo card far and wide. I’d love it if a good few people were playing this game every protest, especially if we were able to embarrass media outlets with it.
On that note: I am neither an illustrator nor a graphic designer, so the .pdf of the card is currently quite spartan. I would love it if anyone who does have those talents would like to make a new version of the card that looks nicer. If you need a copy of the original texts, e-mail me.
Finally, because this blog also functions as a semi-professional website, and because potential employers may look at it, I’m going to have to be absolutely, pedantically clear on my position. a) I fundamentally support everyone’s right to protest, and believe that direct action and civil disobedience have historically been and are now important protest tactics, even though they often entail breaking laws; b) I do not believe that property damage is violence, and I certainly will not condemn people who damage property for political aims, but nor do I believe it is always a beneficial tactic to use; c) I do not think that actions like throwing light missiles at police are particularly violent or dangerous, but again I do not think it is always beneficial, and can sometimes greatly damage a protest; d) Personal assault (including dropping a fire extinguisher from a great height) is, obviously, violence, and will very rarely help a protest, particularly in affluent societies, but I don’t feel the need to condemn or condone it, because to think that social change will always happen peacefully for all people is naive and culturally imperialist; e) Any employer who has a problem with their employees holding particular political views is not an employer I would want to work for anyway.
I declare the first round of Protest Violence Cliché Bingo, for the 10/11/10 UK student protests, officially open!
The Harry Potter Alliance is a US-based charity and campaigning group which takes inspiration from JK Rowling’s books: “Harry and his friends start a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army when the adults and politicians of their world fail to address the concerns of the day.” When I fund out about them, something bothered me about their mission — and it wasn’t that it seemed a bit cheesy, and it wasn’t anti-pop snobbery. It was that they took inspiration from a guerilla fighting force (albeit a fictional one) that takes violent direct action, and yet HPA’s tactics are the usual liberal rote of petitions, letters, votes and charity. So I wrote them a letter about it.
Dear Harry Potter Alliance,
Well done! You’re doing tremendously well in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, and I think you deserve to be congratulated for the way you’ve used your increased profile to continue to bring awareness to some very important causes. While it’d be easy to be cynical about your mission – and I admit when I first heard of HPA I did smirk a bit! – I think it’s genuinely wonderful that you’re harnessing the power of popular culture and a dedicated fandom to do something important in the world.
But I do want to talk to you about something, which is the way you’re undertaking your mission of creating a real world Dumbledore’s Army. I think you’re right that there’s a useful analogy – that the adults (politicians, parents, journalists, teachers . . . ) of Harry’s world ignore the severity of the crisis they’re facing, just as those running our world are keeping us on a track toward global disaster. But here’s the key thing: Harry and friends don’t raise funds, donate books and videos, sign petitions and register voters. They don’t even hold peaceful protests, act as human shields, create non-violent human blockades. They don’t even stop at theft and property damage in the name of their cause. In fact, what they do is train a guerilla fighting force that can engage in an aggressive covert war. So why don’t you?
The real world equivalent of this would be direct action. Direct action is when we stop asking people to change the world, and undertake it to change it ourselves. It encompasses everything from strikes and sabotage, which seek to cause economic damage as a tool of persuasion; to workplace occupations and thefts, which seek to take control of the means of production and consumption for those exploited by them; to tree-sits and assassinations, which seek to actively prevent destruction and oppression. (You’ll note I’ve used a range of possible actions of different levels of severity and violence; I don’t necessarily approve of them all, but I don’t necessarily disapprove, either. More on this in a bit.) Basically, direct action is everything which isn’t electoral politics, diplomacy and charity, but which seeks to create change.
Direct action is often classed as either violent or non-violent, with property damage occupying a middle ground. Non-violent direct action is what was advocated by Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks’s bus-sit is a good example of a peaceful direct action. Mohandas Gandhi is one of the foremost philosophers of peaceful action (not just protest, but action): Satyagraha is the name of the body of theory and practise he helped develop. To keep examples from struggles against racial oppression, John Brown and Nelson Mandela, for example, waged violent direct actions in their struggles.
Can you imagine what would have happened if the civil rights struggle in America had been waged only by letter-writing and fund-raising? You might think that violence is counter-productive, but surely not the whole non-violent civil resistance revolt which led to the independence of India? And is violence always counter-productive? Would you have opposed the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Second World War? So if states can wage justified violence on each other, and if Harry Potter is justified in fighting organisations and individuals, why aren’t we, autonomous citizens and groups? I don’t mention HP in the same breath as real world wars with any sense of frivolity; I genuinely think it’s amazing that you’ve taken inspiration from a work of fiction to do good in the world. But I want you to follow through on that inspiration: what is it about Harry’s fictional world that makes it so different from our world that you don’t think his tactics are justified in your causes?
Maybe you’ll argue that you want to bring as many people on board as possible, that you want to harness that power of mass culture, that you’re frightened that this kind of militancy, even a non-violent militancy, might alienate people. I have two responses: the first is, did Harry Potter seek to gain a majority of public support, or did he seek to fight his war with a small core of loyal followers? I know HP is a work of fiction, but it’s worth considering why you accept vanguard tactics in fiction and not in reality. And the second point is: maybe a popular movement like yours is exactly what’s needed to really encourage people to engage in mass direct action. Imagine what would happen if Harry Potter fans across the world started occupying threatened forests, barricading corporate headquarters, assassinating murderous politicians! (Again, I don’t see all these actions as equal, or as equally valid, but I do raise them for discussion.)
Maybe you’ll argue that Harry Potter faced a different sort of problem, a different scale of problem. Well, I have some sympathy here. With issues of violence and non-violence, I agree with author Derrick Jensen, who in his inspiring and frightening book Endgame argues that we have to see these decisions as contingent, relative to a situation. He refuses to utterly proscribe violence, or to say it’s always justified (or useful), but he does suggest that we should consider it as a potentially justified tactic. (Remember: why should states wage wars, but not individuals?) And violence aside, non-violent direct action also has to be seen as contingent on circumstances: Gandhi was part of a culture in which he was able to organise mass armies of non-violent resisters, and maybe you aren’t.
But. What scale of a problem are we facing? We live in a world of ever-increasing inequality, in which 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population only have 1% of the wealth, and half of humanity lives on less than £2.50 a day. In which runaway climate change threatens the planet, with the world’s scientists concluding with an extraordinary degree of consensus, that temperatures and sea levels are rising in a way that will cause death and destruction for millions of humans and other species. In which, as you well know, genocide is still rampant. In which millions upon millions of hectares of forest are destroyed every year, and in which we as a species have caused one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Need I go on?
I think the question should instead become: how bad do things have to get before you reach the conclusion that we must fight back? I think the question should instead become whether or not we’re being disgustingly irresponsible by salving our consciences with petitions and protests, instead of taking arms together. I think the question should instead be: those in power have already declared war on the world and its people, so why aren’t we, the other side, fighting back?
Just imagine if Harry had attempted to stop Lord Voldemort by gathering petition signatures and delivering them to the Ministry of Magic! – instead, he saw the urgency of the situation and took matters directly into his own hands; he recognised that adults weren’t doing enough or accepting the severity of the crisis, and so took direct action to solve the crisis himself.
I don’t mean to attack you. I do admire you. And I hope you don’t mind that I’ve posted this publicly. I’m writing not to poke fun at you or to condemn you, but to try and understand why committed moral individuals don’t see the scale of the problem and the necessary solutions. And I include myself in that, because I believe myself that I do far too many protests and petitions are far too few strikes, sabotages and occupations. I’d very much like it if you found the time to reply and helped us to reach an understanding together.
Yours in struggle,