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Taking a broader perspective…

Solidarity with the police?

Jamie Potter is a graduate in Journalism and Politics, a member of the Labour Party and his blog can be found here.

Today the police made noises about taking to the streets to protest against impending job cuts. Not nice when the shoe’s on the other foot, is it?

Guy Aitchison asked on Twitter whether people would be joining them. Cue much pondering on and my conclusion that no, I won’t be supporting the police. This isn’t so much to do with the idea they’re the enduring violent arm of the state, though admittedly that is part of the reason, but more because of the most recent violence meted out to protesters regardless of any provocation, simply for being there.

At some of the student protests before Christmas, notably those on the day of the actual vote on tuition fees, the police sought from the outset to curtail and control any act of dissent, whether it was a civil march or something more fluid; whether the participants were anonymous or unmasked, young or old alike. This is not a new occurrence – it’s happened countless times before around the country. I first experienced it at the G20 meeting in London where I was kettled, stopped and searched and narrowly avoided being subject to a police raid in the squat I stayed in overnight. I’ve already written (angrily) about my distrust of the police. The point is, this dangerous attitude towards protesters remains and appears unlikely to change anytime soon, so why should I support them? What’s to say this support will go without thanks when I next face them on the streets? Will we receive solidarity in return?

I understand that sounds a bit them and us. I recognise police officers are still individuals and many don’t subscribe to the authoritarian, bullies in uniform attitude that is so prevalent throughout the various factions of the police. So this is why I also won’t be ‘kettling’ the police. It sounds like a fun idea and I actually got a little excited when I saw somebody suggest it on Twitter. But as individuals officers have a right to protest, even if it’s to protect jobs I’m at odds with. I guess I’m taking the moral stance here by appreciating and accepting that. I wouldn’t like to think that targeting police protests may put off the rank and file from one day dissenting and standing up for my ideas too. So I won’t stand in solidarity but I’m quite happy to ignore them.


Filed under: Activism, Law and Order, ,

Loose Cannons…..

Cory Hazlehurst blogs at Paperback Rioter.

A note of warning: one of the pictures on this article isn’t nice. If you’re a bit squeamish, then be prepared to scroll past it rather quickly.

At the moment it’s hard to know for certain whether “Britain’s most liberal government ever” (© Nick Clegg) will allow police to use water cannon on protesters. Home Secretary Theresa May at first said that she would not intervene to stop police from using them, then appeared to rule the prospect out.

However, police officers appear to still be in favour of using water cannons. A recent opinion poll found that 69% supported their use against protesters, as against 23% who thought it unacceptable.

Most on the left are rightly shocked that a government could even consider such tactics against peaceful protesters. There are a number of issues with using water cannons.

Firstly, the fact that soaking people in water and then kettling them – forcing them to stand in the freezing cold for hours at a time, without letting people in and out – is obviously detrimental to the health of protestors. Imagine if this happened in the freezing temperatures we have at the moment. People could easily catch pneumonia.

There’s also the fact that if you are hit by a water cannon directly in the face, the consequences can be absolutely horrific. Via The Third Estate I came across this:

(and here comes the picture)

The picture of Wagner being helped away from the melee, his eyes swollen shut and bleeding, came to symbolise what critics claim was a heavy-handed approach by police trying to break up a demonstration against the controversial revamp of Stuttgart’s main train station.

Wagner’s doctor said the patient was currently blind and might never have his sight fully restored.

On Wednesday, news magazine Stern reported on its website that Wagner, a retired engineer had been trying to help some young people who were caught in the stream of water.

In an interview to be published on Thursday, Wagner told the magazine he had raised his arms and waved at police to indicate to them they should stop. But he was hit directly in the face with such force that he lost consciousness.

“It felt like the punch of a giant boxer,” Wagner said.

Given all this, using water cannon can already be seen as an erosion of our right to protest peacefully.

However, I think there is another, more sinister, reason why water cannon should not be used, which is not really being discussed.

At most police protests over the past couple of years, some of their more contemptible tactics have only come to the public’s attention because they have been captured on cameras, or mobile phones, belonging to ordinary people.

Take, for instance, the footage of Ian Tomlinson being struck to the floor by a police officer, the camera phone footage of police horses charging peaceful demonstrators, students in a kettle being crushed by police described by a Conservative member of the Greater London Authority as a “ghastly” incident, or pictures of a disabled journalist being pulled out of his wheelchair by police officers:

If police had used water cannon on protestors, this could damage electronic recording equipment belonging to the protestors. That makes it less likely, presumably, that these images and videos would have survived.

And that makes me very scared indeed.

Filed under: Activism, Law and Order, , , , , ,

Don’t let the real vandals get away with it….

Simon Childs is a member of the Green Party and as well as writing on his own blog regularly contributes to Newcastle University newspaper, The Courier. He also founded and edits the left-wing Newcastle newsletter; The Grey Matter.

Students on the NUS demo on the 10th September were supposed to march straight past 30 Millbank, the national offices of the Conservative Party. However, the occupation of the building by hundreds of students and the demonstrations in support in the courtyard outside were enough to divert the attention, and the footsteps of many marchers, much to the chagrin of the demo’s stewards, largely hopeless in the face of curiosity (what do we students have if not curious minds?).

What the curious were greeted with in the courtyard varied from a carnival atmosphere to scenes of violence, depending what the precise situation was at the time.

Perhaps a hundred students had originally stormed past the beleaguered police into the building. Slowly but surely, more protesters broke through the quickly strengthened police line, smashed the glass facade and entered the building. Meanwhile others noisily demonstrated in solidarity with the occupiers.

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media has focused largely on the violence (9 UK newspapers the next day using the same photo on their front page of a demonstrator kicking a window through), in a way reminiscent of their coverage of the violence at the G20 protests.

I was present at the G20 demos and condemned the violence there, believing it to be the reckless actions of a minority and out of keeping with the spirit of the protest. I cannot denounce what happened in London last week in the same way.

While at the G20, the crowd looked on uneasy at the violent actions of the few, at Millbank people cheered as the windows were smashed and applauded the occupiers. Effigies of David Cameron and Nick Clegg were burned. Barely a second went by without an anti-Tory or anti-Lib Dem chant.

Also, it was not just attended by the ‘usual suspects – from what I could tell, most of the students there were simply angry students, not seasoned revolutionaries.

Whatever may be said of what happened, it was a real manifestation of the outrage felt by many at a government of millionaires callously wrecking ordinary young peoples’ future life chances.

Having said that, in a march of 50,000, the Millbank protesters clearly were in a minority, and many students will feel that their actions undermined the anti-cuts message of the day. I can understand their point of view.

Aaron Porter, president of NUS condemned the violence as “despicable”. Personally, I would reserve that word for the Tory/Lib Dem government who are happy to consign any semblance of state funded education we had left to the dustbin of history.

If only the NUS had been so uncompromising in its criticism of tuition fees when they were introduced by Labour in 1998, or when they were raised in 2006, as they have against the protesters, we would not be in the position we are in today.

Right or wrong, the insurrection at Millbank shows that you can only push people so far. If you disenfranchise people and vandalise their rights, they’ll vandalise your property. It might not be big, and it might not be clever, but criticism should be leveled first and foremost at the government, not at those standing up to them.

Filed under: Activism, Law and Order, , , ,

Our futile war on drugs….

Cory Hazlehurst blogs at Paperback Rioter.

I used to think that making certain drugs illegal was a good idea. This film is about why I’ve changed my mind. Because it doesn’t work.

That’s how every one of the three parts of Angus MacQueen’s Our Drugs War opened. I recommended it a few weeks ago, and it has now come to an end. In a sense, MacQueen was preaching to the converted as I watched this film. I’ve already said that I don’t like banning things, and Our Drugs War compiled a great deal of evidence that suggests our drug policy isn’t working.

The first episode, which is the strongest, looked at this policy in more detail. Britain spends £1.5bn every year fighting drugs, and in America the figure is a staggering $40bn a year. Given that an academic interviewed by MacQueen (and a police officer also interviewed said this guy knows what he’s talking about) estimated that 99% of smuggled heroin into Scotland successfully goes through this money could be far, far better. I can definitely think of one example. As a senior police officer admits, we could never have enough police officers to stop all drugs coming into the country.

Criminalising drugs does not stop people taking drugs. Instead, it stigmatises drug takers as criminals, making it harder for them to go and seek help or treatment for addiction. As MacQueen argues, legalising drugs would make fighting drugs a health and social issue, rather than one of crime.

As the now-notorious Professor David Nutt has argued, and does argue in Our Drugs War, if the regulation of drugs was “merely” all about health, we would have a different misuse of drugs act. It is only for moral reasons that we ban certain drugs, such as cannabis, but cigarettes and alcohol remain legal.

Anyone who has read their Mill should appreciate that the state cannot legislate on moral matters. It’s the same for prostitution and abortion, for instance, which one cannot ban no matter what you think about the morality of either activity.

These laws also do not apply equally to everyone. This is highlighted nicely by the second slightly disjointed, but very powerful at times, programme in the series. MacQueen argues that America’s drug laws are racist. All sections of society use and supply drugs. Bankers on Wall Street take cocaine, and white dealers supply drugs in posh neighbourhoods. The reality is that 90% of those in prison for drugs-related offences are black and Latino.

The second episode was so disjointed because part of it was a travelogue. MacQueen followed Thomas Winston who had recently been released from prison for drugs-related offences. He was stabbed to death in December last year. Winston received no rehabilitation in prison  – no help to prepare him for life outside the prison walls. And when he was released from prison, he had a choice. Should he go straight and take a minimum wage job which, after 24% of his income is taken for child support, would leave him with $110 a week? Or does he want to go back to selling drugs, and earn %15,000 a week? Do the math(s). It would take a lot of willpower to remain law-abiding in those circumstances.

Another side-effect of criminalising drugs is that the major groups that produce and sell drugs are, well, criminals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poorer countries which produce drugs before importing it to Britain. MacQueen’s travelled to Afghanistan for his third programme, where he argues that UK involvement in the war on terror have helped fuel the growth of a narco-state. Bear in mind that half of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the drugs trade and corruption, and that the country also provides Britain with 90% of the heroin that ends up on its streets.

Essentially MacQueen’s logic runs something like this:

a) The US and UK are expending lots of cash and soldiers on supporting lots of cash and soldiers on supporting the Afghan government.

b) Many government officials are corrected to the drugs trade. Officials which tried to prosecute drugs offenders often found they would receive death threats. MacQueen interviewed someone who was sacked by Karzai for asking too many questions about the drugs trade. There seemed to be “a sophisticated network able to drive straight through police checkpoints because the drugs trade had agents inside the police and the government”.

c) Consequently, propping up the Afghan government is also propping up the agents connected to the drugs trade. So “The War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror”.

America’s main action on poppies in Afghanistan was to destroy the poppy yields, as they were thought to be the Taliban’s main source of income. 60% of the Taliban’s income is estimated to come from the drugs trade. This action did no damage to the Taliban whatsoever, but did alienate many farmers who depended on poppy yields for income. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds, the scheme has now been scrapped. Many are now of the view that some sort of controlled legalisation is definitely worth trying.

Current drugs policy is not working. The prohibition of drugs in most Western countries has not caused drug consumption to fall. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 200m people – 5% of the world’s adult population – take illegal drugs, which is the same proportion as a decade ago (Economist March 7th, 2009). Furthermore, the production of cocaine and opium is the same as ten years ago, and cannabis production has actually increased.

Some form of drugs legalisation is the least worst option. MacQueen argues that money spent trying to stop drug use, and in penalising criminals (in America, 40% of prisoners are inside for drug-related offences) would be better spent on a public education programme about the dangers of drugs, not to incarcerate drugs users. MacQueen devotes little time to dealing with how he could legalise drugs, which is the main flaw I have with the problem. But then, he is a film-maker not a politician, so we can forgive him for not having a decent plan.

Instead, I’m going to quote the Economist I referenced earlier, which has one suggestion of how legalisation can be managed:

Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking  and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Filed under: Law and Order, , , , ,




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