Illiberal Pacifism: The Making Of…
Just because I thought it would be worth doing, I’m going to go to the effort of actually describing how this post came to be written, the events along the way, something of the thought process behind it and how I came to write it the day that I did; Tuesday 11th September 2007.
As I state near the beginning, it started with a simple frustration, and then worsened hugely as I encountered people who took this whole thing further and further, and as it brought about conflicts; pure irony when these people claimed to be super-peaceful.
A certain friend has been very much in my mind as I write. As someone who is not by any means tied to the principles of Non-Violence in protest, he and I have sometimes differed, and sometimes agreed. I’m thinking that we must have discussed stuff like this several times before.
Then, during a frustrating time at the G8 in Germany, we felt the need to dig out two spare beers we were not supposed to be in possession of; it was the night before the actions and so custom has it that beer is unavailable, which I would have no problem with except this usually means I want a beer to settle my nerves and to provide a chance to get over all the horrible wrangling that goes on during action planning. We took our beers, headed towards the back of the camp, and sat on the dyke (for want of a better description), about 10 meters from the look-out den, and began to drink and discuss our frustrations.
Much of this, perhaps inevitably, settled around the groups who had offered us a chance to take part in their actions. Sadly I was faced with the prospect of not taking any action at all; indeed, it looked possible I would not leave the camp until I finally packed and headed home, and my friend’s situation was not a lot better. He was part of a group, but it was a group that had faced tough decisions, including one that meant I was unable to join them, not for ideological or tactical reasons, but because of worries that other new-entrants might be a liability.
My problems, other than his group’s polite refusal, for which I totally respect them, centered firmly around the mass-blockades leaving the camp in various ‘fingers’. Those who I knew who weren’t heading to small closed actions were virtually all within the first of these fingers. The numbers of the fingers were more or less a guide to how they would respond when provoked by the police, and those I knew made me feel I would be frowned upon for joining any other finger. These are people I will work with in many situations, but now was not the time.
In retrospect, I might have over-stated my problems with them. But there is a thick seam of protesters in Britain who all fall in the category at hand, and the fact that, in a country where protests are no where near as ‘nice’ as those in the UK, and where the violence of the state is much more physical than psychological, I just felt that any attitude which condemned violence to the extent many of these people seemed to be doing so was simply out of order.
I have, since the G8, thought about writing this whole episode into a blog post. However, I haven’t really had much immediate need to do so. I’m really glad in some ways that I didn’t write the post when I’d only just returned. As June gave way to July, July to August and finally August to September, I had maybe seen a handful of opportunities to get down to writing, but then on the first weekend of September, I met someone who made the urgency overwhelming.
At the Christian Anarchism conference held in Bradford over last weekend there was a man called Les, a fairly odd guy it has to be said. I wasn’t around on the Friday evening, when, I’m told, he forced everyone to sing a song about the diggers. Various people had had problems with him before I came to give my talk on Christians and Direct Action (no points for guessing what my basic drift was). As I came near to the end, Les put his hand up. I really wanted to get to the end of what I had to say, so I did, and then welcomed the first response.
I kind of wish I hadn’t been so eager to hear the input, and I shan’t detail it in full. He basically believed that protesting was something that everyone in Britain saw as normal and were used to. It was futile and centered entirely on anger. He gave 15th February (the 2 million march through London) as an example of this. I said I agreed with him, but that there was a clear difference between that and, say, the Climate Camp. To him, there was no such difference. Climate Camp was nothing new, and it was just a way of whining about nothing.
I pointed to the positives of building an eco-village, but he couldn’t even see this, it was just negativity. Small world though it may seem, I referred back to a project which the friend mentioned above has been involved with, creating a community garden. This he seemed fine with, but for the fact that the creators of the garden resisted the police when they came to evict the project, for it was on squatted land.
I asked him at another point what he thought about issuing press-releases to mitigate the effects of uncontrolled press attention; I wanted to know whether he would simply refuse the attention and risk a bad write up (many journalists will write a horror story about you if you try and say ‘we’re not doing this for press attention, please leave’).
I actually went quite some way to try and find a middle ground with the guy, and various other people attempted to find one for me, and none of this worked. It really wasn’t what he said; I’ve heard most of it before. It was definitely how he said it, and the way he basically forced his views upon me in a truly malicious way. While I got particularly worked up during the workshop session, it all really came to a head during the Critical Mass ride which happened to come afterwards.
I behaved no differently than I have ever done on a Critical Mass. I ‘corked’ incoming traffic with a precision which slightly worried me at times. I monitored the difference in speed between front and the back of the ride on every gradient change. I kept my eyes open in all directions, noting everything I possibly could, and I even made a few checks with people throughout the ride to see how they were doing.
As I corked an incoming car on a junction, Les came over to me and suggested that maybe I shouldn’t wind the car drivers up. I said I knew exactly what I was doing, and that I was protecting the mass, and definitely not winding up the drivers. When the last of the mass appeared, I rode off and made my way up to the front. He rode over. He essentially accused me of being violent by simply sitting in front of a car. At one point in this I nearly freaked out, because he was distracting me from all the monitoring I wanted to be doing, and I just couldn’t hold up a debate in that situation. He’d picked the perfect moment, as I was left pretty nearly helpless.
The irony, of course, was being moved closer to violence by him, and taking increasingly irrational decisions, switching my position within the ride and taking up the wrong position on several roads, often not realising they weren’t one-way until a car was very much coming towards me. At one point he tried to get everyone singing a song, which I think was meant to be a calming everyone down method. At the end he suggested we had a discussion about the whole event.
Sadly it was clear very early on that my contributions would be met with clear and forceful reasoning that would make me seem a crazed lunatic. I know I’m one of the more radical people who was there, but nothing I would have said would have been outside the normal boundaries of a Critical Mass Ride. Some police had arrived, wanting to ask questions of the group, and he chose that moment to give us his opinion on the whole event. I simply couldn’t respond without raising their eyebrows and so I just remained silenced. Thankfully I have a bit of spine in me, or I’d have just surrendered and nodded along with his determined indoctrination.
The whole incident had made me so mad that I later cried, and I’m now on a two-week demo-ban in the hopes my already stressed and worn out self can actually pick up again. I was possibly closer to burn out than I thought I was, this is usually the case, but it was one of those experiences that just takes everything out of you, and you end up wishing you could sleep endlessly, except right now I can’t.
So there’s everything I’ve left out of the blog post which might give some ideas as to why I wanted to write it just about now. The choice of date might have been better, I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about the date. Beyond the unmissable meaning to he date, there is the added meaning of it being the first day of the DSEi arms fair. And so I started writing the post, which was an odd task, because I simply didn’t want to put in any more than I had to about the specific reasons I’d written it. Instead, I chose to write that separately where I could reflect on the individual events leading up to the writing of the post. I hope it had the desired effect of keeping the potential bitchiness out of the argument.
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