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Fear and Loathing in the UK protest movement

January 29, 2011

While following today’s protests in London and Manchester, my attention was draw to a story of a UKuncut protester in Glasgow who was followed back to her home and accused of being an undercover police officer, simply because she hadn’t been recognised by a different group of (apparently more regular) protesters.

To an extent, their suspicion (not their action) is understandable. The story of Mark Kennedy and subsequent unmaskings of undercover police officers were always going to lead to a greater degree of care amongst activists. However, the experience left the person involved shaken, and ‘completely destroyed’ her admiration for UKuncut. Activists are justifiably angry about the actions of police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) photographing them and recording them on databases as ‘potential domestic extremists’ – so there is absolutely no reason for them to ape questionable police tactics.

Indeed, this incident is more insidious than the actions of FIT, since they at least are part of a group with a recognised and publicised strategy, so their actions are expected.

The protest movement, on the other hand, has been couched in the language of unity and solidarity, and its open and ‘leaderless’ character has been put forward as one of its primary strengths. This rhetoric has been used to appeal to those who are usually marginalised, and who will be disproportionately affected by the cuts. However, following a lone woman home down quiet streets, even during the day, is a display of intimidation, as should be obvious to anyone with half a brain who claims to be ‘left’ or ‘progressive’.*

Anti-cuts movements need exposure, and at least some positive publicity. This is not easy. Today’s demonstrations showed both that kettling leads to violence (no kettles and no violence in London, kettles and violence in Manchester), and that without violence, we cannot expect media coverage. Thus, independent coverage, be that by individual bloggers or professional filmmakers is to be encouraged, for all forms of protest.

UKuncut has made its activities public with open twitter meetings, so the police could easily find out what was being done – the best way of engaging with the police while avoiding individual contact. This, again, is a strength. Police attend all protests, so those who attend can be sure that, if they want to, the police will record their faces, and pursue follow up inquiries. Shop owned CCTV will provide facial images even if officers do not take photographs themselves.

In short, there would be NO POINT in planting undercover officers in UKuncut protests, and even if they were there, they would not be able to obtain any information unavailable to uniformed officers.

Even if there were the possibility that someone had infiltrated, however, aggressive and suspicious behaviour would not help. Demonstrations should be safe spaces. For everyone. UKuncut actions in Edinburgh have had respectful, if not exactly cordial, relationships with the police, and this has helped to maintain a positive atmosphere which is communicated to members of the public who demonstrators engage with.

In a situation where vulnerable people come together to stand together, it should be a given that each individual maintains responsibility for the wellbeing of every other individual. Anti-cuts protests are such events, since the burden of the cuts falls disproportionately on women, disabled people and those in low income employment.

I repeat, when dealing with disparate groups of people, all new members should be welcomed, not ostracized, since a movement claiming solidarity should practice what it preaches, rather than practicing intimidation. There is never any reason to act in an aggressive or threatening way towards fellow demonstrators, and such actions play directly into the hands of those we wish to demonstrate against, both by providing negative anecdotal evidence and by discouraging people from attending.

Protest is not a social club, but an act of resistance to which all are invited, whether committed activists or those who want to get involved for the first time, whether speaking through a megaphone or documenting the event in photography or film. All should be welcome, all should be safe, all should be nourished. If we are to be a genuine force for resistance, we should be sure that we do not practice the oppressive techniques of those we oppose.

I understand that this is only an isolated incident, but that does not make it right.

EDIT: Since this was posted it has come to my attention that an EDL supporting twitter user under the name @wearethebritish has begun to use this incident (and the *alleged* Daily Mail reports of anti-Semitic abuse of NUS president Aaron Porter) as a way of smearing the protest movement. This development, and the way the story is beginning to spread through right wing twitter networks demonstrates the importance of practicing what we preach.

*leaving questions as to the definitions or utility of these labels for another time.

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