Good Hair Day! 'Reclaim the Bases', USAF Croughton, 1985
Written for The Ecologist, published 14th March 2017
Of late I've been trying not to sound like one of the old men in Monty Python's 'Four Yorkshiremen'1 sketch. I'm trying to communicate the idea that while some things have not changed in the world of activism, some things – particularly our protections under the law – have. What this discussions leaves me with is a vexing question; 'where are the networks to train people to be activists?'
Now that the leading campaigns groups – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc. – have become 'desk jockeys' for change, who is helping those people moved to direction action to learn how to tackle "the system"?
And as for 'clicktivism'2, in the guise of Avazz or 38 Degrees, what's the point of petitioning for progress from people with no interest in supporting it?
In my mid-teens I had the inestimable luck and honour to meet a man called John Bugg. He was a former policeman who had undergone a change of perspective, and spent the last years of his life helping peace protesters.
He challenged military byelaws3, fought cases all the way to the High Court, and caused chaos for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) police – who at that time were trying to keep peace protesters out of American bases across Britain.
Under his inspiration and tutelage I went from getting kicked by MoD policemen, and angrily resenting it; to leading walks across military bases4, and cutting fences along the way, without the authorities being able to lay a legal finger on myself or those following.
I must acknowledge another debt. If it were not for Margaret Thatcher I would not be writing this. She made you want to take action!
I believe that popularism, Brexit and Trump will have the same effect on people today.
In May 2016 I made a bold, and not unanticipated pledge.
If Brexit and Trump 'happened' then I'd refocus my efforts helping that newly inspired generation of activists understand how they could use the law, and our history, as a campaigning tool – as John Bugg had for me.
The difficulty is that our 'collective memory' of activism in Britain5 seems to have been lost – which makes it very difficult to relate how we might use the law and public pressure to protect our civil rights and the environment.
However, without that experience of things that have gone before, how will those new activists develop their craft?
That's why 'grey-haired activists' like me – the 'survivors' of the peace, anti-roads, Criminal Justice Act and other campaigns – need to crank themselves back in to action. To do what John Bugg and others like him did for us back then.
Lately I've been debating the question, 'why are the police so bad, protecting corporations rather than the public interest?'.
I have to point out that actually they're a whole lot better than they were.
In April 1979, at an anti-Nazi protest in Southall, Blair Peach6 was beaten unconscious by a policeman. He died in hospital the following day. A teacher, today he has a primary school in Southall named in his honour.
It took thirty-one years for the police acknowledge their role in his death.
Four years before, at another anti-Nazi protest in 1974, Kevin Gately7 died at a protest in London – the first person to die at the hands of the state during a public protest since the Liverpool 'police strikes' of 1919.
In 1981 there were riots8 in London, Liverpool, Bristol and other cities, sparked by police violence, racism and discrimination. The Scarman Report9 which followed highlighted the failings of the police, though little was learned. Many of those points were repeated in the McPherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence10 a generation later.
These events further highlighted the way in which the police were fundamentally unaccountable. It was parodied in the comedy11 of the time.
What activists today cannot appreciate is that the scandals of that time, like Blair Peach and many others, led to fundamental changes in the law – creating the rights they have today.
In 1984 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act12 was passed.
Unless you'd been an activist before that time, you can't really appreciate what a difference that made to our powers to hold the police accountable. Most notably, our rights during police stops, searches, arrests and detention.
The shift in the Government's attitude towards 'controlling' public protest began with the Miners' Strike13 in 1984. That's because there were few laws on the statute book which allowed them to police political protest effectively.
Just as the police resisted owning-up in the Blair Peach case, last week the Government stated its opposition to an inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave14.
The 'politicization' of the police service can be seen in the memo from a mandarin at the Home Office, who in 1984 wrote15,
"internal questions" needed to be asked about how "the Home Office relay(s) to the police service the political influence on operational policy which was wanted in the early days of the (miners) dispute".
Against that background, the police excesses at the Battle of the Beanfield16 a year later were no surprise.
The events of 1984 and 1985 were the pretext to the Government's first significant attempt at 'political control', under the guise of the Public Order Act 198617 – the Act that is still used to this day against protests around the country.
The first general use of these powers was against environmental protests, political campaigners, and peace/anti-nuclear activists.
In that sense some things have not changed. For example, anti-fracking campaigners today complain about the use of sexualized violence18 against them, just as it was used against women at Greenham19 30 years before.
As part of the successful legal case against against Wiltshire police, one of the specific criticisms which came out of the Beanfield case was the failure of the police to wear identifying numbers. Without that, police officers could not be held personally accountable for their actions.
Despite the Beanfield case, police at protest actions often do not wear identifying numbers. That's something which every activist should challenge them on.
Ask to see their warrant card, if only to check if they are a 'real' policeman (they can't unreasonably deny the request). Also, ask to see and complain to the senior officer on the scene, and get his ID too – for when you lodge a complaint to the IPCC20 about the incident after the event.
Where the Public Order Act fell down was the challenge posed by drug-addled ravers21. They were not 'political' – they were just having a good time.
The crack-down on rave culture was enabled by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 199422 (the 'CJA'), still in use today.
Thing is, if you tell people they're not allowed to have a good time they tend to get miffed about it. Opposition to the CJA politicized that generation, just as the suppression of youth culture23 had politicized generations before.
For example, the 'CJA generation' were part of the successful anti-roads protests which spread across Britain during the 1990s.
The police represent 'order' – it's the magistrates and judges who decide 'justice'.
People seem to think that the police must be 'fair', and represent the well-being of the public. Historically that's not what they were designed to do, and it's not how the laws they enact function.
Policing is about property rights, established political power, and who controls them. Those who feel aggrieved that the police are protecting fracking rigs should really look at the history of – or rather, for ordinary people, the lack of – land rights in Britain24.
The basis of English law is the protection of property rights. For example, fracking exploration licences are a form of property – likewise planning or pollution permits.
Usually most people do not see this statist25, property-protecting side of the police because they only offend against the 'public good' – such as bad driving, or getting drunk and mouthing-off.
However, be it 'stealing food' from a bin26 or protesting against polluting developments, when you engage with the state's powers to protect property rights, you enact a whole different level of police power.
There's a key lesson I try to teach all activists involved in direct action. You cannot respond to provocation or violence from the police with aggression or violence.
The police are trained and equipped to respond to aggression, and if push comes to shove, to enact immediate violence against you. Getting angry or mouthing-off against the police is a waste of time. They deal with it like water off a duck's back, and the law will support them in that process.
That's also why the police deliberately provoke violence27 – so that you give them the power to act against you.
So why fall for it, and let them control you in the process?
Instead, by understanding the law, you can work in a way which can deflect or subvert their power. And, in the Alinskian principle28 of 'pushing people beyond their experience', being passionately non-violent with the police takes away many of the powers they have – allowing you to push the boundaries of activism29 in all sorts of strange and inventive ways.
People have been resisting the state in this country since 1066. It's an intrinsic part of our national identity – though you won't find that on a school history curriculum!
If you go to a protest today you'll be confronted by the (updated) Public Order Act 1986 and Criminal Justice Act 1994. To really understand those laws is to understand the history of protest in Britain – and vice-versa.
It's YOUR history today because you are living its effects; just as it was 'ours' when us grey-haired activists lived through the events around which those laws were enacted.
Understanding our shared history of protest30 in Britain not only lets you know how the law was created. You can also take inspiration from how people have responded to that law in the past, and build your own creativity upon that – to make it your own.
Why did I make that bold promise to "pay back" my training as an activist in the 1980s?
Essentially, just as I thought Brexit and Trump were a force mobilized for action, I could also see that lobby's desire to roll-back our long-won civil rights; negating all those positive changes in the law since I became an activist in my teens.
Trump is a problem because his "illiberal" neo-liberalism gives permission for other would-be demagogues to argue for the same.
Difficulty is, in Britain – just as the neo-liberals under Thatcher were already way-ahead of Ronald Reagan – today's neo-Conservative's are already ahead of Trump.
Getting out of Europe might top the news, but the right of the Conservative Party are itching to secede from the European Convention on Human Rights31 (ECHR) – which is likely to be the first thing to happen after Brexit.
Why? All those positive changes to people's rights, since and including the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, make it more difficult to exercise political power.
In leaving the ECHR, those laws can be erased in a single legislative stroke.
Unless we personally, and if necessarily bodily oppose the roll-back of our civil rights post-Brexit, we will be facing a return to the days of "real" police violence – of Kevin Gately, Blair Peach and the 'Battle of Orgreave'. But getting angry is no solution; in most situations it is positively counter-productive. Instead you must educate yourself. Not only about the law and how it works, but of our great British tradition of protest, and how that is intertwined in the evolution of the law as it stands today.