How to protest - and survive
2.'Need For a New Social Alliance': Susan George
1. How to protest - and survive
Bibi van der Zee
The Guardian, June 5 2008
*A poorly planned boycott is pointless, while a badly worded banner can land you in the cells. In this extract from her new book, Bibi van der Zee explains how to campaign effectively - without falling foul of the law
Campaigns against the over-packaging of food have jolted supermarkets into acknowledging the need for change, while campaigns against the growth in aviation have kept airlines and the emissions in the headlines. In Wales and the west of Ireland, new gas pipelines have been the subject of unwanted attention. Direct action, done well, is probably one of the best ways of raising awareness and even getting a final concession.
Many of these actions have involved breaking the law: criminal damage, harassment, obstructing the highway, aggravated trespass. But direct action does not have to be illegal: it simply involves putting yourself on the line. You could spend your Saturdays outside the local petrol station dressed as a polar bear; that's direct action and it's certainly not against the law. You could, Women's Institute-style, bring back handfuls of packaging to your local supermarket, or stage a die-in in front of a coffee chain. Neither of these should land you in a police cell. Even entering an office or shop to stage a sit-in - as long as you do it peacefully without forcing entry - is not a criminal offence because trespass is a civil matter.
However, it is important to remember that, however well-behaved you are, the police may still arrest you. The shocking truth is that you do not have to do anything illegal in order to be arrested. If you are "making a nuisance of yourself", it is entirely possible that the police will haul you off. Still, you may well feel the risk is worth running. Direct action is cheap, quick and easy to organise. It can be massively embarrassing for the company involved, or for the government. Shame is one of the most potent weapons a protester has.
Slightly different laws apply to demonstrations (static protests on public land) and processions/marches along a planned route.
For demonstrations, the world's your oyster, as long as you're not planning on protesting within the "designated area" around parliament, in which case you'll need police permission. You must, however, make sure you are not obstructing the highway, which is any road or path over which the public has the right to pass. This is a criminal offence under the Highways Act 1980. Make sure the demo remains polite and not threatening in any way, otherwise the protesters could be accused of aggravated trespass under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. If you have more than six vehicles, under the same act, the police can ask you to leave.
If you are organising a march, you will need to begin by letting the police know. You need to give them the names and contact details of the organisers, as well as the date and proposed route, and you should ideally get this to them six clear days before the march. If you fail to comply with police conditions, you face up to three months in prison.
Misworded banners can get you into trouble. The Public Order Act 1986 prohibits the display of material that could be threatening, abusive or insulting to members of the public, or provoke violence, or cause members of the public to fear violence, or cause harassment, alarm or distress. In 2001 the peace protester Lindis Percy and an evangelical Christian were both charged under this act, the former for defacing an American flag at a US airbase, the latter for displaying a placard reading, "Stop Homosexuality, Stop Immorality, Stop Lesbianism". Percy was cleared, the Christian, a 67-year-old called Harry Hammond, was convicted.
Mark Farmaner, who heads the Burma Campaign, suggests a campaign group "should have something planned every week for the first six months of the boycott: postcards, protests, handing letters to staff as they go into the office". For the campaign to get British American Tobacco out of Burma, he and his colleagues found out the names and home addresses of all the directors and sent press cuttings about the regime to their homes. If you can get some big colourful publicity coup in there too, you're on to a winner: when the Burma Campaign targeted the lingerie-maker Triumph, they had posters of women in barbed-wire bras, which was, Farmaner says, "the only campaign I've ever run which made it into the Sun". And once you get a reputation, just a threat can be enough. MK One, the fashion retailer, agreed to stop sourcing clothes from Burma four hours after Farmaner sent out the press releases. It helps, he points out, if companies actually know they're being targeted. "I get so many things asking me to boycott someone, but not asking me to contact the company and tell them. How are they going to know?"
Anna Tims, the Guardian's consumer champion, says that it's vital to be polite and reasonable, otherwise you increase the chance that your letter will just be ignored.
"Even I'm tempted to ditch letters from people who are just ranting, so imagine how a company feels."
The first thing to do is work out who you should be writing to. "Find out people's names - that gives your letter more impact," she advises. Follow all the old-fashioned rules of letter-writing rather than doing it email-style (snail mail is better than email, she believes, because "you never really know where those emails go"). So begin your letter Dear so-and so, and put your address at the top and your name clearly at the bottom beneath your signature. Tims says she's astonished at how often people don't follow these basic rules. Keep a copy for yourself and start a log.
It is also worth sending your letter to multiple destinations: find out the name of a couple of directors and cc your complaint to them. In Jasper Griegson's book The Complete Complainer he gives an example of contacting three directors of the same company in this way: one did not respond, one offered a partial refund, and the third offered a full refund.
As for politicians, MPs do pay attention to the letters they receive, and will almost always answer. They even take note of those pre-printed postcards that campaigns ask their supporters to send in, and, according to one parliamentary researcher, start to think about taking some action when they've got a stack that's about a thumbnail's width. There is a wonderful website called Write to Them (writetothem.com) that takes all the faff out of contacting your MP. You can knock off an email in 10 minutes. Again, keep your letter polite; a rude rant about Palestine will simply be ignored.
The letters page in a newspaper is also a fantastic forum for local and national issues. Bertrand Russell, philosopher and anti-nuclear campaigner, wrote hundreds of letters to editors, and it was an angry reader's letter to the Times in 1937 that led to the creation of the 999 service. It's a tribute to their power that, in 2005, Labour press officers in the national office adopted the practice known as "astroturfing" - stimulating grassroots support - by writing model letters for supporters and party members to send to local papers.
The relationship between police and protesters is historically a bit sticky. The police should be more grateful, really: one of the reasons they were brought into being was the public uproar after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when local volunteer yeomanry were sent in to break up a political gathering. Eleven people were killed. After that a police force began to seem like a good idea, although anyone who has seen the police charging on horseback into a march might be feeling a bit confused at this point.
It is vital to know your rights during demos, marches, civil disobedience and direct action. First, it keeps you calmer. Second, it saves you from getting into daft arguments - I met one campaigner who didn't realise the police had the right to take her fingerprints in the police station and ended up having a big row.
So, when can they arrest you?
1) When you have committed, are committing or are about to commit an offence (criminal damage, perhaps, or threatening behaviour, or simply obstructing the highway).
2) When a police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting that you have committed, are committing or are about to commit an offence.
3) When a police officer has grounds to suspect you are guilty of an offence that he or she has reasonable grounds to suspect has been committed.
Frankly, most things are covered in here, aren't they? The police can always come up with a reason for hauling you away if they want to; they must, however, inform you that they are arresting you as they do it. The police can keep you for up to 36 hours without charging you - 96 hours if authorised by a magistrate. Once under arrest, the police don't need your permission to take fingerprints, photos, oral swabs, saliva or footwear impressions. They can use force if necessary. They do need permission to take a blood sample, a urine sample, a semen sample, a dental impression, a pubic-hair sample or a tissue sample.
*Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor's Handbook, by Bibi van der Zee, is published by Guardian Books at GBP14.99. To buy a copy for GBP12.99, visit guardianbooks.co.uk or call 0845 606 4232.
Share your protesting tips and experiences blogs.guardian.co.uk/politics
2. Q&A: 'Need For a New Social Alliance'
Interview with political economist Susan George
IPS, June 3 2008
FLORENCE) - A global alliance of human rights activists, environmentalists and ethically run small enterprises is needed to save the planet from self-destruction, says Susan George, chair of the Planning Board of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. The institute works "to contribute to social justice."
Susan George, author of several books on development, now focuses on neo-liberal globalisation mirrored in the World Trade Organisation talks, international financial institutions and in North-South relations.
"Even if committed to the social and environmental challenges, none of these groups individually will be able to save our future, which is dominated by powerful economic forces that have a short-term view and, if allowed, will continue exploiting and destroying the planet," George says.
We must recognise, she says, that change does not happen at an individual level. "Yes, I can change my light bulbs or reduce my carbon footprint, but we need a radical revolution that cannot be achieved individually."
IPS Italy correspondent Sabina Zaccaro spoke with Susan George at Terra Futura, an exhibition of 'good practices' in social, economic and environmental sustainability held yearly in Florence. In its fifth year, Terra Futura was dedicated to strengthening social alliances -- and trying some audacious ones such as alliances among private citizens and financial institutions.
IPS: Will the political-economic system really allow these alliances to happen?
Susan George: The market ideology works to separate people, it is a model that separates people on a competition basis. Social contact is the only response to economy that works all the time to prevent this.
People do not have to abandon their own field and commitment, but become used to working together. We are free agents, and if we understand that there's an interest, that the vast majority of people can often no longer see where their interests lie -- and that is part of the political fight that we have -- then it is possible.
If you show to people that they have an interest in alliances, and this is true for farmers, trade unionists, small medium enterprises”¦then yes, I think it possible to make those alliances.
IPS: And who sets the rules?
SG: It is hard to get binding rules, it could be easier at the level of the regions. In many places this is not possible because of corruption, or because the will of the government is to prevent this kind of thing and allow transnational corporations to do whatever they like. I would say that that's what the European Commission is there for -- to allow finance capitals and transnational capitals to operate as freely as possible.
IPS: Can the ethical argument alone convince business?
SG: No, not at all. They say how green they are, how caring they are, but it's rubbish to believe it...Corporations and transnational organisations preach self-green regulation; 'we will bring the proper solution', they say, but it is totally illusive.
IPS: So, what can be a convincing argument?
SG: The right arguments are the arguments of force you cannot argue with, you don't discuss; you don't say 'please'. When you are in a position where you are able to dictate.
SG: Well, through alliances! At a much larger scale, at a big scale...the problem is scale. Alliances must be as broad as possible. Economic power is way ahead of us, so to me the problem is, can we go fast enough, become important enough in order to put a stop to that, to escape the current impasse.
IPS: Does politics have a role in that?
SG: If it would be just politics, I would not be that worried, since things due over centuries sort themselves out; but with the environment we don't have that kind of time. I don't say it often in public, because I don't want people be in despair, but I am often in despair.
IPS: Are you totally pessimistic?
SG: I am hopeful; the only thing you can work on is hope. Generally, politicians are the last to move, but we need to make alliance with them.
When politicians have an interest in something, they show that they are able to listen. Look at what happens with prices...and scarcity. Politicians and business do listen to that, they listen to the price of oil -- they bring the wrong solutions, but they listen to price signals.
IPS: Can oil be replaced with agro-fuels?
SG: It's criminal. There's a lot of talk about using plants that are bio -- but any plant is bio. I've just read that some of the species they're intending to use are invasive species, they take over, and then will spread all over and take all the water out of the ground, and so on.
So, it's always the same thing -- you cannot have just a techno solution because there's the entire environment that you have to consider. I am not an agronomist, but I would refuse any introduction, any crop until the impact of that crop on the rest of the environment has been studied. You cannot just say 'Ok, this is good, we will harvest it, and we will do ethanol out of it', because you don't know.
That's also what's wrong with GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds. They only look at the plant and what that plant is supposed to do, to repulse insects or whatever, but they don't look at the whole of the environment, it's not their task.
Scientists are perfectly able to make a plant that can repulse insects, but they have no knowledge at all of how the birds, the butterflies, the worms, the bacteria, will react. (END/2008)