Sunday, 30 October 2011

Creating a peaceful insurgency

I'm going to stick a proviso right up front here, when I say insurgency, I do not mean a violent insurgency. I mean an attempt to reshape the state through the use of widespread civil unrest. I don't believe there's any need for there to be violence in a democratic society. So...

It looks like the Occupy movement in London is approaching a critical point in it's development, as Church authorities meet with protesters this morning, and Christian groups begin to declare their support for the protest. In the background the police and Government are clearly working to create a legal basis to remove the camp from its current site.

Support is starting to flow in from other sources too. When I was there the other night there were a couple of Union spokesmen there, pledging their support. I was slightly disheartened to hear the phrase "Tory scum" coming over the megaphone, but it's not like thats wildly unexpected, and certainly doesn’t change my support for the movement. It remains to be seen if the big Unions will come out officially in support and start sending their members down to the protest.

Everyone seems to be preparing for the big showdown with police, but in my opinion, that's a distraction. As has been shown in the US time and again, police tearing down tents doesn't end the protest, it just means everyone moves around a bit and then sets back up again. It's nearly impossible to arrest someone on any meaningful basis for protesting after all.

Now is the time to look beyond the police action, and indeed see police action as an opportunity. It will draw public attention back to the protests again, and hopefully start to shift the poisonous perspective which many have of the protests.

Recently Egyptian activists visited Occupy Wall Street, and were, by all accounts, slightly disappointed by what they found:
A few hundred demonstrators fell in line behind her and Maher, who gamely joined the English chants. The police allowed the march onto Wall Street itself, and at each corner the American leaders consulted an officer about the preferred route. Weary of the somewhat stilted slogans, which lacked the umph and rhythm of Egyptian chants, Mahfouz and Maher taught the crowd the iconic cry of the Arab uprisings: "Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam," or "The people demand the fall of the regime." The crowd adopted its own hybrid: "Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street."

As they wound back to Zuccotti Park, demonstrators awaited a cue from the police before crossing Broadway. It was too much for Mahfouz. She stopped in the middle of the intersection, stopped traffic, pumped a fist in the air, and demanded the fall of Wall Street. Nervous demonstrators skittered to the sidewalk, leaving Mahfouz with just the cameras and a few dozen stalwarts who seemed willing to accept her invitation to be arrested.

For a few seconds, there was a palpable crackle of tension. But the police, it seemed, didn't want the hassle. They stepped back, and without a confrontation, the moment subsided. Mahfouz joined her comrades back on the sidewalk.

"I wanted to show them that they need to be tough, even if they get arrested," she said with her trademark toothy smile. With that, she repaired for a private session with Occupy organizers -- she had finally found them -- and the long trip back to Cairo the following day.

I write this almost wincing, as I know people will froth at the mouth at my next point. One of the most important lessons learned by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in recent years is that Western structures of law and order allow people to work against the state in meaningful ways, without going outside the boundaries of the law. Abu Mus'ab al-Suri used this principle throughout his life, using the British legal system as a shield, whilst retaining his identity as a pen jihadi.

It goes without saying that there is no similarity between Occupy protesters and Al Qaeda, however, the principle of using the law as a shield remains true. Peaceful protest is protected in a half a dozen ways by laws, both at the national and the international level. The only tool the police can use is to make the protest as inconvenient as possible, like taking generators from Occupy protesters in New York the day before it snows.

The more aggressive the policing, the higher the cost for the police, both in financial terms, but also in terms of morale. In the wake of the shocking actions of police in Oakland the Occupy movement there couldn’t be in a better position. The movement there has had an injection of public support in the wake of the brutal attack by police on war veteran Scott Olsen.

More importantly it has driven a wedge between the city government and its police. The local government has been forced to back down and allow the protest back, which the police are saying is a mistake. With these two forces deadlocked, the protesters are in control. That is insurgency, putting the institutions which are seeking to remove you in conflict with each other.

The raw cost of policing these outbreaks of protest will also start to show itself in the near future, particularly if police where police start to take a heavier hand. Police in the UK, when being drawn into policing civil unrest, are paid extra for their time, by a large margin. All the logistics cost money. And it wears down police to have to go head to head with people day after day. Again, a core part of an insurgency, creating a situation where it is simply too expensive, in terms of finance and manpower, to prevent the insurgency running its course.

The key problem for the movement in the UK right now is mobilisation of support. Its always a problem in the UK, people are apathetic about pretty much everything. Right now the movement needs to stop making its case to traditional supporters, and start making its case to people. This requires a change in mindset, away from being inwardly looking, towards the external audience which right now is largely turned against protesters (another feature of the great British public).

At the core of any insurgency is the removal of people from supporting the Government to your own side. In this case it means turning people away from their apathy about the financial sector.

Right now unemployment in London is sitting at around 6%, maybe a little lower. Thats a staggeringly large number of people sitting around, with little to fill the day. My question, and my challenge, to protesters, is how do you get them on their feet and to come out to support you? Occupy in the US has shown it is possible, and I believe it would be here too.

As winter closes in, the challenges of Occupy around the globe will proliferate. It will be the most difficult time. However, it is also the critical time. It will show whether the movement is truly self sustaining at this point, or whether it is simply a bunch of kids with nothing better to do with their time.

Disclaimer: I'm a supporter of Occupy, I've donated food and time to the protests in London and money to protests in the US. I'm proud of that. This piece is written in part as a call to action and partly as a thought piece.

People have asked me how I reconcile my support for Occupy with my Conservative views, and here's my simple answer, I don't have to agree with the other guy's solutions to recognise we both have a problem with the same thing.

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