Sunday 30 August 2009

Birth defects in India linked to pollution from coal-fired power stations

This story first caught my eye because the city of Bathinda in the Indian state of Punjab is only about 95 miles, a two-and-a-half hour car journey, from Lehrian in Haryana, where the Gilly Mundy Memorial Community School that has been built with funds and support from many friends in the UK. That’s about the same distance from my flat in Forest Gate to the home of Gilly’s father in Leamington Spa.

Tests have shown that an increase in birth defects and cancers amongst children living close to the coal-fired power stations in Bathinda and in Faridkot are the result of massive levels on uranium in the ground water, far beyond natural background levels.

The Observer suggests the contamination is caused by fine fly ash produced when coal is burned that contains concentrated levels of uranium, because of scientific evidence of similarly increased radiation levels around coal-fired thermal power stations in Russia. Further investigation is urgent and other suggested causes, although far less convincing, are no less worrying: one idea is that the contamination is a consequence of increased demands for water to irrigate large-scale crop production, which has led to ever deeper wells that both deplete the water table and may be drawing water that is contaminated with deep seams of uranium. The government has even suggested, rather fancifully, that the cause may be depleted uranium from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what the government of India has staunchly refused to do is acknowledge that there is a problem that needs further investigation: Dr Carin Smit, the South African toxicologist who carried out tests in Bathinda and Faridkot has been warned that she may not be allowed back into the country and clinics treating contaminated children have been threatened with closure if they speak out.

The expansion of thermal coal-fired plants in India is seen as an important part of the country’s economic expansion and demand for electricity, one that banks in the West are busily helping to finance. The Indian government therefore has powerful financial incentives to look the other way and to try and silence those who raise awkward questions about the pollution these plants cause or the possible impact on the health of local people.

Those who argue that the impact of dirty coal is global, in terms of dramatic climate change in the future, are often accused of seeking to deny millions of people in the global south, like the Indians who routinely experience (as anyone who has visited India has also experienced) intermittent power shortages, the right to the basic needs enjoyed in the West. But the real problem in India is not personal demand, which is always treated as secondary at best to the insatiable requirements of Indian business, but the country's over-dependence on one form of energy generation - coal - that according to the International Energy Agency is predicted to increase from today’s 69 percent to 71 percent by 2030. As well as the unsustainable CO2 emissions this will cause and their future global consequences, its damaging environmental impact also has an immediate effect on the communities in coal-producing regions. As the WWF argued in its report 'Rethinking Coal's Rule in India':

Communities living either with, or in close proximity to coal mines and coal plants receive the brunt of the industry’s negative impacts — and in India, as in other developing nations, the bulk of coal mining’s environmental costs are imposed upon impoverished and marginalised communities. Locals living in these coal burdened communities endure degraded health, damaged natural resources, and increasingly, loss of their homeland. The Coal Vision 2025 of India’s Ministry of Coal reveals that about 170,000 families involving about 850,000 people will be affected by coal projects by the year 2025. Large-scale population displacement raises serious questions about the ability to bear the costs of such rehabilitation, or to find adequate replacement land of similar ecological value. But institutional responses to such woes have been dampened by weak environmental laws and regulations, which effectively deny poor communities a voice.
That's why accusations that environmentalists are denying the rights of the poorest seem so hollow. It also means that we mustn't forget that dirty coal is not just a future concern but right now is also a local human rights issue too, with the damage done to the lives of the most vulnerable and powerless.

And for those in the UK who have family or friends living in India, this could be happening close to the places we know and love. As close as a journey from London to Leamington.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Some Thoughts On Climate Camp Day 4

I headed down at Climate Camp today and for those who haven’t been, I can assure you that this hacket job of the camp is far, far less accurate than this one, which at least comes closer to an accurate description of the majority of campers. But whilst there were many people who were, shall we say, ‘dressed down’ and a few hippies too, I certainly didn’t see any sign of everyone madly taking pictures – indeed, no-one was taking them in the workshops I attended - which just goes to show the dangers of commenting on something you know nothing about, Laurie.

After helping out with some washing up at the Yorkshire tent, I managed to attend some workshops, which were a mixed bag. The one on ‘Climate Justice: Views from the global South’ had knowledgeable speakers, including fellow RANista Nick Deardon from Jubilee Debt Campaign and Tim Jones from the World Development Movement, who covered a lot of ground but were interested in solutions and in learning from the experiences of movements in Latin America. They were joined by a visitor from Bolivia and the session was hopeful in suggesting that the environmental movement in the North has potentially powerful and well organised allies in the South.

Legal observer training was good too, with Estelle from NMP explaining the importance of taking information about how to intervene in a police stop & search and using it not only in a protest situation but anywhere - or everywhere. By contrast, the workshop on ‘Climate Action and Anti-Capitalism’, which was advertised as an opportunity to debate how climate action could relate to the wider social struggles against capitalism and the limitations of current approaches, was a complete mess. This was the session I had been most looking forward to, but it amounted to a vague discussion on why ‘capitalism is a bad thing’ and some very rudimentary Marxist rhetoric about how people would be persuaded to consume less because they ‘consciousness would be raised’ (which I have heard so many times before but seldom witnessed) in a ‘revolutionary situation’ (which doesn’t currently exist, despite the disastrous economic crisis). And the solutions on offer? The need for a ‘new workers’ party’ (that again, a subject that I think I have done to death already) or some new form of mass party of the left, a kind of New Old Labour. Respect for that idea...

What really surprised me is the complete lack of knowledge, in a new movement that claims to model itself to a certain extent on the Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico, of alternatives like the horizontalism of protests in Argentina. It’s almost as surprising as the apparent belief that corporations and governments are disconnected and that everything is the fault of the former. And the startling claim that the Vestas dispute was only possible because of ‘Trotskyist agitation’ in the Isle of Wight (you’ve got to love earnest young SWPers for bullshit like this!)

On one level, Climate Camp is a bit like a mass, rather earnest, predominantly middle-class outdoor teach-in, which this time has been detached from any threats of the police storming the site, or of the immediacy of impending direct action like at Kingsnorth. But as one friend said to me today, the absence of potential conflict, the fact that anyone can come and go as they please, has created a situation where there is little conflicting debate within Climate Camp itself and has meant that moderates within the Camp have the upper hand. It all feels just a little bit – safe. Too safe.

On Tuesday, I’ll be at work, which means I’ll miss the day-long discussion in the Main Marquee on whether Climate Camp is too media obsessed, too liberal, insufficiently diverse and where it can go next. Another friend, who has been directly involved in the organisation of Climate Camp, has described this as ‘The Great Navel Gaze’, which is hilarious, but I know what he means.

The aftermath of the G20 protests and the police’s resulting low key operation in Blackheath has revealed that it is the police’s presence, more than anything that protesters do, which is the cause of violent confrontation. But the lack of intimacy and solidarity that this conflict instils has also revealed some fairly fundamental divisions, between those who believe that solutions can be found within capitalism and those who reject such solutions as impossibly naïve.

Navel-gazing would therefore have been fascinating to participate in.

Without doubt, the strangest leaflets handed out at Climate Camp were promoting the thoughts of Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese-born multimillionaire restaurateur, fashion designer, self-publicist and barking online cult leader. We all need to embrace vegetarianism and visit her website, apparently. And I thought the silent hand-clapping signals in the workshops were peculiar...

Friday 28 August 2009

Why Climate Camp Targets Barclays

Why target Barclays? It is one of a number of banks that invests heavily in the coal industry, largely because coal is cheap and plentiful, with worldwide reserves estimated to be enough to last for 150 years. However, coal is also the dirtiest, least efficient fossil fuel, adding considerably to greenhouse gas emissions.

As last year’s report Cashing in on Coal by the campaigners Platform highlighted how important banks are to the expansion of the coal industry:

Banks play a vital role in driving forward this carbon frontier. As in other capital intensive industries, both power and mining companies rely heavily on banks to finance their ongoing operations and expansion of infrastructure. When an electricity generating company such as E.ON plans to build a new coal power station, it needs to borrow a significant proportion of the construction costs. Similarly, coal extraction companies such as UK Coal or Arch Coal require loans and credit to open or expand new mines.
The largest of the UK banks investing is RBS, which between May 2006 and April 2008 invested $95.83 billion. The seventeen loans provided by Barclays totaled $38.24 billion. Its investments are not just in the UK – one recent loan was for $845 million to India's Tata Power in April 2008 and it has extensive investments, in collaboration with other banks, in the US.

Like other banks, Barclays responds to criticism by highlighting its other investments in renewable energy and its enthusiasm for commoditising pollution through discredited and corrupt Emissions Trading, but neither will address the threat of climate change if we continue to increase the rate of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, particularly coal. The 50 million tonnes of CO2 that new coal plants in the UK would emit will make any prospect of cutting our emissions by more than 80 per cent by 2050 – Britain’s share of what is needed to avoid disastrous climate change – impossible, especially with the Brown government committed to protecting mass air travel.

And yet, if we fail to make these cuts and other industrial nations that the banks are busy investing in also fail too, by 2050 the poorest one billion people of the world, in Asia and Africa, will face water shortages and crop failures that raise levels of starvation and food prices as agriculture struggles to cope with growing demand in increasingly arid conditions. Rising sea levels meanwhile risk submerging homes in coastal communities in southern Asia, the Far East, the south Pacific islands and the Caribbean.

Put simply, targeting corporations like Barclays is a question of survival. But they are just one of many who are responsible for capitalism’s climate madness and there will be others reminded of their guilt over the coming days.

OK, on a lighter note: can you spot the drunk City 'merchant banker' in the picture by Amelia Gregory? What a cunning stunt...

Thursday 27 August 2009

Climate Camp - Police Blink in Test of Brinkmanship

The situation surrounding policing at Climate Camp has developing throughout the day. This morning, the Camp’s main Twitter feed was highlighting discussions about police access on site at neighbourhood meetings, because of the impending attendance of representatives from Greenwich and Lewisham Councils and by Superintendent Julia Pendry, whose presence the evening before had led to what might be described as a ‘frank exchange of views’.

The upshot of these discussions was inconclusive – as a FITwatch tweet put it, “consensus not reached whether to allow them entry so access will be refused”. This was summed up in a Climate Camp statement as follows:

We will meet with the police, and we will talk to the police, but we will do it outside the Camp. The reason for this is very simple: many people at the Camp have suffered violence, harassment and intimidation at the hands of the police, at events such as the Kingsnorth Camp and the G20 protests. Although the police have not used these tactics at this Camp so far, that doesn’t mean that we are suddenly going to start trusting them. We take decisions as a whole Camp, and discussion is still ongoing, but at the moment, there is no reason for the police to come on site.

A lot of people from the community, and the media, have already visited the Camp, and will be able to confirm that it is a completely safe, friendly and welcoming space. Meanwhile, the police have mounted surveillance cameras and microphones on cranes and can see everything we are doing in here anyway. We currently feel that there is no reason for them to enter the site.

We have been open, honest and perfectly reasonable in our dealings with the police. We are saddened, but not surprised, that they are now threatening to cut off contact with our police liaison team. We feel this is an unreasonable response to our perfectly sensible position.
The implications of this decision, from the point of view of the Met police in a press release, were immediate:
On arrival Superintendent Pendry was refused access to the site despite previous agreement with the Camp Police Liaison team. As the meeting was so important the local councils and police compromised and allowed the meeting to go ahead outside the camp fence on this occasion.
A meeting with Pendry did eventually take place at around 3.30pm outside the gates of the Camp, but it was followed soon after by a tweet that said:
“Police have threatened to cut off all communications even though this seems perfectly reasonable given the lack of trust amongst campers.”
But then, about 6pm, the police’s own Twitter feed said this:
“Met have not said we will cut contact with camp police liaison team”
The implication is clear – in a test of brinkmanship, the Met blinked first. All credit to Climate Campers in not backing down.

The previous evening’s confrontation could undoubtedly have been avoided if a sensible decision not to hold a meeting with Pendry on the site had been taken, but it seems that lessons have been learnt and that’s a positive sign. However, that doesn’t mean that this bullshit description of the way events unfolded, as told by the Whitechapel Anarchist Group (WAG) on its blog, can pass without comment. The WAGs wrote:
And so it began. Heckling. Shouting. And a few choruses of Harry Roberts. People flocked from all corners of the camp to get involved. But the mood was split. Conflict between those opposed to the police presence and those willing to protect and tolerate (And in some cases welcome) the old bill. Climate Camp soft cops warned us that "It's not best to act like this with media around" which just goes to show that some involved in the Camp have so much faith in the corporate media, police and state that their hopes for real radical environmental change are merely liberal posturing at best. At this point a spray can was used to much artistic effect as "ACAB" was decorated on the tent, though the artist was stopped before he could finish "KILL POLICE". The sound system was then pushed up against the tent so that the inside occupants could listen to the brilliant Dead Prez rap about the joy of politically motivated drive by shootings.
Sometimes I despair. Talking about ‘liberal posturing’ when the best you can offer instead is ‘revolutionary’ posturing, that amounts to little more than calling everyone else ‘soft cops’ and spray painting the side of someone’s marquee, is just… embarrassing. If the WAGs really had any bollocks to back up their bravado, they would have spray-painted ‘ACAB’ on Pendry, but that would have involved a greater level of stupid audacity than drunkenly calling other activists ‘Officer class prefects’.

Zip up your trousers and stop waving your tiny cocks around. You’re making other anarchists who value politics over Strongbow look bad.

Oh, and then maybe watch this:

Climate Camp - A Press Round-Up

To be honest, I really don't like most journalists. Too many bad experiences have shaped this perception. In 20 years as a campaigner, there are only three I can think of who haven't lied to me in the course of a story and I can't stand the way they expect you to be grateful for giving up your time so you can be misquoted.

So apologies if this is a somewhat partisan and sceptical round-up of recent press coverage:

  • The BBC reports more nonsense from Chief Superintendent Helen Ball of the Metropolitan Police saying: "We will be photographing people on arrival at the camp because it is important for us to know if there are people coming who want to cause violence and disorder.” You photograph people arriving, Ms Ball, because you want to build up a database of protesters. We know it and so do you. The BBC will hopefully catch up soon.

  • The patronising Sean O’Neill at the Times fails to understand the importance of organisation to anarchism, in a piece that hints at the way hacks are likely to ferment division between ‘good and ‘bad’ protesters over the next few days if they don’t get a riot to report.

  • Guardian hack Paul Lewis, who has made a bit of a name for himself with strong reporting on the G20 protests and the death of Ian Tomlinson, seems to have already started down this particular line on his Twitter feed, saying that “clearly campers divided” into happy Greens, less happy Reds and agitated anarchists who are “causing trouble”. This is because of the decision – a foolish one, I think – to allow Julia Pendry, the Met’s silver commander for the Climate Camp protest, on site to have "tea" with the Climate Camp Legal Team.

    First rule of meetings with the police – hold them somewhere neutral. If you invite them to your place, they become your guests, a fact that they will try and exploit. It’s no longer as easy to conduct a proper negotiation and you lose the ability to walk away when you’re done. Oh, and it may annoy other members of the family for whom a severe beating five months ago still counts as fresh in the memory.

    Lewis also complains that campers are rude and cold-shouldering journalists - could it be because activists are at Climate Camp for reasons other than getting paid to be there and perhaps are busy? Honestly, hacks become like needy five year-olds when their deadlines are approaching!

  • Bibi Van Der Zee, also from the Guardian is complaining too, that it “takes a lot of the fun out of a game of cat and mouse with the cops if they don't seem to be playing” – because that’s obviously the most important part of what action against climate change is all about.

  • Matthew Moore in the Telegraph describes attending Climate Camp meetings and discovering that “my hopes of securing a ‘mayhem in the capital’ exclusive were going to be dashed” – but praises the way they are “conducted with a democratic brio that mainstream political parties could only envy”. A convert?

  • The Daily Mail gives a surprisingly fair report on the first day with great pictures – and not one mention of the potential damage to house-prices in Blackheath. The comments by Mail readers are, however, as brainless as expected.

  • Tamsin Omond, writing in the Evading Standards, still talks about herself too much.

  • The Daily Express quotes LBC's right-wing radio jock Nick Ferrari saying: “Blackheath is an extremely genteel place. This has caused havoc and roads are at a standstill.”

    Anything that annoys this boorish buffoon is a big, big bonus.

  • The Mirror highlights the apparently high level of snogging at Climate Camp. Which is nice.

  • Meanwhile, Spy Blog offers more on the hiring of consultants by the Metropolitan Police to monitor social networks for Climate Camp information.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Climate Camp - Preparing to Swoop in Stratford

Top left: Young 'Save Vestas' campaigners play in the sunshine
Top right: The police look away when photographed
Middle: Julian, a former resident of Clays Lane Housing Cooperative, which was bulldozed to make way for the Olympic site, speaks on displacement of communities.
Bottom: Waiting for a text message...

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Council says sorry for racist term in official document

Considering I don't even buy the Guardian, I seem to keep ending up on its pages.

On Saturday it was for quotes lifted from an earlier blog post in this ridiculous but classic piece of Guardian fluff about the 'less confrontational' leadership styles of women police officers (thanks to Simon at work for the hat-tip on this one) and now it's a (somewhat truncated) quote in the following article about racist language and Redbridge Council:

A London council has described children of Pakistani origin who attend the borough's schools as "Pakis". The term appears in an official council document that provides a breakdown of the ethnic background of pupils at the borough's schools.

Conservative-controlled Redbridge Council in east London, which has one BNP councillor, initially defended the appearance of the term, explaining it away as a computer error. However, officials later issued a revised statement condemning the use of the word.

The printout of the school spreadsheet was passed to the Guardian by sources within the council concerned about the use of such racist terminology.

The list states areas, wards and postcodes of primary and secondary schools in the borough and then provides an ethnic breakdown of the pupils in each school. The majority of pupils in the borough are white British but there are also children from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Pupils of Pakistani origin are referred to variously as Pakistani, Pankistani, Pak and on three occasions Pakis.

Initially, Redbridge officials said: "The council is aware that a document produced by an early years development worker does contain abbreviations of various ethnic minority groups, however this was due to a computer error. The full titles were inputted correctly into the database but had been reduced due to the size of the cells. This was automatically done by the computer and was not displayed on the screen but was apparent when printed.

"The error was identified and a meeting was called with the worker to clarify what had happened. The worker had no knowledge of the error and was extremely apologetic that this had occurred. Action was taken to ensure that the computer error did not occur in future."

However, the word "Pakis" does not appear at the edge of the spreadsheet where half of "Pakistani" might have been chopped off but on lines with plenty of space or where other words follow it.

Later, the council said human error was involved and the manager of the council's Sure Start programme had investigated.

"Redbridge council fully accepts the use of this abbreviated term is wholly unacceptable and inappropriate and would never condone the use of such language. Having looked at the spreadsheet, in addition to the unacceptable term 'Paki' the document also contains a variety of abbreviations and spelling mistakes and was circulated in error. When this was realised at an away day, those present were asked to hand in the document so they could be destroyed. The author of the spreadsheet apologised."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that the document had been passed to its legal enforcement team.

Kevin Blowe, of the anti-racist organisation Newham Monitoring Project, said: "Anyone with even limited IT skills would instantly recognise that the explanation of a computer error provided by Redbridge council is unsustainable.

"The council must know that a generation of Asians in east London grew up in the 1970s with the threat of violence from 'Paki-bashing' and with its association with skinhead gang culture.

"Indeed, it was one such horrifying racist incident, the brutal murder of teenager Akhtar Ali Baig in East Ham by skinheads, that led to the creation of Newham Monitoring Project in 1980. It is almost impossible to believe that, nearly 30 years on, anyone would fail to understand how racially charged the word Paki is, or that it would ever be appropriate to use in council records, internal or not."

Keith Vaz, who chairs the Commons home affairs select committee, said: "It is important that councils are careful to avoid the use of offensive terms in both internal and external communications. I welcome the action the council has taken."

My comments relate to the first explanation offered by Redbridge Council, which implied that the information on the ethnic breakdown of children was held in a database that was sophisticated enough to automatically truncate categories. But I've seen the printout that had been leaked and it's just a very basic Excel spreadsheet with personal annotations complete with spelling mistakes. No wonder the council had to quickly issue another excuse once they knew Diane Taylor from the Guardian had the evidence in front of her.

What is a surprise is that a London council would even consider trying to spin their way out of something like this. Rumours of this document's existence had been popping up at meetings around east London for a couple of weeks, to general incredulity that such comments could possible used nowadays. And there were other rumours too, as yet unsubstantiated - about a cavalier indifference to racist attitudes in certain departments.

The part of the comment I gave that never made it into the article was this:
"Even if this is, at best, an incredibly stupid mistake, choosing to hide behind excuses instead of offering a simple apology is a very strange reaction for a local authority to make."
I think there is rather more to come with this story.

Police March Millwall Fans Through Forest Gate

Not great pictures, I know, but there are so many police riot vans, at least seven at the end of my road, that it is hard to get a better view before being moved on. There's a helicopter overhead too, following the police decision to march a group of about 150 Millwall fans through residential side streets, in a predominantly Asian area, on their way to tonight's Carling Cup game with West Ham.

This is the first game between the two sides since April 2005 and given the rivalry between the two clubs (dating back years, with Millwall dockers scabbing during the General Strike of 1926 and West Ham dockers staying loyal - as everyone locally knows), I can see why the police are jumpy.

So why bring Millwall fans down into a street as narrow as Katherine Rd?

The rumour mill is working overtime, inevitably - are they BNP, the local youths are asking? I didn't see any taunting from Millwall, to be honest, but then when you're surrounded by lines of about 50 Territorial Support Group officers, that would hardly be the smartest idea.

More later. Or, hopefully, not.

UPDATE AT 9.20pm

For all the crap that gets spouted about 'citizen journalism', the reality is that those closest to what is going on know the least about what is going on. And that includes me.

It seems that the reason why regular Millwall fans - I think that's all they were - were being funnelled down Bristol Rd with a heavy police presence was because they had been diverted from East Ham station. Upton Park station was shut because of a MASSIVE, clearly pre-planned row between West Ham and Millwall firms. I've been down on Green Street earlier and some of the windows of the Duke of Edinburgh pub look like they've been broken.

What it does mean is that everyone is likely to get tarred with the same brush by the TSG tonight if they're a football fan, although the violence sounds appalling.

The game finishes in 20 minutes, I've just heard on Radio 5 Live that there has been some minor trouble inside the ground - and that Millwall are winning.

Defending the Right To Read

Back in 2008, UNICEF was warning that thousands of children, who make up more than half of the besieged population of the Gaza Strip, are being denied access to a proper education because of the Israeli blockade.

The obstacles facing educators are many. Around 88% of the 221 schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and 82% of government schools have to operate on a shift system to accommodate the high number of students. But Israel’s Operation Cast Lead has weakened education opportunities further, destroying 18 schools and kindergartens and damaging at least 280 more. Six of the government schools destroyed are in North Gaza alone, affecting almost 9,000 students who had to relocate to other schools. Six university buildings were also destroyed and 16 were damaged by the military offensive. Blockade restrictions have made it difficult to invest in building new schools or to repair damaged schools.

Whilst Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights theoretically offers the right of everyone "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," like so many other ‘universal’ rights this does not apply to the Palestinians of Gaza, who are also prevented from receiving ink, paper and other learning materials because of Israel’s blockade.

The Free Gaza (FG) Movement has therefore partnered with Al-Aqsa University to launch a “Right to Read” campaign, which is backed by the Progressive Librarians Guild in the US and aims to deliver textbooks and other educational supplies to universities throughout the occupied Gaza Strip via blockade-breaking shipments by boat from Cyprus.

FG describes this as “an act of solidarity and resistance to Israel’s chokehold on Gaza and attempt to deny Palestinians education “. Individuals can contribute one or more books for inclusion on an upcoming voyage and there is both a U.S. compiled wish list and a UK version on Amazon, which has been drawn up by the universities in Gaza. Alternatively, donations can be made to purchase books and help offset shipping costs.

Books can be sent directly to Cyprus at the following address:

Free Gaza Movement
Digenthios and Avgousta Court
Nigrid Street 6018 Apt. 203
Larnaca, CYPRUS

For more information contact Dina Kennedy (dkennedy [at] or Darlene Wallach (darlene [at]

Monday 24 August 2009

Report on Thursday's Climate Camp Visit to Met Riot Training Centre

The following report by Simon Stanley appears on Indymedia, about last week's visit by the Camp for Climate Action Police Liaison Team to the Metropolitan Police's Training Centre in Gravesend.

Let's be frank. It's a weird task to take on. One day you're doing your best to avoid the cops as you try to invade a power station / airport / corporate HQ. The next day, you choose to sit down in a room full of police. Why?

This isn't just an idle question – many people within the climate movement have suffered terrible treatment at the hands of the police, and are understandably concerned about meetings between cops and Campers. Meanwhile, the recent rapid pace of events has made it hard to keep track of what meetings are going on with the police, and why. This article is an attempt to clear things up a bit, to explain why last week's meeting happened, and what we think it achieved.

The main part of the Police Liaison Team's remit is to gather information first-hand about likely police tactics, strategy, personnel and attitude. However, the group has another important role as well: to give the Camp credibility in the eyes of the public.

Those of us who've had a lot of dealings with the police know how little we can trust them, but many of the public haven't had that experience. If we refuse to talk to the police, then a lot of people will (rightly or wrongly) think we're being unreasonable and so be less likely to get involved with the Camp.

Meeting with the cops also gives the Climate Camp a "human face" and might make some officers be a tiny bit less brutal towards us (we have no definite proof of this, though). And of course, each meeting brings us one step closer to the day when the underpaid officers at the Camp gates suddenly decide to lay down their truncheons, take off their riot gear, stick two fingers up at Gold Command and join us in building a beautiful eco-anarchist utopia. Possibly.

The Police Liaison volunteers aren't "representatives" of the Camp – they don't negotiate with the police, make any concessions to them, or give them any information that they wouldn't have found out anyway. In previous years, this has been a slightly frustrating, often uncomfortable, but nonetheless important job.

This year, however, things have gone a bit weird.

Thanks to the police getting caught in the act at the G20 protests, and the serious of vaguely critical official reports that followed, there has been unprecedented media interest in any meetings between the Camp and the police. The cops are on the back foot and are desperately trying to repair their image, and so rather than fobbing us off until the last minute, they are falling over themselves to drag us into meetings. It's pretty bizarre stuff – and it's not without its dangers.

From their quotes in this recent Guardian article, it seems the cops are keen to say "look, we're even having meetings with the protesters, aren't we nice!". There's a real risk that by agreeing to these meetings, we might be unintentionally helping out the police with their propaganda – which is why we worked together with the Camp's media team on an Open Letter To The Met to make the Camp's position VERY clear. While in the short term the idea that the police are going to be all cuddly this time round may help to get more people to the London Camp, in the long term it could be very dangerous. If the public and the media decide the police have mended their ways, then their interest will soon wander, leaving the cops free to get the batons out again.

Meanwhile, we aren't the only ones being harassed by the police. That's why the Camp's Legal Team have been building connections with other activist groups including Fitwatch and London Defence and Monitoring, as well as organisations representing migrant communities, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, the Muslim prisoner support group and the Newham Monitoring Project. Plans are afoot to get funding for a new umbrella group to keep monitoring the police and holding them to account – wherever and whenever they might operate.

Let's not forget: the police's job is to enforce laws which defend the status quo, protect the wealthy and the powerful, and stand in the way of social change. This has been their role throughout history, and not just within the UK. Meanwhile, we're trying to build a movement to create massive social change by directly confronting the Government and wealthy, powerful, polluting corporations. This doesn't make it very likely that the police are ever going to be our friends.

However, one thing that CAN change is the tactics available to the cops – the exact level of violence and intimidation that they're allowed to get away with. It would be lovely to believe that we might influence this just by having meetings with the police. Sadly, experience shows that the only thing that really works is forcing them to change by exposing their tactics to the world. It's annoying that we have to do this – we'd much rather spend the time on climate action – but if we don't, then things will only get worse.

We'd like to reassure the rest of the climate movement that the Police Liaison team fully understand all of this, and that we are also actively challenging attempts by the police (and the media) to separate our movement into “good” and “bad” protesters. We've done our best to explain this at Gatherings and on email lists, and we're sorry if it hasn't been totally clear! If you have any concerns or suggestions about the work we're doing, please get in touch with us – or better yet, come and join the Police Liaison team and get involved yourself.

So it was with all this in mind that I stood up in front of a crowd of seventy police officers on Thursday afternoon, and explained to them why the Climate Camp was happening, how non-hierarchical decision-making worked, and what this year's Camp will probably look like. I then described what it was like to be charged by a line of riot cops for no discernible reason, to watch your friends being beaten over the head and arrested on meaningless charges, to see people in front of you being pepper-sprayed in the face, and to know you have to stand your ground anyway with your hands in the air because the alternative is to let a beautiful Camp be trampled under their steel-toecapped boots. They listened, in silence. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever done in my life. Whether or not it will make any difference, I really couldn't say; but it felt oddly liberating all the same.

Next, we got to hear the police's pre-Camp strategy briefings first-hand. Then they took us on a tour of the place where they train riot police, a kind of “Riotland” theme park with a life-sized fake Council estate, tube station and sports stadium...but no, that was far too strange to have really happened. It must have been a bizarre dream.

The Camp's Police Liaison and Legal Team are always looking for volunteers to help with their increasingly surreal remit – if you want to help out, contact!

Perleece Leeyayzon

Not Everything Needs Fixing

In Brighton this weekend for a birthday celebration, which meant heading straight out of the station and cycling down to the beach, where friends were playing cricket on Brunswick Lawns. This is close to the remnants of the old West Pier and there is something about its charred skeleton that is rather beautiful, like a artist's sculpture celebrating the Victorian art of pier-building. It seems far more emblematic of the town than the blandness of the nearby Palace Pier.

In the evening I was at one of the town's oldest pubs, the Victory Inn, which is right in the middle of Brighton's Saturday evening madness of hen-nights and raucous drinking. It was sweltering and many of us spent as much time outside in the street as we did in the sticky upstairs room. It was a great place for people-watching, for thankfully avoiding the Jägermeister and Red Bull cocktails that appeared at some point during the party and for remembering that Brighton has always been rather shambolic, in spite of the Regency grandeur of the Hove end of the city.

There are still plans to rebuild the derelict West Pier, which burnt down in March 2003, using funds raised by a still illusive Brighton Eye tower on the promenade. But I hope they leave it as it is.

The new apartments up by the station, which could be anywhere in the country, will never be the soul of Brighton. That honour lies still with the old town and its off-shore architectural ruin.

Saturday 22 August 2009

War as Parable – An Experiment in Storytelling

“Your people are dying”, said the storyteller, “because their leaders are forgetful. Soldiers from the Kingdom of the Archipelago have passed through from time to time for more than a century and a half, and yet your rulers can’t even recall events from twenty years ago.”

“But sometimes I am forgetful too, for there is much history to tell, so many soldiers from so many nations. So gather closer to the fire and I will tell you a little more of the Ashvakas. Perhaps then you will understand.”

“A story begins with its people”, said the storyteller. “The Ashvakas live in the land of the White Mountains and as cavalrymen and breeders of horses, there were few to equal them throughout the region.”

“For many decades after your armies had returned home, the emperor of the Ashvakas ruled a country that stayed out of the wars fought by the other kingdoms. Gradually, inch by inch, he also allowed the people freedoms that had been denied by his forefathers, although never that many: his family continued to hold on tightly to the levers of power.“

“Then, after forty years, one of the princes of the royal family, the emperor’s brother-in-law and cousin, decided to take control, when the sovereign was away from the White Mountains, by proclaiming himself President. For four years he ruled, until he too was overthrown, this time by the rebels who had supported him but had been thrown into jail for their efforts. As is often the way with such insurrections, the President and his family were executed.”

“The rebels looked north for support to the Kingdom of the Bear, who shared their hatred of the most popular religion of the Ashvaka. Indeed, not just their religion: it was a rigid, unyielding hatred of all religion, or any opposition to its own faith. The new government in the land of the White Mountains ruled using many of the ideas and methods of their northern allies, which angered the more fervent of the faithful, especially the tribal leaders who lived in the countryside.”

“So there was further rebellion, met with ever-greater subjugation, which led in turn to the desertion of much the government’s own army. In desperation, the leaders invited the Kingdom of the Bear to help them. And so its armies invaded.”

“But far away, across countries and deserts and seas, the powerful Kingdom of the Eagle began to send arms to those who fought against the Kingdom of the Bear, which was its greatest enemy. The influence of the Kingdom of the Eagle was vast and even though the land of the White Mountains was many thousands of leagues away, it sought victory – and perhaps, too, a little vengeance for past defeats.“

“The armies of the Bear fought hard, nevertheless, but their greater strength was no match for those amongst the Ashvakas who fervour was strong and who knew the White Mountains so well. After six long years, the leader of the Kingdom of the Bear grew impatient and demanded an end to the fighting within one more year, but it was not to be. Many fighters from other lands had joined the new rebellion, with help from the Kingdom of the Eagle and those who paid tribute to its power. And after two painful years, nearly a decade after its arrival, the Bear’s armies were gone. Indeed, before too long, the Kingdom had vanished too.”

“Unhappily for the Ashvakas, however, what followed was not victory, but a period of darkness."

"The Kingdom of the Eagle seemed to lose interest in the land of the White Mountains once its enemy had been defeated and soon there was a new war, this time between victors who were riven by dissent. Already so many had died, but when the government that had defeated the old emperor’s brother-in-law finally fell, the Ashvakas’ capital, a beautiful city, came under terrible fire, with one warlord pitched against another, each one fired by righteousness, each one shifting their alliances and each one pillaging the city, slaughtering families and raping women, forcing the covering of women’s faces and the burning of schools.”

“Thousands fled, nine-tenths of the great city was destroyed and all unity was forgotten. But now a new alliance was emerging – one from the kingdom to the south. Seven murderous years after the Kingdom of the Bear was a distant memory, the violence, destruction, and chaos that had followed gave rise of the puritanical Scholars, who took power in the ruined capital and forced the warlords to flee to the White Mountains to the north and east.”

“Although schooled across the southern border, these new rulers were welcomed at first by many who were tired of so much suffering. But their new laws were medieval and severe in their hatred of pleasure, of women, and of the sacred places of those who did not share its own beliefs. For five years the land of cavalrymen and breeders of horses closed itself to the outside world, its rulers forcing the covering of women’s faces and the burning of schools, giving refuge only to veterans of the war against the Kingdom of the Bear, those who sought their continuing sanctuary and fought at their side. Only rarely did the Scholars venture out to trade with the more powerful kingdoms of the world.”

“And still those who were tired of so much suffering found no respite, for the fighting continued, both within the country of the Ashvakas, with its neighbours and beyond."

"The Kingdom of the Eagle was amongst whose anger was aroused – and once again it showed its infinite reach. But this distant nation soon discovered that it was not alone in the extent of its purview, which brought forth the full measure of its fury for the terrible deeds inflicted upon it and blamed on the Ashvakas’ foreign guests. In desperation, an offer was made to hand over those held responsible, but it was to no avail.”

“And so, although not one of their countrymen had attacked the Kingdom of the Eagle, the Ashvakas faced further misery, another war that drove the Scholars away into the White Mountains and drew the warlords back into the benighted capital.”

“The armies of the Eagle fought hard, just as others had done before them, but their greater strength could still not bring a quick victory against those knew the White Mountains so well. Distracted elsewhere, they allowed their adversaries to rebuild their army. And so more armies joined them, including your soldiers from the Archipelago, once more to a country where so many had fallen so many years before.”

“And as time has passed, it is sad to think for whom and for what they are dying. For new laws that are medieval and severe. For the old warlords who have grown fat on their corruption and those hands were stained with the blood of their countrymen.”

“But equally saddening, it is the Ashvakas who are dying in greater numbers, killed by one side or another.”

“A whole generation of Ashvakas have known nothing but war and destruction. They have seen rebels and warlords and scholars and kingdoms, seen them come and go and sometime return again. And yet those who know the White Mountains so well are capable of waging war without end, it seems, made possible by the intrusion and support of powerful forces from beyond their borders.“

“A story ends with its people”, said the storyteller. “A people who have suffered enough from the meddling of outsiders.”

“And yet you ask why the Ashvakas want you to leave, want all those who have blighted their lives to leave and want an end to the relentless interference. You ask why they fail to show more gratitude when you continue to fight in their name and to die so unnecessarily down in the plains?”

"But I ask you. Would you not feel the same if you had suffered as much?

Friday 21 August 2009

Climate Camp and the Met's Charm Offensive - An Update

The Camp for Climate Action Media Team have put out a cracking 'Open Letter to the Met', which reads as follows:

Open Letter FAO Chief Superintendent Ian Thomas,
New Scotland Yard
London SW1H 0BG

Dear Chief Superintendent Thomas,

On August 17th, you wrote to the Camp for Climate Action, requesting further information on the location of our next Camp, which will take place from August 27th to September 2nd, somewhere in the London area. You say that you require this information in order to help with “community liaison”, to ensure the Camp is a “safe and healthy” event, and to help you put a “pre-planned and proportionate policing operation” in place. We are writing this open letter in order to alleviate your concerns, and to make our position clear both to yourself and to the public.

Community liaison has been a vital part of every Climate Camp. At Drax in 2006, Heathrow in 2007 and Kingsnorth in 2008, we put a lot of time and effort into spending time with local residents and allaying people’s concerns, and this year will be no different. We have a good track record of building community support for the Camp and for climate change campaigning, we’ve already been in touch with local Councils across London, and our friendly outreach volunteers will be chatting to the locals from the moment we arrive on site. We plan to be excellent neighbours for as long as we’re there, we’ll be open and welcoming to any local residents with questions or concerns, and we’ll leave the site spotless when it’s time to go.

As regards health and safety – thanks for your concern, but again we’ve got it under control. As with previous Camps, we’ll have great food, water, compost toilets, a team of medics, a wellbeing space, excellent on-site communication, emergency vehicle access, and a family space. We also have a “Safer Spaces” policy and a “Tranquillity Team” to help keep the site free from oppressive behaviour or aggro. Anyone who’s spent time at past Camps will tell you how friendly and safe the atmosphere is – better than most mainstream festivals.

Of course, there is one unfortunate exception to all of this. While most visitors to previous Camps have had an inspiring and positive experience, some of us have had to suffer violence, intimidation, theft, sleep deprivation and harassment, thanks to past examples of “pre-planned and proportionate policing operations”. Local communities have been disrupted by police road closures and indiscriminate stops-and-searches. Members of the public have been attacked with batons or arrested on trumped-up charges simply for standing on the perimeter of a campsite (nearly all of them have now been acquitted or had their charges dropped). Judging from past experience, the best thing the police could do to ensure the health and safety of the public at Climate Camp 2009 would be to stay as far away from it as possible.

Bearing all of this in mind, I hope that you, and the public, understand why we don’t feel able to reveal the precise location of the Camp at this time. Every other aspect of the Camp has been organised in an open, accountable and democratic way, via monthly public meetings. The only secret is the location. There’s a simple reason for this: I’m afraid we just don’t trust the police. Why? Because it seems as though every time we have a protest, the police turn up and start hitting people. Look what happened at the G20. That’s not really a very good way to win people over.

Just because you’ve started using friendlier language and talking about “lighter-touch” policing, do you really think we’re suddenly going to believe you’re our friends? Just a few weeks back the Big Green Gathering was shut down by the police on spurious grounds, for “political” reasons. If the police are really trying to build up trust within the climate action movement, then that’s a funny way to go about it.

The precise location of the Camp for Climate Action 2009 will be announced via mass text as part of the exciting August 26th “Swoop”. I’m afraid you’ll just have to sign up on our website, and wait for the updates just like everybody else!

Yours sincerely,

The Camp for Climate Action Media Team

This is a very welcome development and far better than the slant offered in Paul Lewis' Guardian article.

Nevertheless, what would also be welcome too is a report back from yesterday's trip down to the Met's public order training centre in Gravesend, as I'm still convinced that this was a step too far.

Meanwhile, the Green Party's Jenny Jones, who sits on the Metropolitan Police Authority, has a letter in today's Guardian welcoming the decision to have two female officers to liaise with Climate Camp protesters because "women have good communication skills and are more prone to take all issues into account, making slightly slower but safer decisions, both of which skills could mean much less confrontation between protesters and police."

I know I've asked this question before, but Jenny, what planet are you on?

Thursday 20 August 2009

Film Review: MOON

Duncan Jones’ new science-fiction thriller ‘Moon’ is set in the not-too-distant future, with a contractor, Sam Bell, on a lonely three-year mission at a mining outpost on the far side of the moon, counting down the last days before his return to Earth.

It seems that Bell, played by the excellent Sam Rockwell, may be losing his mind: a damaged satellite means communication with his wife Tess, his daughter Eve and with Lunar Industries, the clean energy corporation that employs him, are impossible. But when one of the mining machines breaks down and Sam ventures out to repair it, he is involved in an accident and wakes in the base’s infirmary, to discover that he is not alone. There is another Sam – a twin, an exact double. Is he hallucinating, or is there something more sinister happening?

The answer is inevitable: of course there is something more sinister. From Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ to George Orwell’s ‘1984’, good science fiction is invariably dystopian, speculating on the future using the anxieties of the present. ‘Moon’ asks very modern questions about how far corporations would be prepared to go and how little they might care, in the pursuit of profit, about the people they employ. It also plays on fears about isolation, loss of identity and the fragile nature of mortality. This makes for a dark, claustrophobic film, with a great score by Clint Mansell and most scenes played out a single set that appears to be straight from the 1970s TV programme Space:1999.

Its other cinematic influences, from 2001 to Solaris, are clear enough, but there are few dramatic special effects (the vehicle shots on the moon’s surface really look like models) and the script is tight but less complex than these earlier films, based essentially around a single concept that works because of the central performance by Rockwell. The atmosphere of uncertainty is definitely aided, however, by the dry laconic voice of the computer GERTY, provided by Kevin Spacey – until near the end of the film, the audience is never entirely clear whose side the astronaut’s only companion, with its artificial emoticon 'facial' expressions, is really on.

A great film, then, a reminder of the quality of Sam Rockwell’s acting and a rare gem amidst the many lacklustre, forgettable summer blockbusters this year.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Climate Campers Should Steer Clear of Police Charm Offensive

I think I need to include an addition to Orwell’s six elementary rules on political writing – never write when you are too angry to stop yourself from ranting.

Last night, I had to resist the urge to rage about this article written by Paul Lewis, in the hope that maybe the Guardian journo had misunderstood what he had been told by the organisers of the forthcoming Climate Camp in London. I’ve tried to find out but it seems that Lewis’ story is entirely accurate – and therefore very disappointing.

It’s not so much the idea that the Metropolitan Police have embraced social networking and set up a Twitter account to “to send operational information to protesters”. This is obviously the direct result of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary’s review for the Met that recommended protesters should be made aware of likely police action “in order to make informed decisions” (such as ‘move or we will kettle you’). I can see the unintentioned but hilarious potential for providing a running commentary during Climate Camp, along these lines:

Message to police @CO11MetPolice – tell officer U397 to get the damn camera out of my face
The far, far bigger problem I have is with this idea:
Separately, a delegation from this year's Climate Camp will be taken to the Met's public order training centre on Thursday in Gravesend, Kent, where they have been asked to brief officers being drafted in from across the country to help police the event.
Now there are many conclusions to draw from April’s G20 protests and the indiscriminate police violence against Climate Campers on Bishopsgate as the camp was cleared. The most obvious is that senior officers sanctioned excessive force with an expectation based on previous experience that the press and the public wouldn’t much care about a bunch of protesters.

However, for a host of reasons – the death of Ian Tomlinson certainly, changing media attitudes towards police seen to have ‘got away’ with shooting Jean Charles de Menezes perhaps, or even that battering articulate middle-class liberals rather than working-class black teenagers is always a more high risk strategy – whatever they may have been, the political landscape had clearly changed. Taken aback by the spotlight placed upon it, the Met has tried to portray violence on 1st April as the actions of a few officers and then commissioned a review aimed specifically at dealing with this shift in its control of information.

One mistaken conclusion to therefore draw from recent protests is that violent policing results from simply a mix-up or a ‘failure to engage’:
"The level of engagement from police has been there," said Francis Wright, a Climate Camp legal adviser who will brief police officers on Thursday. "We're pleased they have been forthcoming and have been making some of the right noises, but we have to see how they deliver on the day."
Another is to assume that events at Bishopsgate were all the fault of one individual senior officer and that the confrontational language and dire warnings before the G20 protests weren’t instead sanctioned at the highest level:
She said one positive factor was the change in personnel. Commander Bob Broadhurst, who led the Met's G20 operation, will not be involved in policing the camp and will instead oversee the Notting Hill carnival, which takes place at the same time.
A third, which to be fair seems like a conclusion reached by Paul Lewis rather than anyone involved in Climate Camp, is that the policing of the recent Tamil protests in Parliament Square were a model of restraint:
“His replacement as "gold" commander, Chief Superintendant Ian Thomas, told camp organisers he had handpicked his team, including his "silver" commander, Superintendent Julia Pendry, who led the cautious policing operation at the Tamil protests in Parliament Square.”
Anyone who thinks that the police had learned any important lessons a matter of weeks after the G20 protests, in responding to demonstrations by Tamils, should watch this video and draw their own conclusions:

Moreover, Chief Superintendent Ian Thomas, it should be remembered, was one of those who met Climate Campers in an 'engagement' meeting facilitated by David Howarth MP before the G20 protest and look how much of a difference that made.

Finally, concluding that the aggressively macho culture of modern policing is not structural but influenced by the gender of senior officers would be incredibly naive:
“Pendry, who controls tactics for the camp, said she in turn chose her deputy, Chief Inspector Jane Connors, because she was "reasonable, sensible and able to communicate", sources at the meeting said.

The fact that both are female has been perceived by some protesters as an attempt by the force to portray a less macho image.”
I wonder whether the young woman who may have suffered a miscarriage after the beating she received on Bishopsgate would agree about the positive virtues of women police officers:
"One of the most traumatic visual moments for me was that a female police officer in front of me had blood spattered on the outside of her visor.

I was so lost in fear and shock by this point that I said 'do you know you have blood on your visor?'

That really upset her and I really got laid into and I got knocked on to the floor and all the people trying to help me ... were also being hit.”
In my view, the sensible thing to do when confronted with what looks and sounds like a blatant public-relations exercise is to steer well clear of it. Our role as activists is not to help the police to improve its image but to focus on the impact of climate change.

The police are quite capable of changing perceptions of their conduct by avoiding the brutality we saw on 1st April against Climate Campers who have no history of violent confrontation, despite efforts to deliberately talk up the dangers in the past. That doesn’t mean there won’t be arrests – anyone involved in direct action has to accept the possibility of arrest as an occupational hazard – but it should definitely mean the absence of baton charges by pumped-up Territorial Support Group officers eager for a fight. It’s not complicated, and it hardly needs a lecture down in Kent from a delegation of protesters to remind them of this.

I really hope that those planning on heading down to Gravesend change their mind about Thursday's meeting. If, as I believe, the 'charm' is artificial and the 'offensive' is manipulative and cynical, good people will simply end up feeling they have been used.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Police Cannot Be Trusted Say... Magistrates?!

In another one of those moments when the world seems to have turned upside down, the Magistrates Association has told the government that it doesn't believe police officers can be trusted to issue fixed penalties without abusing their powers.

Chris Hunt Cooke of the association's road traffic committee, said:

"Regrettably, recent experience with out-of-court disposals shows that the police cannot be relied on to use them appropriately or as intended.

Once they have been given these powers, the police will misuse them, that is a certainty, and careless driving will be generally treated as a minor offence, unless serious injury is involved.

This is a proposal that places the convenience of the police above what is right in principle, may coerce innocent drivers into accepting a fixed penalty, and is certain generally to downgrade careless driving in terms of offence seriousness."
Former police minister Alun Michael, a member of the Commons justice committee and the man responsible for the introduction of ASBOs, has accused the magistrates of “grandstanding”. This is a bit rich coming from a man who I remember called for greater transparency over custody deaths, but not before members of the United Families and Friends Campaign forced our way into a conference he was speaking at. If that wasn't "performing ostentatiously in order to impress the audience and with an eye to the applause", then I don't know what is.

Recent experience with police use of anti-terrorism stop-and-search powers - to pick one example - also shows that the police cannot be relied on to use them appropriately or as intended. In Hampshire, these powers were abused with such regularity, for so little result, that the police were eventually forced to suspend them.

The Telegraph also recently reported that powers allowing officers to stop children aged under 10 and search them has been used by the Met to search 8 two-year-olds and 9 three-year-olds over the last two years. Presumably those who did so also think 'Family Guy' is a documentary and that Stewie Griffin is a dangerous pre-school role model...

It's good to see that magistrates are slowly starting to catch up with what many of us already know - that every time the police are given new powers, they routinely abuse them.

Why? Because they can - and because systems for transparency and accountability are so weak and ineffective that they can get away with it.

Monday 17 August 2009

A Couple of Hours at Whitechapel Gallery

I was over in Whitechapel yesterday, too embarrassed to turn up more than an hour late for the Climate Camp meeting at the Rag Factory off of Brick Lane and too frazzled by the novelty of a hot August afternoon to cycle any further east towards home. So I popped into the recently expanded Whitechapel Gallery, which I used to visit regularly many years ago, back when the London Metropolitan University up the road was still the City Polytechnic. And what a surprise its cool, calming galleries turned out to be: no pretentious conceptual art, just paintings, some abstract but mainly figurative, from the long-running East End Academy exhibition and from the American artist Elizabeth Peyton.

Walking into the ground floor gallery, the first painting you see is Andy Harper’s ‘Feast of Skulls’ (above), a mass of black, pink and red that looks like fractal from a distance but is a mass of intricate detail of hundred of flowers. My other favourites included Guy Allott’s landscapes framed by a hole seemingly blasted through a tree, and Emily Wolfe’s almost photo-quality paintings of everyday household objects.

Upstairs, the collection of mainly small, intimate portraits by Elizabeth Peyton was fascinating for her choice of subjects, some historical and others artists and musicians, including David Hockney, Mick Jagger and Liam Gallagher. Peyton certainly has a way of capturing the angular, feminine male faces of people like Jarvis Cocker, turning them into whey-faced Pre-Raphaelite figures that are rather more interesting than the more simian features of Gallagher.

It has been a long time since I’ve spent an enjoyable hour in just one exhibition and clearly, I need to make more random decision like this in the future...

Sunday 16 August 2009

Is Ten Percent Really Enough?

My friend Lina, who lives in Chicago, thinks that 10% is enough, but to be honest, I’ve thought about it long and hard and I’m still not sure that it is.

Let me explain.

Metro Industrial Areas Foundation (Metro IAF), a coalition made up predominately of religious organisations, community groups and some trade unions and covering cities from Chicago to Boston, New York and Charlotte in North Carolina, has launched a campaign, “10 Percent is Enough”, calling for the reinstatement of anti-usury laws and a cap on interest rates at 10%.

Metro IAF argues that the abolition of anti-usury legislation in the early 1980s, the starting point for sweeping deregulation under President Reagan, “helped shift the investment of American capital and talent away from manufacturing and material innovation and into an unproductive financial sector based on trading paper rather than producing long-term wealth.” This has encouraged a growth in predatory lending to the poorest in society that has seen a spiralling of personal debt with interest rates at extortionate levels. For the campaign’s organisers, the issue is therefore a moral as well as a practical one. “Moral and civic prohibitions against usury”, they argue, “stretch back deep into our religious and national history. Our prophets and founding fathers made the clear case long before us that usury is patently wrong, against God, and against our national interest.”

Hoping to be “most exciting social movement to come out of the financial crisis”, the campaign has been taken up in Britain by London Citizens, a coalition that the charity I work for helped to found. In July it held a march to the headquarters of the now publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland, to present the chairman of RBS, Sir Philip Hampton, with copies of the Bible, Torah and Qur'an. Two weeks later, it returned for a meeting with RBS executives to press the bank to launch a new low-interest credit card.

Perhaps surprisingly, my reservations about the campaign are not primarily about its overtly religious character, although I can imagine there will be atheists who will uncomfortable with the language and emphasis on religious morality.

In part, this hasn’t been helped by the way the story has been covered by the press, by the unseemly row over the suspension of the rabbi from Bevis Marks Synagogue for participating in the campaign, or the religious connotations associated with the word ‘usury’ (many of them deeply anti-Semitic). Neither has it been helped by the increasingly ludicrous Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain focusing on the rather narrow benefits of “interfaith action”, a subject that the irreligious and, I would imagine, the secular and trade union members of London Citizens care rather less about than the central message about fighting poverty.

But fellow atheists shouldn’t sneer: the motivation behind the campaign comes from genuine concern by compassionate people for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of others. “Our people are hurting”, say Metro IAF, and they should be applauded for demanding action now, rather than waiting and praying for comfort in the ‘next life’.

My problem is that the solution offered by Metro IAF is rather like that most famous graduate of its community organiser training, Barack Obama. It sounds radical but is actually rather conservative.

You see, the global financial crisis wasn’t caused primarily by bankers imposing high rates of interest on credit to borrowers, but rather on their desire to maximise profits by making credit more easily available, even to those who had little prospect of repaying it. In the aftermath of the bubble and the 11 September 2001 attacks, US interest rates were slashed to 1% to prevent deflation and with the inflow of capital from the booming economies in Asia and the oil producing countries, the banks had money to loan. Credit became easier to obtain but to generate new profits, the US financial sector had to find new borrowers, especially as the traditional mortgage market was exhausted by about 2003. This is why they embarked on increasingly risking lending in the ‘sub-prime’ housing market and in apparently endless personal credit. It was the scale of debt, as much as its cost, which brought about the global financial crisis.

The way to encourage people to spend more is to boost their aspirations to consume more. The desire for a better home, the idea of property as an ‘investment’ (as symbolised by the many appalling ‘Location, Location’ style television programmes), the desperate wish for the right brand or the essential new gadget: never mind whether these were really necessary, or about the impact of our over-consumption on the planet, corporations encouraged us to believe that we needed to consume in order to be happy. Essentially, modern corporate capitalism has as much interest in selling the idea of our personal deficiencies as it does in selling us things we can own. And in the process, we have become more and more disconnected from each other.

This is why it is so disingenuous for those, especially on the US Right, to blame consumer’s greed, or specifically minorities, for the credit crunch to justify the transfer of private-sector losses to taxpayers, as though corporate capitalists had nothing to do with the housing bubble or the explosion in credit and were merely the innocent intermediaries.

This is by far the bigger immorality. And yet this is not one that Metro IAF and its British counterpart seems to have considered. “What we need now,” according to Metro IAF, “more than thousands of pages of new regulations, or the sour faces of executives forced to reduce their eight-figure salaries to a mere seven, is a 10% cap on interest rates,” because “ten percent puts proportion and equity into the relationship between the lender and the borrower. Ten percent restores our capacity to form right relationships.”

This rather like the approach of governments: seeing the financial crisis as just a ‘banking crisis’, saving the banks who got us into this mess in the first place and essentially hoping to return to the way things were, with more stability but otherwise with a system largely unchanged. In the case of most governments, it’s back to a period before the housing bubble. For Metro IAF, it’s back to a period before anti-usury laws were abolished. In neither case does it involve an understanding that there really can be no ‘proportion and equity’ in relationships between lenders and borrowers in a system designed in favour of corporations maximising profit and consumption.

The idea of encouraging the Royal Bank of Scotland – of all the banks – to introduce a new credit card doesn’t challenge the status quo in any way, but that doesn’t mean that other radical solutions can’t be found, ones that the compassionate people involved in Metro IAF and London Citizens can get behind. The financial crisis offers a unique opportunity not to save the banks, but to change them forever. This can mean radically de-merging the banking sector, wholesale nationalisation, the development of grassroots trading alternatives, local banking based on cooperative principles, or even practical ideas for new forms of local money, as Douglas Rushkoff advocates (see his fascinating video below).

My own view is that these ideas may just be stop-gaps and that neo-libealism needs a far more wide-ranging overhaul, one where the sour-faced executives find their eight-figure salaries reduced to zero. But these ideas are still more ambitious than the objective sought by the ‘10% is Enough’ campaign.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the campaign has the very best of intentions, but considering the predicament that millions of people all over the world have been placed in by the global financial sector, ten percent is simply nowhere near enough.

Life Inc. The Movie from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.