Friday 1 April 2011

Why UK Uncut can and should denounce violence

This post is by Stuart White who blogs at Next Left from time to time.

There's been a lot of blogospheric ink spilled of late about UK Uncut.

One criticism concerns UK Uncut's decision not to condemn violent direct action - its position being, as I understand it: 'We do peaceful protest, but we do not condemn what others do.'

As Ed Miliband said in his speech on Saturday, the arc of the moral universe tends towards justice, but only if some people struggle and strain to pull it that way. The peaceful UK Uncut protestors in Fortnum and Mason's last Saturday were doing just that. Their non-violent and mildly civil disobedient protest is firmly in the tradition of the American civil rights movement to which Ed Miliband appealed.

It is precisely because I support UK Uncut and want it to grow that I am concerned by the decision not to condemn violent direct action.

Over at OurKingdom, Niki Seth-Smith argues that any criticism on this basis is misplaced. UK Uncut can't condemn violence because it is a network of individuals with different points of view and no leaders who can speak for UK Uncut as a group.

But even as a network, UK Uncut obviously has to have some basis of common belief in order to be a distinctive campaigning entity at all. Being a network is consistent, for example, with UK Uncut taking the common view that tax avoidance is a bad thing.

When a network of this kind forms, it has to form around something. The network is founded in an invitation: 'Join us in this space if you also believe X, Y and Z'. Logically, there is absolutely no reason why one of the defining articles of association in such a network can't include an unequivocal condemnation of violent direct action (as Oliver Huitson points out in the comments thread to Niki Seth-Smith's article). Invitations also have to be issued by someone. And this implies an element of leadership.

In essence, what some of us would like is for the implicit leadership of UK Uncut now to clarify or revise the invitation by saying: 'UK Uncut condemns violent direct action'.

Perhaps this misses the point? It's just too late. The invitation went out a few months ago, and no one said then that the network would be defined, in part, as an association which condemns violent direct action. People have joined on this basis, and it would not be fair or appropriate to put some people in a position where they have to leave because they cannot agree with a condemnation of violent direct action. It would be exclusionary.

But there is also a risk of exclusion by not condemning violent direct action. To enter into the sort of mildly civil disobedient spaces that UK Uncut creates, many people need some reassurance that things won't get too out of hand. Obviously this depends in part on what others - notably, the police - do, and the Met's duplicitous and intimidatory behaviour on Saturday was disgraceful.

However, reassurance also depends, for many people, on having a high degree of trust and confidence that one's fellow participants in a UK Uncut protest share a commitment to non-violence. Situations of 'fluidity' between UK Uncut protestors and those up for some property damage undermine this trust and confidence.

Surely the easiest way for UK Uncut now to give reassurance is to condemn violent direct action? If UK Uncut does not, then I worry that many people for whom non-violence is non-negotiable will drift away.

Or else, they will never take the empowering step through the shop doorway in the first place.

And what might have been a mighty movement, drawing from a wide section of the population, will gradually dwindle into marginality.


Sciamachy said...

I think we need to squash this prevalent falsehood that destruction or defacement of property somehow equates to violence against the person, and self-defence against violent thugs tooled up for a fight, charging at one in armour & carrying offensive weapons, is somehow unacceptable.

Cosmicomic said...

It seems like UK Uncut have stated their position very clearly: they do peaceful protest. These repeated calls from others on the left for UK Uncut to condemn the actions of others are what risk blurring the distinction between what UK Uncut do and don't do.

Far more damaging to public perception of UK Uncut will be if the 138 people arrested for a peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Mason are given harsh sentences, pour encourager les autres. I wish that the centre-left blogosphere would put as much effort into organising a defence of these activists as it has done demanding a ritualistic "condemnation" of violence.

Perhaps either NextLeft or the author of this blog could publicise the petition asking for charges against the UK Uncut activists to be dropped?

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks. I agree with Stuart about the need to be very clear - and clearer - about not condoning violence, and with you about the charges (especially given what we have seen about what was happening inside Fortnums and what the police said).

thanks for letting me know about the petition. I will flag that up in a blogpost at the weekend

Stuart White said...

Sciamachy: of course property damage is not the same as violence towards people - but nothing, absolutely nothing, in the above post depends on thinking that it is. You simply haven't addressed the argument. If you don't like me calling property damage 'violence', just substitute the words 'property damage' for 'violent direct action' in the OP and the argument still goes through.

Note also that property damage can create an environment in which harm to people is more likely. The people who smashed the windows at Millbank helped create an atmosphere in which someone threw a fire extinguisher off a roof which could easily have killed or seriously injured someone. So if you care about avoiding physical harm to people then you ought to be a lot more circumspect about property damage.

goosefat101 said...

UK Uncut are taking a principalled stand. There is no reason for anyone to be required to denounce anyone else. Since UK Uncut are explicitly a non-violent entity and took no part in destruction of property they have nothing to denounce in terms of their own actions. They have no reason to spend their time beating themselves and other branches of the left up for their "bad behaviour" and allow the discourse to be about that rather than the cuts and tax dodging!!! Since I didn't kill anyone today I don't need to denounce murder.

Whether you choose the "black bloc" route, and I don't, what they did was a legitimate choice of protest. Destruction of property is certainly in line with the Suffragettes and other civil rights groups. It isn't my personal choice for protesting and I think it gave the March and UK Uncut some bad PR which wasn't ideal. But the anger is understandable and the government should be grateful it isn't getting the sort of violence that, for example the Libyan revolutionaries that it supports are directing at their leaders!

Also remember that we are at the start of a movement here. We don't need to be divided and ruled. We marched together and we should carry on together. Debate and argue about approaches fine. But don't reject everyone in the black bloc. Certainly don't write off the entire ideological spectrum of anarchists by adding more words to their bad press bonfire.

I don't condone rioting but the LA riots after Rodney King happened because people had justifiable anger. If we get riots or violence here (whilst I don't condemn all property damage I do agree its on the same spectrum as violence) it is the powerful who must answer for them. When the public riot it means there is something wrong with the system.

Sciamachy said...

Stuart - subtle difference here: I wasn't trying to argue in favour of property damage. I can see that historically it has had a part to play in many successful direct action campaigns, but I personally don't think it should be a first or even second resort. That said, I think that the mainstream media has been quick to condemn groups as "violent" whose only real violence has been actions in self defence of themselves from genuinely violent cops, but whose tactics have included property damage - and these elements within the mainstream media have held up footage of property damage as examples of the groups' violence.

Personally I think there's a lot more to be gained via UK Uncut's genuinely peaceful, creative & artistic protests, as well as the occupations of various universities etc, where the occupied premises have been put to use serving their local communities. Property damage is the legitimate resort, I think, of people who have genuinely exhausted all other avenues & been completely ignored. It's an act of frustration & shouldn't be used as an immediate first response.

Richard said...

"Since I didn't kill anyone today I don't need to denounce murder. "

Goosefat101, then by that very same logic, the argumant stands that "Since I didn't dodge tax today, I don't need to denounce it."

As a pacifist, I certainly won't be participating again in any more events for fear that violence breaks out.

Anonymous said...

Richard, your riposte to Goosefat101 is far from the "very same logic". Tax dodging is a wrong which is committed against us - it invites retaliation and response. But as we are speaking about neither a murder nor a disorderly protest which was directed against us, we are therefore not obliged to respond, retaliate or denounce.

As for this rubbish about UKUncut needing to denounce violent protest or vandalism in order to reassure potential newcomers, this point completely misunderstands how UKUncut actions work. Those who turn up at any particular action agree a plan beforehand ON THE DAY. There is no top-down direction, and to say that a denunciation of violence by spokespeople would be to imply such a top-down structure.

The best reassurance newcomers to UKUncut have regarding violence, vandalism or whatever is to note the fact that Black Bloc anarchists have no track record whatsoever of trying to hijack UKUncut actions. We should give them credit for this. They have the sense to know when such interventions are helpful and when they are unhelpful... Unlike, I must say, certain sections of the centre-left and their interventions.