Tag Archives: Occupy Together

The Cracks In Our Democracies

And so it came to pass, in the year two thousand and eleven, that many nations trembled. Others wobbled slightly, but give it time.

The response in the democratic western nations was particularly interesting. After all, they’d spent the last decade exporting democracy to various countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they were experts in such matters.

And so, when thousands of peaceful protestors took to the streets in America, the UK and other beacons of civilisation, the obvious response was to:

* Pepper-spray non-resisting students in the face;

* Ban protests in advance from the 2012 London Olympics (same as Beijing!);

* Enforce a media blackout on the eviction of Occupy Wall Street;

* Discuss turning off social media during times of unrest (same as Colonel Gaddafi!);

* Fracturing the skull of a veteran of the war in Iraq;

* Closing libraries;

* Destroying libraries;

* Lobbyists pay almost a million dollars to smear their political enemies.

Do I think we’re watching a concerted conspiracy to deprive us all of our civil rights? No. The people who’d be behind such a conspiracy are too arrogant, disorganised and out of touch to successfully pull it off. However, it does feel like we’re watching democracy suffer the death of a thousand cuts. One police department reacts in a certain way to protests, tactics get shared with colleagues, politicians blunder in without understanding or caring about the greater ramifications…

And then one day, seemingly overnight, our civil rights will be hopelessly eroded, not because the next Hitler swept to power, but because a bunch of local politicians and civil servants acted out of ignorance and panic, while our national leaders staggered around struggling to summon up a coherent response.

Terrifying isn’t it?


Occupy Schrodinger’s Cat? Occupy Wall Street and the Media Blackout

Early this morning, the New York Police Department evicted Occupy Wall Street from its base at Zuccotti Park. This isn’t the surprising news – the weekend saw a number of arrests at Occupy camps across the US – but the significant issue this morning was the treatment of the press. Accredited reporters were stopped from getting near the park; those who managed to sneak in were threatened with arrest. News helicopters were told to clear air space. A media blackout, in short.

This is something to worry about. Regardless of what you think of the Occupy camps that have sprung up around the world, you can’t deny that they’re overwhelmingly non-violent. And yet the police response to them has involved tear gas, projectiles and, apparently, Long Range Acoustic Devices. Heck, according to tweets from the park, a counter terrorist unit was on sight. This seems overkill, especially in New York which, ten years ago, suffered at the hands of real terrorists.

And yet the media blackout is possibly the scariest aspect of all this – it implies that the police and politicians know that things are going to go bad, even an element of premeditation. Not only does the US Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and assembly, but also freedom of the press. When this is ignored, it’s immediately a significant cause for concern. What’s the motivation? If the media isn’t there, bad things don’t really happen? You can’t prove that bad things have happened?

The truth isn’t Schrodinger’s Cat, dependent on an observer to fix an event in spacetime. What happened in Zuccotti Park has happened, and the truth will out. I’ll be interested in hearing the excuses that come from the defenders of the Constitution; a part of me wishes the UK had a written, codified Constitution, but if it can be so easily ignored, well, what would be the point?

Of course, this raises issues for the mainstream media. They haven’t exactly been present at Occupy events in significant numbers before, and maybe this is taken as tacit complicity in a media blackout. Coming at it from a different angle, the phone hacking scandal that’s still causing tremors for News International and the UK media in general has shown that reporters, newspapers and wider media structures can be irredeemably corrupt. Are people going to respect freedom of the press when its excesses can be so damaging to public trust and decency? Of course the majority of journalists aren’t involved with this but mud sticks, and that causes serious problems when a genuinely newsworthy event kicks off.

And yet, does the concept of a media blackout have much in the way of validity anymore? After all, we’re in the age of the internet, and anyone with a smart phone can theoretically be a citizen journalist. Police excesses may not make it on to Fox News or the BBC, but they can make it on to Youtube and Facebook and any other social media platform you can name. The problem at the moment is reach – the mainstream media is called the mainstream media because it’s mainstream; meanwhile, the internet is geared towards self-selecting niche audiences – it’s actually pretty easier to avoid things you don’t want to see, and that’s the trick – getting a message out there to people who’d rather ignore it, but who need to hear it. But, and make no mistake, the message will get out there somehow. It may have to work its way through a lack of accountability and cries of ‘fake!’, but it will get out there. And the best way to avoid that? Don’t do anything dodgy in the first place. There is an argument for secrecy, but that’s about protecting people, not harming them.

It’s hard to know where Occupy Wall Street’s general assembly and the wider movement movement will go from here. But if nothing else, it’s raising questions – about inequality, about corporate corruption, about the complicity of police and politics in this and now the state of the media. If that’s all it achieves, then it will have been worth it – asking questions is vital to a free society, and stopping people from doing that will only prompt them to ask more.

Ironically, tomorrow is American Censorship Day.


PS. One probably unintended consequence of all this, but one that is supremely telling in context, is the destruction of Occupy Wall Street’s library


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What’s Going On? Protests, Riots, the Internet and a Changing Civilisation

When the winners write their history books, the one thing they’ll agree on is that 2011 was a really weird year.

It’s been a whirlwind of revolutions and crumbling authority, and while it’s way too early to try and get some perspective on the events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and seem, somehow, to have resulted in the peaceful Occupation of Wall Street, Boston, LA and other US cities, that’s never stopped me before!

I can’t help thinking that all this isn’t (just) about rich verses poor; after all, if you can use an iPhone to Tweet about the protests then you’re not poor, at least not globally speaking, not when 1,345 million people in the developing world live on less than $1.25 a day. However, let’s not kid ourselves; the same corruption that forces the American middle class onto the streets to protest the potential loss of their homes also contributes towards poverty in the third world. And the developed, western nations aren’t exactly utopias – 80% of NHS hospitals face severe financial difficulties, rising food prices in Scotland are forcing Scotland’s poorest to miss meals, and youth unemployment has reached 21.3%. Similar issues affect America and Europe, and at times it feels like the giants have lost their golden goose and are waiting for the beanstalk to fall. Add to that issues like the closure of libraries and the bread and circuses of mainstream media and it’s starting to feel like one of those years, like 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989, years when everything shifted and changed.

I suspect a lot of this is about people being disenfranchised. The Arab Spring was largely about people rising up against corruption amongst their rulers; the Occupy movement sweeping the States is a reaction against corporate corruption. Heck, even the UK riots, which didn’t really have a criminal component, kicked off in areas where prospects are limited, to say the least. Keep denying people a voice, either deliberately or as the default outcome of political ideology, and things will start to happen.

It’s interesting that all this is happening in the age of social media; the beauty of the Internet is that everyone can contribute to it, and that’s why, when those historians are writing about 2011, they’ll need to dig out Twitter archives rather than film from the mainstream media (and why fears of a Digital Dark Age should be heightened during all this – these are historical records, not digital emphemera). It’s interesting that the mainstream media has been lagging behind when it comes to coverage of Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements, but perhaps not surprising. After all, it’s part of the same corporate culture that people are reacting to – the phone hacking scandal and the resulting can of worms showed that human diginity and privacy are expendable when it comes to profit.

And yet if this is about people needing a voice, the rise of social media and citizen journalism raises questions for its most enthusiastic proponents; there’s still a Digital Divide, both globally and within individual nations, and that’s only going to get worse with sweeping cuts to library services (and don’t forget, those and other public service cuts arose from a global recession caused by corporate malpractice). I love Twitter, but I bet my mom’s never heard of it, and if social media is going to be the new grassroots ‘mainstream’ then don’t forget that you’re not going to get a lot of political insight from the Top 100 Most Followed Tweeters.

That’s a key point in other ways – the battlelines have been drawn, but the opposition doesn’t understand what’s going on. David Cameron described the UK riots as “criminality, pure and simple”; Veterans for Peace were beaten by police describing them as “anarchists”; Libyan rebels were said to be on “hallucinogenic drugs”. The response from authority figures to the protests has ranged from disingenuous to deranged conspiracy theories; I guarantee none of them are avidly following the Occupy Together hashtag. And that’s a problem with the Internet as a source – search engine technology has progressed to the point where it can now pretty much tell you what you want to hear. Things are becoming more and more filtered in an age when what we really need is to be challenged, to hear opposing voices, to enter into rational and constructive dialogue. It’s difficult to do that if everything we read backs up our existing prejudices, and while the mainstream media do that anyway (hello Daily Mail! Hello Fox News!), the mosaic nature of the Net may well exacerbate things.

But in the end it does feel as though things are changing. People are more willing and more able to let their voices be heard, and the leaders that dismiss those voices are actually starting to look irrelevant. Heck, maybe the institutions we’ve relied on for so long are starting to crumble and/or evolve – the general assemblies of the Occupy movements would seem to be more truly democratic and representative than Cabinets made up of millionaires – and the onus is on us, all of us, not just those who are protesting on the streets, to make something good and positive as a result. Something good and positive that brings in the disenfranchised and treats them as friends, not enemies.

After all, wouldn’t it be nice if the 99% could one day become the 100%?

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Welcome to the Occupation 3: What the protest movements might mean for *me*

I was going to make my ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ posts a trilogy, but sometimes people come along and say things better than I ever could. Here then are two great blog posts on how we respond to injustice:

Praying With St. Francis by Shane Claiborne

Yom Kippur and Sins of Silence by Deborah Bryan

Please check them out; they’re worth a read, and wise.

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Welcome to the Occupation 2: Some more thoughts on what protest movements might mean for Christianity

A few days ago I blogged about how the recent waves of protest sweeping the Middle East, Europe and the States could have interesting implications for Christianity. However, that post made a pretty major assumption – that Christianity should be concerned with the protests in the first place. After all, while the Church has been involved in some of the major protest movements of the last few hundred years – the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movements – it hasn’t always been on the right side, with plenty of Christians at the time believing that slavery was an integral part of society, or that black people should sit at the back of buses. It’s not really news to point out that religion gets corrupted when it gets too close to politics, to the social status quo – it’s a form of blasphemy to suggest that Jesus would have been an ardent supporter of Jim Crow.

The fact is, protest against social injustice runs through the Bible. The prophets, men and women inspired by God to act as His mouthpiece, to interpret the signs of the times, to receive visions and proclaim the will of the divine, spoke not only of abstract religious matters but also of social justice – in many ways the two were inseperable. Take Isaiah, who insisted that true religion, true worship, should be a blessing to oppressed communities: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” We’re supposed to look out for each other.

Then you’ve got John the Baptist, who was arrested and executed for speaking out against the crimes of authority figures, not a million miles away from the story of Jesus, who really got himself on the political radar when he took pretty direct action against corrupt commercialism alienating people from the Temple and ultimately God. It’s unavoidable – anger at injustice, especially when that injustice hurts the poor and needy – is part of the Bible’s DNA. You’d think we’d be out protesting every day.

It’s not always that simple though. For at start, a lot of protests, even those with good and noble aims, end up degenerating into violence. Sure, this may often be down to those on the fringes of a movement, or agent provacoteurs, but the fact is that it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Now, the most famous Christian response to this is Martin Luther King championing non-violent resistance in the sixties; inspiring, yes, but not something I’d like to be in the middle of – not sure how much self-control I’d have in certain circumstances. How we react to something, especially when we’re under pressure, is a mark of our faith, not least because of the impact it has, not on our friends but on our enemies.

Because believe it or not, our enemies are people too, and in the gospels, justice is often restorative – it heals the perpetrator as well as providing justice for the victim. “Turn the other cheek” isn’t a command to passively accept everything that’s thrown at you, it’s a way of reasserting your own humanity while forcing our enemy to confront their own. A protest rooted in Christianity should always be interested in finding ways to make enemies into friends, looking at how best to communicate the grace of God to the opposition, or to those spectating from the sidelines.

Then there’s the danger of factionalism. Most protest movements in the West seem to be left vs right, but Christianity should be beyond this. The minute faith becomes so tied up with politics that they become indistinguishable is the minute something’s gone wrong – do we really think Jesus would be making a fuss about Obama’s birth certificate?

As I said in my last post, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – what can Christianity bring to these protests, what does a protesting faith look like, and when should Christians think about backing away?

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