Monday, July 11, 2005

the g8 protests: what & why

As the campaign's gone on I've become less clear about what Make Poverty History actually stands for.

The slogan itself is one of the most radical ideas ever said by someone credible. Yet, just as we may say we want 'no war for oil' but by our oil-thirsty lifestyles we demand the war it requires, so we find poverty distressing but are not prepared to give up the 'rights' and comforts that can only be made possible for us by the poverty of others.

But at the very least it's about making trade fair, more and better aid and dropping the debt, right?

I really don't know any more. The larger NGOs and Bob Geldof and Bono are so in bed with the G8 leaders that it's impossible to tell. They are saying that the Western governments are doing great things when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. They praise the leaders and the deals they make when these will undoubtedly cause millions of the poorest to suffer further.

I do not doubt their sincerity and commitment. I suspect they know the deals on the table aren't enough, but believe that railing at the politicians from outside won't change them so they need to go into the lair. I suspect they think that a little flattery will make the politicians deliver more. I suspect they are very wrong.

The politicians only appear to have done anything, they gain all the kudos they desire from Geldof and Bono, and then carry on.

Geldof and Bono have totally undermined the good work they have done in the past, they are actually reinforcing the things they seek to destroy. Rather than them using the politicians, it has become the other way around.

When the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh was called by people who praise plans to cut essential services from the poor, when there was a banner on it saying GOOD WORK MR BROWN, I really wasn't sure I wanted to be a part of it.

At its heart, the Make Poverty History approach has the belief that if we only appeal to the humanity of the G8 leaders then they will make the changes we desire.

There are several things fundamentally wrong there. Firstly, it's not up to the 8 men. They are merely the front-people for governments, who in turn are the political wing of certain vested interests. The 8 men are merely team mascots. They do not get to turn around the will of private capital, even if they actually wanted to.

The idea that they will change the current system if we point out its unfairness has the obvious flaw of ignoring who it is that built and maintains that system, who are actually better informed about how it works than anyone. Their power is entirely drawn from disempowering others, it is built on poverty and cannot exist without it. Asking the G8 to tackle global poverty is the largest attempt in modern times to get turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Make Poverty History acknowledge this, saying, back in 2001 the governments of the eight wealthiest nations on the planet said that they were going to do something about it - in what was seen as a breakthrough, they promised to halve world poverty by 2015. Four years later the world is failing dismally to reach those targets.

How do we seriously believe anything different is likely to happen to the promises this time round?

The increase in aid takes it back to levels last known in the Reagan/Thatcher years, scarcely dizzy heights, but that's not the point. The real point is that it does so not as real aid, but as conditional aid.

The conditions include opening up the receiving country to foreign private capital, so that any profitable business has its wealth siphoned off to the richest (ie Western) countries and corporations.

Foreign capital will improve its profits by exploiting natural resources as cheaply as possible, and by using inappropriate farming methods to produce our cash crops, taking away subsistence farming and the ability of the poor to feed themselves. Inevitably, in order to maximise profits - which board members have a legal obligation to do - our corporations will then drop the prices paid for the cash crops and impoverish the poor even further.

The aid conditions also include privatising state industries, meaning that prices will go up and those who don't have the money to generate profit - the very poorest - will not be able to afford the clean water, the education or the health care. This is effectively deliberate killing.

This 'debt relief' will only happen after a country has done these things. Until then, we will continue to squeeze them as they do all this selling-off.

And to think this debt relief/aid package is sold to us as something benevolent.

Poverty was one of the key issues Mr Blair said this G8 would address. The other one got even less results. The meaninglessness of the G8's communique on climate change is reflected in the acidic analysis from the usually less partisan BBC.

The second thing that is fundamentally wrong with the 'ask the G8 nicely' approach is that it respects and entrenches the power structure, leaving us lying pleading from the floor as they tower over us. The existence of power structures is in itself the core of the problem.

This was one of the most refreshing things about Hori-zone, the activist village in Stirling. We not only got together to sort out action against the summit, but we did it in a democratic way. Protesters often get asked 'you're against all these things but what are you for?'.

The short answer is to look at how Hori-zone worked. Three thousand people, about two dozen languages, no leaders, no policing. Everyone there with passion for the issues, but coming from wildly different backgrounds and motivations. All of the issues to be worked out about the running of the site and the organising of the protests were done on a spokescouncil consensus system whereby every concern is heard, everyone is listened to on equal terms, and yet it doesn't have to take all day to get anything done. A synthesis of the best ideas emerges.

We reach consensus rather than having majority votes which subject the minority to the tyranny of the majority. It was a living example of things that are desirable but supposedly not possible due to innately nasty human nature.

The long answer requires the questioner to see what we do the other 360 days of the year. I was in Scotland with doctors, people running housing co-operatives, recycling schemes, composting schemes, people who employ themselves as part of workers co-operatives, writers, rehabilitation workers. We all do positive things to make change and put the changes we want to see into action in our own lives.

The BBC's report on Hori-zone is fair enough, for a short mainstream media piece.

On a loop of land made by a riverbend just outside Stirling, the way the site was loomed upon by the Ochil Hills and the William Wallace monument only added to the undercurrent of a medieval battle camp.

Here's what it looked like from the Wallace monument

About three thousand people were camped, laid out in areas, 'barrios' mostly by geographic origin of the campers. The site was phenomenally well organised, not just in terms of provision of water and food, but going as far as medics and, for several hours a day, a staffed NHS portacabin.

Despite there being around 11,000 police involved in the operation to stop the protests (and none of them running their campsite, so they were outnumbering us by more than four to one), we outwitted them time and again.

The thing that always foils the police is not just their top-down organisation that is unwieldy and discourages any lower ranks from expressing good ideas, but also its flipside, their stoic refusal to believe that we do actually work autonomously, with horizontal power. They always want to find the Grand Masterplan, the Ringleaders, the Commanders In Chief.

They did actually arrest several people in the back of a van at one of the G8 protests, people who had two-way radios and marked maps. They told the media (who of course obligingly passed on the story) that these were the ringleaders they'd been looking for. I do love it when the media use phrases like 'anarchist leaders' without any hint of irony whatsoever.

What didn't get reported was that the arrested people were medics with maps of medic points around the protest, and were all released without charge after a couple of hours.

For months there's been talk from police and mainstream media about the anarchist plans to hold a three day riot in Edinburgh. This led to the main part of the police numbers being deployed there on Tuesday night.

I'm reliably informed that the Daily Mail said that groups of protesters would be hiding up in the hills overnight in advance of Wednesday's opening of the summit, and would come down at dawn to block the roads and railways. Seems the cops don't read the Mail or, if they do, like the rest of us they don't believe a word.

But that's exactly what happened. All through Tuesday daytime and evening groups secreted themselves away around the Ochil Hills. The Metropolitan Police took over operational control at midnight Tuesday, and just as every football fan hates Manchester United for their swollen-headed swaggering and disproportionate attention, so other forces hate the Met. This isolation was compounded by serious rain that made spotter helicopters unusable.

At 3am Wednesday in a scene described by one observer as reminiscent of a Lord of The Rings battle scene, a massive black bloc massed and left the Hori-zone to pipes and a lone drum, fighting their way through police lines and out on to the M9. As the day got going, other stretches of the motorway, along with the A9, minor roads and the railway were blockaded.

Whilst the 8 mascots could certainly be helicoptered in for photo opportunities, their delegations, translators, catering staff and whatnot could not. With different groups coming on to roads from different places, as one was cleared so another emerged, and no road was kept open for any long period.

Just as police were moving in to clear some of the remaining black bloc from the M9, a kids and disabled bloc came from behind. The police really don't like this set up - it's known in the force by the less than tactful term 'Blakelock sandwich' - and they swiftly parted to allow the protestors to mix, leaving ample opportunity for the black bloc to leave the area unhindered.

The roads continued to be blocked until dusk, the Canadian delegation reportedly never left their hotel, access to several key hotel towns was blocked.

There seems little doubt that the first day could not have gone ahead in any real sense. This is the first time such a blockade has worked at a G8 meeting.

This is an astonishing achievement, especially for protesters outnumbered four to one, facing cops armed with huge budgets and millions of pounds worth of technology, backed up by secret services. It seems to me the biggest single piece of direct action in the UK for many years. Around the world, people did their own actions against the G8 too. But it all went largely unreported because there were no big riots and London won the Olympic bid that day.

The next day, having failed to find the mythical Edinburgh riot, police blockaded the Hori-zone. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army went and formed a line in front of the police, stopping and searching people's minds for dangerous weapons or feelings. I confess to being initially sceptical about this lot. Clowns are unsettling and creepy. But they have used their skills to excellent tactical effect on protests, and play a good role in keeping authority unsure of what's going on, messing with their control.

Being tired from the day before, plus freaked by the news filtering through in random and seemingly unbelievable fragments from London, a cross-site meeting emphatically did not want anything that could turn into a ruck. The police maintained their presence all day, occasionally trying to escalate the situation by baiting in riot gear, refusing to allow the NHS staff on site, doing illegal searches of people, but the day passed off peaceably.

The G8's power isn't to be tinkered with, it is to be opposed. There is no asking them nicely, no way their power can be maintained while justice is done. The G8 is an obstacle between the world we have of inequality and injustice, and the world we deserve - and can manifest - of peace and sustainability.

So in blockading the summit we voice our opposition, we declare our will to remove such obstacles. We reclaim the power these leaders have taken from us. We withdraw our consent, we show the injustice and destruction are not in our name. We inspire others around the world just as we have been inspired by other protests and revolts. We let people know that there are other perspectives, and if they agree then they are not alone, that the world we dream of is more possible than we might have dared to believe.

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