27 years ago today…

This piece has been posted up on our sister blog, The SOUTH ESSEX STIRRERhttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/27-years-ago-today/ It’s being posted up here as a kind of signal that there will be one or more posts to come looking at the impact of the Internet and social media on activism. The hope is that these posts will generate a discussion on ways of organising that while acknowledging the contribution the Net can make, also seek to get more of us engaging with people face to face in real life. As ever, constructive criticism and comment are welcome…

The Poll Tax riot that took place on the 31st March 1990 is a day that will live long in my memory for a whole host of reasons. Here are some interesting accounts of what took place on the day and how a lively march was turned into a riot by deliberate provocation from the police: Accounts of the poll tax riot, 1990https://libcom.org/history/1990-accounts-poll-tax-riot

Many words have been written about a day which has assumed an almost mythical status among a fair number of older activists. I don’t want to dwell on the events that turned the march into a riot and what happened after that. What I want to do is reflect on how much has changed in the intervening twenty seven years when it comes to building actions and marches and also what happens when we’re on them.

Obviously another twenty seven years of neo-liberalism has inflicted further damage on working class solidarity as our communities have become more atomised and fractured. Bear in mind that what defeated the hated Poll Tax was not the riot on March 31st but the subsequent campaign of non-payment that eventually led to the authorities concluding that it wasn’t worth the aggravation involved. That sustained campaign of non-payment could only be carried out in communities where there was still enough sense of solidarity to ensure that those sticking their necks out would get the backing they needed.

Twenty seven years ago, the Internet was in its infancy. Building any political event whether it was a meeting, a picket or a march had to be done by getting out and talking to people. There wasn’t any creating an ‘event’ on Facebook where people could idly click Going or Interested (with only one in ten actually turning up!). Big marches were built with a range of tactics that all involved real life engagement with other people. The classic was street paper sales and street meetings leading to meetings in hired rooms to mobilise the more committed. Evenings spent flyposting any surface that provided visibility to the passing public. Telephone trees and word of mouth. Apart from the flyposting, they all involved having to talk to, debate with and convince people. Mind you, even on a flyposting team, communication was important with the most important job being that of the lookout…

All of these methods involved talking to people face to face on a variety of levels from preaching to the (almost) converted to having to persuade people of your case and why they need to act. Granted it was bloody hard work but it was that real life face to face engagement that built the solidarity that was needed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the Internet or social media – they can both be very valuable tools for activists but it has to be said that there’s an over-reliance on them these days.

The experience of actually being on a protest has changed a lot. It’s not just CCTV which twenty seven years ago was a relatively new technology but is all pervasive now along with police drones up in the sky discreetly observing your every move. Although it has to be noted the cops don’t appear to be giving up on their helicopters which do play a role as a form of intimidation as they hover directly overhead! It’s digital photography and bloody smartphones… It’s bad enough when the enemy use this technology to record your mug to share on their dodgy far right websites. What’s worse is when people ostensibly on your own side feel they have to document every minute of the action they’re on without realising they’re compromising the security of everyone around them. FFS, if things look like they’re getting a bit ‘tasty’, do us all a favour and put the smartphone away! Even better, don’t bring the sodding thing out on a protest in the first place – get a cheap burner phone instead. As for what to wear on a protest or action and feeling the need to have to go black bloc if you’re doing anything other than a point A to point B – a lot of that is down to the ubiquitous presence of CCTV and digital media…

I don’t want to come over as grumpy old sod who can’t keep up with the times and is nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of protest. As written earlier, the Internet can be a brilliant tool for activists as it offers publishing capabilities and reach to a broader audience that we could only dream about twenty seven years ago. Also, when it comes to research, providing you can develop your own critical filters, the Internet is an invaluable tool. Where the Net and social media can and do fall down is when it comes to building and organising events. We all need to start thinking about other ways we can build for actions and protests that don’t rely on social media and that make us talk to each other and to the public at large. Face to face engagement with people is more likely to result in commitment than asking someone to tick Going on a Facebook event and hoping they actually make the effort to turn up…

I’ve thrown a few thoughts and ideas out in this piece. Hopefully, they’ll act as a catalyst for discussion about strategies and tactics. What would be great is if that discussion could be face to face:)

Dave (the editor)


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