G8 protest shows need for community focused resistance

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

change not charity banner on fence

When a riot police officer eating an ice cream in the back of an armoured car pointed me in the direction of the assembling protesters in Enniskillen on Monday 17 June, I knew that while it was certainly no Battle in Seattle, this would be no ordinary G8 demonstration. Around 1,000 activists had gathered in the County Fermanagh town which was hosting the two-day 2013 G8 summit.

Global neoliberalism is moving to kill dissent with kindness, whether it’s the British government’s ‘Big Society’ or the mantra of governance and transparency in the Global South. Potentially transformative concepts are being employed to give the illusion of social change. This is why groups like Bono’s One campaign are not just arrogant, they are dangerously reinforcing the status quo of neoliberal, capitalist models of global development – not to mention their inherently racist notions of charity.

Enniskillen, on the other hand, didn’t have the polish of Bono or Bob Geldof. It was much more inspiring than that. The atmosphere was more akin to Sunday fête than the anti-capitalist pitch battles seen at previous G8 meetings. Bizarrely, a blues band entertained protesters as they assembled and curious locals sipped tea whilst sat in camping chairs along the route.

anti-fracking campaigner

The march itself was made up mostly of people from northwest Ireland and Northern Ireland. These communities have found themselves at the forefront of the fight against neoliberal unsustainability. Many had never been to a protest before their lives and livelihoods were threatened by fracking – a process which has the potential to cause large scale social and environmental injustices. Yet through their campaigning they are developing a critical analysis of power and models of development.

The march made its way through Enniskillen’s streets before travelling three kilometres to confront the £4million ($6.2 million) security cordon which separated the world from the G8 leaders. The sun beat down on the long procession as it left the town.

As speeches took place by the security cordon, about 20 protestors managed to trample the razor wire fence and cross over the barrier. They were soon facing a line of riot police.

‘Do not attempt to come any closer’ called a police officer. ‘Or we will be forced to take action.’

The word ‘action’ presumably being a euphemism for something more violent, the activists stalled and the momentum was lost. One of the stewards from the main march arrived and a discussion began. After a tense few minutes they receded, accepting the need for unity and solidarity with the community participating in the protest.

This dialogue in a mucky field in County Fermanagh was of global importance. This is a time of massive flux for social movements. Regime toppling protests are occurring all over the world, communities are questioning things which were for too long regarded as simple common sense. It’s a messy process which must begin by recognizing that none of us have the answers; we must forge them together through dialogue and solidarity.

It is only through that process that we can deconstruct the nonsense of ‘common sense’ neoliberal exploitation of people and the planet and stand with the powerful process of communities developing their own analysis of society.

In Ireland and Northern Ireland the anti-fracking community activists are posing important questions and challenging the status quo. The same thing is happening across the world, most visibly in Turkey and Brazil. Everywhere communities are reclaiming transformative concepts from neoliberalism and fighting for justice, equality and sustainability.

For anyone interested in social change this is an important point for reflection on our practice. We must ditch our dogma and hold our agendas lightly. The fires of change are beginning to glow in communities across the globe, we must continue to support these rather than trying to light our own.

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G8 mobilizations need solidarity, not stage management

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

While the rain barely stopped pouring, spirits remained high as activists marched, danced and sang through a highly militarized Belfast city on Saturday 15 June for the Big March for a Fairer World. Around 1,500 people took to the streets from trade unions, campaigning organizations such as Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, and various community groups to oppose the policies and practices of the powerful G8 leaders meeting in Fermanagh from 17 to 18 June 2013.

fracking protest river

In advance of the demonstration, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) armoured cars and specially loaned British Army Land Rovers moved in convoy down every street and clusters of police officers in padded battle-dress, some with machine guns, gathered on the pavements.

Having navigated through the heavy police presence, I joined activists from Friends of the Earth who organized the anti-fracking themed section of the march. Environmentalists from across the UK and Ireland brought with them blue pieces of cloth ‘river’ with messages of defiance and hope from communities resisting fracking.

‘My daughter woke me up at 3 am, I’ve been awake since then’, said Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth, full of energy and while co-ordinating the chaos.

Bakewell bellowed out the words of an old Woody Guthrie song, ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’, suitably altered for the occasion:
I’m gonna tell you frackers
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose
You frackers bound to lose.

Even those of us who are tone deaf got carried away in the enthusiasm and soon we met with the main march.

As a steward I carried a small black knapsack. It contained some energy bars, a ‘pee-mate’ and some empty milk bottles, ‘in case we get “kettled” and people need to relieve themselves,’ cautioned Bakewell.

Kettling is a tactic used by police officers to control crowds by cordoning off groups of protestors. It is often used to break the spirits of activists, who are sometimes allowed to leave only if they surrender their personal details to the police.

When I explained the contents of my bag to a group of unassuming, middle-aged anti-frackers it got a nervous giggle. The heavy police presence on the streets was disconcerting even to those who grew up in ‘the Troubles’, as Northern Ireland’s 30 year armed conflict is euphemistically called.

The Friends of the Earth ‘river’ meandered through the streets, swaying to the beat of a samba band.

‘The anti-frackers seem to be having the most fun,’ noted one TV camera operator.

‘Well what’s the point in being here if we can’t have fun?’ replied a middle-aged woman from England.

After the camera operator moved on we continued talking. The woman was shocked by the heightened police presence. ‘You wouldn’t even get this with the Met in London.’ London’s Metropolitan Police are notoriously heavy handed when it comes to civil society dissent, having raided a squatted convergence space and arrested 57 activists earlier that week.

Despite the heavy police presence, the march remained peaceful and crowds gathered at Belfast’s City Hall to listen to speakers who had to shout to be heard above the sound of the police helicopters overhead.

After the march we headed back to the Friends of the Earth office. Buoyed by the solidarity and success of the day, activists from across both islands discussed how we can work together to resist fracking over hard earned mugs of soup.

I nabbed a spare ticket for the Big If concert being organized by the churches and development NGOs in the botanic gardens. I was eager to see how this stage managed NGO campaign compared to the spontaneity, energy and enthusiasm of the activism on the streets.

The Enough Food for Everyone If… campaign is run by a collation of organizations and calls for the G8, especially David Cameron, to act on hunger.

The Big If event seemed little more than a polished distraction from the real issues, and although I found myself tapping away to Duke Special and Two Door Cinema Club, and enjoying the speeches from the civil society leaders from the Global South, the whole thing felt a bit hollow.

‘Come on everybody, let’s Tweet Prime Minister David Cameron!’ called TV presenter Zöe Salmon who was presiding over a crowd which seemed smaller than the march.

Freedom to dissent now equates to a Tweet and the anti-fracking community activists who attempted to unfurl a banner were not allowed a peep. Big If organizers cornered them immediately.

‘We need to stay on-message, we can’t have other banners’, explained one of the event co-ordinators.

I declined my Big If wristband and left with the anti-fracking group. As I departed, Salmon was inviting the crowd to Tweet Barak Obama.

What’s changed since the G8 last graced our shores?

The G8 last landed on our Atlantic Archipelago for their 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Much has changed as civil society and global citizens meet in Belfast for the Fairer World Festival and in Fermanagh for the G8 not welcome events this weekend.

In the eight years which have passed, we have been battered by the greatest financial crisis ever, while climate change continues to spiral out of control and the solutions to the converging crises fail to break out of the thinking that created it.

Yet we have been buoyed too, by movements for democracy, equality, social justice and environmental sustainability which have sprung up across the globe and show no sign of abating. There is a sense that this is part of a greater process of social change taking place around the world, from the current struggles of the Capulcus in Turkey, to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

There has been a fundamental shift in how we think about democracy. While messy, unpredictable and hardly ‘productive’ in a traditional sense, social movements like Occupy have allowed people to experience participatory democracy in an otherwise non-participatory world. That alone is a worthy outcome.

Important critiques of patriarchy and neoliberialism continue to emerge from feminist networks in both the Global North and Global South. Ever controversial, Femen has succeeded to grab headlines, while others such as African Feminist Network Nyangoma or India’s Gulabi Gang are less well known in Ireland or the UK but equally exciting.

Indeed each of the states that make up the unelected and unaccountable G8 has seen protest, and sometimes violence, sweep their streets since 2005. The UK itself saw riots in 2011, while France has faced similar waves of violence in its ghettoised suburbs.

Even authoritarian Russia has been shaken by Pussy Riot, while in stereotypically unquestioning and ordered states, civil society is awakening: Germany’s refugee protests are challenging institutional racism; Japan is seeing a wave of environmental protest in the wake of Fukusima and Canada’s Tar Sands controversy continues.

The shift in how NGOs have approached the G8 is subtle but important. The grand demands from celebrities to ‘Make Poverty History’ have receded to a mousey ‘What If?’ which seems palatable in the current climate of austerity: There will be no cash on the table, so don’t ask.

Of course,  you can still get the wristband, t-shirt and concert tickets, but in the wake of global movements for social change the sanitised ‘What If?’ campaign feels quite tired; more a case of ‘so what?’ than ‘what if?’

And what if what’s happening organically on the streets and in communities across the globe is much more real and much more refreshing than an orchestrated camapgin by development NGOs ever could be?