I can feel a change in Britain in the way people see direct action. One group that much of the public has enormous respect and support for, and increasingly feels safer in coming out and supporting, is UK Uncut.
In little over two years they have succeeded in raising awareness of gross injustice in a country under severe austerity cuts, with an NHS that is being privatized through the back door and a bedroom tax that is destroying people’s lives and shattering the most vulnerable people’s support systems while massive corporations seem to get away with paying next to no taxes into the public coffers.
The UK Uncut strategy is always creative and safe but effective, in that they are strictly nonviolent and exceptionally media savvy. This Saturday 20 July, they will be transforming HSBC banks across Britain into foodbanks to highlight the bank’s role in setting up vehicles for tax avoidance, money laundering and environmental destruction while ordinary people feel the impact of the government’s welfare spending cuts.
Research has shown that 500,000 people now rely on foodbanks on a regular basis. In the last year, nearly half of those did so because of cuts or delays in benefit payments.
As part of my role as contributing editor for New Internationalist, I am a regular news reviewer on BBC radio. As a result, I find myself in a surreal balancing act: talking about the woman who threw eggs at Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent, alongside new climate change research and popular uprisings in Turkey.
I have tried to counter the pervasive negative stereotyping of those who choose to use nonviolent direct action (NVDA) and civil disobedience to challenge what they see as an unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable economic system. In this area, I have witnessed a gradual sea change in the average British radio listener. I am often on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show which is a superb barometer for the thoughts and feelings of Middle England. It is listened to by plasterers from Plaistow to mums in Motherwell and retired teachers in Tadcaster.
Producers have told me that it has become more difficult to provide balanced responses from those who phone in to programmes such as the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2, because the majority of listeners now support these kinds of actions. On one recent show, where the producers warned me they were only going to set me up with callers who were against the protesters who demonstrated against the G8 in London, they found it hard to get enough callers to fill the slot and those who did phone in had very sketchy and predictable criticisms of the protesters. The recent Greenpeace ‘Shard’ action against Shell leading the race to plunder the Arctic won remarkable support from the public.
In short, much of the country is running out of patience with a government that seems to be failing them at many levels at the same time. The illusion is beginning to sag and rip and there’s little of consistency coming from parliament to allay people’s suspicions that things are only going to get worse. More remarkable is the fact that many people who call in are agreeing with the more profound questions that groups like Occupy brought to the fore. That is, it is becoming a regular feature to have callers state that they have no faith in any political party, ‘it doesn’t make any difference who gets in… they are all in the pockets of the corporations and the banks…’
As a result, people are looking for these kinds of changes outside of parliament, through direct action and civil disobedience. But while people speak about radical change and supporting activists who use NVDA to win it, they are not joining them yet in significant numbers. I believe that may be because the very heavy policing of actions frightens people, they don’t want to be kettled, be photographed by the FIT (Forward Intelligence Team) squad or be confronted by the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group. They can’t afford to risk their jobs, lose their mortgages or be arrested for chalking on the pavement. Or at least, that is the perception they have through watching mainstream media coverage.
If not you, who? If not now, when?
I would recommend that those who have been too frightened to come out and fight for fundamental justices to be restored to Britain need to overcome those fears and come out and join UK Uncut in their actions on 20 July. Actions are planned in towns and cities across Britain, including London, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford and Shrewsbury.
As the late, great Howard Zinn said, the main problem in this world is not mass civil disobedience; it is mass civil obedience. It’s time that Britain caught up with those countries around the world that are currently filling their streets with hundreds of thousands of people against similar injustices. UK Uncut is a great way to start if you have lost all faith with the idea that the current political and economic system is on the side of the people.
Follow Jamie Kelsey-Fry on Twitter @jamiekelseyfry