New Orleans ACORN in the United Kingdom is one of our fastest growing affiliates, so I keep up with some of the obstacles we face in organizing. One of them is the radical steps the government is taking to curtail all manner of protests, as well as free speech.
I started looking into recent pushbacks from Westminster more closely when I got a Facebook message from one our members in England. He was an associate of Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and a principal in the Stop Oil campaign, whose tactics have gotten a lot of publicity and are at the heart of the government’s rationale for new stringent get-tough policies. He messaged me that Hallam wanted to read my book, Nuts and Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, while he was in jail. Hallam is a bit of a controversial figure, but it’s hard to argue that Extinction Rebellion and their tactics have not made the issue of climate change more unavoidable in Britain and elsewhere. After some back-and-forth about how to get the book to Hallam while he was in jail, I posted it this week as instructed, and, frankly, was honored at the request and his interest, even though he may not find it quite his cup of tea.
Hallam is doing his 30-days in prison for his part in a so-called conspiracy to block London’s M25 freeway, a major traffic artery into the city, with a “Just Stop Oil” banner. The police have acted aggressively to these actions, including arresting and holding a journalist. In another case a business leader standing in front of the Russian embassy in London to silently hold a sign to protest their invasion of Ukraine had to thwart an arrest by police with some difficulty. We might say that Hallam and his confederates are simply the sharp points of this spear with the police and the government trying to make an example of them, but many in Britain, not just ACORN and our members and organizers, are worried that these anti-demo and anti-speech actions are past the pale.
Legislation passed this year in Britain allowed the police to impose start and finish times on some protests and set noise limits on them, as well. The maximum penalties for obstruction of a highway were also increased to an unlimited fine, six months’ imprisonment or both…Legislation making its way through Parliament would set jail sentences of up to six months or unlimited fines for protestors accused of ‘locking on’ to people, objects or buildings. Tunneling under infrastructure – another favored tactic of demonstrators – would carry a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison under the bill. And the police would gain new powers to stop and search people for materials that could be used for a ‘protest related’ offense.
Rough stuff! Will it work? I doubt it.
Hallam will do his time and go back to the streets, one way or another. The nature of organizing and protest is always a dialectical process of finding and experimenting with new tactics that make the case and produce pressure, while also, hopefully, gaining support. In the action of protests and reaction of government and corporations, repression is almost predictable, even if as embarrassing to Britain and its reputation as these new laws will be or as polarizing as the climate demonstrators protests in blocking traffic or gluing themselves to museum pieces. It’s the nature of struggle.
Climate change is a serious business and the slow progress being made to confront it is scary to all of us. In this situation, the government of Britain or any other country tempted to pass draconian measures to stop protests may end up making martyrs of the protestors they jail and alienating the public even more than the protestors, as they come closer to modeling their responses on brutal, authoritarian governments like Iran and China.
Mark my words.