Monday, July 02, 2007

Potato protest

Yesterday we had the latest demonstration against the introduction of GM potato trials just outside of Cambridge (see previous posts for background). Much to my surprise not only were there enough people to march, despite being heavily outnumbered by the police, the protest itself wasn't an entirely futile and dispiriting affair (additional pics here).

By taking an impromptu detour through a hedge we were able to get right up to the perimeter fence of the trial, picnic and Frisbee under the watchful eyes of the law and one gallant soul even attempted a heroic leap over the fence - which promptly got him arrested (one of two on the day). I was manhandled at one point, which does irk a little (none of like to be manhandled after all) but in general the cops only got rough the once - with our would be high jumper.

"Gary", a charming member of Niab's security team, informed us that if we didn't leave we'd all be arrested. Alas we were rather outnumbered and it would have been an impossible feat to breach the fence under those conditions so we chose caution as the better part of valour and left at that point - after the last dozen or so openly discussed the options and took a collective decision to vacate the field.

Whilst playing absolutely no role in the organisation of this event (something both myself and others have now pointed out on a number of occasions to Chief Inspector Melanie Barrett), by piecing together evidence gathered later on it appears that in fact there were a number of different "affinity groups" (as we hardened anti-capitalists call them) on the day. My group marched on the potato field directly with the express purpose of menacing it - almost convincingly, whilst others went to the Niab HQ, and did other assorted activities of which I am genuinely unaware in the most real sense.

The chief difficulty of the day was incompetence. Incompetence and anarchism. The two chief difficulties of the day were Incompet... [pulls self together]. Incompetence in the sense that the way it was organised was pretty weak, having been called by "outside agitators" (no, really) with no links on the ground and seemingly designed to incur the maximum turn out from the police and the minimum turn out from the media.

Added to that it was an anarchist only event in all but name. Although I doubt this was a deliberate tactic, the top down nature of the organising group (who ever they were) coupled with their secrecy meant that unless you knew them personally you were debarred from helping shape the event, and knowing them would be no guarentee. So instead of being part of a social movement against corporate control of the food chain the protest became a fun day out for one faction of that movement, albeit an informally organised one, which led directly into the single key factor that meant we were turned away at the fence - lack of numbers.

That's not to say the event was not worth doing - it's just other, locally organised, actions were called off in its favour and we've actually taken a step away from having a broad anti-GM group and towards clandestine organising by a gang who's identity and politics are completely unchallengeable by even the most sympathetic campaigner.

It's a real shame and, to be honest, the demo marks the beginning of a far less worthwhile stage in the campaign against GM crops in Cambridge. Unless that is those outside of this self appointed circle pull their finger out and create a much more interesting and engaging alternative, that actually allows people to own their own campaign, rather than simply follow someone else's.

Self criticism over.

Update: I've added some photos to my flikr account - tagged them as Spud Day.


Anonymous said...

Did anyone manage to "seed" the field with other potato strands? or was the fence effective in that regards also?

Anonymous said...

some fair points regarding the incompetence of the organisation.i doubt theres many people involved who don't see it as such. Unfortunately mistakes happen and i think it was less bad organisation as almost no organisation and this a result of poor communication! however, being an 'anarchist event'( if thats what it was) isnt inherently a bad thing and seems an odd critisism!! I think people involved need to have decent discussions about how it went wrong and hopefuly do better next time.

Jim Jay said...

Unfortunately the fence was twenty meters from the potatos and the ring of police was too strong to even attempt a serious break in - so it was sensible to leave. I'm still impressed we got that far to be honest.

Jim Jay said...

I think an "anything only" event would have had similar weaknesses. If the Women's Institute had relied on their own network - and deliberately gone out of their way not to include people outside of this circle it would have had problems.

But part of the criticism is that it was partly due to the ideology of the anarchists that called this event that meant it had such a narrow base. There were lots of people who are up for stuff around this - and if they had been included communications, media work, numbers and competence would have all been improved - although how much it is impossible to tell.

Unfortunately those who are involved in organising this are only likely to have conversations about how it could be improved amongst themselves - so they are not particualrly likely to develop more inclusive ways of working - in my view - but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

ps I've photos up on flikr now, check out the link in the post.

Rob Ray said...

Think it's a bit harsh to be calling it an anarchist event if they were as exclusive as you're saying Jim, sounds more like a typical case of tiny centralised clique activism, which happens to have been done by people calling themselves anarchists.

I'd condemn that sort of behaviour from an anarchist stance, because it's elitism masquerading as anarchism, and has no wider mandate for the activities it's performing.

Jim Jay said...

That's a really important point and thanks for making it rob. I guess the irony is that for people who are so concerned with things being "non-hierarchical" they've managed to create, possibly with the best of intentions, something that is a) completely untransparent b) totally unaccountable and c) elitist to the extent that makes absolutist monarchies look positively meritorcratic!

For all the faults of the centralised groupings (and they have many, oh my) they are never *this* centralised and secretive

Anonymous said...

Feels like you feel slighted or ignored. I don't know the ins & outs of it all (thankfully?) - but:

the event was advertised openly on indymedia & elsewhere; there were posters to download so everyone could spread the word about it; nowhere was it labelled anarchist except by you, nor would all the people putting organising time into it call themselves that, & even if they did, that doesn't make it an exclusive event or in any way ideology-bound.

So you're stuff about lack of transparency, accountability & elitism all sounds a bit harsh.

Unfortunately, even organising things non-hierarchically, does not guarantee you enough people to organise things as effectively as you'd wish or is needed. It's easy to confuse hierarchy with 'too few & busy organisers'. There's whole days of discussion possible here, and indeed there have been on these very issues many times before, and will be again I'm sure - come chat in a field this summer!

Jim Jay said...

It's on indymedia so isn't an anarchist only event? Hmmm.

I'm not personally slighted - if I'd chosen to be part of the inner group I could have been in it, but very few people had that opportunity - because it was organised and shaped through personal contacts, developed in the anarchist political sphere. No one outside this sphere was permitted to help *shape* this event.

The organisers chose to organise in such a way that they limitted the numbers. It was policy that was the problem and created the lack of organisers.

There were far less Cambridge people on this demo than the last because there was a complete reliance on national contacts, and those locals that did know about the event had no idea what sort of event it was to be - so they were not inspired to leaflet, poster and build the event in the way they had the time before.

Without transparency there is no opportunity to develop trust with those outside your circle.

People in Histon and Girton aren't part of the anarcho crowd and don't read indymedia - so they had no hope of being part of the loop.

To be broad and inclusive you have to make it that way - it's no use pretending to yourself that because you didn't have bouncers on the door of your secret meetings it was open to anyone who wanted to get stuck in.

Anonymous said...

All these critiscisms sound to me like you need to live in the real world. For an event like the picnic to suceed the organising and logistics need to be sorted in secret. If its transparent to all the people you claim would have otherwise been involved its transparent to the cops as well. Rob Ray, do you think proper anarchists should organise transparently? If you'd ever threatened the status quo rather than commentated on it in a shitty paper only anarchists read, you wouldn't be so full of shit. Anarchism is about 'doing' not some stuffy little pricks wittering on the net about 'transparency'and 'eleteism'. If the 'anarco-crowd' wasn't concerned with theory and endless history rather than praxis there'd be no need for an elite and no need to invent one to satisfy your own egos.

Jim Jay said...

The picnic didn't need to be done in secret - it other things that needed to be sorted in secret. And the picnic *wasn't* secret to the police - there was no tactical or logistical advantage for the picnic to be organised this way. At all.

The direct action that took place last night did need to be conducted in secret if it was to be successful - which it was by all accounts.

Anyway, this seems like agood time to remind people who comment anonymously that you are guests here and you need to conduct yourself in an appropriate manner.

Political discussion is great personal abuse is not, if you wish to abuse people do it with your name attached.

Jim Jay said...

I've had to delete and re-do Rob Ray's post (at his request) so the following is from him;

"Rob Ray, do you think proper anarchists should organise transparently? If you'd ever threatened the status quo rather than commentated on it in a shitty paper only anarchists read, you wouldn't be so full of shit."

Lol don't worry bout it Jim, I've been called worse, at least whoever it is cares enough to try and intimidate me in the first place ;)

Anyway, anonymous, do you really think standing next to a few potatoes for a couple of hours is a 'threat to the status quo'? If that's the definition these days we really are in a worse situation than I thought.

The point I was making is that organisation of demos (and to a certain extent direct action itself) can't ever be totally divorced from the public it is trying to protect, otherwise it's operating as a vanguard body, not an anarchist one.

An example of how this has been done in the past includes the flying pickets during the miners strike and the community collusion which regularly happened during the anti-road protests.

In each case their actions tended to be done with the support of the general community, and direct actionists mingled with the general public. Not only did this make them more accountable, it made them more successful in the long term.

Rob Ray

Rob said...

NB// Sorry, that was referring to history wasn't it, which you specifically said I shouldn't. Hmm, okay how about Rossport.

Far greater odds, high activist presence, but also connections within the community and a wide scale of action based on solidarity between activists and locals.

Result - locals have allegedly been involved in direct action, protests have been ongoing and despite massive pressure, far higher than has been managed for the GM crops, a substantial fight has been made of it.

What I'm saying here is not that activists shouldn't be careful (and indeed paranoid) if doing illegal actions as affinity groups, but that a major responsibility of anyone who calls themselves an anarchist is not to exclude those they are fighting for, both on the grounds of theory and perhaps more importantly in your eyes, practice.

Anonymous said...

There is an elitest clique of middle class activists that exclude potential newcomers - who do not recognise established hierachies. The idea of the "affinity groups" means that people who do not fit in with the clique viewpoint will not be able to join in.

Anonymous said...

oh, come off it! Middle class activists can only do so much! I know with our groups we try as hard as we can to get the word out. but one can only do so much. The word here in Canada was that the event was a success! enjoy your victories. keep fighting to keep life out of private hands!