Why the protesters of today are not your usual suspects

The mainstream coverage of protest relies on stereotypes of violence and reckless behaviour. But the real face of dissent in 2013 can just as easily be the "Knitting Nana" on the fracking front line.

Outside the main gates of the Cuadrilla site near the West Sussex village of Balcombe – the fracking front line – sits a woman who poses a threat to the government. She is an ex-nurse and grandmother called Bernadette, nicknamed “Knitting Nana”, and she has been there since the first days of the community campaign to stop the exploratory drilling in the woods across the road from her. She stays outside her tent all day, knitting black and yellow bandanas and wristbands to give to the community “protectors”.

Bernadette voted Tory, read the Daily Mail and had always thought that the government had her best interests at heart. That was until the fracking controversy kicked off outside her idyllic village. She tells me that everything has changed: those in government “don’t care for us; there is no democracy. All they care about is power and greed.” I ask her what she thinks of the protesters who have come down to support the campaign. “At first,” she says, “I thought they were going to be a bunch of troublemakers but they are lovely – some of them are a little weird, maybe, but they are brave. They understand all the arguments and I love them.”

I met another unlikely protester in Friern Barnet, north London. Fiona, a psychotherapist, had been infuriated by the prospect of Barnet Council selling off her local library. She helped start a local campaign to save it but it was struggling until one of the people involved invited Occupy and squatters to help. Fiona was horrified at the prospect of “violent and unruly protesters” coming to her library but she found: “They were all incredibly well informed, tremendously organised and passionate about the cause.” The groups worked together well and the newly bolstered campaign succeeded in saving the library and handing it back to the community.

This does not mean that Fiona and Bernadette are now going to Molotov-cocktail-making classes, smashing windows and voting Labour, but they have become far less ready to believe what they are told by the media about protesters.

The difference between the stereotype of protesters and the reality is stark, to say the least. When I sit in meetings with activists, people from every walk of life surround me. The characters I have befriended in the past two years include an ex-headmaster who fights for economic justice; a bathroom fitter who live-streams actions; a single-parent stallholder from Essex who has been thrown out of three English Defence League meetings for telling its members that they should give up race hatred and support Occupy instead; a single mum-of-four who wants her children to learn the “dignity of dissent”; a grandmother from Blackpool who doesn’t want to see her grandchildren “grow up in a world wrecked by inequality”; several ex-servicemen; care workers; a fireman; a health and safety trainer who has become a legal observer; teenagers and students. What brings us together was described by Douglas Wragg, another Balcombe resident, in this way: “We have here a travesty of democracy and we’ve tried every democratic path. The only choice we have left is direct action . . . You either lie down and let Cuadrilla ride roughshod over you, or take direct action.”

The mainstream coverage of protest relies on stereotypes of violence and reckless behaviour. Until people see through this and realise that the vast majority of these protesters are the same as them, the numbers that come out will remain shamefully low. Whether the media’s representation of activism is skewed by design or not is conspiracy territory but I can leave you with something that I witnessed that is more than a little provocative.

During the anti-G20 actions in London in 2009, many of the windows in the area had been boarded up as a result of incessant scaremongering about anarchists. Except, that is, for a small Royal Bank of Scotland branch in the middle of the four marches.

At one point – in perfect time for the early-evening news schedule – the police who had been guarding the bank suddenly marched off. Moments later, platoons of media replaced them and, as if on cue, two “protesters” started to smash the bank up.

Along with the prolonged kettling of hundreds of people without water or sanitation and the news of Ian Tomlinson’s death, this scene is what has remained in people’s consciousness, driven in there so deeply that many people will have forgotten what the protest was about but still remember the association with violence.

As Howard Zinn wrote: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.”

Jamie Kelsey-Fry is a contributing editor of New Internationalist. He tweets at: @jamiekelseyfry

Anti-fracking protesters in Balcombe. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.