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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.