An Open Letter to the St Paul’s Protesters

What is the significance so far of "Occupy LSX"?

Dear protesters,

I will be sorry to see you go. I work in the City of London, and I have walked past your tents most days since you camped in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral. Anyone who knows the area around the Cathedral will appreciate that you have not been any genuine obstruction. Indeed, one almost has to go out of one's way to be obstructed by you. No one walking from, say, Ludgate Hill, or St Paul's Tube, or from the Millennium Bridge is impeded. Your stay has made no real difference to the coming and goings of the City workers in that part of the City.

But you are now to be evicted. Your removal is inevitable, unless there is some unexpected intervention. The immediate environs of the Cathedral will return to their boring relative emptiness. The Cathedral itself will revert to its role as offering a peaceful and reflective place for tourists to be financially exploited for visiting what is sometimes a place of worship. The Dean and Chapter can again maximise their revenues without any worry of the protesters outside.

The bailiffs and the police may now come at any time, probably within the next few days. The City Of London's press officer refused to tell me exactly when. Will it be later today, I asked, but he said he would not speculate. So have the bailiffs already been, I then asked mischievously, and he still would not speculate. All one knows is that you have to remove your camp in a reasonable amount of time.

If the City is going to be sensible in the eviction operation, it should evict you during daylight. That makes it safer for everyone. And they should do it when there are few commuters, office workers, and tourists about; again, to minimise risk to third parties. For these reasons, I suspect eviction will probably be at the weekend. And coming in at dawn will perhaps mean few will be prepared to argue back or obstruct: sleepy-heads are relatively easy to evict.

On the other hand, the City may like the drama of a night-time eviction, or the media coverage of a week-day eviction, regardless of the safety of those who may be caught up. However, no one really knows.

Should you resist? Well, it is a decision for each of you. There is no genuine prospect of you defeating the coercive force which may be used against you. Your resistance, as they say, would be futile. And it would be a pity if there was any confrontation; the "Occupy" movement is about engagement, not violence. Marching off together at an time of your own choosing, with a brass band or something similar, would be a more fitting conclusion to your stay in the churchyard. And this is because you do have something to celebrate.

I understand you did not intend to camp outside the Cathedral. The target of the occupation was originally elsewhere in the City. But by choosing the Cathedral as a second or third resort, you unintentionally created a remarkable circumstance. Within days most of the cathedral clergy were shown up as buffoons, closing this great building on dramatic but spurious health and safety grounds before sheepishly re-opening. The undemocratic and opaque Corporation were forced to a decision to evict you in a bizarre closed session, demonstrating their contempt for transparency. Just by staying put you shoved those in power into uncomfortable and telling predicaments. It was refreshing to see how things were thrown into the air.

And you have been decent and polite throughout your stay. The camp has applied health and safety measures which show a genuine care for yourselves and those who could be affected by you. There has been sincere and often constructive engagement on various issues with bankers, lawyers and other City workers. You have been a standing reminder that the force of capitalism may not be what its champions say it is. In my opinion, you have been a useful if colourful corrective to the arrogance and financial vandalism of many who work in the Square Mile.

Nonetheless, you failed to convince the High Court and the Court of Appeal that your camp should stay in breach of the laws of the highway and of planning. That was unfortunate, as it was possibly open to the judges to say that a significant and influential protest like yours was just the sort of thing that Article 10 of the ECHR is there to protect against the indifferent enforcement of statute law. However, your arguments were presented and heard, even the contentions that smacked of complete legal woo-woo ("heirs of Magna Carta") were considered. But you lost. Of course, you may wish now to be civilly disobedient and take on the bailiffs. As long as you realise the consequences, it is a course you may like to take; but remember the Rule of Law is precarious and a valuable public good, for without it the powerful can abuse the power which they have, and you do not.

So the camp will soon disappear, but the ideals of "Occupy" will perhaps linger in the City of London. You have shown that anti-capitalistic and other progressive protests do not have to be one-day wonders with violent disorder and breathless commentary, but that they can be patient and respectful even in the face of those which you say are destroying our society and our planet. For a short while, you were even the "Shock of the New", causing some well-paid managers to make the first difficult decisions of their careers.

Your immediate shock value has now gone. It would be nice if you could stay a while longer as a reminder that capitalism gets things badly wrong. But the great achievement of "Occupy LSX" was never the physical camp. It was the realisation that those in power can be wrong-footed, and that their bullshit can be exposed, by those who are serious and thoughtful about promoting a better world. This can be done anywhere, and not just in a churchyard of a Cathedral.

David Allen Green is a City lawyer as well as legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.