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Laurie Penny, on the streets with Bloomberg's "private army"

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

The Brookfield Winter Garden is the sort of aggressively bland corporate un-place where scuffles with the NYPD are not supposed to happen.

The financial district of New York is full of spaces like this: soulless private-public atriums full of force-grown unseasonal greenery, glistening 1980s marble and glaze-eyed commuters on their way to meetings. It's a place for "passive recreation" -- the stated function of Zucotti Park, also owned and run by Brookfield industries.

Absolutely nothing of emotional or political significance is ever supposed to happen here, ever. Right now, though, scores of members of the police force Mayor Bloomberg called his "private army" are arresting people seemingly at random just for looking like they might be working against the world's largest investment bank, rather than for it.

Just after eight in the morning, several hundred protesters from Occupy Wall Street had gathered in front of the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, banging drums, blearily slurping coffee and carrying a large, wobbly papier-mache squid. The latter was a reference to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's iconic denotion of the bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Some of the protesters also wore homemade cardboard squid hats. Yeah, take that, everyone who used to be skeptical about radical writers' ability to change the world using only the power of humorous metaphor.

Black bloc it wasn't. But this wasn't New York's day of action, not really. The demonstration was called in solidarity with the workers and occupiers attempting to block major ports along the West Coast of America, many of which happen to be controlled by subsidiaries of the Goldman group. Which also owns much of America's university system. And the shipping industry. And your mortgage. And your soul.

The fact that angry chanting and heavy policing have become routine features of life in the financial district is perhaps only appropriate in a country where four million families have been made homeless by a banking industry that was recently rewarded for trashing the economy with trillions of dollars of public money.

After a noisily peaceful march around the Goldman building, which entirely failed to collapse like the walls of Jericho, some of the protesters broke off to march through the World Financial Centre, adjoining the Winter Garden Plaza. Which is when the police freaked the hell out.

Red-eyed, astonished businesspersons held up their smartphones like protective talismans as emissaries of the 99 per cent danced around the ornamental ferns. Police poured in as someone dropped a West Coast Solidarity banner above the escalators. Protesters stood and shouted "everybody pays their tax, everyone but Goldman Sachs" -- well, close enough, the company paid only one per cent tax in 2008 -- just a little too long. On the turn of a penny, the arrests began.

By now we're used to hearing about protesters being arrested for taking part in peaceful actions, but this is the first time I've truly witness young people being grabbed at random just for standing near a demonstration with a phone or camera.

At least two of the 18 arrestees were journalists, including Radio Dispatch's John Knefel, and it is pure luck that the officer who shoved me through the atrium doors, shouting "your turn now", when he saw me tweeting, did not decide to arrest me too. As citizen journalists and members of the marching band sat in the back of the police van, a chant started: "Whose tweets? Our tweets!"

In the face of this sort of paranoid over-protection of a degenerate financial elite, you have to pun, because otherwise you might put your fist through a wall.

Funnily enough, last week, when hundreds of protesters and local campaigners really did take over a foreclosed property in East New York technically belonging to Bank of America, Bloomberg's army was almost nowhere to be seen.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.