Is Copenhagen about to get violent?

Scare stories about violent "Black Bloc" activists are emerging in Copenhagen. Are they true?

"German activists to take Bella Centre", blares the headline in the Danish papers. An old man in a bar tells me nervously -- when he hears that I'm with the conference -- that "the hooligans are coming, we're very worried". The fate of the world's environment may hang in the balance down the road at the Bella Centre, but broken windows and burnt-out cars are what prey on the mind of many Copenhagen residents.

It's driving most activists mad. Here they are, working their bums off to create striking, powerful, but non-violent uprisings that will stimulate debate or even political change, and all the journalists want to ask about or write about is: "When does the ruck start?" The piece in the Danish paper Politiken is typical: the "taking" of the Bella Centre turns out to refer to the well-publicised plan to try to hold a People's Summit in or near the conference next week, not a master plan for holding delegates hostage.

Why is this? Why this obsession with a small number of people throwing bricks? There are, I think, two reasons. First, thanks to the media and the police, the threat is often blown up far larger than the reality. Headlines such as the one above are unhelpful, but the police are also well aware that a few good scare stories do a great job of keeping people away from legitimate demonstrations, and make their job easier as a result.

We saw a classic example of this in the UK last year when the Observer published a story about the "growing threat from eco-terrorists", which the paper was later forced to withdraw: the piece was based almost entirely on information from the police force and little or no evidence from among activists had been gathered to back it up. Scare 'em off, think the police. Frighten them away and we'll have a nice, quiet afternoon.

But there is another reason for these stories. And that is that the threat from small groups of militant protesters is not just a police and media fiction. We may be guilty of hyping it up, but it is more than just a fairy tale; the Black Bloc does exist.

British activists tend to insist that it's all rubbish (to be fair, in the UK the Black Bloc really is a bit of a myth). But over here in Denmark, most Danish activists nod and say, "Oh yes, they're here already", or "They're coming from Germany". Every single local and police source I've spoken to since getting here has confirmed this. It's not just a little media fantasy. The next week and a half could get very nasty indeed.

So. If Vandal hoards really are pouring in for a ruck outside the conference centre, don't we deserve to know in advance? Don't I have a journalistic duty to report on them? Violence, rioting, these are profound disturbances of our social contract. Non-violent activists may want to tell us all about climate change, but the old man in the bar is just worried about a brick through his window. He deserves to know what's going on, too.

 

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.