The perils of ignoring popular protest

Protests like Occupy London need to be heard and acted upon or riots may ensue.

The protest of the Occupy London activists camped outside St Paul's Cathedral for the past view weeks has focused attention on a central demand for economic justice in the world. Much of the media attention was drawn initially by the ongoing discourse between church and protesters. The cathedral authorities seemed to do a complete 360 degree turn when it came to the occupation.

To date, the failure to protest has seen governments everywhere simply shovelling tax payers' money into the coffers of the banks with very little in return. Indeed, for the most part the bankers have said "thanks very much" and continued paying themselves huge bonuses. The wider question, though, is: do these type of protests work? Visiting the St Paul's site there are the usual suspects; seen at road, anti war and environmental protests over the years.

There is a bohemian atmosphere around, with signs reflecting a national and global outlook. So there are "Greetings for the landless of India and Ektu Parishad", alongside "Sex Workers denied decriminalisation and safety rights" and "Giving to the poor is not enough - restructure so there is no poverty."

The site is well organised with a clear programme of events, listed at what is called the "tent university." On a day I visited there were campaigners Global Witness on "the dictator and offshore paper trails, monetary justice and the need for effective protest" and a session on the history of St Paul's with cathedral guide Ernest Woolmer. In the evening the film Battlefield, on the Bolivian revolt at La Paz, was shown. The group run a paper with a 2,000 print run called the Occupied Times.

Those who question whether protest works often quote the march of more than one million people against the Iraq war in 2003. This huge turnout, they argue, was ignored. At face value this was true, but that march and a succession of others around the time did have a lasting impact together with other factors on the political system. There have been other protests since, such as in favour of combating climate change, for the living wage and regulation of undocumented workers, against the government's public spending cuts and the policy of privatising the forests.

What the elected politicians need to remember is that over the years, all of these protests have been bringing in people from different races, classes and backgrounds. Overall, there must be a growing mass of people dissatisfied with how society is being run today.

Failure to respond to legitmate protest will in the long run result in violence. While the political class did its best to blame the riots in August on individual criminality, they were in reality another form of protest. What started as a peaceful protest about the death in police custody of another black man grew into something far bigger and more dangerous. Mob rule took over. What politicians should have looked at is why the riots took hold so easily. Whilst much of the rioting was straight mob violence, it was also a response to a polarised society that preaches consumerism and greed as virtues. The rioters had seen bankers, politicians, the police and the media with their noses in the trough, so thought: why not the rest of us?

There have been other instances over the years where failure to respond to popular protest has resulted in it taking on other forms and ultimately led to violence. The war in the north of Ireland is one of the best examples, with peaceful protest in the form of the civil rights marches repelled in violent fashion. This in turn led to violence over many years becoming the only way of expressing dissent. In the end, talks began and the peace process is now underway in earnest, but there were many lives lost as a result of a totally unnecessary conflict.

It will be interesting to see how those in power in this country respond to the growing protests from groups like Occupy London and climate change activists, to students and trade unions striking over cuts to pensions. It is simply not good enough to bleat out platitudes like "we're all in it together"; there needs to be a rebalancing of society in favour of the common good. Until this happens the protests will continue to come thick and fast, with violence more commonplace if those in power continue to cock a deaf ear to their pleas.

Paul Donovan writes a column for the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Universe.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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