Hey, Activists, How Did 2012 Go for You?
A lot of people have spent a lot of time this year trying to change society, oblivious to the fact that their efforts are worthless because the world is about to end. I decided to talk to some of them about how their last years on Earth went, and – in the unlikely event that the Mayans, or the people misinterpreting their calendar, turn out to be wrong – what new waves of riotous disorder will be hitting our streets in 2013 as people attempt to make this beleaguered world a less terrible place to exist in.
VICE: How has the battle to get rich companies to pay some tax been going this year?
Molly Solomon, UK Uncut: We’ve been campaigning since 2010, but this is the year when it really kicked off – we had Jimmy Carr, Google, Amazon... We’ve done a lot of protests and our numbers are increasing, which is great.
You must be pretty pleased that Starbucks have decided they should start paying tax.
It’s massive news. It highlights what a farce the government is, that it doesn’t have any power over these companies who are choosing when and where they pay their tax. It just makes the government look like complete idiots.
In March 2011 there was an anti-austerity march with 250,000 people. The one in October this year had less than half that number. Is there a lack of momentum in the anti-cuts movement, in broader terms?
I think there’s a lack of interesting ways to get involved. Marches are good, but they’re not sufficient. People don’t feel empowered by marching and then going to hear speeches by loads of white men. The unions are not really pulling their weight in this fight against the cuts. I don’t know what they’ve been doing, to be honest. The Suffragettes took years to get votes for women. You have to take a long-term approach.
It seems like things are a lot tamer over here than they are in Europe.
They’re shitting all over us, aren’t they! They’re out on the streets protesting most weeks and have loads of different tactics. It’s great to see so many people involved.
Yeah, maybe it's time for you guys to stop throwing shade and start throwing bricks.
VICE: What’s changed in 2012 in the fight against the far-right?
Stephen Rider, Brighton anti-fascist: The big thing to happen in 2012 is the advent of mass direct action. In the past there have been large-scale counter rallies, but then you also had militant anti-fascism, with what – in the past – was called a “squadist” approach, with people working in small groups. This didn’t work when the EDL were mobilising in their hundreds, or even thousands, in 2011 – what can a group of 20 anti-fascists sitting in a pub do about that? So, in 2012, there was a marriage of the two approaches, resulting in large-scale mass direct action.
The far-right seems a lot less scary now than it did at the start of the year.
2011 looked absolutely terrifying. The EDL were looking at getting 3,000 out in Luton and rarely having anything fewer than a thousand people, and that’s changed. At one point, we were finding that there would be 25 of us against hundreds of EDL. That’s not happening now.
How do you explain the downfall of the EDL?
I think downfall is an overstatement. Fifty of them got arrested and Tommy Robinson’s in prison, but they still managed to get 250 to go to Norwich. That said, the EDL leadership is utterly incompetent. The fact that Tommy and Kev [Carroll, the EDL's second in command] managed to take control in the way that they did, but then proved themselves to be utter idiots disenchanted a lot of the rank and file. What we need to worry about is somebody more competent with the same ideas. Someone who’s not just a coke-headed egomaniac. Also, they’re a real one-trick pony – what do they do? Turn up somewhere, have a big demo, go away again. That’s kind of it, so there was no depth to them.
So rather than the far-right being defeated, it’s more the case that the nature of the threat has changed?
I think that’s right. There was a rally of nearly 300 people in Boston in Lincolnshire recently on a specifically anti-immigration ticket. It wasn’t against Islamic extremism or Muslim grooming gangs. There were a lot of EDL faces there, even though it was pretty much run by UKIP. I think the hardcore of EDL may become political in a way that they haven’t yet.
But the EDL tried in vain to make the British Freedom Party happen.
Yeah, but they were no hopers. UKIP are potentially more plausible. Also there’s the English Democrats, the BNP haven’t gone anywhere. I think people like to announce the demise of the far-right on a fairly regular basis and it’s not actually happened. The conditions that gave rise to the EDL are still there.
VICE: Hi Andrew. What has Smash EDO been up to this year?
Andrew Beckett, Smash EDO: We had a summer of resistance where people took action against an arms factory in Brighton and on the streets. Some of them got arrested and there will be subsequent court cases that will continue into the new year.
Despite your efforts, David Cameron was in Saudi Arabia recently hawking weapons.
Yeah – a notorious human rights abusing regime. It’s really important to realise that our governments are invested in conflict, not conflict resolution.
What about the bombs raining on Gaza recently, did any of them come from the UK?
Most of the stuff falling on Gaza comes from the US, but it’s not as simple as making a bomb in America and sending it to Israel. It’s an international industry. It’s a global assembly line.
Everyone’s calling for intervention in Syria. Is 2012 the year that war came back into fashion?
You shouldn’t be naïve enough to think that a Western intervention would bring about democracy, because if that was the case, they would have invaded Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. There’s no way you can humanitarianly blow things up.
Is the peace movement going to be active in 2013, or are we going to sit on our sofas, tutting as the bombs fall?
There will be political resistance to the powers that be, yes. Peace with the rest of the world is part of a wider struggle for justice.
Are we close to world peace?
I think we’re on the edge of yet more war. There’s always going to be war for business interests. You just have to follow the money. There’s the threat of war with Iran, intervention in Syria, growing problems in Africa…
Oh well, at least the guy who writes World Peace Update isn’t going to be out of a job any time soon.
VICE: Hey. So I saw you at a protest in 2011 in black bloc gear, but when I saw you on Demo 2012 you were no longer black bloc-ing. What do you think has changed since the heady days of 2010, when we had the storming of Millbank, the riots, the occupations and all that?
Sophie, student protester: The student movement does seem extremely disenchanted post-2010. It was noticeable after the tuition fee vote was passed through parliament, but the attendance at the demo the other week summed it up.
Yeah, that was a bit of a shitshow.
There wasn’t much motivation from the NUS, who barely publicised it. The route was insulting, and the slogan – “Educate, Employ, Empower” – had no substance and wasn’t what was passed at the NUS conference. So at the demo a lot of people were pissed off at the NUS rather than the government.
So it’s all pretty depressing.
Actually, the group at my uni has been attracting a lot of new members. I think the student movement still has the same potential it did in 2010. That hope still exists. Students are just part of a wider movement across society now.
The ones in the baby blue bibs? That colour makes me calm and well disposed towards them, don’t you like it?
Well, they say they’re just liaison officers and not there to gather intelligence, but if you look at the FITwatch website, you can see that a lot of them have been in FIT [Forward Intelligence Gathering] teams. Really when they’re trying to have a friendly chat, they're trying to get people to tell them as much as possible.
Police brutality seems to be like a swinging pendulum – they bludgeon a school child half to death, so at the next protest they’ve got their velvet gloves on to appease the public, while means they fail to contain a riot, after which they feel the need to brutalise people again. Where’s that pendulum been in 2012?
The police only ever push that pendulum one way. But UK Uncut action slowed it down because they know they can’t prosecute a load of intelligent, middle-class people in the way that they’d like to because they’re tricky to pin down and they get a decent lawyer. The police have stopped playing silly buggers because of things like the Green and Black Cross.
Any predictions for 2013?
The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland. The eyes of the world will be upon us, so the police will say: “Let’s forget civil liberties and make sure everything’s clean and tidy for the important foreigners.” That’s what happened during the Olympics because it took place in five of London’s poorest boroughs, ones that had high levels of stop and search methods and general police harassment of ethnic minorities already. It was basically militarised.
VICE: So, pretty quiet year for the environmentalist movement, then.
Phil Thornhill, National Coordinator of the Campaign Against Climate Change: The whole environmental movement has been on a downer since Copenhagen. Hopefully we’re bottoming out now.
Is that because everything’s totally fine with the environment now?
The size of the climate change issue has become ever more apparent. It’s just enormous. Not that the other issues have got any smaller.
Oh, right. But nobody seems to care about it any more. My engagement with environmental politics these days is clearing my inbox of “clicktivist” email lists that I signed up to in 2005.
Well, at the beginning of this century people cared about big issues like the Iraq War and climate change. Now people are more inward looking, because of the economic recession.
Some people have been taking direct action, is that the answer?
It’s always part of the answer, absolutely, but it needs to happen across a broad front and you need mass support.
At one point it felt like that was maybe going to happen, but then it all fell apart. Why is that?
There was a massive focus on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. So when that turned into – predictably – a train wreck, the NGOs stepped back from climate change as a conscious decision. It’s difficult for us to overcome the sense of disappointment and disempowerment because the resources that were coming from big NGOs no longer are.
What did you think of Doha Climate Change Conference? Nobody seems to even care about those things any more.
The fact that they’re not achieving anything ought to be a bigger deal. It’s difficult to keep being angry about it year on year, though. The big mistake in the past was to say: “We’re trying to influence the results of these talks,” whereas it should have been more: “We’re angry with the results,” because you ended up with a sense that everybody had failed.
Is the environmentalist movement going to make a big comeback in 2013?
We’re clearly going to be hearing quite a lot about the dash for gas and fracking. The bad guys in government have enough influence to push it through at this point, so that’s going to be a big battleground. But these battlegrounds are always rather trivial in terms of the big picture. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the physical world that might influence the situation. Hurricane Sandy had quite a visible and concrete influence on the US election. Extreme weather is not going to get better. It will probably get worse and it may well accelerate.
Well, that sucks. Let's hope we all still have a world to get angry about this time next year.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13