Sunday, 26 April 2009


"We seek to ... strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services..."

Diamond wedding and engagement rings are evil.

At best, they are an absurd expense for a piece of inert glitter required by social norms. They mean that for many couples, the first act of their wedded life is to go into massive debt. Add to that the diamond engagement ring and the lavish wedding, and you have yourself a ball-and-chain that will outlast any enjoyment you might gain from the stone.

At worst, they are blood diamonds, the cause of wars, of genocide, of relentless exploitation.

One thing is certain: diamond rings are a pretty new invention. They were popularised in the early 20th century by a massive advertising campaign run by the the de Beers cartel, which just happens to control the majority of the diamond trade.

What is a diamond? It's a pretty stone, but a really expensive one, and one that only means "I love you" because people think its absence means "I don't". With diamonds as the social norm in many countries, marriage is like a game of chicken - neither partner can broach the subject of not getting a diamond ring, because to do so would sound like less than total commitment.

So what do I propose? Giving couples a moment of clarity. Get both of them at once, and show them just why a diamond ring is a ball and chain, a vote for evil, a defeat of individuality in the face of advertising. Give them a chain of reasoning at the end of which is a different ring. And hopefully, before they quite know what they've done, they've told each other that they're at least considering having a different ring. Point out to them that a diamond does not mean love, but defeat in the face of the everyday horror of the world. Show them that that accursed stone has no place at a wedding.

How and where to do this? One place could be outside of wedding shows. There is a whole industry of wedding-related companies, and they periodically put on a kind of trade shows for people to look at their dresses and services and whatnot. Stand outside and hand out flyers. Talk to people. Stand inside if they let you. Don't break the law - there's no need to.

You might say that what I propose is an intrusion into what is supposed to be two peoples' Happiest Day Of Their Lives. But: you're doing this at a wedding show. Marriage is big business, and in the face of a hundred people telling the happy couple to spend, consume and conform as much as they can, a single voice of dissent can only be a good thing.

Of course, someone will say that we must keep on buying diamonds because some people's jobs depend on it. But if there was a factory that killed babies, someone would say that we must keep on buying tinned baby to support the factory workers. According to that logic, we are not allowed to stop buying any product.

How convenient.

Friday, 17 April 2009


"Google Street View is allowed to show any details of our cities on the world wide web. But a father and his son are not allowed to take pictures of famous London landmarks."

 — Klaus Matzka (from this Guardian article)

"Willkür" (?), like "kindergarten" and "angst", is one of those German words that have no real English counterpart. Unlike kindergarten and angst, it's not been adopted into English - but it really should be.

In a legal sense, willkür means a state or a state's authorities making arbitrary decisions not founded in law. While human beings are generally accorded free will and the right to arbitrarily decide what they want to do, the whole point of a modern state is that it functions according to rules. Under willkür, agents of the state make and enforce decisions they have no right to make or enforce.

As I keep on insisting to anyone who will listen, it's almost more important to have clear and consistent laws than to have fair ones. Consistent, known laws mean that you can tell when you are crossing the boundary from the legal to the illegal. They mean that you don't have to worry about inadvertently breaking the law.

Badly written, vague laws make that boundary fuzzy, and willkür thrives in these fuzzy boundaries. If people don't know if they are on the right side of the law, they can be manipulated and intimidated through their worries that they may be breaking it.

And the authorities - the police and courts - often don't quite know themselves. Laws are enforced inconsistently and whether you get punished for your actions depends not as much on the law but on chance and the mood and personal opinions of the authorities you come into contact with.

In the UK, there have recently been a lot of cases where police or security guards were under the impression they had the power to stop people from taking photographs in public spaces. Some photographers complained, but I imagine the majority meekly handed over their memory cards.

There is no law against taking photographs as such - though section 45 of the Terrorism Act 2000 does allow constables to "seize and retain an article [...] which he reasonably suspects is intended to be used in connection with terrorism". Of course, what reasonable suspicion entails is another question. Is taking a photograph of a shopping mall or train station a suspicious activity? Is trainspotting hereby outlawed?

Certainly, there is no such thing as "camera licence", which is what a police officer recently demanded of a photographer in Ipswich, according to the BBC.

Given the impression that a law exists that allows police to arbitrarily stop people from taking photographs for no stated reason, many people will err on the side of caution and hand over their cameras or memory cards, even to a security guard.

People end up conforming to an unofficial rule - "do not take photographs in public" - made up and enforced by a scattering of overzealous police. A minority enforcing their will on the vast majority through the respectability of an uniform, bypassing any democratic process.

Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 takes this further:

"A person commits an offence who elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been [...] a constable, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism..."

The upshot of this, as mentioned in various places, is that taking a photograph of a police officer may now be illegal. Sometimes. Sometimes not. Depends on whether the police and courts decide that a given photograph is "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

This section is a prime example of the kind of badly written law that enables willkür. I understand that the law was created to shield police from people taking photographs of them and using the pictures to incite others to attack them. That is a valid concern, as police have been targeted by groups like (recently) the CIRA.

But it's a completely unnecessary law. It already is illegal to incite others to assault a person, be they a policeman or not. I'm really not sure why parliament felt the need to enact such a superfluous law, except as a way to be seen doing something about national security.

But this unnecessary law does potentially lend itself to abuse: given its vagueness it could be used to quash pictures of, for example, police beating up someone. I don't think this was the intent of the law, nor that it is certain to be abused in that way, but the potential is there. Even if the government had no intention of using the law like that, they have enabled all kinds of people with their own agendas to do so.

There are other recently enacted laws, many with a worthwhile intent at the core, that are so fuzzy they can easily be abused. I won't go into them now to keep this article at a sane length, but may visit them in another post.

To summarise, these kinds of laws force people to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty - am I breaking the law by taking this picture, waving this placard, giving away this flyer, standing in this spot? Many, in response, will be unwilling to do anything that might possibly be illegal - out of fear that they might encounter a vindictive policeman followed by an unsympathetic judge, and be punished for something a hundred others do in broad daylight, unmolested.

And so, ordinary civil courage is suffocated. And if people are too scared of the capriciousness of law to make themselves heard, true democracy will die without us even quite noticing.

So what can you do about this? Don't be intimidated. Know your rights. Keep on taking photographs. But just in case, back up your memory card as often as possible.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Police Violence and Protesting

By this point, two weeks after Ian Tomlinson's death at the G20 protests in London, on the 1st of April, most people in the country have probably already seen the video above. In it, Tomlinson is hit on the leg with a baton by a policeman, whose face is covered. He is then shoved to the floor and lands heavily. The video only came to light because Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack shortly after it was taken. According to other witnesses, he had already been assaulted by police as he tried to get home.

Since Tomlinson's death, many other photographs, videos and stories of police violence have come out. The Guardian has been especially active in chronicling these - see here for a list of protesters' experiences. See here for a catalogue of videos of police charging photographers, batons raised; allowing a dog to bite a protester; hitting a protester across the face and in the leg; and more. The video I found the most frightening was this one (unfortunately it can't be embedded). A front of yellow-jacketed riot police, three or four deep, push into a crowd of Climate Camp protesters in Bishopsgate, hitting out with shields and batons. The people hold their hands in the air, but they can't retreat - there's nowhere to go. "This is not a riot," they chant. This was a peaceful action but they are being treated like an advancing army.

The G20 protests were a huge event, with 20,000 people from many disparate groups turning out for the more family-friendly march on Saturday the 28th March. On the 1st of April, four separate protests had been planned, including a Stop the War Coalition march and the Climate Camp.

The police and media had been warning for weeks beforehand that the protests would be violent, which had probably scared off a lot of potential demonstrators. On the day itself, there was barely any of the expected wanton destruction. At the empty branch of RBS where some attendees smashed windows, they were outnumbered by photographers. Nonetheless, the riot officers used to police the event, and the treatment protestors received from them, was proportionate to the threat the police had claimed to expect.

In Britain, the public has a right to take part in protests and demonstrations, and part of the police's role in such events is to safeguard that. The police are also allowed to use violence in their duties only if it is necessary and proportionate. The growing mass of documentary evidence of the G20 protests shows many incidents where both of these principles were let go into the wind. Police treated protesters as unqualified enemies.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is conducting investigations into the Ian Tomlinson case, as well as the case of the female protestor who was filmed being hit in the face and leg, but there have already been doubts about the way they are handling it. When relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster are still fighting for justice twenty years later, it might be justified to wonder how long it will take for the truth about these protests to shake out.

All this will serve to further discourage moderate citizens who are concerned about the issues of the day (climate change, capitalism, social justice or anything else) from joining demonstrations about them. This means me and probably you, as a reader of this blog. Violence will happen at the demonstrations anyway - either from the people who go to them determined to start some, or in response to police techniques like kettling - and the media will seize upon it as newsworthy. In the end, we are done out of our right to make a loud and public statement against injustice.

This blog is called Not Powerless, so I want to finish up by offering some ideas for what to do.
  • I think we should refuse to be frightened away from the right to protest. Do go!
  • If you do go to demonstrations, though, stay away from frontlines if you can, bring water and maybe a bottle to pee in in case you get kettled for hours on end (it's better than going up against a wall) - and a camera.
  • Write to your MP: about Ian Tomlinson, about the police behaviour at G20, about climate change and the issues that matter to you. Using WriteToThem it is quick and easy.
Merrick at bristling badger has written a lot about this, including this article at Head Heritage, Police Kettling: the Shadow of Death.

Not Powerless.

We've wanted to start a politics blog for a while. Recent news have galvanised us: the G20 protests, the economic crisis and its mishandling, a steady stream of terrible news about the environment.

We think it's clear there are serious problems with the environment, civil liberties, social attitudes and consumerism making people unhappy. These issues are linked - we can't solve one without also solving the others.

This is a blog for people who realise or suspect this too - but don't know what to do about it.

Sure, you can vote, you can recycle, but you know that's not going to be enough given the magnitude of the problems we face.

You might be tempted to give up, but if you're under fifty, you know you'll be alive to see the consequences of your inaction.

You could become some kind of professional activist, devoting your life or at least your free time to some cause. But you have other plans for your life, and not everyone can be an activist.

So what we want to do here, beyond discussing politics and current affairs, is figure out what things you can do without having to turn your life upside down. What things you can do to stop that feeling of powerless despair every time you read the news.