Saturday, December 11, 2010

An abuse of freedom and human rights

It cannot have escaped any one's attention that the past few weeks have seen large scale student demonstrations in London, many of them descending into chaos and violence. The right to protest is well established in the British politique, and it is not unusual to see disturbances following such demonstrations. But the widespread disorder and wanton destruction has shocked many people across the political spectrum.

Some of the anger voiced by demonstrators has not just concerned itself with a rise in tuition fees, but also an underlying perception of a growing rich-poor divide. There is some evidence of this as a government report published in January showed. There were "deep-seated and systemic differences" in society, the report said. Set up in 2008 the study also found apparent discrimination against people from ethnic minorities, with those from nearly every minority group less likely to be in paid work than white British men and women. And there was also inequality between the sexes with men more likely to be paid greater sums than women [BBC].

The findings shown in the report have long been true, but the effects on the poorer members of society have deepened with the advent of the global downturn and the recession. A record number of businesses have closed, unemployment has soared and home repossessions has increased dramatically. The banking sector was widely blamed for taking much of the world into a financial spin, but government policy cannot be ignored either.

The Labour party in Britain lost the May election partly due to its failure to reign in the banks and for pouring in millions of pounds of tax-payers money to prop-up financial institutions. It was not a landslide victory to one party however. A coalition government was formed from the ranks of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats and they have made it their stated aim to pull Britain out of massive debt, which they say was caused by Labour's massive overspending.

The cuts, or austerity measures as they have come to be known, have not pleased many sectors of society. The banks which were heavily subsidised at the height of the recession are seen as remaining unpunished and allowed to continue as before, and there is widespread criticism as massive bonuses are once again being handed out by the same financial institutions which were saved from collapse with help from the public purse.

There is an an unfortunate reality that governments can do little when it comes to regulating the large financial institutions. Applying rules and regulations deemed too stringent by these organisations with only send them scurrying away to different shores. This in turn would lose the treasury millions in tax. And so once again it is the man on the street that feel the pinch as necessary cuts are made to help reduce Britain's debt and growing deficit.

Further education is just one area which government is seeking to reduce spending. New legislation intends to raise tuition fees for university and to charge this to students in the form of loans. The loans which might amount to as much as £30,000 over the course of a 3 year degree, would be paid back over many years, but only if the graduate attains a certain salary. Even then the repayments would be relatively small and would be cancelled out at retirement [BBC].

Yet, there is a culture and strong belief amongst many people in Britain that education should be free, paid for by the tax-payer. This is something, the government argues, that can no longer be afforded. The reaction to the proposals have been condemned by the National Union of Students [NUS], who say graduates will be left with a lifetime of debt. And so began a series of demonstrations in a campaign aimed at persuading MPs to drop the scheme.

But many of the protests have descended into what can only be described as a riot. Students demonstrating in London on 10th November gathered outside outside Millbank, home to the Conservative Party HQ, and significant damage was seen. Police were outnumbered, leading to criticism they badly policed the protest, and a fire extinguisher was thrown from the top of the building. The extinguisher missed riot police by less than one metre and sixth form student Edward Woollard, 18, was later charged with violent disorder under the Public Order Act. He awaits sentencing after pleading guilty [BBC].

Only days later another demonstration in London saw further trouble with a police van being trashed and further clashes with police [BBC]. But the worst disorder came when tens of thousands descended on the capital as parliament was set to vote on the tuition fee proposals last Thursday.

Violent clashes had already broken out in the streets near parliament as the tuition fees bill was passed. But the acts of violence went beyond the usual battles with police. Parliament Square saw the worst of the damage with the plinth on which a statue of Churchill stands being sprayed with graffiti and on at least one occasion being used as a lavatory as one man was photographed urinating upon it. Benches and security hut were burned and several bonfires were also started around the area. One BBC journalist asked one of the protesters, "Can I just ask what is the point in making huge fires?" The protester responded with "Well, it's a bit cold." In fact many of the acts of vandalism could be explained only by the fact people were becoming swept away in the hysteria.

While some of the violence seen was spontaneous, there was some evidence to show that some planning and coordination was being employed. Google Maps was being used to convey information as to police movements and other forms of social media such as Twitter were used to disseminate pictures and video [twitpic / twitpic / twitpic / audioboo].

There was widespread condemnation of the Lib Dems in messages posted on Twitter. One message read; Police: "Protesters have failed to stick to the agreed route." To be fair, neither have the Lib Dems.

But coordination amongst the rioters tended to be organised either by text messages or phone calls which can less easily be monitored by authorities. It became a cat and mouse game though late afternoon and into the evening as a hard core of rioters attacked the Treasury building and the Supreme Court, smashing windows and attempting to gain entry. Further down Whitehall one young man was photographed swinging from the Union Flag hanging on the Cenotaph [Daily Mail / BBC].

It was later revealed to be the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. There surely must have been a few, that on hearing this would have remembered the words "We don't need no education" from Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." The irony was just as resonant.

Charlie Gilmour apologised "sincerely" for his behaviour and said he felt "nothing but shame". In a statement he said, "I would like to express my deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country that my actions represented. Running along with a crowd of people who. had just been violently repelled by the police, I got caught up in the spirit of the moment. I did not realise that it was the Cenotaph and if I had, I certainly would not have done what I did."

It must be hard for anyone to believe that a person in Britain, and especially a university undergraduate, would not know what and where the Cenotaph is located. But ignorance flared again as a mob began to set fire to the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. The tree has been a gift from Norway as a symbol of peace and goodwill for the brave men who helped liberate the country from the Nazis during WWII. But those who set the tree alight seemed either oblivious or uncaring. The base of the tree was well ablaze as two fire engines and around ten firefighters drew up shortly after 19:00. The fire was out within 20 minutes. "Working with the police during yesterday's protests, we managed to get through the crowds and bring the fire under control quickly. Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree is an iconic symbol of Christmas for Londoners, so it's a real shame it has been damaged," Westminster Fire Station Manager Sam Kazmanli said later [YouTube / YouTube].

Rioters later turned their attention to another iconic symbol, that of the heir to the thrown, HRH Prince Charles. The car in which he and his wife were travelling was surrounded by a hostile and jeering crowd as it attempted to travel along Regent Street in heavy traffic. Paint was thrown at the car and a window smashed which royal protection teams seemed unable to prevent. The attack did not perhaps constitute High Treason which before 1998 could have resulted in a death sentence, but it was nonetheless serious [The Sun].

Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the violence and has called for the full force of the law to be used in finding and convicting those responsible [Sky News]. Yet there appears to be a growing disrespect for law and order in Britain. While there maybe many unjust laws, and inequalities too, Britain is one of the most tolerant nations in the world. There is perhaps nowhere in the world that such rioting would have occurred without far harsher retaliation by police. Even across many European countries water cannon or CS gas may well have been deployed. And there are a significant number in other corners of the globe that would not hesitate in using lethal force, especially if someone as important as an heir to the thrown were attacked.

As people on Thursday abused their freedom to protest in a democratic country, this was particularly poignant as the Nobel committee in Norway held its ceremony for this years Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese dissident has over the course of twenty years fought to persuade Chinese leaders to adopt a democratic system and better human rights in China. Liu has not rioted, nor encouraged others so to do. He has merely called for change and an end to one party rule. But for this he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Twenty one years ago he, along with many others, took part in a peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square. They called for democratic changes and greater human rights. But they did not riot, nor did they desecrate the Monument to the People's Heroes, the equivalent to the Cenotaph in London. There was no graffiti or buildings smashed. And no leader was attacked. Yet after a month long protest the People's Army was deployed and up to 3,000 people were killed [Tiananmen Square protests].

Many students taking part in recent protests have claimed that without violence, people do not listen, and that nothing will change without resorting to extremes. The danger is in fact the opposite. The power of the state is likely to use such displays of violence to employ far more draconian laws and heavy handed policing. Violence can also alienate many supporters. And the cause can also be lost completely in the flames of destruction. This was clearly seen across many of Friday's and Saturday's papers where the reportage was not whether student loans was good or bad, but instead a debate about the senseless violence and how so many people abused their democratic right to peaceful protest.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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