Why We Don’t Need Utopias, We Only Need Cages

As part of our ongoing call for reflections on Cop 15, Richard B addresses alliances, identity and protest.

Richard B has been involved in climate activism since the Kingsnorth climate camp in 2008, and organises with London Climate Camp and Workers’ Climate Action. Under various names he has written for Shift Magazine, Counterfire, The Guardian and is a weekly columnist for The Third Estate.

<http://www.thethirdestate.net/>

Why We Don’t Need Utopias, We Only Need Cages.

1.

It is important not to forget that the first concentration camps in Germany were the work not of the Nazi regime but of the Social Democratic governments, which interned thousands of communist militants in 1923… which housed mainly Eastern European refugees and which may, therefore, be considered the first camp for Jews in this century – Giorgio Agamben, 1998.

1.1 Last December, I spent 10 hours in detention without water, and  without food for the first 7 hours. I was pepper sprayed through the bars while I stood on the other side, my hands tied behind my back. More importantly, I was held without cause, in a pre-emptive arrest, made entirely to terrorise civil society and deter demonstration. While we –hundreds of us – were locked up, NGO delegates and indigenous rights activists were surrounded by police on the bridge to the conference centre,and beaten.

1.2 When we were arrested, we were initially sat in so-called ‘herring bone’ lines (how Scandanavian can you get?), legs splayed out like a grotesque teddy bear, hands tied behind my back, and then each person slotted into the next. Without cause. Three months later, in a solidarity action, we replicated the line outside the Danish embassy in London. On a sunny morning in the middle of Poshville (aka Chelsea), all those red brick buildings around us, I felt the pain in my ham strings just the same as back in Copenhagen, on a pavement next to a car park, 100 police around us.

1.3 Without cause? What was the cause for our arrest in Copenhagen? Was it, simply, that the forces of the state found it necessary to silence us? If that’s the case, then we really have a problem: if the Danish government could count on the beating and imprisonment of activists as not news-worthy.

1.4 Partly, the amazing thing was the lack of interest by anyone – and I don’t just mean media hacks, I mean our friends in the blogosphere, other political groups, etc – in the fact that thousands of activists were being legally detained ‘without cause.’ And this is the point for me: legally. We’ve spent so long campaigning about the police doing illegal things, is it the case that, so long as it’s legal, they could get away with, well, murder?

1.5 Sometimes it feels as if fighting the police is just a game of toy soldiers – rarely is anyone seriously hurt (with very notable exceptions), and often we go through the business of lights, cameras, protest with an enthusiasm beyond tiredness, the glory of the chase. But eventually the endorphins have to give way, and then what are we left with?

2.

If I moralised or became sentimental, I simply didn’t do well what I was supposed to do, namely, to describe the totalitarian phenomenon as occurring, not on the moon, but in the midst of society – Hannah Arendt, 1954.

2.1 When we protest, we really get into the spectacle of the whole thing. If the cameras aren’t there, it seems almost as if it didn’t happen. Actually, maybe it really didn’t, in any meaningful way. So when we’re in prison, or cages, or court, or doing community service, the lack of cameras means we lose the glamour and the attention. Sometimes protests don’t need media attention.

2.2 It was amazing how the BA cabin crew strikers were so worried about their media image: it’s a strike. You don’t need a good media image on a strike. So perhaps that should be our benchmark. Whether we’re handling the media, or think we’re using it as a priority to affect change. This isn’t a question of radical vs liberal, or any other pointlessly divisionist rubbish like that. It’s about whether we really think images, art, videos, can bring about significant change by themselves.

2.3 Trawling through photo galleries both during and after the COP, I was amazed how few good images there were of our protests, even of actions specifically made for such things, like the bike bloc. It took weeks to find anything good enough to put up on the climate camp website. The main images that had any power, any emotion in them, were of all of us in the herring bone lines, splayed out on the ground, the running dogs of the counterrevolution around us, lit by the sulphurous yellow street lights and the flood lights of the meat wagons.

These are the images the media took, just like they took the bleeding man at the G20, packaged him up and sold him to the non-protesting public.

2.4 When the violence we suffer gets commodified like that, it becomes useless. We don’t need another commodity. But the silent violence we, and our comrades, suffer in cages is not commodified. Rarely is the monotonous, painful drudgery of the picket line or the day in the cell packaged up and sold on. The media don’t care, the government is disinterested. The public, however, are engaged. Because we are the public.

2.5 We don’t need to fight with images. The police fight with those:everyday in their uniform, with their dogs and flashing sirens. Lights, cameras, action, as the FIT say. But the real action happens in the darkness. That doesn’t mean we should be secretive, or give up on public mass action. It means that the real changes, the truly revolutionary moments, come when we least expect it.

3.

So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it – Michael Foucault, 1975.

3.1 As I slumped down in the cage, feeling like finally perhaps I could sleep, a voice whispered to me -‘Hey, hey are you ready?’ Ready for what? I’d been sitting on the ground in an uncomfortable position for hours, I was thirsty and hungry, needed to piss and was pissed off. The only thing I was ready for was sleep. ‘Hey’ said the voice, ‘On the count of three, we all lift up the bars.’ As I looked around, I could see the others in position. And so we spent the next 4 hours ripping up the cages that contained us. We cheered, jeered, rioted and scolded. We spat at, mooned and insulted the police. We praised, adored and helped each other. There was a Swedish activist I’d interviewed the other day about his first night in the cages.

And also a Polish anarchist I’d first met at the Rozbrat squat in Poznan in the week of COP14. He was an animal in those cages. He swore and spat in three languages.

3.2 Sometimes it would go kinda silent, without anyone realising – just people being tired. But then there’d be a lone, hollow ‘one solution’ and the thundering response: ‘REVOLUTION!’ We sang songs as duets, rounds, call and response – sometimes across our gender-segregated cages. Songs about revolution, love, diggers.

3.3 There’s often this cry from groups in meetings, summits, websites: Let’s draw up alternatives; let’s outline our perfect worlds! But when we get down to it, we usually end up with little more than chocolate fountains, worker control and lots of wind turbines. Of course we can’t envision the good future now: we’re far too ideologically caught up in all this mess, all this commodity and spectacle for all that. But what we can do is accidentally find ourselves in moments when we work together towards a radical objective. In Copenhagen, I spent a day quite literally breaking cages down.

3.4 One of the songs we sang, first softly then louder and louder, was:”Break ’em on down, break ’em on down, these walls between us.” This was the place to build utopias. Not the shiny wind turbine Utopias, nor the straw-bale-for-a-toilet version. But rather, somewhere where we could be free to destroy in order to create, breaking walls to build new ones.

4.

I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it,and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free – Eugene Debbs, IWW activist, 1918.

4.1 Alliances are, so often, made through the identification of common enemies as part of a common ground (as part of a commons, perhaps). So what alliances are we forming, for better or worse, by being locked up? It’s worth remembering here that we, so far at least, have not been the target of long term incarceration. At least not yet – though that day may come. But for now we are the victims of detention, restriction on movement, and temporary brutality. For most of us, unlike victims of race crimes, we can walk away from the persecution, back into another life of work, study or play.

4.2 So here, I think, is our choice. Whether we form alliances with other game players, or walk away from the game. If cages are what happen when we act out our cat and mouse game with the police, what would happen if we couldn’t stop the game, if the timer couldn’t run out? I think the push for localisation, community involvement and worker engagement comes not just from a sense that this is an effective strategy, but also from a desire that we need to immerse ourselves in the struggle, not just for the camp, summit or day in the cage.

4.3 And this is where our strength lies. Not that we have some perfect Utopian blue print (the chancellor’s Budget and the Tory party manifesto come to mind as examples of such washed-out blue prints), nor that we have perfected the art of playing the activist game – but that we’re prepared to create our Utopias in the most surprising of ways. In the cages that surround us when activism goes wrong, that’s when organising starts to go right.

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1 Response to “Why We Don’t Need Utopias, We Only Need Cages”


  1. 1 Mr mr. March 31, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Interesting article.

    You mention that ‘Alliances are, so often, made through the identification of common enemies as part of a common ground (as part of a commons, perhaps).’

    Whilst true, this is a problem, as we end forming reactive identities – ‘sad militants’ – where our capability to act can be framed only in our ability to-be-against. Should we really form a common around these reactive subjectivities? Will we not be forever caught in the negative dialectic – in classic terms, idolising the proletariat rather than looking at how to destroy the relations which produce it?

    We need a politics of affirmation – joyous politics – when we move beyond re-action and instead affirm action. This is precisely what happens in the breaking of the cages. I’m not suggesting ignoring our repression, rather, we must recognise it and then work out affirmative strategies for change. We must not play ‘their’ game – our aim is revolution not counter-revolution.


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