By Mike Czech
Some weeks ago, as the novelty started to wear off the Wall Street occupation, media interest was suddenly renewed by reports of mass arrests. Arrests for peaceful protest, arrests for voicing an opinion, arrests for walking on the wrong bit of street. Arrests, even, for withdrawing one’s own money from the bank. When our media reports on the occupy movement, it is often because things are going badly, rather than well, and we ourselves often find other occupations most inspirational when they are overcoming great obstacles. This has led some people to think that we must seek out obstacles in order to strengthen our protest.
Chatting at St. Paul’s and Finsbury Square, I have heard from many intelligent and sensible people the same sentiment when planning protests; “what this movement needs now is some arrests. Look at what happened with the media when they arrested people at Wall Street.”
The treatment that protesters routinely get from the police would be unbelievable to the general public who don’t see it, and so we naturally want to expose the authoritarian nature of the state’s response to us. Rosa Luxemburg said “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,” and there are protesters among us prepared to be arrested in order to demonstrate to the wider public the limits of our freedom.
Is it worth it though?
While I respect the choice of individuals to act freely, I question the principles of any movement which prioritises media attention over personal liberty. If someone really thinks that their best possible contribution to the aims of the occupation or to protecting free speech is to offer themselves up for arrest then so be it, but it’s not something for us to expect of others.
Being unafraid of arrest may demonstrate defiance to the state and undermine its power over us, but actually getting arrested places the individual at the mercy of police and the legal system; it empowers the state to control us further. As an arrestee, you have fewer freedoms than other protesters, especially if you have bail restrictions placed upon you. Many people have been bailed away from the City of London recently, meaning that they cannot return to the St. Paul’s camp. If you consider that place a home, do not willingly allow yourself to be kept away. If you believe that the state already has too much control over your liberty, your time and your limited finances, don’t submit to give them more power for the sake of symbolic defiance. Police stations are dangerous places, people are bullied, intimidated and abused, emotionally and physically, inside them and the police are largely unaccountable for their actions. Courts are handing down politically motivated sentences for minor offences if they’re related to protest, with the hope of scaring us and discrediting our cause. We should never be put off from protesting by this, but we should get wise to their agenda and not play into their hands and strengthen their power.
This is not an attack on activists who have been arrested, nor is it a condemnation of activism that breaks the law. Sometimes when opposing intolerable laws one has no choice, sometimes the draconian restrictions in this country make lawful protest pointless. Sometimes for an action to have the desired effect, protesters have to accept the consequences, and view arrest as a calculated risk or the price of achieving something. This decision must be taken seriously, however; getting arrested due to recklessness or lack of discipline on a protest is not necessary and doesn’t advance our political aims at all.
Most importantly, an arrest affects us all. On demonstrations, activists will not think twice before “de-arresting”; physically stopping the police from snatching fellow protesters and putting themselves at great risk of injury (or arrest!). Knowing that others will take on this risk, one must weigh up whether an arrest will be as useful as it could be. Similarly, the time that friends and legal groups (like the brilliantly hard-working Green and Black Cross) spend waiting outside police stations in the early hours or attending court hearings could be put to much better use. There is no question that we will look after each other, but it’s not what we came here to do.
We have a duty to each other, and a duty to recognise that and act responsibly. The personal and political motivations to disregard the danger of arrest are obvious: to highlight the injustice of political policing and draw attention to the cause. However, an arrest transfers power from protesters to the state and there’s so much more that you can contribute. You serve the movement by not empowering the police. You serve the movement with your liberty.