I’ve never met Johann Hari, a journalist at the Independent, but he’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite commentators. This is from his column this morning, which is worth reading in full:
So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in a low, sad tone, that our young people were “too apathetic” and “disengaged”, it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people — and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back into apathy.
Here’s one example of the intimidation of peaceful protest by the young that is happening all over Britain. Nicky Wishart is a 12-year-old self-described “maths geek” who lives in the heart of David Cameron’s constituency. He was gutted when he found out his youth club was being shut down as part of the cuts: there’s nowhere else to hang out in his village. He was particularly outraged when he discovered online that Cameron had said, before the election, that he was “committed” to keeping youth clubs open. So he did the right thing. He organized a totally peaceful protest on Facebook outside Cameron’s constituency surgery. A few days later, the police arrived at his school. They hauled him out of his lessons, told him the anti-terrorism squad was monitoring him and threatened him with arrest.
What’ sickening about this is it’s true.
As Johann says:
In the past few weeks police officers have been caught responding to a disabled young man with cerebral palsy — who was protesting because his 16 year old brother is now too scared of debt to go to university — by hauling him out of his wheelchair and throwing him to the ground. They even tried to block a severely injured protester in need of brain surgery from being treated at the nearest hospital, on the grounds that police officers were being treated there too and it was â€šÃ„Ã²upsetting’ to have injured protesters in the same place. Now Sir Paul Stephenson, head of the Met, says a total ban on protests by students is “one of the tactics we will look at.”
And what are the people doing:
These protesters are not defying the will of the British people; they are expressing it. Look at their two great causes: opposing £27,000-a-degree fees for university students, and making the super-rich pay the £120bn they currently avoid in tax. Opponents of top-up fees outnumber supporters by 10 percent, while 77 percent of us support a massive crackdown on the people who live here but do not pay taxes here. This isn’t an attack on democracy, it’s a demand for it. It’s a refusal to be part of the silent majority any more. When politicians are defying the will of the people — and breaking the “solemn pledges” on which they took our votes — protest is necessary.
That’s a slightly incorrect interpretation of my data, I agree, but the sentiment is right. As it is here:
Of course, it is never justified in a democracy to launch violent attacks on people. Anybody who throws a fire extinguisher off a roof, or throws fire crackers and snooker balls at police officers, should be arrested and charged. It’s morally wrong, and tactically idiotic: it puts people off the protesters’ just cause. That’s why whenever it has happened, the protesters themselves have immediately turned on the violent fringe and made them stop. Yet the government is claiming that to deal with this tiny number of people — a few dozen — it’s necessary to restrict the basic rights to free assembly that have been won over centuries.
Hari rightly says:
In Britain, we are not suffering from an excess of civil disobedience. We are suffering from an excess of civil obedience. Our government is pursuing dozens of policies we, the people, know to be immoral — from bombing civilians in Afghanistan to kicking away the ladder that lets hard-working poor children stay on at school. We aren’t wrong when we challenge these injustices. We are wrong when we stay silent. As Oscar Wilde said: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
Now imagine living in a country where this didn’t happen. Imagine a Britain where a cabinet of millionaires could exempt the super-rich from tax while taking away the £30 a week that keeps hard-working poor kids at school — only for the streets to stay silent and supine. If we don’t defend our right to protest, we may well end up living on that cowed and chilly island.
So protest we must. Please.