Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London

November 17 2016

The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction for as long as anyone can remember. But on 15 November the infamous tower was back in action, opening its doors to host the European Custody and Detention Summit. Despite the talk of progressive reform, the £1,500 per head summit was a closed-door trade fair for private security corporations and their public partners.

Migration justice and refugee rights

In a complete reversal of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle, the life and liberty of migrants and asylum seekers in the UK are routinely stripped away. Our government detains them more often and for longer than any other European nation – including war refugees, torture survivors and those with special needs. Britain is the only European nation with no time limit on immigration detention and over 30,000 people are incarcerated every year in a system rampant with abuse. Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore its own experts and wriggle out of endless human rights obligations and outsource responsibility for its devastating policies to private security companies like G4S and Serco.

It’s a far cry from the international persona Britain projects as a nation of individual freedom, human rights and equality before the law. But today in the UK, being undocumented means being criminalised while legal aid cuts make access to justice through the courts increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, communities are divided as we are pressured to police each other. Hospital staff, teachers, employers, local authorities, charities, contractors, travel operators and now banks and landlords are all coerced into playing border guard.

Incarceration is a costly and inhumane response to people forced to cross borders by conflict, climate change and crushing poverty – all deep social crises in which countries like Britain have long been and remain deeply complicit. Yet instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of its actions and the lives destroyed by them, the government continues to build new prisons, erect new walls and incarcerate men, women and children for nothing but the “administrative convenience” of the Home Office – and the profit of private security companies.

Protesters made their presence felt

A few days ago, organisers agreed to hear what the summit’s hosts, International Research Networks, had to say. IRN facilitates exclusive networking events for almost every sector undermining climate and social justice, from arms dealers and oil companies to investment banking. Their representative expressed regret that several participants had pulled out after the protest was called – including delegates from G4S and Serco. They also claimed to have cancelled their business matching sessions and some immigration and border enforcement events.

IRN explained their recent decision to enter the industry by reference to its rapid expansion in Britain and Europe. They emphasised the role of reform and NGOs becoming “key providers of criminal justice and security services,” but denied that privatisation helped drive this expansion, in stark contrast to the figures and widespread concern amongst civil society that Britain has become the ‘mercenary kingpin’ of the global private military industry. They refused to reveal how much profit the summit would make and warned that no attempt should be made to enter the tower or block the walkways, reminding organisers that there were armed police inside and that they would “hate to see anything happen” or anyone “fall foul of a broken criminal justice system.”

The protest, called by Reclaim Justice Network, brought together a range of groups campaigning on migrant rights, criminal justice and the arms trade. We turned out before work to stand handcuffed at the entrance for the opening of the summit, demanding an end to privatisation in the sector and calling for ‘social justice not criminal justice’ and returned again that evening. One protester was aggressively confronted by a participant from the summit. “He squared right up to me,” she said, “shouting that he couldn’t understand why we’d be protesting. I suggested he listen to what we were saying.” But the public response was overwhelmingly supportive, if shocked.

The campaign has made a real impact and cut into the summit’s profits. Though the Tower of London trustees refused to cancel, its effect on their public image forced a prompt change of advertising, with all references to the Tower of London as “the world’s original high-security prison” swiftly deleted and an apology for any offence taken. But this isn’t about slogans offending political correctness. It’s about an unjust, racist and violent system making profit from people’s misery.

Social justice not criminal justice

The creeping privatisation of criminal justice should concern us all. Its impact in the USA, where the experiment has been most widespread, has been devastating both socially and economically. It led to a drastic rise in incarceration for non-violent crime – more African American men in prison now than were subject to slavery – and solitary confinement, dangerous conditions and forced labour have become routine. Of course, you are vastly more likely to be affected if you come from a low-income background – even in some UK prisons, more than half of inmates were never taught to read and write properly.

The knock-on impact of all this on families, loved ones and communities is immeasurable and by 2016 even the Department of Justice was issuing damning reports. Obama pledged to end the use of private prisons. Meanwhile, in countries like Norway where the criminal justice system puts rehabilitation before punishment and profit, societies have been rewarded with drastically lower rates of re-offending, creating safer communities and stronger economies as a result.

It is deplorable that at this moment, when more people are forced to leave their homelands than ever before, multi-billion pound companies present militarisation on our borders and incarceration within them as the solution when there are so many just alternatives. Now, the kind of technological ‘security solutions’ promoted within the industry are even being used to keep humanitarian volunteers out of Europe’s refugee camps and obstruct lifesaving operations at sea. And when state-sanctioned violence is outsourced to private companies, creating a profit motive for punishment, the government thinks they can’t be held to account. They “see no evil, speak no evil.” But we see it; the families and communities torn apart, they see it; and we came together to speak against it, because this isn’t the migrants’ crisis – it’s ours. It’s about taking responsibility for the kind of society we’re creating and willing to live in; about asking us what it means to think of ourselves as ‘civilised’. Because that defines who we are, too.


The protest was organised and supported by a range of organisations including:Right to Remain. Reclaim Justice Network. SOAS Detainee Support. Campaign Against Arms Trade. The London Latinxs. Brick Lane Debates. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants. NUS Black Students’ Campaign. Stop the Arms Fair. Global Justice Now.

Originally published by Red Pepper online

A brief history of really bad ideas

The climate justice movement offers a wealth of solutions that never get a fair hearing. Every cornerstone of a just, sustainable future, from community-owned energy in the sky to organic agriculture in the earth, is consistently swept aside as utopian thinking.

This is particularly irritating given the spectrum of fantastical and occasionally genocidal schemes that do manage to find traction among power-hungry politicians, profiteering corporations and some truly eccentric scientists. To remind climate justice activists the world over that we are the ones with our feet on the ground, let’s take a look back at some of the worst.

1) Carbon pricing

Carbon pricing and trading emerged from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to establish a proper cap on emissions in 1992. It has been the flagship free-market climate policy ever since, taxing emissions and issuing tradable pollution permits to businesses and institutions. Often, low-carbon institutions like hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credits while the corporations cash in.

Big Polluters have made a killing by speculating, cutting corners and generally defrauding the system, sometimes deliberately producing more emissions just so they can get paid to dispose of them. Like all free-market fixes, it’s extremely lucrative; between 2005 and 2010 the global carbon market turned a $500 billion profit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates carbon taxes are five times too low to discourage the Big Polluters (which, given their more than $5 trillion of annual subsidies, they can afford.) But they are high enough to put a heavy burden on working people, to whom energy companies pass on extra costs. More than 1 in 10 Europeans are blighted by energy poverty, which is forecast to kill 40,000 people this winter in Britain alone. This also contributes to creating the apparent conflict of interest between the planet and the poor.

Lastly, the scheme has completely failed to halt rising emissions. That the EU’s own watchdog admits the scheme is ‘almost never enforced’ gives some indication of how seriously our leaders really take the climate threat, whatever their rhetoric. No wonder, then, that instead of falling, emissions have been rising at their fastest rate in 30 years. Really bad idea.

2) Privatising the planet

Whatever the problem, selling it off is the only solution the market ever has to offer. And since the crash of 2008, politicians have been selling off public services faster than ever. The resulting devastation of our education, healthcare and welfare systems hasn’t put them off – now they want to apply the austerity model to the fight against climate change by privatizing the planet itself.

Nature is reduced to ‘natural capital’; our forests, rivers and fields become ‘green infrastructure’. And the results are utter nonsense. The UK’s Natural Capital Committee has established a price for the aesthetic value of Britain’s lakes and rivers (at about $1 billion.) But you can’t quantify beauty, measure happiness or put a price on what is priceless.

The conviction that we need to is rooted in the belief that people only value something if you slap a price tag on it. That might be true for the CEOs lining up to buy our planet but the research suggests most people deserve a bit more credit. Unfortunately, some sections of the environmental movement have adopted this language of ‘natural capital’.

As Guardian columnist George Monbiot and others have argued, in committing themselves to an ultimately doomed attempt to make big business care about the earth, these ‘mainstream environmentalists’ have destroyed their own moral authority and in doing so, undermined their ability to mobilize the grassroots. Really bad idea.

3) Crazy crops

Biofuels have long been pushed by big business as a magical alternative to oil and gas – even though they are inefficient, expensive and enormously destructive. In fact, the production of biofuels often emits more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels, not to mention the fact it’s become a leading driver of deforestation, reducing vast tracts of ancient, irreplaceable forest to dead land. It also gobbles up enormous amounts of water, which is exactly what we don’t want as droughts and pollution diminish this most precious resource, on which all life depends. Biofuel production has also driven up the price of grain, threatening hunger, instability and conflict.

And this is just a small part of the unspeakable havoc wreaked on food security by the globalization of industrial agriculture, which has exhausted our once-abundant planet. For example, despite controlling three-quarters of all farmland and enjoying massive government subsidies, industrial farming produces only 30 per cent of our food. In just 40 years, its senseless intensity (almost half the food produced is wasted,) has destroyed a third of the world’s arable land while somehow still managing to leave 800 million people hungry.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been trumpeted as another ‘big fix’ for hunger and climate change, despite widespread health concerns and the fact they fail the most elementary standard for sustainability: they are non-renewable. Corporations in the climate negotiations are pushing heat-resistant GMOs and ‘smart-fertilisers’. From an environmental perspective, these methods not only worsen the climate crisis, being both water and fossil-fuel intensive, but heighten vulnerability. Most GMOs are more susceptible to drought, floods and disease and so require intensive mechanical and chemical treatment to survive – which means big bucks for the agribusiness corporations that sell them. It also means peasant farmers are priced off their lands or buried beneath mountains of debt, contributing to almost 300,000 farmer suicides in India over the past decade in what has become known as the ‘GM genocide’. Really bad idea.

4) Geo-engineering

Like nuclear power, the science of ‘weather management’ started off in weapons development at the heart of the military-industrial complex. But since the breakdown of the COP15 negotiations in 2009, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) has resurfaced as a ‘last line of defence’ for the planet; a substitute for (and for some, preferable to) regulating emissions. From filling the stratosphere with sulphate to erecting giant mirror-roofs across the earth to reflect the sun’s rays, SRM proposals range from surreal to plain stupid.

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere, for example, mimics the sun-blocking effects of volcanic eruptions: widely considered the most life threatening of all natural disasters due to their long-lasting and unpredictable disruption of natural weather patterns. Putting aside the question of who’d be in charge of the thermostat, we really have no idea what the side-effects might be and no way to test, since the only appropriate laboratory is the planet we’re living on.

Most SRM proposals are ‘lock-in’ strategies, meaning we start pumping out one kind of pollution to deal with another kind of pollution with no idea how to stop without frying everything to a crisp. And even optimistic projections predict SRM would fry swathes of the global South to a crisp anyway, disrupting the monsoon and ‘completely drying out’ the Sahel region of Africa, threatening 4.1 billion people. Really bad – and slightly genocidal – idea.

5) Letting Big Polluters sponsor COP21

There is no business bigger than the fossil fuel business. This is an industry with friends in all the high places, subsidized to the tune of $10 million every minute of every day and making annual profits equivalent to the GDP of France. They have 20 trillion reasons to extract every last bit of oil, coal and gas: all of them dollars.

They are not our allies. As Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman put it here in Paris: ‘Putting corporates in the driving seat for climate negotiations is like putting Dracula in a blood bank.’ Yet that’s exactly where they are.

Corporate Accountability International notes in its report, Fuelling the Fire: the Big Polluters Bankrolling Cop 21 that these corporations have a long history of political interference with environmental policy making. On one hand, they routinely engage in sophisticated campaigns of misinformation about climate change; on the other, clean up their image by funding COPs and joining climate marches.

Pierre-Henry Guignard, Secretary-General of the UN summit, promised this year to build ‘a very business-friendly COP.’ This is a contradiction in terms. Pretending it’s not, hides the root of the problem from the public and leads us down a twenty-first dead end. It is the mother of all bad ideas.

The power of good ideas

Within the market system, all proposals are viewed through the lens of commercial viability. We see this battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere in the market’s warped attempts to tackle global warming. It promotes the proposals which turn a profit over those that might actually help us, every single time.

To quote Monbiot: ‘What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model.’ It’s the model that got us into this mess and it’s not going to get us out of it.

It’s fantastical, fictitious, pie-in-the-sky fundamentalism, and our job is to expose it as such, not adopt its language and values as our own. So we need to reclaim realism, assert our own values as boldly as our adversaries, and mobilize around the principle that life – all life – is more precious than profit. The big polluters will never want to pay; so it’s time for them to get out of our way.

Written for New Internationalist

Stop the Student Sell Off

After four years as a SOAS student, I’m about to graduate with a considerable amount of debt, albeit not compared to those now paying historic £9000 tuition fees. If you borrowed money from the government between 1998 and 2012 to pay for your education, George Osborne has, or intends to sell your debt on to banks and private companies. The government has already sold off all pre-1998 loans – worth around £900million – at a massive loss to the public purse. The rest of us will make them around £40billion.

The sell-off will transfer millions from public education into the pockets of private companies. With most students already graduating with over £50,000 student debt thanks to fees, cost of living and youth unemployment rising about as fast as the value of a university education is falling. That is money they said they needed for schools and universities. But this move embodies the complete disdain this government has for the very principle of universal, public education. They fear it because, to quote Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

They think they have a mandate to do what they like with education now now. Ever since the carnival of fraud, greed and negligence that is free-market finance sent the global economy into cardiac arrest (again) and was bailed out to the tune of £130billion the establishment has been calling it ‘national debt’, a ‘structural deficit’, an ‘imbalance on *our* credit card’ – whatever the line is that best offers an excuse to sell the public services won by people in Britain after World War II. Which they really rather want to do.IMG_8215


It took a Freedom of Information request to get any documentation on the student loan sell-off in front of the public, and even then 90% was redacted. The government has made its promises about leaving interest rates alone (while reserving the right not to), but we know what their promises are worth – students have not forgotten Nick Clegg’s historic betrayal over fees, and Cameron’s abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

Though billed as a money-saving measure, the sell-off is no such thing. The Higher Education Policy Institute has concluded in its report that the policy is based on ‘highly uncertain and optimistic assumptions’ and underestimates the cost to the public because it fails to account for the fact that once in private hands, the government makes nothing on interest repayments. Like rising fees, privatisation costs far more in the long run than it saves in the short – never mind the social cost.

The British education system has always been one of the most stratified in the world. But the neoliberal restructuring now underway throughout education, disempowering students & staff while opening up universities to private investment (and all the strings that come with it) threatens to shift university forever out of the realm of right and into that of privilege.

This restructuring, combined with savage and politically motivated cuts to public funding impoverishing all but the most ‘fiscally viable’ departments, all falls within the broader context of the Tories’ calls for Permanent Austerity – not to pay back the deficit, but to normalise for the next generation a system in which fundamental rights, to education, healthcare and security, are reserved for those who can afford it. This is not just about what kind of education we want, but what kind of society we want for those that come after us.

When they said Cut Back – we said Fight Back

Losing the tuition fee vote in parliament on ‘Day X’ in 2010 – the climax of the student revolt – was my induction into student politics (not the most inspiring moment to show up). But in the years that followed I probably spent a greater proportion of my time on political activity than actual studying.

I was always pestered by the thought of my little cousins back home, too intimidated by the growing financial barriers to risk of ‘investing’ in their education; or as graduates sunk beneath toxic debt-burden that threatened their homes, their families; robbed them of their independence and forced them by the necessity of survival to accept the materialistic, careerist values of the Neoliberal Age rather than follow their passion, as I had. My grandmother had always impressed upon me the importance of education as the key to freedom, especially for girls. She had wanted to study astrophysics but her working class Mancunian background put it far beyond her reach (not that women were allowed to study physics back then anyway).

My sense of that history, and fears for the future, made a powerful motivator that I feel as keenly now as when I started. The students are the lucky ones, I reasoned, and that gave us an obligation to fight for what our grandparents fought for after the war, and is now being stolen from us. The myth of dignity and security “from cradle to grave” is dead – what we are witnessing in Britain today is the worst decline in living standards since the 19th century. Child poverty is at its highest now since the war. Not since Queen Victoria has inequality in this country been so vast. The government’s austerity policy amounts to a systematic and spectacular theft by 1 per cent; but it is generating resistance.

99% of us Are In It Together

The Student Assembly Against Austerity, now backed by the National Union of Students, has been building a campaign of resistance to the sell-off on campuses up and down the country. We successfully petitioned 75 MPs to sign an early day motion against the sell off and coordinated a national week of action in February, with students taking action in over 50 universities, going into occupation at Exeter University and holding a protest and ‘debt-in’ in central London.

Student protests against privatisation and the real decline in staff wages have prompted an escalation of the campaign by management and police to criminalise it, which climaxed with mass arrests of students in central London last December. Ultimately, the students’ success will depend on our reaching beyond campus and taking a leading role in the broader resistance to austerity, which in so many other ways is exploiting the 99% to pay for a crisis created by the 1%.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity is now the largest anti-cuts coalition in the country uniting social justice campaigns, trade unions and community groups in opposition to cuts across the board. That the Metropolitan Police is now deploying water cannon on the streets of London for the first time explicitly to ‘control protest against on-going and potential future austerity measures’ shows that they know what we know: that the potential is there for a mass movement of people in this country who will not stand for the trashing of public education any more than the dismantling of the NHS, the emergency services, the libraries and public spaces, the abolition of the welfare state or the rise of right-wing racism that follows. The Student Assembly will be playing a central role in these campaigns moving forward while we continue to fight the student loan sell off.

The students were alone in 2010. We were the first to come out on the streets. But now there is a movement of resistance building real national force and giving us the collective potential to take on the government – and win. So whether it’s on your campus or in your local community – get involved, and march with us on 21st June from the BBC that has too long ignored us, to a festival of resistance outside the parliament that is counting on us giving up and going home. They shouldn’t hold their breath.


Originally published by the Huffington Post 12/06/2014

All photography my own

UPDATE: the privatisation of the student loan book was subsequently dropped