We Don’t Need Martyrs
In this response to Pete Spellar’s article “Why I don’t mask up”, majsaleh defends the tactic and argues that solidarity is different from martydom.
It is unsurprising that people are increasingly willing to cover their faces at political events. Recent court cases have shown that under certain circumstances the law will come down hard on even the smallest infractions and there are people are sitting in jail now for the pettiest of incidents that took place at protests.
Knowing that those who oppose you have to power (and the desire) to make your life a misery it is sometimes appropriate to take precautions to protect yourselves from them. It depends on what you’re doing but it’s a matter of tactics.
So why increase the risk of lengthy court cases, jail and fines by making it easy for the police to identify you? At best it comes across as self-indulgent martyrdom but according to Peter Speller it’s because “the power of protest comes from being accountable for my actions.”
Let’s look at that claim. If a protest has any power, to be effective it must exercise that power over the state, and yet the writer claims “it is not the state that I am being accountable to it is the people with whom I stand in solidarity.”
Solidarity is a powerful force; it comes from standing together, from knowing that you’re on the same side. But what makes it most powerful is that it extends beyond those who recognise you personally to those who recognise you simply as an ally. ‘Masking-up’ does not separate you from the people you’re standing with it just anonymises you. And that’s okay because it’s not about you – it’s not about who you are.
Of course there’s nothing to stop you openly justifying and defending your actions even if you concealed your identity while performing them; you can also justify and defend the actions of others, even if you weren’t there at all. If your actions were illegal you’re also at liberty to hand yourself in to the police if you believe that being dragged through the courts is the kind of accountability you need.
There’s another fudge in the article: the example he gives of effective accountable protest is not an example of protest at all. The Seeds of Hope campaigners in 1996 destroyed a BAe Hawk fighter destined for Indonesia during the East Timor conflict. What their action demonstrates is not the power of accountability but the power of hammers – the power of direct action.
Direct action is not always legal but it’s often effective and what is effective about it is that it forces a change, not that the people are held to account. If their intention was to prevent the use of a jet fighter against civilians, The four women succeeded insofar as they were able to destroy it. On the other hand, their willingness to be held to account was a publicity stunt, not a show of power. No doubt they believed that it would highlight the use of British-made weaponry against civilians in East Timor and could inspire further direct action – but it was stunt nonetheless and they were lucky to be acquitted.
Having a noble cause isn’t a reliable defence in the courts, nor can activists rely on sympathetic media to rally behind them. I’ve heard experienced activists referring to newly radicalised young people as ‘arrestables’ with the intention of persuading them to take symbolic action that may provoke police violence and/or possible criminal charges in order that they might be presented as sympathetic martyrs. They do so with no apparent concern for what a criminal record might have on a teenager’s future or that a baton to the head may not be worth whatever publicity the press are willing to offer.
Political romanticism re-emerges with every struggle and it’s an especially powerful trend among those who expect to fail. A political romantic makes politics about their individual experience; be it defeat, violence and repression or victory and glory. But in reality solidarity does not require your face on CCTV, success does not need your name in the footnotes, and struggle is not material for your memoirs, we don’t need martyrs.