Saturday, 5 July 2014

Orange Crushed: Developing Praxis in North Belfast

Woodvale Road, North Belfast, early morning, 13 July 2013

Last year, 12 July 2013, after an Orange Order parade that had been banned by the Parades Commission from passing the Ardoyne shops in North Belfast was stopped by the police, there were days of serious rioting, dozens of police in the hospital, and (just to change things up a bit) an MP knocked unconscious by friendly fire. That night, I sat in my window on the Crumlin Road, one of the most contentious pieces of real estate on the island, and watched the flames from up the road. The next morning, I walked up to the scene of the standoff between the rioters and the police. The road was an inch deep in shattered glass, bits of brick, burnt wood and plastic, and splattered paint.

As I walked back home, I was deeply frustrated and angry with the Orange Order, who I felt had been incredibly reckless with the lives of their own supporters, the police, and local residents. They had urged their supporters onto the streets to protest the rulings of the Parades Commission, with only the most amorphous messages about ‘nonviolent protest’. After a night of mayhem, they had called off the protests, a day late and a lot of blood and money later.

The Order might reasonably have been asking, what went wrong?  Had they not called for peaceful protests? Had they not made it clear that civil disobedience was what they had in mind? Had they not told those who wanted to attack the police to stay away? It seemed that they’d planned for everything.

It’s now July 2014, and here we go again…

It’s less than a week until the Glorious Twelfth in Northern Ireland, and the Orange Order has yet again been banned by the Parades Commission from marching past the very same Ardoyne shops.

A loyalist protest camp,  festooned with banners of support from loyalists all over the province, has been in place at the site of the march for a full year.

There has been an illegal march every night for a full year.

The policing bill for this is now over £9 million.

This week, every Unionist politician walked out of the most recent round of ‘flags/parades/the past’ negotiations and have promised for more protests in the future.

The PSNI has not yet asked for mutual assistance from other forces in Britain, but they’re keeping the option on the table.

Relations on the ground in North Belfast are as poisoned as ever.

Last year, the day after the Twelfth, I wrote a piece that tried to address where I felt the Orange Order had bungled the situation. I’ve been involved with street protest for over a decade now, with the anti-war movement, anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I do have some insights from this experience to share. It was written with a year to go until the next standoff. Even the morning after, I was absolutely certain- and so was anyone else with any kind of a sober judgment- that the Parades Commission was not going to allow the parade to go through in 2014 unless there was considerable dialogue between residents and the Orange Order. I figured, well, might as well get cracking early...

Looking at the past 11 months and 3 weeks, the Orange Order hasn’t taken any of my advice.

No matter; hope springs eternal. So, with less than a week to go, here are my ideas of how this year might go better than last.

1: Have a Plan. Organizing an effective protest takes, well, a lot of organizing- A LOT of organizing. Get a hold of any decent history of the American civil rights movement or any other socio-political movement and you’ll see how much work it takes. What do you want to happen? What, in your mind, will constitute a successful action? What’s the message? Who’s involved with you? Are you all on the same page? Is it a legal protest? If so, do you have paperwork and are the police informed? Are you (or anyone around you) planning- at best- civil disobedience or-at worst- criminal activity? Do you all know the difference between those two things? Do you have a plan if you’re arrested?

Last year, the Orange Order had no plan. They called on their supporters to protest the Parades Commission rulings regarding the contentious parade, and told their members and supporters not to abide by the Commission’s rulings... but not to break the law. This was absurd, as the Parade’s Commission is a legally-constituted body. If you don’t abide by its rulings, you are breaking the law. Elected Unionist officials should have broken off contact with the Orange Order at that point. Needless to say, they didn’t, which raises uncomfortable questions for their commitment to the rule of law.

Anyway, the Orange Order said not to break the law or attack the police. What should supporters do? The Order said nothing specific.

This was never going to end well.

2: Don’t do anything when you’re angry. Not one thing. Nothing. An angry crowd does one thing and one thing only: damage. Telling people who are angry- and the Orange Order and every Unionist politician who could get himself in front of a microphone tells us over and over and over how ANGRY everyone is- to get up and hit the streets is never going to lead to anything constructive. Now, lots of historic change begins with civil disorder. But no real social transformation starts to happen until people calm down and start organizing (see point 1).  

So… If your people are angry, UNLESS YOU WANT TO HAVE STUFF DAMAGED, you make sure they stay off the streets. You issue a statement that says, ‘I know everyone is angry, so stay off the streets today and tonight. When we’re not angry, we’re going to plan our next move.’ It’s not very sexy and people who love to do damage won’t vote for you, but unless you want a whole lot of people injured and arrested, it’s what you do.

But I think you see where I’m going with that: violence gets you noticed. But it doesn’t lead anywhere constructive- certainly not in North Belfast, and if they haven’t figured that out by now, the leadership of the Orange Order is wilfully ignorant, truly devious, or spectacularly naive. On top of that, they were dangerously reckless with the lives and safety of others.

3: Know the Law. The conventional wisdom about protesters is that ‘they have no regard for the rule of law’ or ‘all they want to do is break the law’. This is a very clumsy stereotype. Activism of any kind very often demands an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the legal code- what you can and cannot do, what the authorities are allowed to do, what the penalties are, etc. Most of the activists that I’ve worked with over the years know a staggering amount about the legal code and can recite it, section and clause, to a police officer, a reporter or a security guard at a moment’s notice. Believe me, if a cop is trying to confiscate your camera because you took a picture of his land rover, you’d better be able to very quickly and clearly- and in as calm a voice as possible- quote the law as it is written. He might still take your camera and you’ll have to say it all over again to a magistrate trying to lock you up or fine you for doing something perfectly legal. Trust me on this.

That said, the fact that the Orange Order in 2013 called on their supporters to disobey the Parade’s Commission’s rulings, BUT not to break the law, is a stunning lack of an understanding of the law. Again, the Parades Commission is a legal body and its rulings are legally binding. If you disregard them, you are breaking the law. You might decide to go ahead and disregard them, but you’d better understand what that means. And make sure you’re supporters know what that means. They might decide to go ahead and ignore the rulings, but you can’t then say, ‘I did nothing wrong’. Well, yeah, you did. In 2003, four Catholic Worker activists cut through a fence at Shannon Airport, broke into a hanger and took a hammer to the nose of a US war plane that was contravening Irish neutrality and was a tool in an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation. It took 5 years of trials for them to finally be acquitted of any wrong-doing. And a thorough knowledge of Irish and international law was absolutely vital. Again, trust me on this. 

4: What’s the Next Step? This is related to point 1, but it needs to stand on its own. This relates to one of my favourite things: praxis. Praxis is an ongoing process of reflection and action, followed then by more reflection and then more action. They need to go together. Reflection on its own is just navel-gazing and theorizing. Action on its own is just, activism, 'doing stuff'. But praxis is how progress happens. Reflection on a problem helps to analyze and crystallize the problem. Out of this, an action can be undertaken. After the action, we reflect again. What was accomplished? What was learned? What happened that was totally unexpected? How can we act better in light of what we originally wanted to accomplish and what actually happened?  

If 12 July 2013 taught the Orange Order anything it’s that a.) you shouldn’t reflect when you’re angry, and b.) you sure as hell shouldn’t act when you’re angry.

But no use crying over spilled milk and wounded cops- especially a year late. They acted, and now they must reflect. How did it go? What went well? What didn’t go well? What was learned?  Are we any closer to the stated goal?

It is now less than a week until the Twelfth. If the Orange Order doesn’t want a repeat of 2013, I’d suggest getting started on it soon. It’s  not too late… yet.

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