New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

The hashtag revolution

Symon Hill

Grassroots movements like Occupy and Uncut have changed the face of protest in recent years, heralded as radically inclusive by their supporters - and undemocratic their by opponents. Symon Hill believes it's time for the church to take sides.


On 27 October 2010, 40 people walked into a Vodafone store in London's Oxford Street, armed with banners and slogans. It had been reported that Vodafone had done a deal with the revenue to let them off £6bn of tax. Ministers had just announced £7bn of cuts to the welfare bill.

The group were called UK Uncut. They called on the government to crack down on corporate tax dodging as an alternative to cutting the welfare state.
Three days later, they held a weekend of action. There were 12 protests at stores accused of tax-dodging. When it came to the second weekend of action, the number of protests jumped to forty.

'I don't think anyone involved foresaw how huge UK Uncut would become,' says Emma Draper, one of the group's first activists. 'It all just kind of happened and seemed to get bigger and bigger.'1

Before long, UK Uncut groups were springing up everywhere, to the surprise and delight of the original protesters: Bradford Uncut, Glasgow Uncut, Cardiff Uncut. Then there was Canada Uncut, France Uncut, US Uncut. At the same time, student occupations broke out at universities in protest against government plans to treble tuition fees in England.

The Uncut symbol seen in Oxford Street - a pair of scissors crossed out in a circular 'prohibited' sign - was soon appearing in Athens and Madrid. Spain had its own burgeoning protest movement, as the Indignados, the 'indignant ones', turned up in public squares in spring 2011 to protest against austerity and a youth unemployment rate of 46 per cent.

The Indignados inspired a similar movement in the US: Occupy Wall Street. People camped in New York's financial district to protest against its role in the economic crisis. Before long, there was Occupy London Stock Exchange, Occupy European Central Bank, Occupy Tokyo, Occupy Belfast, even Occupy Isle of Wight.

UK Uncut and Occupy came like a thief in the night. The rich and powerful were not ready for them. Nor were the conventional Left or the Christian Church.

For years, politicians and commentators had bemoaned political apathy. Some of those same politicians and commentators were among the first to condemn UK Uncut and the student occupations. It seems they wanted young people to engage with the political process - but only on the process' own terms.

'Politics' is often used to mean 'what politicians do'. It is not. It is what we all do. Politics is about our lives and our future, and the decisions we take about them - or that others take for us.

According to activist writer Tim Gee, UK Uncut 'embodies the principles of counterpower'2. This is the  power that comes from below, when the 'have-nots' refuse to go along with the wishes of the privileged. Gee argues that counterpower is most effective when it fights on three fronts: idea counterpower, which challenges dominant views; physical counterpower, when people literally take a stand or get in the way; and economic counterpower, as seen in strikes or boycotts. Recent years have seen an explosion of all three.

Movements such as Occupy are criticised for a lack of specific demands. This misses the point. The purpose of this sort of activism is not to request that the powerful implement a limited number of proposals. It is to take their power from them. It is to insist that power is removed from the hands of the 'one percent' and returned to people as a whole.

This is why the activism of the last two years represents a step forward in democracy. Democracy is about much more than elections. Centuries of campaigning have ensured a relatively high degree of democracy and civil liberty in Britain. But the fight for democracy is not over. It is an ongoing movement for even distribution of power, political accountability and freedom of speech enhanced by freedom to be heard. Democracy is a daily struggle between privilege and fairness, prejudice and equality, greed and love.

The greatest threat to British democracy in recent years has been corporate influence within government. Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that multinational arms company BAE Systems had 'the key to the garden door at Number Ten'3. The Leveson Inquiry is laying bare the extent to which the Murdoch Empire is embedded in structures of power. The majority of the cabinet were educated at fee-paying schools - as were over two-thirds of finance directors, senior barristers and top journalists4. Only seven percent of the population attend fee-paying schools. This is not a society in which power is well-spread.

The financial crisis of 2008 made it obvious that there was something vastly wrong with the way our societies had been functioning. Banks had gambled with our money. Politicians had let them get away with it. Warning voices had been ignored. It was time to take stock and ask ourselves how we could create a better system.

That is exactly what didn't happen. Around Europe, governments bailed out banks - thus turning bank debts into public debts - without making the banks publicly accountable. So the majority of RBS theoretically belongs to you and me as taxpayers but we have no power to prevent its making investments that harm the environment or human rights5.

The rhetoric of 'we're all in this together' soon turned hollow. Taxes for the rich have been cut and the government has already spent £1.1bn on renewing parts of the Trident nuclear weapons system. At the same time, disabled people's benefits have been slashed, working class people are being priced out of higher education, unemployed people are forced to work without pay and local services are disappearing at every turn.

The corrosive effect of capitalism on democracy was at its most grotesque when Greece went to the polls in June. The Greek people were told they would receive no bailout unless they implemented swingeing cuts to pay, pensions and public services. They were bullied and blackmailed into electing a government that would submit to the demands of distant politicians and bankers who had threatened to withhold the crumbs from the cake.
As thousands of Greeks queue up at soup kitchens, many have taken to the streets again to say that the poorest people will not accept crumbs from the cake. They want the cake.

Rarely has a wave of activism been so international. In October 2011, activists in Egypt - fresh from overthrowing Mubarak - turned up outside the US Embassy to protest against the treatment of Occupy protesters violently evicted from their site in California.

Paul Mason, the economics correspondent of Newsnight, identifies several reasons why activism is 'kicking off everywhere' from Bahrain to Britain. Some are demographic and economic. Other are technological. As Mason puts it, 'For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the modern contemporary world'6.

As Emma Draper describes it, social media allowed UK Uncut to become 'a national and then international movement with no central co-ordinated leadership'7. Twitter users can use a 'hashtag' to identify the key subject of their message. Anyone wanting to set up an Occupy camp can simply announce it on Twitter, along with the hashtag '#Occupy'.

This is confusing for people who like clear-cut organisations with leaders and formal structures - on the Left as well as the Right. In the early days of Occupy London Stock Exchange, I saw Trotskyite groups wandering around the camp selling newspapers. They soon gave up. Occupy was too messy to satisfy ideological orthodoxy.

Without formal membership structures, it is impossible to say clearly how many 'members' UK Uncut or Occupy have. In the age of Twitter and Occupy, membership is about doing, not joining. Churches should be most aware of this, but often fail to notice it. Several Christian denominations are experiencing heavy falls in membership, while attendance at worship remains fairly static. Between 2002 and 2008, participation in Baptist Union services rose by 3.5%, while membership dropped by 7%8. In 2010, British Quakers reported their first increase in attendance for nearly 30 years - accompanied by the usual decline in membership9.

Some see these figures as evidence of a decline in commitment. The argument works both ways. Formally joining a group does not guarantee commitment, or even active involvement. Now a sense of belonging is found in turning up, joining in, speaking out and being part of a living community.

This is not the only area in which churches have been slow to respond. Christian attitudes to austerity and activism have varied. The Baptists, Methodists and United Reformed Church have issued a string of joint statements about the mistreatment of the poorest people . Rowan Williams has suggested that the government is implementing 'long-term policies for which no-one voted.'10

Other Christians took to the streets. Both UK Uncut and Occupy have included sizeable numbers of Christians. In 2010, churchgoers in Sheffield formed a group of 'Christians Against the Cuts'. Christians involved in UK Uncut launched Christianity Uncut with a plan to hold an act of worship in Barclay's while protesting against the bank's tax avoidance. In June, Christian supporters of Occupy joined with others in a 'Pilgrimage for Justice' from London to Canterbury.

Not all Christians have been so keen. David Ison, the new Dean of St Paul's, declared that the church should confront Occupy with 'reality'11. He did not suggest that it may be the banking system that has lost touch with reality. A number of church leaders seem more concerned with campaigning against same-sex marriage than with opposing economic injustice.

The issue came to a head outside St Paul's Cathedral in the early hours of 28 February.

Four months earlier, London's first Occupy camp had been prevented from getting close to the Stock Exchange. They pitched their tents as close as they could - outside St Paul's. Overnight, the Church's relationship with radical activism became headline news. Despite internal controversy, when it came to the eviction, the cathedral invited police onto its steps to evict peaceful campaigners. Members of Christianity Uncut, myself included, were dragged from the steps as we knelt in prayer.

As dawn broke on that cold February morning, two alternatives for the future of Christianity had been displayed.

On the one hand was an institutional church that shut its doors on peaceful protesters and colluded in their violent removal. It's a church that includes good people doing great things. But a church that, when push came to shove, fell in line behind the rich and powerful and sided with the City of London.

On the other hand was a fairly disorganised group of Christians who turned up to support anti-capitalist protest and to pray for all involved. We were confused, under-prepared and not all in agreement about everything. We were as full of sin as anyone else. We were possibly wrong and mistaken about all sorts of things. But when it came to the crunch, we were inspired by Jesus' solidarity with the poor and our faith moved us to stand with those resisting inequality.

Of course, many Christians don't fit easily into either camp. Some move between them. There are institutionalised churches that do remarkably progressive things and grassroots groups that can be very exploitative.

Nonetheless, it now seems that Christians in Britain - like those in many other countries - are faced with a choice that was symbolised outside St Paul's Cathedral that night. We are being called to choose sides.

Some Christians are put off by talk of taking sides. Choosing sides is all too often associated with hatred, sectarianism and violence. Thankfully, it is possible to take sides without resorting to these things. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out, the call to love our enemies presupposes that we have enemies - who we are called to love as much as allies.

At times it is literally impossible to be neutral. If I saw someone being raped and I did nothing, I would not be neutral, I would be siding with the rapist.
While a situation of economic injustice is more complicated, the same principle applies. Millions starve in a world with enough to feed everyone. In the UK, the gap between richest and poorest is at its highest for over 80 years12. It would be naïve not to recognise that economics is very complex, but it would be morally evasive to use this as an excuse to sit on the sidelines.

Jesus' ministry reportedly began with the words 'He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor'13. A Church that does not take sides while the poorest are hit by an international austerity drive would seem to be rather bad news for the poor.

Christian efforts to side with the poor are hampered by the legacy of Christendom. For centuries, the established Church enjoyed significant influence. As this influence fades in a post-Christendom, multifaith society, we have an opportunity to move on from Christian collusion with wealth and power.

Individual congregations, some church leaders and whole denominations have backed campaigns against specific injustices. But much of the momentum has moved to para-church networks. Groups such as Christian Aid, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Student Christian Movement (SCM) have generally gone further than churches. Christian Aid is campaigning for a ban on goods from illegal Israeli settlements14 while SCM backed civil disobedience over tuition fees15. Newer groups such as Christianity Uncut, Occupy Faith and the Good Steward campaign have been inspired by traditions of non-violent direct action.

Many Christians join campaigns without feeling the need for specifically Christian organisations. There is a lot to be said for this. However, the presence of Christian groups in campaigns for economic equality - or for peace, climate justice or LGBT rights - is a witness to other activists. It makes people aware that for many Christians, these causes are a natural outworking of their faith.

Not all Christian campaigners are left-wing. For many, the decline of Christendom is frightening. They cling onto privileges, such as bishops in the House of Lords and opt-outs from equality laws. Groups such as Christian Concern and the Christian Institute have mobilised large numbers to campaign for socially conservative policies on sexuality and human rights. A campaign pioneered by Christian Concern in 2010 caused Parliament to water down proposed employment rights of people who work for religious organisations16.

These groups rarely talk about economics, defining Christian concerns in relation to marriage, abortion and opposition to the rights of sexual minorities. By focusing on these issues, they imply that the economic system is not a major problem. They are implicitly conservative in economic as well as social terms.

We may be seeing the beginnings of a polarisation of Christian activism in Britain. As denominational membership declines and grassroots groups take the initiative, Christian political engagement has two very different alternatives. On the one hand, groups whose vision of the Kingdom of God moves them to campaign against exploitation, inequality and often capitalism itself. On the other, those who are frightened of homosexuality and Islam and want to go 'back' to a mythical 'Christian Britain'. Denominational institutions may be left behind by them both.

This makes the need to take sides even more urgent. If we do not speak up for a radical Christian vision of a fairer world, we will allow Christianity's most reactionary elements to give the impression that they speak on its behalf.
Jesus talked a great deal about the kingdom of God. He contrasted it with the kingdoms of this world. It would be a mistake to sit back and wait for God's kingdom to appear in the future. It would also be dangerously arrogant to regard any society or movement on earth as embodying God's kingdom. What we can expect to see are signs of the kingdom. There is no reason why these signs should appear only within the Church. Jesus showed relatively little interest in religious institutions and seemed to prefer the company of those outside them. With their emphasis on justice, creativity and a radical, disturbing inclusivity, can we see activist movements of recent years as such signposts?

To suggest this is not to ignore their faults. At times, they can appear naïve and unfocused. Decision-making processes have been abused. At one point, it seemed that Occupy itself risked becoming institutionalised.

Activist movements are naturally affected by the injustices of society. Sometimes those injustices run so deep that the movements replicate them. We too carry out the sins against which we protest. To use the words of a statement produced by Quakers who worshipped every week at Occupy London Stock Exchange, we are all 'broken people in a broken world'.

It is because we recognise this brokenness that we want to do something about it. Carrying on as normal, sitting on the fence, is not an option. To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, if an elephant is standing on a mouse's tail, and we say we are neutral, it is the elephant and not the mouse who will appreciate our neutrality.

1  Interviewed 13 June 2012.
2  Tim Gee, 'Counterpower: Making change happen' (New Internationalist, 2011).
3  Robin Cook, The Point of Departure (Simon and Schuster, 2003).
4  Alan Milburn, 'Unleashing Aspiration: The final report of the panel on fair access to the professions' (2009) .
5  Ekklesia, 'Court blocks challenge over unethical RBS investments', 20 October 2009.
6  Paul Mason, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The new global revolutions (Verso, 2012).
7  Interviewed 13 June 2012.
Baptist Times, 5 March 2010.
The Friend, 4 June 2010.
10  Patrick Wintour, 'Rowan Williams: No-one voted for coalition policies', Guardian, 9 June 2011.
11  Church Times, 9 March 2012.
12  Danny Dorling, 'The No-Nonsense Guide to Equality' (New Internationalist, 2011).
13  Luke 4,18 (NRSV).
14  The Friend, 22 June 2012.
15  Letter to the Guardian, 13 December 2011.
16  Ekklesia, 'Lords vote to reduce protection for religious groups' staff', 26 January 2010.

Leave a comment