BOMB IT – street art is revolution

26 03 2009

Some of humankind’s first artistic expressions were on walls and they still continue to this very day. After its birth in Philadelphia, the explosion of graffiti writing in New York between 1969 and 1974 immersed the city’s streets and subways with a wave of creative energy.  Empowered young people were able to occupy their own space in public space, emerging from the shadows of marginalisation and challenging authority. It was not long before this artform captured the imagination of people around the world and soon spread to become a global culture. Quickly criminalised and treated as mere vandalism by the state and property owners who saught to suppress freedom, hide protest and maintain sanitised “clean” streets.

“Bomb It” is a documentary on global graffiti culture, from the streets of Barcelona to the sewers of Sao Paulo. The filmmakers create a narrative that explores the motivations of these artists and delve a little deeper into what graffiti really means in modern society and its relationship to public space. It really is worth checking out.

Check their site here.

Graffiti writing started at the birth of human consciousness” – KRS-One


A solution to the horror of the global trade in drugs?

22 03 2009

Anti-drugs policy is an absolute disaster. For decades governments have struggled to control the international trade in drugs. Prohibition has had consequences that are the polar opposite of its intentions. Policy-makers are hellbent on a regressive and ineffective approach that has done nothing to stem escalating violence in underdeveloped countries, the creation of a narco-state in Africa and rising drug consumption in western countries. The 52nd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna has just agreed to maintain this approach. The Economist, regardless of its ideological positions, has published four articles on “illegal” drugs. Here’s one of them.

A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission—just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly committed member countries to achieving a “drug-free world” and to “eliminating or significantly reducing” the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The evidence of failure

Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has “stabilised”, meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world’s adult population, still take illegal drugs—roughly the same proportion as a decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.) The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early 1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.

This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price, which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the United States.

Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it undermines the West’s efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Al Capone, but on a global scale

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their own children.

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong. There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply (pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument, as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designer drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take. The resources gained from tax and saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment to addicts—a way of making legalisation more politically palatable. The success of developed countries in stopping people smoking tobacco, which is similarly subject to tax and regulation, provides grounds for hope.

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?

This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago (see article). Reviewing the evidence again (see article), prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of manifest failure argues for trying it.

This article can found here, while one on the Mexican drug issue can be found here.

Check out the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, they are working to create a more humane drug control system.

Stop and Search by Banksy

20 02 2009

Limiting photojournalistic freedom

12 02 2009

On Monday a piece of anti-terror legislation comes into force. Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 states that anyone who:

“elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is, or has been a member of Her Majesty’s forces, a member of any of the intelligence services, or a constable, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates any such information” will be committing an offence carrying a maximum jail term of 10 years.

This legislation will prove a useful tool for police wanting to cover up their brutal oppression of legitimate protests and for a government wanting to starve off publicity of dissent. And if used in this way will simply equate to press censorship through the suppression of facts that are contrary to state interests.

Marc Vallée a photojournalist who specialises in protests, writes on Guardian comments:

“you could be arrested for taking and publishing a picture of a police officer if the police think it is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. Your defence if charged by the crown prosecution service would be to prove that you had a “reasonable excuse” to take the picture in the first place…Documenting political dissent in Britain is under attack and just in time for the political and industrial fall out from the recession…Section 76 will fit in nicely alongside other blunt instruments such as section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which has had a huge impact on photography in a public place.”

This video titled ‘Press Freedom: Collateral Damage’ produced by the National Union of Journalists sheds some light on the kind of tactics already used by the police, without this legislation.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Insight on Greek rebellion

5 01 2009

From The Real News Network:

On December 6th, 2008, conflict broke out across Athens as youths responded to the killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the Greek police. Over the following four weeks, protests spread nationwide and the protesters continue to promise further activities, including the announcement of a nationwide day of action on January 9th. The Real News spoke to a freelance journalist in Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki and a resident of Athens’ Exarcheia neighborhood, where many of the clashes between protesters and police have taken place. They provide a glimpse into the various factors that have created such a volatile situation.

Fading freedom in the British police state.

17 12 2008

The Take

Our state hates the idea of individual liberty. As the years of the Labour government have progressed we have seen the steady deployment of various technological tools that surveill the people. The following is a list of some already implemented and proposed laws and projects that strengthen the power of the state, take freedom and impose on the individual’s right to privacy.

Terrorism Act 2006 (imposed a 28 day limit on detention without charge).

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (allows the police to stop and search anyone in a specific area).

Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (gives Cabinet ministers sweeping powers in designated emergencies including quarantine areas, restricting travel, handing control of essential industries to the army).

Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (restricts the right to demonstrate within an exclusion zone of up to one kilometre from any point in Parliament Square).

Identity Card Act 2006 (proposed 2010 implementation of ID cards for airport workers and nationwide in 2011).

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (allows the government to access a person’s electronic communications).

● Coroners and Justice Bill (proposed, will remove existing legal barriers to data sharing).

Communications Data Bill (postponed, will monitor web comms using Internet Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), as well as telephone calls).

● DNA database (5.3 million profiles, many not convicted, although just denounced as unlawful by the European court of human rights).

● NHS central medical records database called Secondary Uses Service (SUS).

ContactPoint National child database (proposed directory that will hold information on all children under 18).

4 million CCTV cameras.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition CCTV cameras linked to police national computer.

● Spy drones (have been used in Merseyside, Liverpool and at V festival).

Mobile fingerprint and face recognition scanners (proposed use within 18 months).

Fingerprinting students from outside Europe (proposed to start in autumn 2009).

10,000 Taser stun guns available to police officers across England and Wales (BBC link).

Metropolitan Police’s Form 696 (proposed, requires venues and club managers in London to report to the police the names, addresses, aliases and telephone numbers of artists).

These tools of privacy invasion and “terrorism” evasion are trampling all over rights hard-won, often at the expensive of freedom and life (by people like John Lilburne, John Wilkes, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill and Ernest Jones), from tyrannous monarchs and governments over hundreds of years. For anyone who values a life free from state monitoring and interference, these projects are an act of complete contempt. But what motivates the government into implementing them and what do they mean for the distribution of political power in our so-called democracy?

Enshrined in law

We first have to look at why in any democratic country an individual would have his or her liberty taken away from them for legitimate reasons. Above all, individuals should be protected from arbitrary state power through habeas corpus, which states that:

“No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

So, if a court judges, beyond reasonable doubt, that a person has broken the law they can be imprisoned for a specified amount of time. Property aside, the most legitimate reason for someone to be imprisoned would be through the encroachment on an individual’s right to be free from violence and murder. The state is seen as having the responsibility to protect its citizens from such acts and this is widely accepted. However, as terrorist acts have been perpetrated and the perceived threat of terrorism has grown, the government has created new laws that give itself more powers to detain and monitor the citizenry. The justification of these laws has been that terrorism and crime in the twenty first century has evolved and its prevention outweighs the individual’s right to liberty. In the words of Tony Blair:

“Ultimately, for me this whole issue is not about whether we care about civil liberties, but how we care for them in the modern world. If the traditional processes were the answer to these crime and law and order problems…then we wouldn’t be having this debate. But they’re not. They’ve failed. They are leaving the innocent unprotected and the guilty unpunished. That’s why we need them changed.” (1)

Of course, surveillance might reduce crime (although evidence points to the contrary) but it comes at cost, in trading freedom for security, the state is completely upsetting the balance between crime prevention and civil liberty. It’s a response characteristic across much of government’s policy making, they attempt to command and control instead of tackling the roots of social and environmental problems. Crime results from a huge complex of social factors and the policy of punishment has just not worked, prisons are overflowing. Twenty first century terrorism has emerged in response to US and British support for Israel and general endeavours for military dominance in the Middle East. These laws and databases are another attempt to control our behaviour instead of concentrating on the causes of these behaviours in the first place and the entire population is paying the price.

Media and the minority for the majority

We are in a situation in which Britain has the weakest possible form of democracy, representative in nature and where the electorate has entrusted the political elite to serve in its interests. With this mandated power the state is using its authority to create a sophisticated and wide ranging system that will act as a window into our lives. You would think that the citizenry would overwhelmingly oppose such authoritarian advances, until now confined to our imaginations through the pages of dystopian (a term in fact first used is this context by John Stuart Mill) novels.

If polls are anything to go by. On the issue of identity cards, two have been carried out. One by the Home Office that found 60% of people were in favour of the scheme and one by the ICM that found 50% of people against (2). The differing results possibly arising from the kind of questions being asked in each poll. Still, there is by no means a majority opposing the scheme, this is worrying, why would people willingly give up their freedom and privacy?

If we turn to the media there is a mixed picture. It’s apparent that tabloids and broads alike have been quite critical of the identity card project. This has been combined with considerable attention on the broader civil liberty issues of privacy and mass surveillance, although by no means widespread. Covered on the right by Philip Johnston and on the left by Henry Porter, in addition to a number of reports, documentaries and inquiries.

Despite this coverage, the media has used crime and terror ‘infotainment’ to sell papers and in turn generate an up welling of fear and distrust. Creating a culture in which people perceive crime and terrorism as a greater threat to their safety than it in reality does (3). This would motivate a want for expanded state powers to create a feeling of security. Papers not only shape thoughts, they also have an enormous influence on government policy. Instead of using credible research the focus is on policy that responds to headlines and uses spin tactics to manipulate public opinion (3). Undermining the democratic function the media should be performing.

It’s worth wondering, do you reform the system or shift to a new set of political structures? Is the state of liberty in Britain linked to a general depoliticisation of the nation and the spread of apathy?

Disinterest in the political system fuels a situation in which people, distracted by consumerism, don’t want to participate in making decisions that affect their lives. Or if they do want to make decisions for themselves they are disempowered and can’t voice their opinions other than in governmental consultations that are nothing more than token gestures. Further, the centralised bureaucracy that is the state, in essence, provides an infrastructure that allows for the effortless concentration and sharing of information and data. In a participatory political system, these departments of control would not have to exist to such a large scale, with citizens making direct decisions (through local meetings or even the internet). If people are not directly involved in decision-making, protest is often a frequently sought means to show dissatisfaction. But when these do occur, they are often small, rare and of course repressed.

Stifling discontent

Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was recently in the crux of a civil crisis and the streets were alive with discontent. The unjust shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos was a catalyst, people were sick of a government that had paid them little attention. This outburst of energy was a visual, although somewhat violent, display through which the Greek youth empowered themselves. While the streets have been buzzing with rage, the only means the Greek police have had to control the situation has been through repression/brutality on the front lines.

Imagine a similar situation in Britain – but it’s 2025 and the state has increasingly become more and more authoritarian to the point that the general election has almost lost all meaning. There is an established network of face recognition and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) CCTV cameras. Communications are meticulously monitored. Various databases provide details on individual’s political views. ID cards contain radio-frequency identification chips that are read by ubiquitous scanners around urban areas and it is illegal to protest in city centres. People are angry and want to make the state take notice and relinquish power. A mass demonstration is organised to take place in London.

The ANPR will allow the tracking of protester’s vehicles, allowing police to intercept or harass them. ID cards will be needed to gain access to public transport and profiling will restrict access. Face recognition cameras will identify people in the streets and allow their subsequent arrest. And, who knows how else the surveillance system could be adapted to varying police demands? The Identity Card Act itself does not restrict the functional scope of the project, which could be much greater than that originally publicised by the government. The powers of the state could extend far beyond the front lines and repression and exclusion would embed deeply into the fabric of society.

Her Majesty’s National Prison

A ‘maximum security society’ is just not acceptable for the functioning of any kind of democracy. I have argued that this consolidation of power is yet another symptom of the type of political system we use in this country. But we cannot forget other arenas of political and social consequence that would form in this liberty devoid Britain – discrimination – choice and consent – anonymity – boundaries between commercial, public and state databases – identity errors – stolen private data – financial cost – trust.

What is at our immediate disposal to counteract this assault on freedom and begin breaking down the walls of this national prison? The internet is a medium bustling with news articles, critical blogs, essays and reports on the taking of liberty that can raise awareness on the issues. And fundamentally, it circumvents the distortions of reality found in the media. Mass civil disobedience on identity cards would be an extremely powerful act and even some MP’s have already claimed they will not bow to state coercion on the matter. Expression through protests could elevate public consciousness and possibly influence the government. Surveillance Impact Assessments (SIA), have been proposed by The Surveillance Studies Network as a legislative means to examine any adverse effects a law or project would have on individual privacy and society as a whole. If it’s orientation we seek, ‘The Convention on Modern Liberty‘ scheduled for 28th February will provide the opportunity to hear various politicians, lawyers, journalists and scientists discuss the threats to our fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, I believe the potential power for real change in government policy on this issue comes from the fact that it transcends the political ideologies of left and right.

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