On being a domestic extremist in the UK

Written for Open Democracy and first published here.

After the news emerges that Green Party Assembly Member and peer Jenny Jones has been monitored by the Met for 11 years, it’s time to question what it means to be a domestic extremist.

Kirsty Styles: domestic extremist

I’m not sure how long I’ve been a domestic extremist, or even whether I really am. But if my name has made it onto Scotland Yard’s list, I’ll be therealongside Green peer and London Assembly member Jenny Jones. And no doubt the information compiled about me would be nothing a seven-year-old couldn’t find in 10 minutes using their mum’s tablet.

I may have set alarm bells ringing when I arranged for Guardian journalist David Leigh to come and speak at my university, which is heavily linked to BAE, about dodgy arms deals during the 1980s and 1990s. Or it could have been when I entered the public ballot for a ticket to see my arch nemesis Tony Blairgive evidence at the Iraq Inquiry in 2010. Or maybe it was when I joined the Green Party last year and ran in the most recent local election in Hackney.

For, as the Guardian outlined this week, this is a database filled with names of people who have never been arrested. They simply “seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.” I admit it. That’s me. But, police explain, in Minority Report pre-crime-style, these people may be planning to break the law…

I’ve just got back from a weekend of talks, workshops and even a wonderful ceilidh, a well-known extremist pastime, with Friends of the Earth at their annual Basecamp. There, we heard about the genuinely scary TTIP policy, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, that seeks to bring in unparalleled deregulation that could see food standards, workers’ rights, the environment and just about everything in between ripped up in the name of free trade between the US and the EU.

Everyone at Bascamp was also worried about, and organising around, fracking. At its worst, many campaigners believe this could kill people and animals. At best, it’s investors trashing our natural environment and prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels, all in the name of profit for the few. Friends of the Earth has just launched its own Run on Sun solar campaign for schools, which could save them up to £8,000 per year on fuel bills. The stuff that only radical fanatics could dream up.

While at the event, I also dared to speak to strangers and had a very interesting conversation with a fellow ‘extremist’ about SLAPPS, Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which are legal proceedings that are increasingly used to prohibit dissent among the UK population. The criminalisation of protest. Along with the Gagging Law, Boris’ unsanctioned purchase of water cannon, the Bedroom Tax, and the list goes on and on, over the past few years, we have faced an onslaught of transformative legislation from government, all of which politicians had to no mandate to bring in. And we, the people, are the extremists.

Everyone’s secret best friend Wikipedia says that extremism is an “ideology considered to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of a society”. I don’t see my very varied campaign work as part of any ideology, but it seems like arranging discussions about the UK government’s involvement with selling weapons, attending public inquiries on war crimes and standing for the Greens could count as extremism. Green attitudes in general – anti-war and for social and environmental justice – hardly sound like ideas that stray too far from popular opinion.

Our political system is derided by almost everyone you come across in near-equal measures for being out of touch, serving vested interests and scrabbling for the middle-ground, for greed, hypocrisy, elitism, cheating, lying or incompetence. There are probably many more accusations besides. But, after people get over the shock of meeting a young person, any person, who is deeply interested in our democratic process, they commend me for bothering to get involved. They feel like they should, but they just can’t overcome the feeling that it’s a waste of time, that things won’t change.

When I’m not peacefully involving myself in campaigns that I feel passionately about – local youth unemployment and community energy are two recent developments – I write about technology. Here is where activists, politicians and the general population need to focus more of their attention.

The government and its spies knew they would never be able to get the entire population to wear an electronic tag or carry an ID card, to be tracked. But now they know they didn’t need to. We’re all wandering around working as a band of gullible voluntary agents. Checking in, taking snaps and tagging. Spying on ourselves. And as Google’s helpful search algorithm ‘gets to know you’ it shows you more of what you like, which means you’re less and less likely to happen upon things by accident, like grassroots campaigns. What member of government has ever asked: ‘how we do democracy in the digital age? How do we empower people to act, what part do corporations play and how do we make powerful groups accountable?’

So I’d rather be considered a domestic extremist than indifferent, but actually I’d rather my government supported my right to have ideas and my passion for being involved in building a good society. Jenny Jones is a democratically-elected person who dares to think differently and has been monitored, just like thousands of other normal people, who are being watched and having their groups infiltrated by police even today.

I believe that the world can be different and it doesn’t matter if I can’t change it, at least I gave it a shot. I want to make sure that more people feel the same, because we have to work together if we want to make a real difference to our future course.

And, if they are monitoring me, I truly hope GCHQ enjoys trawling the Manalogue group, something one of my friends created on Facebook where we used to post pictures of ‘fittie celebrities’. Needless to say Tony Blair did not make the cut.

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