Comment | The Shawcross Prevent Review will lead to greater criminalisation of activism — We must stop it
Over the past month, Prevent Watch has noted that the Prevent programme in the UK and its global counterpart, CVE, are being used to quell Palestinian activism and, in some cases, criminalise it as “extremism”. This is a reminder of the political nature of Prevent and how it uses its own conceived language to suppress individuals and groups who support those who are being oppressed. This is being done under the banner of the ‘war on terror’, and the recent attacks on Al Aqsa Mosque and the clampdown on advocacy against the abuse of Palestinians is a distillation of these mechanics.
It is no secret that pro-Zionist, neoconservative “think-tanks” have been influential in formulating Prevent and CVE. It is also pertinent that William Shawcross has been chosen by the UK government to “review” its Prevent strategy. Shawcross — who once lambasted the UN for its criticism of Israel’s attack on the freedom flotilla, and who has expressed support for “enhanced interrogation” of Muslims at Guantanamo — has pointedly been instructed to “investigate” links between “Islamist extremism” and “antisemitism”.
This calls into question the ethical integrity of the current review; it also illustrates that Shawcross is unsuitable for such an “investigation”; his record on such subjects is so biased that his would-be conclusions are already obvious. Shawcross’s ties to Zionist political groups, as well as to neo-conservative hawks in the British government, makes clear the implication of his selection by No. 10: To link “Islamist extremism” with “antisemitism”. It also gives us some idea of what the future Prevent might look like.
The fusion of loose and political terminologies means a wider funnel to contain activism
Antisemitism, very much like “extremism”, is also defined loosely. Its framework is set by the IRHA — a controversial organisation in itself — which claims that “antisemitism” includes the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”. Though this is a highly disputed statement in a number of circles, it says a lot about the future political bent of Prevent, and the obvious bias of the current “review”.
There is now no longer a need to wonder what ideology is behind Prevent, or to hold our breath for how the next revamp of Prevent will view Palestinian activism — in particular that involving Muslims but others too, who will also fall into the net. These developments have been coming for some time.
The 2014 Birmingham school hoax (known popularly as “the Trojan Horse affair”) was a watershed moment in embedding Prevent in schools by co-opting safeguarding policy — which is today being leveraged to silence activism for Palestine among young people. It is significant that then-education secretary, Michael Gove, commissioned the former counterterrorism unit head Peter Clarke to investigate the Birmingham school hoax.
Though obviously disingenuous, the report that was eventually published revealed much about the pro-Zionist political alignment of Prevent; for instance it pertinently used the Prevent definition of “extremism” to censure the orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, because it was “anti-Israel”. Since then, the cases we have dealt with at Prevent Watch strongly indicate an anti-Palestine bias running through Prevent referrals, which — when seen in light of instructions to Shawcross — hints at the shape of things to come.
In 2015, it was reported that a schoolboy was accused by a police officer of holding “terrorist-like” views simply based on their possession of a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) leaflet. That same year, “Free Palestine” badges were deemed “extremist” while another teenager required “deradicalisation” for attending a peaceful protest against an Israeli diplomat. The following year, Prevent’s behaviour manipulation continued: a young schoolboy who was referred by his teachers for raising money to help Palestinian children was questioned by counteterror police for wearing a pro-Palestine badge.
Universities in particular have come under increasing pressure to manage and risk assess Palestine activism to adhere to their responsibility under Prevent in a manner that is out of balance with their legal imperative to ensure freedom of speech and opinion. For example, the Safe Campus Communities website cites in its list of “contentious” topics” the “vocal support for Palestine” and “opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza.”
Prevent exerts pressure even when there is no referral; its language and guidelines justify sanctions against those who articulate support for Palestine, particularly young people. In one such recent incident, which was recorded and went viral, a teacher is heard telling a child that his opinion of what is happening in Palestine is why people like him go on to join terrorist groups.
Alternative platform of advocacy against Prevent gathers support
It is the Prevent training in particular which links Palestinian activism with a supposed “vulnerability to extremism”. The fact that this can happen retrospectively should concern anyone involved in political causes that challenge the government.
In one of the cases documented by Prevent Watch, social workers, acting on Prevent guidance, called into question the parental capability of a Muslim parent who took her child to a pro-Palestinian rally six years ago. She did not imagine that her child would be flagged and scrutinized under Prevent, and herself questioned for “undermining” the UK government.
The Prevent training is a particular weak point that needs investigation. The social worker in the above case claimed that she would have to “take the case forward” and “follow procedure” because they had undergone so-called “special training”. This was a reference to the Workshop to Raise Awareness about Prevent (WRAP) training, which public sector workers undergo as part of the Prevent duty.
Although most Prevent advocates batted away earlier cases as teething issues, the problem is still prevalent today. Recently, an individual who had attended the WRAP training called Prevent Watch for support. During her Prevent training, she told us, the trainer referred to Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”. The Prevent trainer had also stated that children attending pro-Palestine rallies were “vulnerable to extremism”. Such training shows how the Prevent guidelines are not only inaccurate, but they are also outdated and driven by paranoia; and the fear they foster is bringing untold harm to many innocent people.
The alternative People’s Review of Prevent promises to explore all of this and more. While hundreds of organisations have boycotted the Shawcross “review”, it is now up to all those concerned with its trajectory to organise an alternative platform centred on justice. We’ll meet you there.
If you have any concerns about Prevent, or have experienced its harms yourself, or in your family and community, please join us and submit your evidence to us.
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Discussions of violence and non-violence often begin by first trying to define those terms and then asking what justifies the use of violence or non-violence as a strategy in social and political movements. However, this approach assumes that an abstract distinction between violence and non-violence is decisive for whether a political action or strategy is justified. In other words, it is already assumed that either violence or non-violence is more effective or legitimate than the other, and this assumption influences how we define both terms.
Unless we reserve the term ‘violence’ for only the most horrendous of acts, and use ‘non-violence’ to denote only the most passive and ineffective kinds of protest, I don’t think we can assume from the outset that one is more legitimate or effective than the other. And if we do define violence or non-violence in this way, then I don’t think the question has much relevance for social movements.
Instead, I’d like to turn this question around and begin with a different assumption: that, however we define these terms, both violence and non-violence have a place in social movements.
As such, the violence/non-violence distinction does not have to be a moral or practical one but instead relates to differences of/in power within social movements. This would mean that the question of whether violence or non-violence are justified depends on the specific context of each action, and specifically on the relations of power within which this action is unfolding.
Interestingly, both violent and non-violent resistance have in the past been justified as strategies for disrupting structural violence. On one side, it is argued that only non-violence is able to break out of a cycle of “reciprocal cruelty and vengeance”. On the other, it has been argued that non-violent activism reproduces the very inequalities of oppressive relationships it purports to challenge, and that these can be overcome only through the reciprocity inherent in violent resistance. I am here particularly thinking of Fanon’s argument that violent struggle “rids the colonized of their inferiority complex”.
I suggest that both arguments are true. Their apparent contradiction is not one of logic but rather rooted in the contradictory nature of power itself. On the one hand, I agree with Foucault and Butler that there is no innocent position outside of oppressive systems: People depend on and reproduce power-relations for their social existence and survival. For example, I am a union organiser and in order to improve conditions in my workplace, I also reproduce the system of wage labour that exploits workers.
On the other hand, power is exercised and experienced unequally. It creates divisions between people whose lives are valued, cared for and protected, and those who are locked away, persecuted, exploited, killed and silenced. Power creates opposing interests and perspectives that cannot be reconciled without a transformation of oppressive institutions.
The consciousness of the oppressed is not the same as — or inferior to, or the mirror opposite of — the consciousness of the oppressor. It is radically different: it negates not only the oppressor but the oppressor-oppressed relationship itself. The contradictory nature of power is that it is both totalising and divisive. It oppresses both by including and excluding.
To break out of the cycle of violence, then, you have to already be within this cycle. Refusing to participate in structural violence can be thought of as a disruptive act of non-violence. If one is already invested, and participating, in systemic violence, such non-violence will not be easy or passive. It will involve sacrifice, sustained effort and (un-)learning. It can involve acts of defiance, such as occupying arms factories or disrupting immigration raids. It can also involve quitting a job or sharing one’s home with people excluded from housing. Such non-violences acknowledge complicity with oppression. They are acts of dissent and differentiation.
It is sometimes asserted that violent resistance reproduces the violence of the oppressor. However, the violence of the oppressed could never match that of the oppressor. The biblical principle of “an eye for an eye” presumes a situation of equality where one person’s loss is equal to another’s. This, of course, is not our reality. Asserting the right to reciprocate against oppressive violence is to assert, and act out, an equality that has been denied. Violent resistance, therefore, exposes and challenges the inequality of structural violence. The right to violent resistance is given by the situation of inequality itself.
This can involve armed struggle, of course, but also many acts that are not commonly seen as violent, such as going on strike or demanding accountability for crimes. Another example of violent resistance in this sense is migration, and the demand for migrant and refugee rights. Migration can be thought of as a way of asserting the right to move and settle in another country, even though these rights are not – or are only reluctantly – granted. Where migration violates unjust boundaries, it can be seen as a form of violent and legitimate resistance.
Because of the contradictory nature of power, people will find themselves in both the position of oppressor and oppressed at different times and depending on particular situations. This means that many people will use both violent and non-violent practices at different times in order to resist oppression. However, the totalising and exclusionary tendencies of power are polarized in such a way that there are large groups of people who will almost only have recourse to violence, and groups who mostly enjoy the privilege of non-violence. I argue that this is precisely the situation that must be transformed through a diversity of tactics that recognizes the interdependence of violence and non-violence. Diversity of tactics is a praxis that does not eliminate but depolarizes and decentralizes the contradictory nature of power.
Both violence and non-violence can radically transform oppression. By asserting equality, violence (as I have conceptualized it here) exposes and subverts a person or system’s power to exclude. It challenges the monopolies of violence held by these systems and their agents such as sexual predators, landlords, police and employers. By asserting difference and dissent, non-violence can subvert and challenge a person or system’s claim to universality.
The aim of activism is not to keep oppressed people in a space of difference, and neither is it to simply integrate people into oppressive structures. Instead, the aim is to transform those structures. This is done by continuously challenging and subverting both the totalising and the exclusionary tendencies of power. The degree to which individuals and groups can carry out either task depends on their relationship to oppressive structures. I suggest that the resistance by people excluded by these structures in any particular situation can be characterised as “violent” because it involves using the hegemonic discourse to demand a “piece of the pie”. The resistance of those who are complicit with oppressive structures can be characterised as non-violent because it involves a refusal of the hegemonic discourse.
Sure, if lots of people in the UK took up arms they’d be effective, but imagine if they all quit their jobs or stopped participating in elections. How can we justify violence in instances where non-violence is just as effective and potentially more so? Conversely, how can someone non-violently resist if they have no job to put down, no ballot to spoil, and the system does not recognize their life as valuable? People occupy unique and mobile positions within intersecting systems of power, and so the strategies of resistance that they can use vary. However, their strategies are united in the challenge they pose to oppression. Since the contradiction between violence and non-violence is rooted in oppression, our diversity of tactics is the praxis that can transform this oppression.
 Adin Ballou “Christian Non-Resistance”, Chapter 1.
 Frantz Fanon 1961 “The Wretched of the Earth”, Chapter 1 ‘On Violence’.
 Leon De Kock 1992 “Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa”.
James Baldwin’s critique of American life stands out as one of the preeminent interventions of the Civil Rights era. A bitter moral condemnation underlay his analysis, yet it was attenuated by a belief in a very worldly redemption, in which America, a house divided against itself, could become one. Race was central to Baldwin’s thinking, as were issues of sexuality and class, ideas explored through his fiction, notably Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, and through his non-fiction, in the form of essays.
In Notes of A Native Son, James Baldwin declared his principal ambition in life was to be ‘an honest man and a good writer’. In 1948, at the age of 24, he departed for Paris, spending the rest of his twenties in Europe, before returning to America in 1957. Baldwin stood outside the reality of his country, which allowed him to more accurately observe what he saw upon his return. In many ways, it was this distance which allowed him to offer the critiques that he did.
Baldwin’s conception of America was fascinating. Whereas MLK fought non-violently for an integrated America and Malcolm X rejected the promise of it, Baldwin argued America was already integrated. The labour spent and the blood spilt building the country, he pointed out, were the consequence of an existing, enforced and unequal state of integration. Three centuries after the first slaves arrived in North America, and two centuries after the founding of the union, had ensured that the United States, black and white, were integrated by blood, if nothing else. Yet, given the economic, social and spiritual immiseration of Black Americans, Baldwin believed in the necessity of creating art, a greater form of liberation for the individual and society at large. His own novels were an obvious example. Rufus Scott, the black protagonist of Baldwin’s novel Another Country, was partially based on his friend Eugene Worth, who committed suicide in 1946 by jumping off the George Washington bridge (just as Scott does in the novel).
Black music also featured prominently in Baldwin’s imagination. As a child preacher he understood the importance of cadence and musicality to the human ear, and even after leaving the Church, this feeling remained with him. ‘There are three elements in the blues: the reflection of a condition, the expression of a rage, and an avowal of love. It’s love that gives the blues their ironic and tragic tone’. The ironic, the tragic and the beautiful were Baldwin’s assessments of America, an insight, as an outsider and writer, he was best placed to make.
Baldwin’s analysis of American racism is best understood as a social-psychological critique, grounded in a potent moralism. As he memorably put it in an interview with Dr Kenneth Clark in May 1963:
The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people…whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they’ve relied on for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man.
Baldwin’s outspoken declaration was an assertion of an identity long denied. The very terms which were used for black men — ‘boy’, ‘nigger’ — reflected the infantilisation and degradation of black Americans. Racism is explained as a product of white American fear and insecurity. The ‘nigger’ was a creation of white minds, not a description of reality. Baldwin goes on: “For a negro there’s no difference between the North and the South…there’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact’. No other significant intellectual of the period spoke in such a way. The extraordinary achievement of Baldwin was to simultaneously condemn his country for its conduct yet hold out the prospect of redemption, as long as black and white subsumed themselves as Americans.
Baldwin’s criticism also extended to the idea of cultural immaturity. ‘Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too’. Baldwin explored the idea of American immaturity in great depth in an early essay, written in 1949, titled,’ Preservation of Innocence’ as well as in one of his final essays, ‘Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood’. The ‘unnaturalness’ of homosexuality was cited as the reason for its depravity yet, as Baldwin pointed out, even assuming this was true, it would be to partake in the naturalistic fallacy, where the so-called ‘natural’ is good, and the artificial evil.
This fear and revulsion of homosexuality were deep-seated in American life. The FBI, who were surveilling Baldwin, speculated about his sexual orientation, and deemed him a ‘pervert’. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, referred in private to Baldwin as ‘Martin Luther Queen’. As one of Baldwin’s biographers, James Campbell, puts it, ‘colour and sex are the defining preoccupations of the American mind’.
Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement was launched, America has undoubtedly made immense cultural progress. Intolerance towards homosexuality and racial minorities has not only become unacceptable but baffling to most Americans in the 21st century. Yet, a danger lies in replacing radical rhetoric and direct action with platitudes and self-congratulatory sloganeering. Baldwin’s evident radicalism cannot be sanitised for the modern age: ‘There is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure’.
Has such change occurred? Electoral politics is still dominated by big donors who retain an inordinate amount of political power, with corporations free to not only exploit the domestic economy but an ever-expanding global market. What would Baldwin think of the expansion of American capitalism and the development of what many scholars have termed neo-colonialism? It is not completely evident that change is always progressive, or that there are no backwards or sidewards steps along the road of history. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 are only two of the most ominous signs of such regression.
The Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 are also emblematic of the continuing suspicion and hostility between large segments of African American communities and the police. ‘Race relations’, the term we often use to talk about this subject, is itself evidence of failure. The hope of transcending race has seemingly crumbled and, along with it, James Baldwin’s promise of redemption.
However, this is not where the story ends. Baldwin was born in 1924, poor, black and gay. He was dealt one of the worst hands America had to offer. Despite this, he was able, through extraordinary intellectual and rhetorical power, to unravel the nature of the American mind and show us that where there is dark there is also light, that where there is hate there can also be love, and that belief in such redemption is not merely desirable, but necessary.
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