The hashtag revolution
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
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
'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
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.
LIKE A THIEF
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
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
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
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
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.
DOING NOT JOINING
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
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
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
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
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.
EVICTED FROM CHURCH
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
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
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
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
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
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
1 Interviewed 13 June 2012.
2 Tim Gee, 'Counterpower: Making change happen' (New
3 Robin Cook, The Point of Departure (Simon and
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.
8 Baptist Times, 5 March 2010.
9 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.