Monday, June 28, 2010

People Pressure

One of the joys that has come from my studies over the years is a recognition that people - just like you or I - can cause momentous shifts in established structures of power.

This is why I have a picture of Gandhi on my picture-board, stuck between erotic greetings cards. Not company he'd expect, but there you are... A skinny little bugger with an iron will who managed to defy and defeat the guns of the British Empire, without firing a shot. As Gandhi pointed out, if the people simply say 'No', then without their co-operation nothing can move forward.

The revolutions of the eastern European States were largely bloodless, as these things go, again revealing the nascent power of ordinary people who refuse to be squeezed. In quiet moments of individual decision and resolve, people decided to say, 'no'. And the structures of power crumbled.

And so I can appreciate why the Prison Service has always been very afraid of prisoners organising in any way. Our keepers appreciate that prisons (like Governments) can only function with the cooperation of the prisoners.

This is an understanding that prisoners have persistently failed to grasp. When buried beneath a pyramid of power made of concrete and steel, it can be difficult to appreciate that one has a latent power.


  1. Whilst I agree that prisoners have latent or potential power, just as the poor and oppressed have too; the question that comes to my mind is whether it is a reality to believe that the potential power can be galvanised in some way by such a passive thing as 'saying no'?

    I don't know much about the struggle for Independence in India, but it was much wider than Ghandi.

    Because of the rat race we live in, the oneupmanship, shortsightedness and competition, the necessary actions needed to unite and challenge the inequalities and unfairness of the system are clouded and hidden for the most part.

    In prisons, people may feel even more inclined to do absolutely anything to get out. Solidarity and fighting the system would be the last thing on the minds of many whose choices have been thinned due to incarceration.

    A more direct and concrete lead would probably produce different results and unleash for some feelings of liberation from the years of being downtrodden and all the petty injustices that dog the system we live under.

    The walls need to be torn down, the chains of oppression broken! Not necessarily through violence, but through a concrete and concerted challenge; like Rosa Parkes for example and her refusal to be segregated on the buses in the 1950's USA that sparked the civil rights movement.

    It is the violence of the state and how it responds to political challenges that is the overarching problem not the violence from the oppressed.

  2. I think you have a point about organization. One person who says no really can be forced...because all my himself, he's outnumbered. If everyone went up at the same time, as has on occasion happened, they could get a fairly significant level of control, but they would get it at a price, and paying that price isn't worth it unless there's something the *group* wants to get out of it. In, for example, a strike, you strike in protest of a particular policy or concern, and when you win, the strike is over. A defined endpoint keeps the noncompliance and the cost that comes with it, from becoming too wearing to continue. If it's expected to go on forever (or even just longer than people feel is reasonable) a lot will back out, and then the few still going are outnumbered again.

    Ghandi's work in India involved a) a very powerful motivator and b) a distinct goal. What would your goal be? Votes for prisoners? Complete reform, or at least, re-examining, of the prison system? stopping abuses of power? do you think those would be a powerful enough motivator for someone who only expects to have to live with this for a short time?

  3. This short video is currently doing the web, thought I would post it here, 'the people vs the state' in Toronto at the G20, just a few days ago, most relevant methinks

  4. Even Ghandi went to Jail.

  5. As far as Ghandi and erotic postcards go, he would have felt quite at home with them:

  6. ***Even Ghandi went to jail.***

    A little crass, don't you think to compare someone who was jailed for peaceful political opposition to someone who was jailed for murder?

    While what Ben says is true about the peaceful non-co-operation of the people challenging established power structures, the argument is surely strong enough on its own not to have to try to associate the struggle of Indians for freedom from British rule with the struggle of convicted prisoners to be treated better in jail.

    I'm not blind to the iniquities of the UK prison system but Gandhi was fighting for India to be free of the British, not for India to be treated more fairly by the British.

    The difference in scale between a fight for an absolute moral right (self-determination) and a juggling of conflicting interests between society's right to punish offenders and the right of offenders to be treated fairly is mind-boggling.

  7. Steve h, perhaps the comparison is not insane. Ask yourself why ben has been kept in prison for 20 years over his tariff.