This post was originally published in Trinity News on September 25th 2018.
Much of the public and media reaction to the recent occupation of city centre properties, and the subsequent law enforcement response, has been deeply and thoroughly disappointing. Commentators are too fixated on whether the protest was “legitimate”. There is inordinate scrutiny of the activists as individuals, which occasionally descends into total harassment Whether naturally or by design, this has shifted the discussion away from the actual issue at hand.
This is a time when we should be doing deep soul-searching about how a housing crisis which ruins thousands of lives daily was allowed to develop. Instead we have government ministers taking to our television screens to demand people be nicer to Gardaí, specifically those who use batons and pepper spray against peaceful protesters.
Obviously no one deserves to face threats of violence, no matter who they are or what they do for a living. But Minister Flanagan’s proposal to ban filming of Gardaí is a clear and disgusting affront to democracy, and he deserves to be politically torn apart for it. Officers routinely disguising their identities for purposes other than counterterrorism operations is similarly dangerous. Increased scrutiny of police forces performing their duties results in less violence, not more.
Criticism of the legitimacy of protest and direct action is similarly beside the point. It’s ridiculous to demand that protests be quiet, entirely within any and all legal boundaries and totally non-disruptive. Protest is meant to disrupt; that’s the means by which it calls immediate attention to urgent issues. Otherwise it’s not a protest, it’s just a discussion. People resort to protest when they’re being ignored.
Rosa Parks, Gandhi – all social movements ever have been criticised using the exact same script. It’s an age-old tactic to discredit social movements of all kinds, and it’s despicable. Indeed, the ostracisation of Colin Kaepernick by the American right shows us that even the gentlest of demonstrations will face huge backlash. You can’t win, and it’s designed to be that way.
It’s not like the activists actually caused any real damage to anyone, either. Protests are meant to be disruptive, but as protests go this one was well-targeted and respectful. The organisers peacefully occupied a vacant, dilapidated property owned by one of the wealthiest landlords in the country in order to demand action on a devastating national crisis. For their trouble, they were forcibly removed by private security guards, whose conduct on the day violated no less than three separate laws, if we’re concerned about law breaking. These were backed up by masked Gardaí, who used force against both the protesters and against observing members of the public, several of whom were hospitalised. To engage in such a protest in the first place, and to vow continued and emboldened action after such a disproportionate and violent response, is an act of civic heroism and patriotism.
So yes, I think the point has been missed. While I can’t speak to the motivations of media figures, this is absolutely no accident on the part of the government – it’s blatant misdirection. Because when it becomes a national discussion about an individual protest or an individual activist group, and not the deep and systemic issues that made people angry enough to protest, they’re off the hook. There’s less scrutiny of the complete and utter failure of successive governments to fulfil their duty to the most vulnerable people in the country, if people are distracted by the minutiae of one incident. While I obviously have no proof, I suspect that Flanagan’s inflammatory comments were calculated in this way. They came, consciously or unconsciously, less from a place of actually wanting to implement any proposal and more jumping on the opportunity to talk about anything other than his party’s deeply rooted classism.
And yes, it is classism. The housing crisis wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t just a product of economic circumstance that no one could have foreseen or helped. This was at best horrific negligence and at worst a deliberate policy of social vandalism. We know numerous ways to ease housing crises, and Fine Gael (and to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) have chosen to use their positions of power to implement basically none of them, for reasons known only to themselves.
At no point since 2011 has construction of social housing in this country been even a quarter of what it was in 2009. The practice of providing government-run “cost rental” housing, common across Europe for decades, has been done exactly zero times in Ireland to date. The government and local authorities have time and time again chosen to sit on their hands and allow dozens of new hotels to be built and properties to be rented short-term, such as on AirBnB (effectively unregulated), in the midst of record-breaking demand for housing and skyrocketing rents. There has been absolutely nothing done to regulate the practice of leaving vacant large swathes of properties by developers or to incentivise turning said properties into accommodation, nor has there been meaningful effort to return vacant state-owned land to the housing supply.
Indeed huge amounts of NAMA properties have been sold into private hands, and the tax structure of the sales actually encouraged buyers to do nothing with their purchases except wait for them to appreciate. Even the new Land Development Agency, the government has just announced will use an abysmal 30% of its land for affordable housing and 10% for social housing. The rest will be sold no-strings-attached to private developers to use as they wish. Evidence thus far suggests they usually wish to either leave the land vacant to acquire value, build hotels, or develop “luxury student accommodation”.
So every media outlet, talking head, and political figure who tried to make this an argument about peaceful protest should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. There is something deeply and systemically broken in this country, and the people we elected to fix such things are either deliberately or through sheer stupidity doing nothing about it.
People are being evicted from rental accommodation they’ve lived in for years, students are paying €800 a month to live in literal cupboards, and the number of families without homes has increased by a factor of five in the last four years alone. But sure, tell me more about how the protesters were “trespassing”.