Social justice activists must choose their battles with care | Angus Ritchie
Angry protests may only serve those defending the privileged. We must be 'wise as serpents' when taking action for change
My most memorable history lesson was a trip to Culloden battlefield. It should be compulsory for every social justice activist. Our class was made to stand where the Jacobites assembled for battle. We then had to try and charge at the opposing lines. Without a single word from the teacher, we could see why Bonnie Prince Charlie was utterly defeated.
The terrain for any battle needs to be chosen with great care. This is understood by those defending privilege. It is all too often forgotten by those of us fighting for social justice.
Some Christian activists have adopted #Mark1115 as their hashtag on Twitter. (The verse refers to Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple.) An equally urgent imperative is #Matthew1016. This is the verse in which Jesus urges his followers to be "wise as serpents" as well as being "gentle as doves". In the fight for social justice, the costs of strategic folly are usually borne by the poorest.
The Occupy camp seems to have rejected the voices urging such folly at St Paul's cathedral. "We are the 99%" was a wise slogan for the camp. The occupiers recognised a moment of widespread public frustration at the failure of our financial systems. They saw a unique opportunity to build a coalition for change beyond the "usual suspects" of political campaigning.
Most of the "99%" are still very angry about the unfair distribution of the pain of recession – hence the rage at bankers' bonuses. But many are hostile (or at best indifferent) to any "right" to set up permanent protest camps. For those who like the economic status quo, I can think of few better outcomes of the camp than a violent confrontation on this question. It will be a welcome distraction from the real issues.
In the area of "welfare to work", social justice campaigners stand on the edge of another political bear-trap. At a time of rising unemployment, there is a predictable attempt to scapegoat "benefits scroungers". Of course, the upsurge in jobless totals is not caused by a sudden epidemic of idleness – but we need to work hard to keep that truth at the centre of the debate.
While it is right to stop companies using "workfare" as a means to get cheap labour, this is an issue on which we need to tread carefully. It is both wrong and foolish to imply that people capable of work have a right to remain idle at society's expense.
The really pressing issue is the need for meaningful employment. That is what the vast majority of jobless people want. We do them a huge disservice if we allow the debate to focus on anything else.
Churches, mosques and schools in London Citizens have just secured 1,200 such jobs for local people at the 2012 Olympics in London. There is huge potential to broaden the campaign. In the capital alone, there are thousands of people desperate to work, and countless ways that such workers could improve the neighbourhood.
This is the terrain from which to challenge attempts to scapegoat people who are unemployed. It focuses us back on the true moral scandal – the jobs lost through the dysfunctions of our economic system. It also moves us from angry and impotent protest to constructive action for change.
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