This week, to round off Disability Pride Month, Difference’s Communications Coordinator talks about direct action in social justice movements, its surveillance, tightening rules around protest, and some implications for Disabled People.
In my time as a community organiser, I’ve coordinated a significant amount of direct action, most of which aimed at forcing powerful people into negotiation. These have been around issues of housing (including disability housing), food poverty, immigration, and the intersection of these issues. My work in this field has rarely been “issue based” however, and has usually involved individual cases.
With direct action comes police contact (all actions linked above were attended by police), harassment, and the ever present worry that spy cops have infiltrated your life. Contact with the police therefore is a pretty normal thing for me. But this is never something I am blasé about or take lightly.
Disability and being policed
My first contact with being policed though was not at an organised protest or an action. It came after a particularly stressful time at work led me to have a psychotic break. Symptoms, which I won’t go into here, but which I’d had on and off to a much lesser extent since my adolescence, started gradually to intensify over a few days. This ended with police in my home uninvited, searching with torches through my possessions. This was followed by a coerced but ultimately voluntary hospital stay – had I not been compliant, I’ve no doubt this would have been involuntary.
Some might consider this carcerality to be specific to my disability, or disabilities with similar attributes. Arguably the exact presentation is, other people don’t necessarily have the police gaining access to their houses because they are disabled in a particular way. However, anyone in receipt of disability benefit of any kind is subject to covert surveillance by the private sector companies paid by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Together they have fostered a disability benefits system which is target-driven and designed “to catch people out”, designed above all else to maximise profit.
Surveillance of Disabled People
This surveillance is carried out by private companies such as Atos, Maximus, and Capita. The DWP paid Atos and Capita £507m between 2013-16 for this work. This together with companies’ apparent and continuing inability to get the assessments right, even in their own terms. This led Tim Farron MP – a very moderate politician – to comment that:
“This adds to the suspicion that these companies are just driven by a profit motive, and the incentive is to get the assessments done, but not necessarily to get the assessments right”.
You can read more about these, often automated, systems here.
Spy cops have infiltrated (almost exclusively) left-wing groups since 1968 – 140 undercover officers spied on more than 1,000 political groups, these spycops embedded themselves into the lives of those they spied on and even fathered children with the people they were surveilling. The groups represent a range of ideologies, preferred tactics, and theories of change, but all were committed to making structural change towards a more equal society (however they defined that) and by whatever mechanism this might be achieved.
Disability benefits exist because of the “disability price tag” – the extra costs associated with life as a disabled person. In a world created with the exclusion of disabled people in its foundational structures and mechanisms, any effort made to rail against these structural barriers and towards liberation, is a political act of emancipation. Even if these actions are personal, they are political acts of rehearsing freedom. In a country where train operators make moves to close ticket offices, endangering disabled people’s already much reduced ability of to turn up and go. As the Office for road and rail consultation, 2019 noted, “Spontaneous travel is fundamental to the rights of disabled people in realising their right to independent living”. Many disabled people have never been able to travel spontaneously, forcing these systems to comply to the ideal of spontaneous travel is a rehearsal of this freedom and a (often) personal act of direct action.
Antipsychiatry is the position that mental illness is a structural and political concept, rather than a neutral scientific one. That, although human beings are biological animals, that fundamentally depend on biology, no mental disorders have been convincingly shown to be “biological diseases”. Furthermore, the mental health system is related to economy, and particularly to the capitalist economy in which it is embedded. I.e. metal illness is a direct consequence of the need for workers to produce surplus value, related to the material conditions of the person. Further, that mental health systems are primarily geared to the management of those who are unable to participate in a labour market based on the extraction of surplus value.
My disability (like all disabilities) is therefore in and of itself a direct challenge to current and prevailing structures. However, what is needed is for actions against structures to be collective so that power can be built, and change brought about.