Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Shareholder Activism at BP AGM

Environmental campaigning can take you to interesting places, or it can take you to the grey, soulless barn that is Manchester Central. This is where I was last Monday, the occasion being the annual general meeting of the oil and gas multinational BP, formerly British Petroleum, briefly ‘Beyond Petroleum’, but mostly ‘beyond parody’: the people who had claimed to be saving the planet, but who actually destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.

Greenpeace has run a number of campaigns against BP in the past, and after one of them I found myself the holder of a single share in the company. This allows me to attend their AGM and, if I so desire, ask questions of the board. Greenpeace UK haven’t got in BP in their sights right now, so I was temporarily an activist for ShareAction, a group of people who do this sort of thing all the time.

Usually these gigs are in London, and even a free lunch doesn’t tempt me to go, but this year, for the first time in a century, they were in the north of England. Why was a good question. Possibly they were getting a few too many awkward questions down there. Scheduling the event for the day before Shell’s AGM in Holland was probably also a cunning ploy. The only way climate change activists could go to both would be to fly. Fortunately, they wouldn’t need to, as Manchester has activists of its own, and there was a decent group of us waiting to ask some questions of the board.

I’d been at the Conference Centre, a former mainline station in the middle of Manchester, earlier in the year for the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Green Summit. That had been a slickly organised affair too, but I didn’t remember seeing quite so many well-built, bald men with wires coming out of their ears when I attended that. 

Outside a group of scruffy people were holding up placards, whilst better dressed people shuffled past and made their way into the venue. I was dressed somewhere in between, having found a tie and a reasonably clean shirt at the back of the wardrobe, I followed them in. Beyond the first line of large men were airport-style security barriers. My credentials were accepted and I was allowed in, but my water bottle and re-usable coffee cup weren’t. This led to a dilemma as to whether I should accept the complimentary drink in a disposable cup.

Dilemma over, it was time for the main event. The AGM itself was part university lecture hall, part film studio. A bank of movie cameras occupied the middle of the auditorium, all pointed at the stage where the bank of rostrums looked like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Two wary ‘redshirts’ flanking the stage were the most obvious security features, but closer examination revealed that most of the front two rows, except for a pair of little old ladies in the middle, were equally bald and equally well built. They were clearly not taking any chances.

But we weren’t here to cause trouble, at least not that kind. They had a special area to put people like us, with its own security, and a woman with a headset who took down the outline of the question we were going to ask and radioed it to her controller, wherever they were.

When all was ready the big screen, which had been showing film of BP’s latest engineering marvels, faded out and the board made their appearance. A phalanx of older white men, led by CEO Bob Dudley, took up their positions in the front row, with a couple of token women sat behind them.
The curtain opener was Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of the Board, who made his speech about how BP was back, $65 billion dollars the poorer thanks to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but now wiser and, yes, greener than ever before. I dare say, had the value of my shares been more than the cost of train ticket, I may even have been convinced.

He was just the warm up act though, the stars of the show were the activists, with our questions. A few genuine shareholders had sneaked in amongst us, who issued such gushing praise for the board my toes curled, but mostly it was a barrage of what politicians call tough questions: why were they fracking in Argentina, will they cooperate with the investigation into human rights abuses in Columbia, do they accept that Climate Change is a human rights issue, will they act on fugitive methane emissions, and so on.

Their response was slick, polished, professional and craven. They had an answer prepared for each question, but only one. If the same question was asked in two different ways, it was ignored the second time. Some questions weren’t answered at all, sometimes with no explanation. The pattern though was clear. The answers were not being given for the benefit of the activists, but of the shareholders. ‘No, there is no problem here’, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t recognise those figures’, ‘we have never been found liable’, but mostly ‘that is nothing to do with us’. BP just take the oil out of the ground, what happens to it next is everybody’s responsibility except theirs.

Asking a question at a big AGM like this is both easy and difficult. You have a podium, you have a microphone, and everyone is silent, waiting to hear what you have to say. But on the other hand, when you stand up there, this is clearly their territory. The board sit like gods on their thrones, guarded by their hired muscle. It’s hard to remember that they are the ones with the explaining to do.

All told I was glad I was up second to last. I was there to ask a question on the Amazon Reef, the unique and amazing coral system found in deep water at the mouth of that great river just two years earlier, a place where all the text books said you should never find a reef. Someone from the Climate Change 100+ group, another organisation that has shareholder activism as its main modus operandi, had mentioned the reef earlier, allowing Carl-Henric to give his prepared answer: no, the reef was not a new discovery, and anyway, the question of whether you should drill there was not for them, but the Brazilian government.

Knowing their answer in advance meant I could tailor my question to it. I said that until the 2016 paper on the reef was published nobody, apart from the researchers involved, had known the reef was there. I said that until a 2017 expedition went out (on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, but I didn’t mention that) there had been no pictures of the reef. And I said that the paper scientific paper produced by the expedition, published only last month, showed it was six times bigger than previously believed, and extended into one of the blocks BP jointly owns.

Would they answer? The board had done their usual trick of hearing several questions at once, so they could choose which to answer, so I couldn’t be sure. Svanberg had a quick word with Dudley. He answered another question, then he spoke about the reef. In Brazil, he said, ‘everyone knew it was there’. But this wasn’t anything the shareholder should worry about, because it was ‘35km away from where they were’.

The answer was infuriating, because it was so obviously wrong, contradicted by the paper I had in my briefcase. It seems we were dealing with Schrodinger’s Reef: something that everyone knows is there, even though it isn’t.

And that was that. The board’s obscene pay award was waived through without a single objection, and when the votes on the resolutions came through they had all been approved with majorities that would have embarrassed the vainest of tinpot dictators.

After the meeting there was the free lunch, but also a chance to meet the board informally. Svanberg sought me out and seemed very pleased with himself. The retired US Admiral they’d recruited to try to get the organisation a safety culture told me some stories of his time in nuclear submarines, and then I got a chance to collar Bob Dudley himself. Here I got a dose of what must pass for polite conversation in Davos and other such circles. No, he did not deny climate change, on that he was clear, but we mustn’t forget the ‘natural cycles’ that also play a part, and which presumably can be used to explain away any evidence that does fit his fossil fuelled view of the world. The Deepwater Horizon was, obviously, a source of regret, but is was the only accident they’d had.  

I tried to correct his oil-tinted view of the world, gave him a little lesson in climate science and reminded him of BP's other mishaps, Texas City, Grangemouth, several Alaskan oil pipeline spills, a near miss in Azerbaijan and a minor prang with a rig called the Thunder Horse, but he wasn’t bothered by what I thought. This man earns more in a month than I have done in my life. I don’t scare him.

But something did. The board had refused to answer several questions, including one from a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, claiming they were traps. Class Actions, Bob Dudley told his shareholders, were a ‘business plan’ for some US lawyers. What he didn’t say was that Friendsof the Earth threatened Shell with just such a suit just a few weeks ago. Clearly, they were worried. Indeed, when a gushing shareholder came up to Dudley, told him he was wonderful and asked for his autograph on his AGM papers, I couldn’t help saying “Are you sure that’s not his Class Action suit?”, and Dudley really did stop and check.

So, what did I think of my days of being a shareholder activist? "An instructive exercise in corporate evasion and lying" was what I told DeSmogBlog. It was something that needed to be done, but not something that is going to change the world. There are other ways of doing that.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Does the government need a way out on fracking?

On 21st March 2018, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham held his first Green Summit, where he announced his intention to make Manchester one of the greenest cities on the planet. Many fine words were said, but it's far too early to judge what actions they will result in.

However, in the evening Frack Free Greater Manchester held an anti-fracking fringe event to review the four years that had passed since IGas ended their initial search for shale gas at Barton Moss, Salford. About thirty people packed into a room at Central Methodists hall to hear the story of the opposition to fracking in the UK, and to plan the next moves in the campaign.

Helena Coates - Frack Free Greater Manchester

Helena, who was part of the campaign against drilling at Barton Moss, said that when she first joined the protests, she did not think of herself as an environmentalist. But as she kept attending the slow walks, and saw how the protectors were policed, she started to make connections between the economics, the politics and the issues.

She said that she though out her campaigning against fracking, she has always been a mother and she ended her talk by reading from The Storm, by Kathy Henderson. A tale of a mother and son who survive a wild night on a barren coastline, it was a story of the power of nature, and about survival.

Eddie Thornton - Kirby Misperton Protection Camp 

Eddie was part of the campaign to stop Third Energy fracking at Kirby Misperton, near Pickering in North Yorkshire. The KM8 well looked like ot should have been the easiest place in the country for fracking to get going as it was on an existing industrial site, and a well had already been drilled for conventional gas in 2011 - although they had 'accidently' over-drilled by more than a kilometre. The gas would enter the grid by an existing pipeline and, despite 4000 letters of objection, against only 30 in support, the local authority had approved planning permission.

However things did not go smoothly for Third Energy. Frack Free Ryedale was set up round a kitchen table in 2014, and at the end of 2016 a protection camp was set up. Eddie described Christmas at the camp, which was still being built. As he and the other protectors huddled round candles in the cold, a procession of locals brought them Christmas dinner in stages, something which kept them going both "physically and spiritually".

Kirby Misperton is an area that is conservative with both a small and a large 'c'. However the campaign, led by the community and supported by the camp, soon started to attract support from people who did not usually embrace radical causes. Even the local bishop turned up. Third Energy and the police had a communication strategy that tried to divide the locals and the protectors, but the camp always had three people working with the press to counter this.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Development, could have
approved the fracking in October last year. However, as a result of the opposition, he got cold feet. This was to have catastrophic consequences for Third Energy.

In January 2018 the outsourcing giant Carillion collapsed. Third Energy's chairman, Keith Cochrane, was a former chief executive of Carillion, and this put the spotlight on the energy companies finances. Third Energy had filed their accounts four months late, but when they did it showed they had £52 million of debt, and only a few thousand pounds of assets.

Throughout the campaign in Ryedale, campaigners across the country had been targeting Barclays bank, Third Energy's main financial backers. faced with growing opposition, and Third Energy's collapsing business case, Barclays basically "pulled the plug on their finances". The government imposed a financial test on fracking companies, which Third Energy failed. They withdrew their rig and, despite promises to return in the autumn, it is almost certainly all over.

Eddie was clear what had happened: community resistance works. The companies, and their backers, know that opposition is growing. Even a large bank like Barclays cannot ignore this.

But Eddie also said he saw in their victory in North Yorkshire, a way that the national campaign can be won. The collapse of Third Energy's finances gave the government a "way out" of supporting fracking, without having to do a politically embarrassing U-turn, and Eddie hoped that the success at Kirby Misperton can be the model of how to defeat fracking in the rest of the country. INEOS, who plan to frack large parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, have a mountain of debt and their stock is effectively junk bonds. All it may take to end their threat is for the government to go over their books.

Maureen Mills - Frack Free Lancashire

"If you'd told me four years ago I'd be here with all of you now, I'd never have believed it," Maureen told the meeting.

The campaign in North Yorkshire may have been won, but in Lancashire it continues. Despite the planning inspector deciding it should not go ahead, the government is reopening the public enquiry into Cuadrilla Resources' application to frack at Roseacre Wood on 10 April. 

Of the different ways the campaign against fracking had developed, Maureen was particularly impressed by the contribution of the Trade Unions, especially the One Million Climate jobs pamphlet. "This is now a campaign for social justice." The way forward, she thought, was to "win the hearts and minds" of people.

Maureen said she can see the results of this tactic. "More people oppose fracking than support it". She said "I really feel the tide is turning," especially with people in Lancashire "now it's landing on their doorsteps." However she warned "the thing is sticking together, with a united resistance."

The success in North Yorkshire had left her "even more buoyed up". Like Third Energy, the companies that plan to frack Lancashire have "precious little money."

Maureen also said that Frack Free Lancashire would like to hold another rally in Manchester, like the United Against Fracking march in November 2016. The energy of that day had sustained campaigners through their year old protest at the gates of Cuadrilla's site.

"Let's do it again," she said.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Top 5 Brexit Movies

So we've voted to Take Back Control and Brexit Means Brexit, so us Remainers need to just sit back and respect the Will Of The People. But what should we watch whilst we're doing so? We're reassured that Brexit won't mean a 'Mad Max-style world from dystopian fiction', so that rules out that film then.

Instead, here are my top five other movies to Brexit to.

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

Grand Fenwick is an insignificant European country founded by a randy English knight on the way back from the Crusades, which is why the entire ruling class looks like Peter Sellers.

However, things aren't looking good for the country, as the entire economy is wiped out overnight by a cheap American version of their famous Pinot Grand Fenwick wine. The country is left with no choice but to go to war with the USA, and it's antiquated army sails off across the Atlantic armed with bows and arrows. Unfortunately, thanks to Grand Fenwick's acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction, they win, and then their problems really start.

Slightly dated, but still amusing, it shows the problems of a small country, led by inbreds, trying to punch above its weight on the world stage.

Passport to Pimplico (1949)

When the explosion of a Second World War bomb unearths a document that reveals that their London borough was ceded to the Duke of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, the newly independent citizens of Pimlico seize their new freedom with glee. The first thing they do is ditch is their British licensing laws, followed by their ration cards.

An gentle Ealing comedy that dreamed of an end to post-war austerity, the film is based on an incident during the war when Ottawa hospital was declared part of Holland for the birth of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. It also subtly references the situation of Berlin the previous year.

Unfortunately for the new Burgundians things don't go according to plan. Their deregulation leads to the borough being overrun with spivs and black marketeers, and an economic blockade cuts off all food and water. The new Burgundy finds itself diplomatically isolated and forced to rely on donations of food to survive.

In the end it is all sorted out amicably and everything works out for the best. Well, we can hope.

Carry On England (1976)

Of course in Brexit Britain there will be none of this political correctness nonsense. Men will be free to be sex pests and women will be free to do the dishes, just like it used to be.

Carry On films are a form of cinema marmite really. Shakespeare they are not, but in their time they were all right. Some were quite topical and some of the historicals; Carry on Henry, Carry on Clio and Carry On Up The Khyber, are actually all pretty good.

However by the time this film was made those glory days were long in the past. To watch Carry On England, which is something I've never manages to actually do, is to see the end of something that was never as good as it thought it was, and which was now totally unfunny and pointless. In fact the film was so bad it pretty much killed the entire franchise.

A perfect Brexit movie in other words.


V For Vendetta (2005) 

If it wasn't for the EU, of course, we wouldn't have nearly so many terrorists and other undesirables running around. Free from the shackles of the European Court of justice, the government will be free to deport, arrest, torture and spy on its citizens. Everyone will know their place and, if they don't you probably won't hear much more about them.

A few things happened to Alan Moore's eighties graphic novel in the twenty years it took to make it to the cinema, and not all of them were good. However, thing also happened in the real world to make Moore's paranoid vision even more believable, and the two more-or-less balance out.

In the film Britain is liberated by an anarchist with a large bomb and a Guy Fawkes mask.

Only in the movies I suspect.

The World's End (2013) 

When alcoholic waster Gary King drives his clapped out old Ford Cortina back to the town he grew up in, he finds the place almost unrecognisable. All the pubs are now chains, all the cars are now hybrids, all the people are now nice, and there's a modern art sculpture in the town centre. 

For the third of their 'Cornetto trilogy', Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright took on that most British of activities, the pub crawl. A story of a group of men trying, and ultimately failing, to put their misspent youth behind them, it is a terrific end to one of the funniest film trilogies ever. It's also a decade ahead of its time.

This is because, in the course of their binge drinking, King and his mates learn of a fiendish plan by do-gooders alien immigrants to try and civilise our backward planet. In a drunken showdown with the controlling intelligence, King and co manage to piss of the aliens so much they decide to leave Earth to it. Unfortunately when they go they take all their technology with them, and in the end Britain is reduced to desolate wasteland patrolled by marauding gangs, rather similar to a certain Mel Gibson movie in fact. 

Well, at least we've been reassured THAT won't happen. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Top Five Films About Eighties Britain

After the swinging sixties and the sad seventies, the selfish eighties is a decade best forgotten. At home Margaret Thatcher, egged on by Rupert Murdoch's gutter press, deployed a militarised police force to crush the miners and the Travellers. She rewarded the bankers, devastated the post-Industrial north and privatised anything that wasn't nailed down. Britain was a divided, racist, homophobic place in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade socialism, indeed society, seemed to be a thing of the past.

Or so it seemed at the time. But that's not how the decade looks now. The Iron Lady still has her fans, but never have her ideas been so unpopular. Who now thinks we should reward the bankers or privatise the public sector? Culturally, the right may have won the battle, but it seems to have lost the war, and the way the decade is remembered in film reflects that.

Here is my top five list of films that characterise the decade.

5. Billy Elliott (2000)

Even though it contains a song hoping for the death of Margaret Thatcher, I think I probably better just admit that Billy Elliott just isn't my type of film, which is why it's only at number five. It's not that it isn't well written, well acted and well made. It certainly is. It's not just that Billy's dad is shown as the sort of wife-beating, son-beating, ignorant, male working class stereotype that The Sun spent its time trying to cultivate. The problem is something else.

The very gritty politics of the era is realistically shown, and makes a very poignant background to the story. It's also completely clear which side of the political fence the film sits on. But keeping a political event of the magnitude of the Miners Strike in the background just doesn't seem right. Okay, it's not as bad as slavery being the background to a cheesy love story in Gone With The Wind, but almost. The happy ending, when a grown up Billy is seen on stage, should have been followed by a look at what was happening in Durham at the time: the unemployment, the drugs and the utter despair of anyone who lacks the skills to move to London.


4. Hidden Agenda 


Perhaps the most important thing about Hidden Agenda is that it relaunched the film career of Ken Loach. He'd put himself on the cultural map in the sixties with Cathy Come Home and Kes, but had spent the next twenty years making acclaimed, but largely ignored, documentaries. Hidden Agenda though started a run of amazing films that continues with Riff Raff, through Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, to the best film of recent years, I, Daniel Blake.

If Billy Elliott shows the effect of Thatcherism at home, Hidden Agenda deals with the 'near abroad', the long running Troubles in Northern Ireland. We know now that the eighties were the time when the IRA was making the first moves towards peace, signals the British government either couldn't, or wouldn't, hear. Instead the Troubles in the eighties were a time of IRA insurgency and British government response, which allegedly included a policy of 'shoot to kill'.

Thatcher's Britain was always a secret state. From dirty tricks against real striking miners to the Chevaline and Zircon affairs, to Spycatcher and the Al Yamamah arms deal, there was a lot going on we didn't know about.  Hidden Agenda takes as its main inspiration John Stalker's investigation into the deaths of six Republican paramilitaries at the hands of the RUC Headquarters Mobile Support Unit, but then expands it into the area that is known collectively as the 'Colin Wallace affair'.

It's all very well done, very convincingly argued and, worryingly, very believable. 

3. Trainspotting (1996)

However most of the bad behaviour in the eighties didn't go on in secret, and most of the violence was not in  Northern Ireland. The real story of the decade is that of post-industrial decline and the retreat of the welfare state.

It's not completely clear if Trainspotting is a film about the eighties. The soundtrack certainly roots it in the dance and Britpop era of the nineties, but the book it was based on is very clearly set in the late eighties. The themes in the film, rising heroine use and fear of AIDS, against a background of unemployment and social decay, are also clearly those of the eighties. Indeed, the film is such a trawl though the decade's cliches, from skinheads with pit bulls in the park, to druggies nicking TVs off old people, that it's pretty close to being a parody.

However, just as it surfs the fine line between glamorising bad behaviour or making the main characters too obnoxious to be sympathetic, it gets away with it. We'd see a lot more of Danny Boyle over the next couple of decades, culminating in 2012 when, along with Trainspotting musical collaborators Underworld, he contrasted his nightmare vision of Britain in this film with a look at all that is best in out society in his London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

2. The Long Good Friday (1981)

Made in 1979, only a delay in release actually made this an eighties film at all. However when you look at what it is about, it's perhaps the most eighties film of all. Bob Hoskins is Harold Shand, a gangster who wants to turn his back on his Sweeney world of petty crime and go legit. His plans are a merger with bigger American outfit and, get this, rejuvenate London's docklands with a view to holding the Olympic Games there. Yes, this really was a 1979 film.

Of course the main reason to watch the film is to see Bob Hoskins spectacularly losing it, and the screen debut - in a non-speaking role - of Pierce Brosnan. He was playing an IRA assassin, which suggests a bit of a theme here.

1. Pride (2014)

So yes, the eighties were a very grim time indeed. Bigotry and intolerance, government malice and indifference, crime and social decay were all around. But there were also people doing something about it. And that's why this film is top of my list.

We'll forget about the fact that in real life the NUM  didn't actually refuse to accept Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners' donation. They couldn't accept it as their bank account had been frozen and so the group, like every other miners support group, was told to send their money straight to a mining community. There was also almost no prejudice from the miners when the activists eventually arrived in Dulais, but that wouldn't make such a great story so we'll forget about that too. Instead, let's just think how wonderful it is that a bunch of communists who wanted to overthrow the government had a mainstream film made about them, and that it was a stunning success.

They took a few liberties in making the film, but not very many. There is a documentary about the LGSM story, called Dancing in Dulais, and watching it after Pride you can tell exactly who is who, even if most of the actors don't look a bit like the people they were playing.

This is very much a film about activism and activists. The Miners Strike was a disaster for the Left, but as the amazing final scene shows, for activists what really matters is the solidarity. As the police officer says, the miners lost the battle, but as the end credits show the larger war was won: gay and lesbians won their civil rights. I didn't cry in Ghost or Titanic, and only a little bit in Notting Hill, but this scene always brings a tear to my eye: this scene and the one where Bronwen Lewis sings Bread and Roses. Yes, I'm blubbing just typing this. This is exactly what being an activist is all about.

And it's the activists who are now remembered. Looking back on the eighties, the Left lost the political battles, but in the long term we won the war. The man most people under 65 want to be the next Prime Minister spent the decade campaigning for the miners, for peace in Northern Ireland and gay rights. We may all live in the world Thatcher created, but nobody seems very keen on making a film to celebrate that.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Hard Hat Riot: The Birth of 'Trumpism'?

American Carnage

On 8 May 1970 200 construction workers in New York City went on the rampage. They attacked students and anti-war protesters whilst the police looked on and did nothing. A little over two weeks later union leaders from the construction industry met President Nixon, gifting him a hard hat and promising him the support that would see him re-elected to office in 1972.

The 'Hard Hat Riot' is now largely forgotten, but it's hard not to see the parallels with today. A reactionary white working class had come onto the streets to violently oppose an unpatriotic 'liberal elite', and to lend their support to a corrupt, and soon to be impeached, right wing president.

So what was it all about?

Fire and Fury

On 30 April 1970 President Nixon had sent the South Vietnamese Army, backed by US air power, over the Vietnamese border into Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was already unpopular, and had already split America, but this escalation in the fighting galvanised the anti-war movement and sparked a new wave of protests. Amongst the campuses where activists mobilised was Kent State University in Ohio.

But Kent State wasn't Berkeley. It was a quiet sort of place and protests here had been peaceful affairs. However after rioting in downtown Kent following a demostration further protests were banned. The National Guard was called in, and 1000 soldiers put the university under military occupation. On 4 May students, joined by anti-war protesters from elsewhere, defied the ban. When the National Guard failed to get them to disperse, 28 guardsmen opened fire, killing four, leaving another paralysed for life, and wounding eight others.

John Filo's photograph of Mary Vecchio's scream, as she knelt next to the body of Jeffrey Miller, became the defining image of the day, and one of the most iconic of the entire era.

Very Fine People On Both Sides

The massacre shocked the nation, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect. True, the USA's only ever nation-wide student strike took place immediately afterwards, with four million students boycotting lessons. However a Gallup Poll revealed that only 11% of respondents blamed the National Guard for the deaths, and 58% blamed the students.

A huge anti-war rally was planned in New York for 9 May, and in the morning on the day before the about a thousand protesters gathered outside the stock exchange on Wall Street to mourn the dead students, and demand an end to the war.

Just before midday a couple of hundred construction workers carrying American flags turned up to heckle, soon joined by others. Many had armed themselves, and they soon broke through the half hearted police line and attacked the protesters. With the police doing nothing it was, rather bizarrely, stock exchange workers from Wall Street that tried to protect the students.

Susan Harman, then 29, tried save a student being attacked by three men, one armed with a pair of iron clippers, beating up one student. "Don't", she said. "Let go of my jacket, bitch" was the reply, followed by “If you want to be treated like an equal, we’ll treat you like one" and the three men beat her to the ground.

Soon the peaceful demo was scattered and the students were pursued down Wall Street by the hard hats. Anyone who looked like a hippy was attacked.

The mob then descended on City Hall, where the flag was flying at half mast in response to the
massacre. Construction workers broke in and raised it at its full height.

They spent the rest of the day causing mayhem in the local area. Trinity Church, which had become a makeshift field hospital, was attacked and a Red Cross flag torn down, possibly because someone thought it looked communist. Windows where smashed at Pace University. The final casualty toll was 70 injured, most of whom required hospital treatment.

The story was that working class patriots, outraged by the desecration of the flag and the lack of loyalty from middle class students, had decided to take matters into their own hands. The 'silent majority' had spoken out. Republican politicians, who had spent most of the last decade condemning student activism of any kind, spoke out to congratulate the hard hats.Vice-President Spiro Agnew sent a message to union leader Peter Brennan congratulating him on "the impressive display in patriotism–and a spirit of pride in country that seems to have become unfashionable in recent years."

Alternative Facts

But what was the truth?

Well, for a start the protest was certainly not spontaneous. The hard hats weren't AWOL from work for a start. They were encouraged to leave their sites by their shop stewards, and promised they would still be paid. Some were reportedly offered a bonus. One witness inside Wall Street claimed to have seen two men in suits organising the attacks.

However the workers don't appear to have needed asking twice, and enthusiastically got stuck into bashing the hippies. But did that mean the working class supported the war?

Well, some clearly did, but polls throughout the period consistently show support for the US intervention was highest amongst the top wage earners, the parents of the protesting students, and lowest amongst those who actually went to fight and die in Vietnam, the working class, including the white working class.

The anti-war movement was certainly started by middle class students, but by 1970 it was far broader than that. Students for a Democratic Society, the group behind the big rallies in Berkeley and elsewhere, had fallen apart in 1969. The face of protest in the seventies was as likely to be a veteran from the Bronx throwing his medals away as a hippy from Haight-Ashbury making the peace sign. 

Make America Great Again

But the Vietnam War was not the only drama in sixties America. Alongside ran the story of Civil
Rights movement.

The construction industry, heavily unionised and with relatively good pay and conditions, had traditionally been a whites-only job. However, in the 1960s this had changed. The parity index is a way of expressing the number of workers from a minority in a particular field with 100% meaning that the proportion was exactly the same as the general population. After a decade of affirmative action programs the parity index for construction work in New York in 1970 was 95%, meaning a very high level of integration.

However this had not gone down well with the unions. In March 1970 a proposal was put forward by Peter Brennan, President of the Construction Trades Council, that a separate apprenticeship centre be created for black workers, with the catch that neither Trade Union membership, nor a job, was on offer at the end of it. As a result of such intransigence, ten years after the Hard Hat Riot the parity index in the New York construction industry had fallen to 72%.

It is impossible to know how much, either consciously or unconsciously, race contributed to the events of 4 May 1970. But it looks likely that the riot was as much about defending white privilege at home as US imperialism abroad.

Violence On Many Sides

The events at City Hall were overshadowed the very next day by the arrival of 100,000 anti-war protesters. The events of Kent State shootings, plus the military failure of Nixon's invasion, had changed the nations view of the war, and for the first time more people opposed it than supported it. Three years later US troops would return home.

Before that happened Richard Nixon would be returned to the White House by a landslide. Nixon never had majority working class support. No modern Republican ever has, but with Republican voters remaining loyal even as crisis and scandal started to envelop him, even a small loss of traditional Democrat voters gave him the victory.

In the aftermath of the Hard Hat Riot, construction union leaders went to the White House and were warmly received. Peter Brennan became Nixon's Labor Secretary.

Fake News

The narrative of the Hard Hat Riot, of a white working class willing to fight for their country, and a
smug middle class who weren't, has certainly stuck. Just think of how Vietnam is portrayed in popular culture: Rambo is working class, 'Hawkeye' Pierce (literally in Korea, but metaphorically in Vietnam) is middle class.

But in real life it was the Donald Trumps of the world who supported Vietnam, whilst dodging the draft themselves on spurious grounds, and the likes of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July) who opposed it. The student protesters, like the hard hatted rioters, were remarkable in that they acted out of character.

In the end though normal services were resumed. Brennan had to leave government after Watergate. He returned to his roll with the union, but the next Republican elected to President was not as kind to him as Nixon. Reagan's war on organised labour saw 100,000 non-unionised contractors enter the construction market.

America First

It's never worth wasting too much time going in debating the ideology of fascism. At its core fascism is just about defending privilege, but what makes a fascist different to a mere authoritarian is the use of violence.

Despite the many similarities, one thing that distinguishes Trump, and Nixon, from Hitler is they did not have an army of street thugs at their disposal.

However the Hard Hat Riot showed that such a force was there if Nixon had wanted to use it. Events in Charlottesberg show that Trump has such an army too. His refusal to condemn the murder of Heather Hayer shows he does not necesarily rule this out. If so, let's be quite clear what this would be: American fascism born, not on the 4th of July, but on 8th May 1970.

Construction Workers U.S.A. by Herbert A. Applebaum
The Seventies Unplugged by Gerrad DeGroot 


Saturday, 20 January 2018