Wednesday 9 May 2012

Legal victories through the anarchist optic

The following is a personal opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the view of everybody.

In recent weeks, I have been a little surprised by small rebellions and about-turns on the part of various authorities. In Poland we have become quite used to the fact that courts and controlling authorities usually take the side of those in power: bosses, landlords and city officials. But we have seen some small victories lately in legal matters.

One case was described here, about how our colleagues were not punished for making an illegal demo. We have also, in the past few weeks seen cops who refused to help carry out an eviction, which is something they usually do, even when the evictions are illegal. We saw courts come down on the city for its repeated refusal to reveal public information. And, the best news of all: parents who fought against the outrageous raising of nursery school fees not only overturned the rate increases, but caused that, for the first time in a long time, the schools in Warsaw will actually be free, pending action from the city council.

From the point of view of somebody who has observed how people get fucked over right and left and how the authorities rarely help or even uphold existing laws protecting rights, it is actually good to see some people who didn't give up and won, despite the odds. Because, the fact is that most people don't even try, because they think they have no chances.

On the other hand, we have been trying to convince people for years that direct action is the best method. And this has been helped by the fact that people see that the courts don't help.

An example of this is the case of Karol M., who had an accident at work last November and was in a coma. Luckily, he survived, regained consciousness and, although he is far from well, he is undergoing rehabilitation. In his case, we made some direct actions, but there was little to do. We exposed the people he worked for, the boss disappeared. But there was still the case of a lawsuit the family wanted to make.

Most anarchists of course are not big fans of the court or solving issues that way. Some are much stricter than others in this respect. But in this case, where the family has considerable medical bills not covered by anybody and Karol may never work again, the natural thing the family wants is financial compensation to cover these expenses.... and this was not something we could manage by direct action this time. (If it were a bigger or better known firm, there could have been more chances, but here the boss didn't depend on the firm's brand at all.)

In order to make the civil claim, they need some opinion from the Labour Inspectorate or the Public Prosecutor's office of wrongdoing. And here, the family suffered a more typical experience in Poland: these authorities did nothing, did not even want to deal with the case. Pressure was made, but still they did not take steps. So now this week the family is going to court against these authorities.

It's only partly for these reasons though that we tell people, take direct action. Even if people want to take some legal action, we say take other action at the same time. And usually we are right, and it is the direct action that makes the difference.

Of course, some people don't want to do it. They prefer a legal way. Like the parents who took the city to court. They got lucky. Other parents, who are fighting against the privatization of school cafeterias, also intended to do that, and probably still will file a case. But unlike the first group of parents, these ones went through the farsical process of going to city and local council meetings and saw how the politicians are ready to bend the rules and know they can get away with it, because the controlling authorities are placed their by their bosses and are in their pockets. Those parents decided to make a strike against payments and we are hoping this action will bring results.

But it is more than that. It is about the enpowering experience of people organizing themselves, of doing something together, of learning not to give up and quit. And this is something that cannot be learned by going to a court and leaving the outcome up to the judges.

All things considered, while we should be encouraging this direct action as much as possible, I don't feel like condemning the people who also say they will start a court process. Maybe that might impress some anarchists who are interested in being more correct than other people, but it is not a good way to deal with people who aren't anarchists but with whom we work and share some common struggles. So I will be in the court this week, supporting Karol's family, who went through hell and who get no support from any of the institutional "protectors of labour" - not the labour inspectorate, nor the mainstream trade unions. And I also have my fingers crossed for the parents who are taking legal action against the illegal acts of the city. They are also taking direct action, which is great, but the legal case can help to add to the legitimacy of their actions among other parents, not all of whom have the courage or faith in action to support the strike.