Published 28 August 2020 by Kim
Resistance Lab was selected as one of Nesta’s Democracy Pioneers earlier this year, and it is with their funding we have been able to accelerate the production of our website and inaugural report. Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. A version of this post appears on Nesta’s project blog.
What is Resistance Lab?
Resistance Lab is a grassroots collective of scholars, tech practitioners and community activists who use education, technology and research to find new ways to resist state violence and create more just and equitable communities. Our group emerged through a series of conversations and meetings between members of anti-racist groups Geeks for Social Change, Northern Police Monitoring Project, Kids of Colour, Race, Roots & Resistance and Sites of Resistance, who are now its founding members.
As individual organisations, we were all working to counter the harm caused by state violence in different contexts such as through youth work, supporting friends and family of the affected, or in digital inclusion and community research programs, for example.
Resistance Lab has created a welcome space for us to explore ideas outside many of our day-to-day campaigns and work towards larger scale strategic outputs that get to the root causes of issues. As frontline activists we rarely get a chance to “zoom out” and process things strategically. By joining forces, we’ve created the space to connect, be more creative, develop our skills, and gain perspective away from our day-to-day “hands on” work that deals with very difficult and sensitive issues that can be emotionally challenging.
Challenging our assumptions on inclusion and the role of tech
We started by running workshops on various aspects of state violence, working with our local Race Relations Archive, as well as looking at public data on stop and search, deaths in police custody, coroners inquests, and use of force, for example. We discovered very quickly that even though there is a plethora of data out there, all of this data was practically unusable by the families and friends of those affected due to a range of social, legal and technical barriers.
This has far-reaching effects. For example, after a death following police contact, families are often unable to get the support they need to challenge the state narrative, and have to fight for every scrap of information. They are not given the tools, emotional support or legal support to investigate what happened or to challenge decisions. Our group hopes to challenge such access issues, as well as try to better understand the increasingly hostile and data-driven architecture of state oppression including the increase in AI driven policing and “hostile environment” policies.
A big issue that emerged in these workshops was around the police use of Taser. We have now published our first report on police Taser usage which has featured on Channel 4, ITV Granada, and in various news sources such as Vice, The Voice, Manchester Evening News, and The Meteor. The report found that the use of Tasers by police forces across England and Wales has increased by more than 500% over the last decade and that their use within Greater Manchester increased 73% between 2017/18 and 2018/19, far exceeding the national average of 39%.
The technology sector as a whole plays a large part in creating and marketing the apparatus of surveillance. Manchester heavily features spy agency GCHQ and arms manufacturer BAE in its literature and industrial strategy around the tech industry, for example. By and large, tech communities we have engaged with don’t seem to challenge the ethical implications of such ties. They focus on ‘inclusion and diversity’ employment initiatives, whilst ignoring any calls for an end to the development of the tools that create harmful structures in the first place.
Centring communities and grassroots organisations as the instigators of change
People protesting state violence, and those who are the most at risk in society, are always having to put their lives and bodies on the line to change things. They end up having to fight for representation in a public and third sector context that claims to be supporting them, for example by applying for patronising funds of a few hundred pounds. Whilst this is starting to change, we have much further to go.
The #BLM protests around the world have really highlighted historic and systemic racism in Western countries, and the failure of the government and the third sector to take Black voices seriously. It’s time for grassroots groups that do the day-to-day life-saving work with the most vulnerable communities, usually for no money, to take centre stage, and for public sector organisations to commit to working with them in genuine and non-tokenistic ways. It’s through the collaborative work of front-line groups and the communities they serve where problems can be truly identified and solutions co-created.
Participation in democracy is not possible if you or members of your community are being killed, maimed and traumatised by the state. All the data we are working with is public, and has been completely ignored by the people trusted and employed to monitor it such as Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Baroness Bev Hughes, who has largely dismissed our report. Despite working in a public sphere dominated by “impact measurement” and “evidence based policy”, our work with data highlights that individuals with low social capital are systemically overlooked.
Confronting institutional racism and exclusion
The lack of social power in communities has to change. Inclusion is a prerequisite for democracy and not something you can tack on at the end of a non-inclusive process. We hope that other public and third sector groups start seeing and valuing the work that’s been happening over decades by those affected the most by state violence, including Black and Brown communities, Trans* people and sex workers. These communities deserve to be seen as the site of positive democratic change rather than as an afterthought (or no thought at all).
Unwillingness to understand and get to grips with what institutional racism actually means is a major barrier to change. Panels, enquiries and initiatives are constantly being set up to tell us what we already know as a distraction technique from giving communities any real power. In Manchester, every time an issue is raised with local politicians such as not having Taser armed police officers in schools, or taking the racial disparity seriously, it’s always ignored or played off as an isolated incident not symptomatic of institutional racism.
Ultimately, we want people in structurally disadvantaged communities to be able to live lives free from state violence. This might seem a depressingly average dream to those who are not at risk of being harassed or killed because of their ethnicity, postcode or gender. In our dream world, the state would do the work of analysing their own data on marginalisation, take it seriously by giving greater power and accessibility to marginalised groups and thus the role of groups like Resistance Lab in holding them to account would be obsolete. In our view only then can we begin to start talking about democracy as a primary goal.