Direct Action in Elections
This is the first of several pre-election articles I will be composing, discussing various aspects of elections and how people have reacted or can react to them. I plan to cover other aspects in the coming weeks.
Of all the possible forms of election hacking, “direct action” is perhaps the most notable. In broad terms and in the context of an election, this covers any act that is designed to disrupt or delay election proceedings.
(Disclaimer: I do not recommend anyone try this. The people who would be directly affected are just ordinary election workers trying to earn a bit of extra money. It is also liable to result in legal problems for the activist. If you are seriously considering this, do not claim this blog post as inspiration, and take professional legal advice first.)
Johnathan Elliott gained fame in May 2013 when he dropped a couple of stink bombs into the ballot box during the 2013 Local Elections in Kent. According to the news reports, the items were discovered during the election count, resulting in police being called and delaying the count itself. He later phoned a BBC radio station to claim responsibility for the act. In the initial court course, he was sentenced to a three-month curfew and a fine. After an appeal, newspapers report that this was changed to a six week prison sentence. Presumably, the second judge felt the original sentence was lenient.
I had the opportunity to interview him. Below is a copy of the interview. I have left his replies as they were, except to correct for spelling and grammar.
In your own words, could you describe what you did? (I understand from the newspapers, you placed two stink bombs in the ballot box along with your ballot paper, and that they were discovered, unbroken, in the counting hall).
“I went down to the ballot station in Belmont road Whitstable in my right mind and knowing what I was going to do. First it occurred to me that I might put some dog dirt in the ballot box to make everyone wince at the count, but I thought that might not be a powerful enough message in the end.
I went down and wrote on the ballot paper the word “Revolution” and then folded the paper neatly in half so as to hold the stink bombs. I noted from going in also that the new ballot boxes were made of plastic and had wider opening so as to allow me to put the vials in with out to much hassle. I was actually in the ballot booth for maybe five minutes organising this but the receptionists (poll clerks — Editor) didn’t bat an eyelid.”
What were you motives behind the protest?
My motive I would say was to cause a stink about how undemocratic and unrepresentative of the populace the whole system was, and that the elections were part of this well-designed system, and that they were fixed in such a way that only establishment people were elected.
Why did you feel “direct action” was necessary, as opposed to some other form of protest?
“I have come to the belief now that the only form of action the establishment fears is in your face direct action. All other ways have been proved useless, as the establishment controls the corporate media, especially the BBC. Information is attained by the masses from this mass media, and propagandises and brainwashes us into apathy, so ensuring the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor become slaves.”
What result were you expecting from this direct action protest? Do you think this act achieved the goals you had planned?
“I was hoping that at the next elections people might wonder whether they have more options available to them to say they do not give their consent to be governed by a group of bankers and corporate CEOs using neo-liberal puppets. I hoped that some or a few who are brave enough would follow what I did rather than sit on their hands at home and watch their futures drift away as I did when I left school. I’m hoping it hasn’t reached its full potential in this next election.
I apologised to the counter (counting assistant —Editor) for her scare. I’ve realised she was actually used against me to make me seem violent which I definitely am not as anyone can tell.”
How did the election authorities react? When did they notice something unusual had happened?
“The election authority’s reaction as I understand it was to call the police and stop the count from that ballot box. I heard that some of the candidates were quite amused realising what had happened and that it wasn’t serious, although the Conservatives and UKIP were flustered by it for obvious reasons. The chief executive of Canterbury city council is a well-known cohort of the tory administration in Canterbury. It was he who stopped the count. His name is Colin Carmichael.”
What were the consequences in terms of how the police reacted and the legal issues? (I understand from the newspapers, there was a three-month curfew that was converted to a six-week prison sentence after an appeal).
“First I would like to say I actually owned up to it to BBC radio Kent Julia George Show after I waited some time for the count to start. The producer phoned me back after a few hours and then started shouting at me down the line to which I didn’t have much opportunity to reply, as I wanted to point out that it was the BBC’s propaganda bias towards UKIP that spurred me into my actions in the first place. Although the BBC now looks at UKIP now with a bit more balance, back then they (UKIP — Editor) were given them every opportunity for free advertising. Had the Green Party for instance got that much free coverage I believe they would be challenging the Labour Party even here quite possibly.
The police reaction was over the top in my mind, and I think they were only obeying their master’s voice. They brought me in for questioning where I asked for a few friends to accompany me, as they were aware of how the police operate. I sat in the interview room with a video and voice recording machine at Canterbury police station. There were two plain clothes police detectives who played good cop bad cop game with me, which they swapped roles at. My solicitor and a retired social worker friend sat on the opposite side. They asked me if I realised what I had done, where I got the vials from, if I knew the vials were safe, and whether I tested the vials on myself, to which I replied in the affirmative. I was asked if I realised that the chemicals inside could change over time into something harmful to which I said that was ridiculous. The interview lasted about an hour I think although I’m not sure but it seemed long.
I kept looking at my solicitor for prompts to say “no reply”, but not once did he prompt me which I thought odd and dis-heartening. He was a good man and when it came to the magistrate represented me very well. However, I wanted to plead not guilty so that it would go to a higher court where I would be judged by my peers rather than what always seems to be the case, a bourgeois upper class twit.
My solicitor told me after the judgement to appeal the case, as he said the curfew was ridiculous to which I did. When I got to Canterbury high court accompanied by a good friend I was met by a posh barrister, and during the hearing I realised the barrister had no intention of representing me.
The judge was an extremely grumpy old man from South Africa so I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I thought he would just re-apply the curfew, but to my surprise and my friend’s shock, he said what I did was an extremely violent political act and then sentenced me to three months’ prison. My friend angrily got up and shouted and was told to sit down by the barrister or he could be penalised as well. He was the only one there – no press nothing else – and my prison sentence was not reported on until I wrote a letter to the local press about my incarceration and what it was like at Elmley Prison on the isle of Sheppey.
Elmley Prison has also been in the press for being one of the worst prisons alongside Wandsworth Prison in London, because it has a lack of staff, a high suicide rate, violence towards fellow inmates and staff, and because you can be locked up 24 hours a day, which I experienced in a cell containing three people. Six weeks by the way is half the three months; if you behave well you get released early.”
Looking back on it, how do you feel about it?
“I feel I did the right thing, as Martin Luther King might have said. It was only afterwards I realised I behaved naively. I knew that police-obtained representatives could be bad, but getting a solicitor who is well known for defending political direct action activists is virtually impossible to find, as I found out. The only regrets I think were at the magistrate where I ignored my solicitor’s request to plead guilty, and to say “no comment” at the police station; that’s all. You know when you’re on your own and there’re these professionals around giving you advice, it’s very tempting to follow that advice.”
Do you wish there had been more (or less) media coverage? Why?
“Yes, not for egotistic reasons mind you. I wish there was more coverage; that way I would probably have gotten a good solicitor and a caring, thoughtful barrister. Most barristers are unfortunately upper class and all the legal system seems to be oriented towards. My advice to others is not to own up but stay anonymous and cover your tracks. I only did what I did to show what could be done.”