Published on Independent Voices on 24th January 2014.
Whatever you say about Tony Blair, it is difficult to describe the former Prime Minister’s brief “arrest” by a barman who worked at the east London restaurant he was dining in last week as anything but absurd. The bizarre encounter turned into a debate between Blair and the barman, which quickly finished when the barman decided to exit to avoid trouble with the security.
There is nothing surprising about the knee-jerk reaction to this incident by sections of the media and social media, hailing the barman – Twiggy Garcia – as a hero. What is less discussed is a possible extra incentive [sic] for Garcia’s daring act – the reward Garcia stood to receive upon his successful “arrest”. A cheque worth approximately £2222.55 is on its way to Garcia – merely for putting his hand on Blair’s shoulder and uttering: “You’re under arrest.”
The reward was provided by ArrestBlair.org, a bounty website founded by writer George Monbiot in support of anyone who succeeds in performing a citizen’s arrest on Blair. Monbiot was quick to react to the story, and to take the chance to advertise his bounty site and the tempting reward it offers. Monbiot praised Garcia for grabbing the news agenda, declaring that “the clamour to ensure that such crimes become unthinkable in future has risen again.” Monbiot even called it “a small but significant contribution to peace.” Heaven knows what Monbiot would consider as an “insignificant” contribution to peace.
Peter Tatchell’s defence of Garcia in the Independent was equally entertaining to read. Titled “People Power”, Tatchell spent the majority of the article detailing his own attempts in the past to “arrest” Robert Mugabe, and then expressed his anger towards the police for not taking him seriously. According to Tatchell, the legal status of citizen arrest is “an essential element of a democratic judicial system.” “Too often the rich and powerful use their influence to evade justice,” he wrote. “The right of citizen’s arrest gives the unrich and unpowerful the means to make sure they don’t get away with it.” That, too, is a fair point to make. Yet nowhere in the article can Tatchell’s reader find the slightest clue that Garcia walked away from the restaurant knowing that he might receive more than £2k from Monbiot.
Garcia is not the first to claim the cash, and Blair is no stranger to citizen’s arrests. The former PM had been “arrested” four times before last week. As far away as Hong Kong, as recent and memorably as in the Leveson enquiry, anti-war protesters have never ceased to remind the public of their accusation against Blair: he is a war criminal, for Iraq was an illegal war.
But it is not quite that simple. For while it is fine to raise an issue via peaceful means, it is quite another matter when the incentive of money is involved. In fact, I would gladly salute Grace McCann and David Cronin, who both made citizen’s arrests on Blair, but unlike Garcia (so far), kindly donated their cheques to anti-war organisations. They expressed their views, appeared in the news, with no controversial “bounty” implications.
The Iraq war is not forgotten by the British people. Who would forget the largest demonstration in British history? Who could forget a war that cost hundreds hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and hundreds British servicemen and women’s lives? Furthermore, how can one argue that Britain forgot the lesson of Iraq when it was “the well of public opinion… poisoned by Iraq” (David Cameron) which led to our parliament’s shameful decision to abandon the Syrian people at the mercy of two evils?
Yes, the anti-war movement has an important case to make. But they know as well as anybody that these so-called arrests are at best symbolic, at worst shambolic. They should know that this money-reward mechanism is not strengthening their argument, but damaging their integrity and compromising their credibility. They should know better than anybody that Garcia’s action, like those before him, is trivial and meaningless. It is more of an act to fuel someone’s ego, with a side benefit to their personal finance, and carries no significance for the anti-war movement, regardless of what you think about Blair or the war on Iraq.