Demonstrations and violence, some thoughts from Saturday

On Saturday I was on the TUC’s demonstration against public spending cuts, and about 500,000 of us marched through London from the Embankment, past the Palace of Westminster, and up to a rally in Hyde Park. Of the march itself, it was obviously well attended, being the largest in Britain since the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War. It was colourful (trade unions in the UK having finally decided to emulate their continental cousins when it comes to flags/horns/drums/bibs/banners etc) and many of the people there were attending their first demonstration, many with their kids in tow.

Later on in the day some violence occurred, mostly confined to window smashing, and the Sunday papers were predictably hysterical about it. I was also at the student demonstrations in December, where some violence also occurred, and it might be useful to draw a comparison between the two. Unlike the violence that occurred during the student demonstrations, it did not originate from anger within the crowd itself, but was performed by the usual groups of ninja-suited anarchists, who by and large were outside of the main march. I say performed, this kind of thing is ritualistic in nature and can be pretty much guaranteed at any large demonstration in London. I also hesitate to use the word anarchists, as a term it has become fairly meaningless and everyone, including anarchists themselves, completely disagree on what set of ideas it describes. But as whoever might have been involved would term themselves as anarchists, it will have to do.

The anti-cuts movement, if one does materialise, is in its infancy, and tactically speaking, charging around Oxford St in balaclavas and smashing random shop windows has an air of inauthenticity about it. Others at the march seemed mostly bemused by these happenings, and seem to have felt that it was something separate from what they were doing. At best, it was self-regarding, mistimed, and tactically ill-advised and at worst, it served to actively alienate people. There may be a time for smashing the windows of banks, but this wasn’t it, and the mood of the general crowd wasn’t in it.

As during the summit protests of the 1990s and early 2000s, in Seattle, Genoa, Prague etc, violence becomes a mask to hide an intellectual deficiency, and a lack of wider analysis concerning the cuts and the implications of the economic situation as a whole. It was no indication of how angry people feel against the cuts, because this kind of violence is almost guaranteed at any demonstration in London.

The violence did detract from the event itself, but since it is the press who decides whether an event has been ‘overshadowed by violence’, I’m sure it would have been ‘overshadowed’ had only a couple of windows been smashed by an even smaller group of people, or had anything much happened at all.

From a quick glance at a few anarchist discussion boards today, even those on the more sensible end of anarchism who had been arguing years ago against the use of ‘black bloc’ tactics as outdated and achieving little, that anarchists should not seem unapproachable and dangerous, hiding behing masks, and should try to spread their ideas among other demonstrators, have been caught up in the excitement of the moment in believing that this was a breakthrough. Perhaps this is down to the example of Greece, where the recent campaigns against austerity measures have been characterised by mass violence. But from the outside, in a country like Britain, which unlike Greece has no recent history of political violence, and no large communist or socialist movements, these kind of random attacks on property seem no different to those being used ten years ago. This is still a mindset of being in the bubble of activism, where constant overexposure to those with the same ideas, and confined to tiny political groups, can lead you to believe your actions have little consequence outside of these groups.

The response of the left-leaning press has fared little better, with the Guardian, as usual adopting a calmer and less hysterical, but essentially similar position to the right-wing press, of a peaceful march having been ‘hijacked’. Among the stranger responses however has been from New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who has written an article describing her experiences in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Aside from the usual comments from right-wing types that are to be expected, the comments from those who were on the march on Saturday have been fairly sceptical, and they believe large parts of her account have been fabricated. Not having spent too much time on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, I can’t confirm or deny her account.

The entire article has a bizarre feeling about it, from dismissing the half a million of so trade unionists on the main march as ‘humous eaters’, something any sane person would ascribe to a New Statesman columnist than to the firemen, teachers, binmen, council workers, train drivers, paramedics, who had come from all over the country to voice their opposition, to the obvious jumping on a new political bandwagon from somebody whose articles just six months ago were demoaning the Labour Party having ‘let us down’. She is clearly positioning herself as some kind of new Hunter S Thompson, reporting from the front line of a riot, although with absolutely none of his ability to write with artistic flair and avoid cliche, leading us to the atrocious and cringing way the article is written. It reads like fan fiction written by somebody imagining themselves on the barricades of the Rue Soufflot in 1848, definiantly facing down the forces of reaction, as a whiff of gunpowder blowing by on the cool wind as a red flag flutters in the distance. To say it is overly dramatic is an understatement;

“Now, night is falling on the Trafalgar kettle, and the square stinks of cordite, emptied kidneys and anxiety. We’ve been here for three hours, and it’s freezing; we burn placards and share cigarettes to maintain an illusion of warmth.”

“I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.””

For people of my generation in their early twenties, the obvious reference point we arrive at for mass violence during a demonstration is that of the Poll Tax Riot in 1990. To compare what happened on Saturday to that, as some eager people have been trying to do, is incorrect. The protest itself came on the back of months of localised opposition to the Poll Tax, through community organising, non-payment, and resistance to baliffs, and the riot was indicitive of the deep anger felt by those on the march. Contrary to what was said by those in government, the Labour Party, the police, the unions, and various smaller left-wing parties said, an inquiry afterwards concluded that there was;

‘no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups’

The same can be said of the student demonstrations in December, which were popular outpourings of anger, but cannot, by anyone who was there, be said of the demonstration on Saturday. Maybe the anti-cuts movement will have its Poll Tax Riot, but when it does, the real demonstration of anger against the cuts will be when anarchists become superfluous to any window smashing.

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1 Comment

Filed under history, politics

One response to “Demonstrations and violence, some thoughts from Saturday

  1. Isabel

    Interesting article. Glad that you are still writing good political comments on my favourite subject – trade-union rights. It’s obvious why unions were very important in my day – they were needed. With this government looks like they should/will become important again.

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