Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest

After a day of marching against education cuts ended with protestors storming the Millbank Conservative HQ, the last 24 hours has seen more discussion of philosophy of violent protest than of the higher education policies being protested. As the Daily Maybe wrote yesterday, "It seems that the story is now going to be students smash some glass rather than government smash education".

Both issues are worthy of discussion. But it seems to me that we're already operating in a deficit here: the mainstream media has almost universally zoomed in on the destructive elements of #Demo2010, rather than the constructive messages over 52,000 protestors were trying to make heard. Greenwedge shows how the nine biggest papers all ran with exactly the same photo of a protestor kicking through a glass window, "when there was no shortage of striking photographs on news sites as the day progressed. Not least those capturing the many wonderful and original placards on the march (my favourite being 'I Wish My Boyfriend Was As Dirty As Your Policy')."

The protesters who see violence as a means to an end are being naive: for the news media, violence IS the end. Violence becomes the issue, just like it did at the May Day protests last year.

What is the rioting actually for?

Who cares, says the media, let's just look at it. And look for more of it.

In the face of this monovision, it seems that it's up to non-traditional news media to give the other issue of the day - the policy changes and betrayals which have provoked such mass disillusionment - a fair hearing. Technically, the protest itself and the response of the state and media falls more within the remit of this site, but in solely focussing on the method and consequences of the demonstration itself we risk falling into the same trap as the mainstream press; and it is not possible to understand the motivations of political protest without looking at the context in which it arose.

The protest as a whole was extremely important, not just because of the large numbers it attracted, and shouldn't be understood simply in economic terms as a complaint against fees. It also represented the serious anger many feel about cuts to universities as they currently stand, and the ideological devastation of the education system if the coalition gets its way. It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but "investments" by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good. (Source - Guardian)

To understand the full extent to which higher education policy is shifting under this government, this article for the London Review of Books chillingly unpacks the philosophy behind the Browne report and its implications for education in this country. This isn't just about fees, it's the idea that a "free market" approach to education can be fair in a country with as much financial and social inequality as ours; it's about the insidious idea that the only value education provides is economic.

Is the cultural value of learning, the idea that things are worth knowing even if they aren't lucrative, worth fighting for? Is it worth a few smashed windows or getting arrested? Several commentators have noted that there is no reliable means of getting favourable protest coverage. If you're well-behaved, you're posh and pointless; if you're not, you're mindless thugs. When peaceful protests have failed before, when voting for change results in broken promises, what should be the next step for citizens in a healthy democracy to express their discontent?

This was not solely a "student" protest. Writing for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny notes that many of the protestors were school children, graduates and academics; angry not just about tuition fees and education cuts, but a broader sense of betrayal, the feeling that "their futures have been sold in order to pay for the financial failings of the rich, and they are correct in their suspicions."

They spent their childhoods working hard and doing what they were told with the promise that one day, far in the future, if they wished very hard and followed their star, their dreams might come true. They spent their young lives being polite and articulate whilst the government lied and lied and lied to them again. They are not prepared to be polite and articulate any more. They just want to scream until something changes. Perhaps that's what it takes to be heard.

"Look, we all saw what happened at the big anti-war protest back in 2003," says Tom, a postgraduate student from London. "Bugger all, that's what happened. Everyone turned up, listened to some speeches and then went home. It's sad that it's come to this, but..." he gestures behind him to the bonfires burning in front of the shattered windows of Tory HQ. "What else can we do?"

Regardless of whether you think the destructive actions of protestors yesterday were productive or justified, some interesting points arise from a comparison of this demo with the G20 protests in April 2009.

  • As last year, media and police statements consistently use "violence" to describe property damage by protestors - which justifies police violence against activists. Violence against the person and violence against property are not the same thing in law; and yet they are consistently conflated in the context of public protest. This is spin designed to cast the protestors in a bad light, and should be recognised as such.
  • Most reports suggest that the police response, while violent, was far more proprotionate than in other public disorder situations in recent months. Batons were used, and non-violent protestors were caught in the fray, but we haven't seen the sort of stories which came out of Bishopgate last April. Has the Met learned its lesson, and wants to avoid the repercussions of using too much force? Were their tactics affected by the fact that many of the protestors they were tackling were legally underage? Or were they simply underprepared and understaffed, and would have gone in full force if they'd had the resources to do so?
  • This BBC article suggests that the latter might be closest to the truth, in which Met Commissioner Paul Stevenson described the understated police response as "an embarrassment". The BBC also printed the words of a former Flying Squad Commander, who was of the opinion that the police were "naive" to talk to student planners before the event. It will be depressing if yesterday's demo is used to turn back the positive shift we have started to see in public order policing tactics since the G20.
  • As Sunny Hundal was quick to note when it was announced that there would be an inquiry into yesterday's policing, "funny how police are quick to launch investigations when they don't use enough force, but not when they go too far." Whether or not the lack of aggravated brutality from the Met was deliberate or not, the response to it suggests that at senior levels, police and politicians still think that smashed heads are a more reasonable outcome to a protest than smashed windows.

If the state response to yesterday's demonstration is the demonisation of the destructive methods resorted to by activists, and no hint of policy change, what happens next? If angry, betrayed, frightened, vulnerable people take to the streets in peaceful protest with no windows broken, will that be any more successful? (Arguably no; peaceful protest against the cuts have happened across the UK in recent weeks, and they don't seem to be having much impact on the legislature.)

Two campaigns have already sprung up expressing solidarity with the actions of yesterday's protestors, rejecting any attempt to characterise the demonstration as "extremist" and arguing that the real vandals are those waging a war on our education system: the Ten Eleven Ten Unity statement and the November 10th Defence Campaign.

Once the state has retreated from its role in sponsoring higher education, it will be ten times harder to re-institute it. The time to act is now, before the recommendations of the Browne report are put into action. Within the terrifying context of wider welfare 'reform' and tax avoidance crisis, it is hard to argue that those protesting the proposed changes to public services are not acting for the greater good.




Re: Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest
Posted by Anonymous (131.111.xx.xx) on Thu 18 Nov 2010 at 12:28
Violence to property and violence to people are different things, but the former can become the latter. Anger and adrenalin dull the nice distinctions between what lawbreaking is acceptable and what isn't, and I certainly wouldn't trust a window smasher not to be willing to smash a head.

Or to put it another way, could a Conservative minister have stood in the Millbank foyer on that day and remained free from harm or the fear of harm?
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Re: Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest
Posted by Helen (80.176.xx.xx) on Thu 18 Nov 2010 at 13:35 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]
If your notional Conservative minister had been in "fear of harm", would that really have made the occupation unacceptable in your view? People are afraid of all sorts of things. Unless you're making a specific and personal threat against someone, it's doing something that are illegal, not someone being afraid that you might do something.

But to answer your question, yes, I believe that most people who were at Millbank draw a line between destruction of property and physical violence against a human being. All reports from the ground that the majority seemed to be impassioned human beings who cared about an issue, not thugs bent on mindlessly causing harm to people. Of course neither of us can prove it either way. A look at the comparative use of vandalism/destruction of property by conscientious protestors versus actions which included physical attacks on people might be informative, though - I'd expect you to find a lot more of the former. Many activist groups which condone the use of illegal or disruptive actions draw the line at physical violence.

Re: Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest
Posted by Anonymous (188.24.xx.xx) on Sat 9 Apr 2011 at 09:52
great post

Re: Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest
Posted by TonyKeen (82.44.xx.xx) on Thu 18 Nov 2010 at 12:52 [ Send Message ]
I suspect the Met's low-key response to the violence stems from the same reason that they had a low police presence in the first place; they felt that a sizable proportion of those demonstrating were middle-class people whose parents would cause a lot of trouble if their kids came back with smashed faces. They didn't feel the same for the G20 protestors, whom they view as a bunch of hippies and drop-outs.

What is important is to remember that the smashing up of Millbank was a manifestation of people's anger at the government's course, and their refusal to listen to legitimate protest. That doesn't mean that what those who broke windows did is necessarily legitimate, or to be condoned. But marginalizing the people involved as 'anarchist infiltrators' (whatever that means) will result in ignoring the anger that is building up - and if governments continue to ignore the anger of the people, then the violence will just get worse. Ask Louis XVI.
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