Monday, 13 December 2010
December 9th 2010
I was away for a few days after 'attending' (is that the right word?) last Thursday's protests in London, and thus missed the majority of the news coverage (though I did catch a little snippet on the BBC where Nick Robinson complained about vandalism, the disrespect shown to Mr Churchill's statue (Churchill being, let’s remember, the man who advocated using gas against the Kurds in the 1920s: as he put it, "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes"), and the terrifying ordeal suffered by Prince Charles and his wife when their car was attacked by a group of 'yobos'). Now that I'm back, I've been able to check a broader spectrum of reporting and, though I shouldn't be surprised, still can't fucking believe the extent to which the protestors have been demonized and the cops get off virtually scot-free.
There was some speculation among protestors on the day (though not in the media) about what motivates riot police: one cop apparently agreed with those opposing the cuts as he let them out of a kettle (he had three children who would probably now not get to university), but the majority remained stony-faced, advancing behind shields and body-armour or on horses, and brushing aside injured protestors in search of medical treatment (let the fuckers bleed, serve them right, seems to be the reasoning behind this). It comes across as sheer brute force against rational argument, against intelligence, intellect, expression - captured neatly in the photos of cops attacking students who were carrying sandwich boards painted with the titles of books such as Brave New World, Spectres of Marx, The Waste Land, and Society of the Spectacle.
The police, whatever the true motivations of the individuals that make up their ranks, are functioning at the moment as the strong arm of the government – the necessary violent enforcers without which the Con-Dem’s policies could not be sustained. Perhaps some of them fear they’ll lose their jobs if they show too much ‘leniency’ or sympathy towards protestors (which in the current context would probably just mean not charging them and not hitting them over the head), despite the fact that they stand to lose out in the wake of the cuts, just like everyone else. There is also, in all likelihood, a strong thug culture, as there is in the army, that other bastion of legalized criminality – in other words, some policemen get off on clashes with ‘rioters’, with wading in armed and ready to kick the shit out of people.
But speculating about police motives isn’t really that much use to people on the ground, in the midst of the ‘action’ – you don’t care about the internal moral struggle that may be going on behind the riot helmets when you’re in a crowd of people running away from a line of charging horses or anxiously looking around to make sure you’re not being cordoned off into a fresh kettle. It’s as if the entire march has been orchestrated by the cops lining the streets, trying to siphon protestors off down particular routes; and even the spontaneous, guerilla-style breakaways down alternative routes (those breakaways which allow people not to get kettled) are done with an eye over one’s shoulder at all times. On the one hand, this produces an adrenaline buzz, turning the city into a kind of assault course, but on the other, this same adrenaline also leads to the mounting frustration that the cops use as an excuse to wade in. And after the hours of kettling, the shouted slogans and chants and songs gradually start to die down, and a weird kind of hush descends, broken by occasional upsurges of shouting as there’s a fresh cavalry charge or stand-off. When the vote passed, one might have expected a fresh wave of anger, but the crescendo of noise and anger (an energy), seemed to have been reached earlier on, on the way to Parliament Square, before everyone was blocked in. So you head to the pub and then head back and the kettle is still in operation, and ‘sub-kettles’ are opened up as some people break through the first line only for another to form around them; and you think about tactics, how this could become a real live street war, a quasi-military operation (how should we go about organizing and mobilizing against the police when we can’t rely on the media to scare them off?), and you talk about the best way to tip over a car and set it on fire (though you don’t, of course, then go out and actually do it), and talk about the English radical tradition (Abiezer Coppe Ranters Levellers Diggers Luddites) and how it can be resurrected, and talk about Burroughs and Genet, out-of-place perhaps, but still there at the Chicago Democratic Convention riots in 1968.
And so, “back now to our studies,” to that radical re(in)surrection (Raise Race Rays Raze), against the e-rasure of our voices that the government and their flunkies, the Metropolitan police and the Right-leaning media, are trying to effect. Obviously the case of Alfie Meadows and the other protestors who were injured and physically intimidated is not enough to cause a propaganda backlash (which is perhaps no surprise given the craven Tory bias of such hacks as the aforementioned BBC correspondent Nick Robinson); instead, the British public are judged to be so attached to Charles and Camilla...
...that they will willingly countenance a 'stronger police presence' – to do what? Protect the Royals if they happen to choose to come to London again in the middle of a protest? Perhaps some of the proles will attempt to invade Buckingham Palace, or Balmoral, or Windsor. Damn, we can't let the Civil War happen all over again! Even though that incident was a minor one, and the overwhelming media focus on it (the increasingly right-leaning The Guardian made it front page news too) is pretty disgusting, it does capture some truth about what's going on at the moment: an unleashing of forces of desire, of a momentum which I described in relation to the Millbank attack, a momentum which "cannot be made simply to dissipate and disappear, to tail and trail off back down the road into ‘normality’; we – you – want something more and cannot suppress that longing any longer." Sure it’s amusing when Theresa May says the Duchess of Cornwall was “poked with a stick” by a protestor (nudge nudge wink wink), but it also signals something of symbolic value – the desiccation the stiffness the traditionalism of the Royals coming up against the real facts of the real lives of their ‘subjects’, the real facts of discontent and history (history as moving thing rather than static conserve or ‘jam tomorrow’). Dominic Fox has said what I’m trying to say, better: “What I think's uncanny in the above image, and therefore most difficult to "spin" coherently, is that it breaches the boundary between two distinct times: a past that is defunct, over-with, de-libidinalised, and a present that is massively energised and "happening". Look at their faces again: pure car-crash orgasm, like corpses being jolted back to life. No amount of regal "calmness" and "dignity" can erase the memory of that look, its spooked intensity. It's as if they're saying: what the fuck is this? History? Dear God - make it go away!”
But of course while it’s easy to get exhilarated about this – I’d just about given up hope on any widespread anti-Royalist sentiment appearing through the cracks of Will and Kate’s wedding and the dear old Queen soldiering on – it’s important to remember the flip-side, that the Right have seized on this story (or, really, on just that one photo, which to be honest, doesn’t look much different to your common-or-garden paparazzi-shot) and will use it to justify an increase in police presence and in the force that that presence is allowed or encouraged to use. No, charging horses and bone-breaking batons are not enough – we want cannons! But, hey, they’re only water cannons – just like water pistols really, only bigger, fun toys that we can use to teach the young whippersnappers a lesson. Look at that picture of a happy black man getting sprayed with water! He looks hot and it's cooling him down. Protestors actually enjoy having the cannons turned on them, so it's all alright. Of course, what they forgot to mention was this. And, as just another example of how brazen those in power now are: "Sir Paul said one reason water cannon had not been used is that the Met did not own any. It was reported last year that the Met had considered buying six at a cost of £5million." At this time of 'austerity', five million pounds can suddenly materialize to buy weapons to turn on those who protest - some of whom, let's note, feel that their democratic rights have been taken from them, given that Clegg got into power on the back of student support, only to blatantly and quite unapologetically go back on his word. (As Richard Seymour reminds us , “Democracy is not law and order. Democracy is the mob; the mob is democracy. Democracy is supposed to mean popular sovereignty, not the unimpeded rule of a no-mandate government.”) The message: we don't want to hear what the people think or do or say, we want to turn the propaganda machine and the police brutality machine onto them to quell them into submission. Once again, "there is no alternative." And one wonders, how long before we see police holding guns, as in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and how long before another Blair Peach, another Ian Tomlinson, another Jean Charles de Menezes?
Finally, after all the anger and adrenaline and exhilaration and upset and rage and potential, a reminder of what's at stake, what the government voted in on Thursday:
The vote may have passed, but opposition to the new education measures is not going to go away, and now it’s time to add on top of it a wider campaign against ‘austerity’, against back-slapping for the rich and a boot in the face for everyone else – time to build a bonfire, fight back, raise the dead.