A Note on Violence

View from Tory HQ rooftop“The full force of the law must be brought against vi­olent pro­testers,” David Cameron re­peats his mantra, once again, on the evening of 9 December, fol­lowing the fourth in­stance of tar­geted prop­erty damage and clashes with the po­lice coming from within the groundswell of stu­dent protests against edu­ca­tion cuts. The mantra’s com­bin­a­tion of “force” and “law” is not in­tended solely as a call for ret­ro­spective legal pro­ceed­ings, but also sum­mons law-​preserving vi­ol­ence in the im­me­diate fu­ture. In other words, each re­pe­ti­tion of the mantra in the past month has served as found­a­tion and le­git­im­isa­tion for in­creased mil­it­ar­isa­tion of poli­cing at each suc­cessive stu­dent demon­stra­tion. It has, of course, also served as a clear threat to those who will con­tinue protesting, even if with non-​violent methods.

We first heard it from Cameron in the wake of the oc­cu­pa­tion of Tory headquar­ters on 10 November, during the 52-​thousand-​strong, first stu­dent march on Parliament. Police pres­ence was min­imal that day, com­ple­mented by a ci­vility on the part of pro­testers that only a gen­er­ally shared be­lief in lib­eral demo­cratic prin­ciples could pro­duce: fellow pro­testers in stew­ards’ vests poli­cing ar­bit­rary rail­ings in the middle of Whitehall; thou­sands marching past gov­ern­ment build­ings whose doors were barely se­cured, even left ajar as their staff walked in and out. Later in the day, the oc­cu­pa­tion and trashing of the headquar­ters of the Conservative Party chan­nelled some of the more un­con­tain­able re­gisters of out­rage within the march.

It is not clear whether the oc­cu­pa­tion and prop­erty damage was some­what planned à la black bloc or en­tirely spon­tan­eous. As one first-​person ac­count reasons, given the number of oc­cu­piers without masks and the di­versity of plac­ards they were car­rying, it could be as­sumed that there was a sig­ni­ficant amount of spon­tan­eous par­ti­cip­a­tion. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a col­lective in­tel­li­gence at work for most of it, a method to the mad­ness, as it were: after all, the target was quite ap­pro­priate and the damage accurate. The key ra­tionale of direct ac­tion is to put a wrench in the works: if you can’t stop them, make sure to cost them. It was not any old gov­ern­ment building that was oc­cu­pied, but the very headquar­ters of the polit­ical party who are hell-​bent on le­gis­lating im­meas­ur­able struc­tural vi­ol­ence and sys­temic de­struc­tion. It is for­tu­nate that the more mind­less mo­ments, such as the fire-​extinguisher stunt, did not prove fatal (though, of course, this did not deter au­thor­ities from spin­ning epic lament for the could-​have-​been martyr).

And so the whole she­bang was cast as a scandal for the London Metropolitan Police, with Cameron ef­fect­ively scolding the po­lice pub­licly, and the latter ex­pressing “embarrassment” — apparently they had no clue how massive the turnout would be. As goofy as they may like to come across some­times, the po­lice ob­vi­ously had their own cal­cu­la­tions, pre­sum­ably at­tempting to hi­jack the demon­stra­tion to make a point to the gov­ern­ment about cuts to their own budget: “It is a re­minder that the Government must main­tain the number of fully war­ranted po­lice of­ficers to en­sure that poli­cing these spon­tan­eous in­cid­ents, along with their everyday du­ties, can be sus­tained in the cap­ital,” Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, con­cluded. Their os­tens­ible in­com­pet­ence has also served as a man­oeuvre to re­gain some of the ground they lost fol­lowing the G20 demon­stra­tions of April 2009, where one man’s death had un­leashed wide­spread public scru­tiny of po­lice bru­tality, in­cluding an of­fi­cial re­view of their methods. Indeed, only days after Cameron’s first call on the force of law, an un­named senior po­lice of­ficer told the Guardian that the stu­dents’ direct ac­tion had helped po­lice: “To be frank, this will have done the com­mis­sioner a fa­vour. In the past we’ve been cri­ti­cised for being too pro­voc­ative. During the next demo no one can say a word.”

Cameron summoned, the force of law de­livered: during the second mass demon­stra­tion on 24 November, 5000 pro­testers, mostly school­chil­dren, were kettled for seven hours in Whitehall in sub­zero tem­per­at­ures, with mounted po­lice char­ging into the trapped crowd at one point. Then during the third demon­stra­tionon 30 November, by about 6pm, Trafalgar Square was rendered a zone of emer­gency with three heli­copters hov­ering over what re­sembled a mass demon­stra­tion staged by the po­lice: seem­ingly twice their size and cer­tainly thrice their number, the of­ficers had formed a double-​wall with their ar­moured bodies to trap a small group of scantily clad kids who had walked out of their schools earlier in the day. Outside this kettle, a wall of mounted po­lice looked on as other troops in riot gear marched in mil­itary form­a­tion from one point to an­other for no ap­parent reason, bel­lowing “Forward!”. What was clearly aimed to pro­voke and es­calate ten­sion was countered by only a few scuffles, some Christmas carols, and a queue formed by those who wanted to get out.

This Thursday’s clashes with the po­lice, the at­tack on the Royal Rolls Royce, and prop­erty damage in Westminster and on Oxford Street has shown us that there is a de­term­ined con­stitu­ency within this new youth move­ment who do not rule out the use of phys­ical force in protest. The damage they incur is far from random van­dalism. The courage they dis­play in re­fusing to be in­tim­id­ated by the in­creas­ingly brutal tac­tics of the po­lice has garnered some re­cog­ni­tion from those who’ve found them­selves help­lessly de­tained in a kettle for at­tempting to ex­er­cise their demo­cratic right to protest. And yet, the issue re­mains con­tro­ver­sial and po­ten­tially divisive.

NUS President Aaron Porter has re­cently de­clared that “vi­olent” pro­testers need to be ex­cluded from fu­ture demon­stra­tions. Porter had pre­vi­ously con­demned the Tory HQ oc­cu­pa­tion as “despic­able”, an­noun­cing that “a minority have un­der­mined us” — the sup­posed stu­dent leader ap­par­ently un­aware of the per­form­ative power of his ut­ter­ances, thus threat­ening to un­der­mine all 52 thou­sand of “us” by his very state­ment. Though Porter has lost cred­ib­ility for many in the move­ment, he is not alone in his po­s­i­tion on what he in­sists on calling, in chorus with the es­tab­lish­ment, “vi­ol­ence”. Some share the be­lief that a re­l­ative minority’s use of phys­ical force un­der­mines the clear united mes­sage of le­git­imate con­cerns. Then there’s the ar­gu­ment that such tac­tics are used as an ex­cuse by the po­lice for in­creased re­pres­sion. There is some truth in both of these po­s­i­tions. But also some bad faith: Several win­ters ago, those many mil­lions of us who were peace­fully ex­er­cising our rights to protest against the in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq were left high and dry on the prom­ises of lib­eral rep­res­ent­ative demo­cracy, which then went on to murder and maim in our name. And those of us who have been on a demon­stra­tion or two know that no po­lice force needs an ex­cuse to es­calate repression.

The cur­rent stu­dent move­ment is led by a gen­er­a­tion that was pre­ma­turely la­belled “apathetic” by the various forces of he­ge­mony, the only pos­sib­ility for their polit­ical in­volve­ment en­gin­eered by the same forces as either a ca­reer op­por­tunity (be it non­gov­ern­mental, gov­ern­mental or transna­tional), or sen­tenced to in­con­sequen­ti­ality by cyn­ical calls from the powers that be for the “right” to “peaceful” protests. Even if we may per­son­ally choose to re­main com­mitted to non-​violent prin­ciples, it is im­per­ative that we re­cog­nize the crux of the in­ter­ven­tion of those who do not rule out the use of phys­ical force in this wave of protests: it is a chal­lenge to the ap­par­ently seam­less lib­eral con­sensus that con­tinues to beget un­told in­justice and struc­tural vi­ol­ence on a global scale.

Basak Ertur is a re­search stu­dent at Birkbeck Law School.

  2 comments for “A Note on Violence

  1. Alexandra Hibbett
    14 December 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Indeed. As Zizek said re­cently, it is not a choice between vi­ol­ence and non-​violence…

  2. Jose-Manuel Barreto
    15 December 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Alexandra: Could you elab­orate on why ‘it is not a choice between vi­ol­ence and non-​violence?’

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