Cheers then mate

The second point I want to make about the debate over last Saturday’s violence (following on from the previous post) is about the representation of violence in the media.

There’s a widespread view that the black bloc’s approach was wrong because of how it looked – specifically, because of how it looked on TV. Thus Christopher Phelps on Sunday:

Here is what the story for yesterday’s demonstration should have been: half a million marchers, in the largest show of labour union strength in decades, turn out to oppose the government’s draconian cuts.

Here is what the story became: a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square.

The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who’d travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.

and commenter Andrew on CT:

Demonstrations matter only insofar as they impact public perception. You have x minutes on the news, y column inches, and z number of reported salient facts to make that impact.

It makes very little difference whether those actually at the demonstration saw a mostly peaceful gathering; what matters is x, y, and z – at least if you’re interested in effecting change.

A small group of anarchists can switch over any number of those z salient facts, x TV minutes, and y column inches to negative.

Call me an old pro-situ, but I get very twitchy when I see it argued that what matters about a demonstration is how it looks on TV. It reminds me of something Joe Strummer (and a few friends) said in 1977, in the middle of a rendering of “What’s My Name” that was being shown on Revolver. Sang, rather – he inserted an extra verse, which went like this:

JOE: Here we are on TV!
What does it mean to me?

[looks at crowd]
What does it mean to you?
JOE AND CROWD: F*** ALL!

I remember that feeling: what mattered was to do it yourself, and if you couldn’t do that what mattered was to be there. And if you couldn’t do that, well, you could read about it in the NME, and read the letters the following week saying the first writer got it all wrong, and try to get along next time. Punk could disrupt TV, but it couldn’t work within TV any more than it could work within the marketplace – what would be the point? (Punk didn’t last.)

Radical politics, same same. As a general thing I think we all pay far too much attention to rally-as-spectacle as distinct from rally-as-collective-event. I’ve been on marches and demos, and I can confirm what Simon and Edd say:

A great thing about protests is the transformations in political consciousness that take place: people no longer feel alone, they feel empowered and part of something big; they are prompted to think about the issues that moved them to protest; they form political friendships.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Even at a small demo of a couple of hundred people, the atmosphere changes; life feels different. Collective action seems like a reality, a possible way of living – in fact, for the duration of the demo collective action is a reality, and you’re living it. This change in the air is only temporary, and it has built-in limits. To continue the quote from Edd:

and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

But it’s a temporary experience that can be returned to and built on. Back to Simon:

Uplifting mass protests, though, come with a danger attached. Unless they become the beginning of something sustained, with the capacity to keep a large number of ordinary people engaged, they can serve to simply defuse anger at the expense of political change. … This must be the first mass demonstration against this government, but not the last. There have to be regional events, industrial action, and occupations.

If it becomes the beginning of that sort of process – or, more precisely, another step in the development of that process, which (future historians may judge) began last autumn with the university occupations – the march will have done its job. What it looked like on TV is neither here nor there.

I’ve been particularly bemused by Harry’s argument on CT, seconding Christopher Phelps’s piece and comparing the march with the (huge and inspiring) mobilisation in Wisconsin. Harry:

We’ve lost in the short term (but so have the Brits), and yes, now, the issue is reversing some of the damage (as in the UK case). But we were not, according to the opinion polls, smeared as extremists or as having done $m of damage. That is, the party in power attempted to smear us as such, but failed … People are upbeat and optimistic, which enables them to do the dreary footwork of going to meetings, taking petitions door to door, making the arguments to their recalcitrant neighbors and workmates … 150 anarchists (or whatever they are) would have had a good shot at making the smears successful.

I think CP’s original piece was a bit of a vent, partly probably because the Brits seem so inured (as lots of you do) to this kind of thing and its effects, accepting that it will happening and discounting the effects of good press, or of negative press that can’t actually get a grip on the public because there is nothing to back it up. He doesn’t have a solution, nor do I, but it sounds as if nobody here thinks these folks can be more marginalised than they already are. Maybe that’s right, but its hard to believe.

Here’s why I’m bemused:

good press

I remember being at a union meeting, about 25 years ago, discussing possible strike action (it was a bit easier in those days; the first time I went on strike the decision was taken at a mass meeting, would you believe). A senior manager who had come along spoke at some length about how striking just now couldn’t achieve anything, there was this going on and that just round the corner, so really it was the wrong time to strike. Someone asked – either very naively or not naively at all – whether, in that case, he would support us if we called a strike in three months’ time. The manager actually laughed at this – No, of course not! I’m management!

I feel very similar about the possibility of demonstrations ever getting ‘good press’ in this country – and about the related question of the policing of demonstrations ever getting a bad press. There is a narrative of the events of last Saturday which assumes that the overall outcome was negative and locates all the responsibility for this in the black bloc: something like

1. Mass peaceful demo
2. Violence by anarchists
3. Police are forced to attack anarchists to prevent violence
4. Media are bound to cover anarchist violence, because it’s more newsworthy than the peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators smeared as vandals and hooligans, lose popular support

(More radical commenters may substitute “are forced to” at 3. with “take the opportunity to”.) By contrast, in Wisconsin there was

1. Mass peaceful direct action
2. No violence by anarchists
3. Police not forced to take on anarchists
4. Media cover peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support

Which sounds great, and I’m glad the mobilisation is going so well in Wisconsin. But I’m also slightly baffled, for three reasons. Firstly, I’ve never believed that the police reaction to a demonstration is something that can be controlled by the demonstrators – any demonstrators. The relationship between political activity, heavy policing and arrests for public order offences is very well established in this country; it goes back to Duncan v Jones 1936, in which the court effectively endorsed the right of a police officer to prevent a public meeting taking place if the officer anticipated that disorder would result. The police, the logic runs, are there to prevent disorder, which may involve restraints on political activity; if the form taken by these necessary restraints involves physical force (or the denial of freedom of movement), too bad. This way of thinking gives limitless discretion to the police in deciding when a forceful response is needed: it does nothing to prevent them from escalating the level of confrontation unnecessarily, or even from provoking a level of violence which will justify the use of superior force on their part. The first of these certainly happened in and around Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and from what I saw (on TV!) I wouldn’t rule out the second.

Secondly, I’ve never believed that demonstrators have any influence over the media coverage of the demonstration, either. Where there is violence – any violence – it will be focused on, and the narrative of the Violent Minority who Spoil Everything will get trotted out. (Interestingly enough, where there is mass violence, as at Millbank, the narrative of the Violent Minority will still get trotted out.) In the unlikely event that a demo passes off completely peacefully, they’ll find another stick to beat it with – I remember coming home from a huge Anti-Nazi League demo with my mother (who had gone along with the Christians Against Racism And Fascism contingent) and hearing the BBC newsreader explain that the size of the demo was all down to “the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has been recruiting in schools”. I still watch the news – let’s not get all this out of proportion; I still call the police if I get burgled, too – but, when it comes to reporting protest, the media are not on our side and never have been. In the case of last Saturday, I don’t believe the day would ever have ended without a few breakages and some graffiti – or, for that matter, without the Met getting some kettling action; consequently I don’t believe the media coverage would ever have been positive or unbiased or balanced or respectful. Everything would always have been Spoilt.

Thirdly, and to end on a positive note: after all that, I don’t believe the anti-cuts movement has lost any popular support. Or rather, I don’t believe it’s lost any of the popular support that it had. Like Simon, I started the day following Twitter (#march26, #26march or #march26march?), and like him I was struck by the level of hostility displayed by a few people. And this was while the coaches were still on their way – people were denouncing the march before it had even set off, much less been ‘hijacked’ or ‘eclipsed’. Some people really hate trade unionists; some people really hate workers in the public sector generally. Some people are convinced (at least for as long as it takes to compose a one-line message) that real workers – good, honest, British workers – cross picket-lines, work Saturdays and don’t get a pension, and that the worst injustice being done to these hardy souls is the extraction of income tax from their pay. And, needless to say, some people hate the whole idea of collective action. We didn’t lose the support of any of those people, and it’s hard to see how we could have gained it. So who did we lose? Are there a lot of people out there who didn’t go on the march and don’t know anyone who might have gone, and who might have supported it but for the intervention of the violent anarchists? Even if there are, can we be sure that taking the anarchists out of the picture would have resulted in media coverage that was entirely supportive, or police reactions that were entirely proportionate and restrained?

I don’t think we should be too quick to heap blame on the violent minority: partly because they aren’t entirely to blame for the impression that’s been created around them, and partly because that impression may not have done all that much damage. But there’s also a third reason, which is that the demand to identify, isolate and denounce ‘violent extremists’ is a very old one, and one which rarely does the Left any good – or is meant to. I’ll get on to that in the next post.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted 31 March 2011 at 13:03 | Permalink | Reply

    I totally agree that people get too wrapped up in how a protest will “play out” in the media. The more immediate concern should be how it “plays out” in the minds of the people who went on it. Which means winning those people other to the idea that taking more militant action (not necessarily smashing things up) is politically worthwhile, which I think is what we need to do now in Britain post-March26.

  2. Posted 31 March 2011 at 19:16 | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe, but Strummer is embarrassing in that performance.

    • Phil
      Posted 31 March 2011 at 22:40 | Permalink | Reply

      Don’t agree at all. I remember seeing it, along with a bunch of other period material, when Granada did a ‘ten years after’ programme. The Clash were utterly shambolic, Strummer most of all, but my girlfriend and I both thought the performance was magnificent.

      • Posted 4 April 2011 at 20:31 | Permalink

        I used to have a video of that show but tragically, I accidentally threw it away in a purge when moving from Acton to Brixton in 2002. I also threw away an OGWT compilation I’d much rather have kept.

        (Is the relevant performance of Garageland on Youtube? I’m not in a good position to check at the moment.)

      • Posted 6 April 2011 at 10:04 | Permalink

        It is – actually it follows straight on from “What’s my name”, and consequently begins with Joe flat on the floor.

        What’s my name
        Garageland

        I remember my g/f saying someone at work had commented on the programme – “…bit disappointed in the Clash, they were all over the place” – and she’d thought they didn’t Get It. The first thing my mate at work said to me the next morning was “Did you see the Clash? Weren’t they brilliant?”.

  3. mds
    Posted 1 April 2011 at 17:42 | Permalink | Reply

    One of the odd things to me about Professor Brighouse’s contrasts came from the fact that I had previously directed CT commenters to another weblog where ample video of the Wisconsin demos and of speechifying anti-cuts politicians could be found. Why? Because contra Wisconsin’s #4:

    “4. Media cover peaceful demo”

    the national media have been pretty much AWOL in direct coverage of the protestors. (A lot of local media have done much better, but they’ve done so all along, before there was any possibility of widespread hooliganism to report.)

    And contra Wisconsin’s #5:

    “5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support”

    the demonstrators have, amazingly, retained popular support despite Fox News’ relentless drumbeat about “union thugs,” the falsified figure for damages to the capitol, etc, etc, which the other national television outlets have done little to push back against. This is a lesson that still hasn’t sunk in with too many decent center-left sorts, and the politicians who claim to represent them: they will smear us no matter what we do. As you say, why fret over supposedly turning off those who will never support you anyway?

  4. Posted 2 April 2011 at 12:28 | Permalink | Reply

    On Wisconsin: the national media have, indeed, been less than honest, from what I’ve seen. But comparing the BBC or whoever covering actual thugs with FOX, which is an ENTERTAINMENT channel, making stuff up, is not to the point. And the key thing about the media is that the in-state media, which is what matters for our longer term capacity to organize recalls and rebuild a union movement, has been honest, and where dishonest easy to call out because actually dishonest.

    Phil: it must surely be clear from the CT discussion by now (and I’m surprised so many people failed to understand this from CP’s original piece) that nobody is blanketly denouncing violence or disruption. It never seems the right to strike just as it never seems the right time to have a baby. I was on the ANL things (though I was very young). It never occurred to me that the point of those was to get any sort of legislative change, for which the support of public opinion was needed. I thought the point was to demoralize the fascists, alert people that they were bad news, and trigger pressure against the cost of police protection for them. The tactics I saw used (and participated in) seemed well designed for those goals.

    • Phil
      Posted 2 April 2011 at 16:22 | Permalink | Reply

      Fox just lies like a rug. What the BBC does is a lot subtler, and more honourable in a way – it’s an odd kind of balancing act, finding a version of what’s going on which isn’t totally divorced from reality but won’t frighten the Whitehall horses. I don’t know how that compares to the proper national broadcasters over there.

      I don’t think it’s at all clear that nobody on the CT thread is making blanket denunciations of violence or disruption. I think that’s exactly what ‘Andrew’ is doing, subject to the caveat that violence and disruption might have been not entirely invalid tactics once, long ago and under different conditions. And reading Christopher Phelps’s conclusion

      Meanwhile the black bloc protester is far too busy with his wonderful self to notice the working classes. He feels brave. He sprays an A on the wall. He hurls paint balloons. He whacks the shields of policemen who earn less in a year than a banker does in a day.

      Then he goes home to watch himself on the telly, and scratches his head when the most of the press reduces the day to hooliganism. He laughs that his antics lead the news rather than the massive demo. He thrills that the same police who kettled peaceful students didn’t bother to contain him.

      it’s quite hard to sustain the argument that CP is endorsing these tactics (or antics) at any time.

      I also think that Christopher (at least in that article) is at one with ‘Andrew’ in viewing demonstrations primarily in terms of their effect on public opinion once filtered through the media. And that starting-point has a lot to do with the thread turning into a debate about whether we should condemn the black bloc, rather than about whether the black bloc’s tactics did any good.

      • Posted 4 April 2011 at 19:49 | Permalink

        I once spray-painted some anarchist As, on underpasses one evening as a teenager. When I went back next day I discovered I had inadvertently bought and used dark green spraypaint rather than black.

        Whether or not one agrees with Phelps’ conclusion, his characterisation, in those two paragraphs, is pretty good.

        It might be added that one of the reasons why condemning these people is pointless is that if you’ve ever tried reasoning with them (as I have in the past, on Urban75) they are absolutely disinterested in listening or in anybody else’s opinion but their own. It’s just them against the state and nothing else matters.

      • dsquared
        Posted 6 April 2011 at 13:02 | Permalink

        hmmm yes, it was indeed this sentence that I thought was particularly poorly chosen:

        Meanwhile the black bloc protester is far too busy with his wonderful self to notice the working classes.

        That’s not tactical or political disagreement – it’s simply a personal attack. It would have an exact parallel if the bloc were to say that everyone who disagreed with them on tactics was actually motivated by physical cowardice.

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