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:
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.