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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

What's new?

There has been a considerable outbreak of middle-class hypocrisy in the aftermath of the demonstrations in London at the G20 conference. The word 'kettle' has entered the public vocabulary and suddenly the pundits are commenting on the phenomenon as if it only started two weeks ago.

As far as I know, this particular tactic for collectively punishing a group of people who are committing the offence of expressing themselves politically in public was developed for Mayday 2000 in Trafalgar Square in response to the unqualified anarchist victory against the City of London Police on June 18th 1999 (a solidly grassroots protest that preceded the more celebrated Seattle event by which time more compromised and authoritarian organisations were involved). Obviously I'm not saying that Mayday 2000 was the first time mass police violence has been used against protesters. But I think it was the first occurrence on a large scale of the tactic of holding a crowd in a cordon for several hours as the main form of punishment. Please correct me if I'm wrong. It was terrifying as we were being forced into the middle of Trafalgar Square by several ranks of fully kitted up cops with no idea why or what was going to happen. Having grown up during the miners' strike seeing images of horse baton charges into crowds, I feared that we would be driven into the square and mercilessly beaten. This time, however, it was punishment by boredom and sheer overwhelming sour-faced ugliness.

The tactic quickly became standard and almost every demonstration of any significant size I attended was treated in this way. A particularly unpleasant feature of this standard procedure is that anyone who decides they'd rather leave than stand in a police cordon for several hours is viciously shoved or thrown back into the crowd. I have seen a police briefing document where it is specifically stated that this is not to be done! I have been assaulted in this way countless times. The main aims of the police are: to surround the demonstration with yellow-jacketed thugs so that no passers-by can see what it is about; to demoralise and intimidate the protesters, making the experience so thoroughly unpleasant that only the truly dedicated would put themselves through it; and to control the location of the event so that it can be prevented from reaching its target, i.e. to protect the state or corporate target audience from public criticism.

Since 2000, to attend a demonstration (apart from a few state-approved Democracy exercises) is to be pretty certain of being filmed, searched, questioned, ordered, pushed around, insulted, glared at, and possibly struck, pepper sprayed, punched, batoned, manhandled, and locked up. What has depressed and frustrated me most about this situation is not the behaviour of the State - after all it is the function of the State to repress people - but the fact that no-one seemed to give a flying shit except for a handful of despised and ignored anarchists.

I know that this time the police killed someone. I know a lot of the media attention comes from that. But it was only a matter of time. Similar assaults on unthreatening people to force them to comply are a standard feature of the policing of protest. And media attention is not focused only on the killing but on other assaults that fortunately had less tragic consequences.

So what's changed? In the words of a close friend: "More middle-class people are involved in the environmental movement." How long will the press attention last? Another friend: "As long as the economic downturn lasts."

Of course it is shocking that people have been subjected to mass assaults by police officers for daring to express themselves politically. Of course the liberal press should be shocked by it. But, as with anal sex, we politely ignore the slight smell, in this case of hypocrisy. Where were the liberal press when the police broke my hand last year to force me to comply with their orders? Where were they 3 years ago when an 80-year old man was pushed to the ground for playfully stepping off a kerb and his daughter arrested for trying to help him? Where were they when I was wrestled to the ground, arms wrenched behind my back, dragged headfirst into a Land Rover with my hat pulled down over my face and locked up for hours for giving out leaflets in the street? My point is that long ago we reached the shocking situation where these kind of things are normal experiences for people who attend protests. It is extremely frustrating to see frivolous columnists jumping on the protest bandwagon when for the past 10 years there has been a total blackout in the national press on the repression of protest. It is bitterly ironic that people I know who have not been involved and would never listen to a word I said are now discussing these issues in shocked tones because they have read about it in the press. Yes, it's good that these things are coming out. But the sinister silence about the past 10 years of repression has the effect of invalidating the experiences of people who have been on the receiving end of it for a long time, and it makes me sceptical of the motivations for the sudden change of tune.

A most despicable hypocrisy of the liberal press is that they have participated to the utmost in the demonisation and repression of the animal rights movement. Every national newspaper without exception has printed only police propaganda against animals rights campaigns. They have cheered and smeared when campaigners receive 8 or 10 year prison sentences in political show trials. They have participated fully in building the propaganda climate for the arrests and show trials to take place, by constructing a background of lies and distortions from press releases provided by police propaganda organisation NETCU. Everything that the otherwise uninformed member of the public thinks they know about the animal rights movement comes from NETCU via the press. The background was successfully set for the terrifying repression of AR campaigns using specially drafted laws and mind-bendingly dubious legal arguments.

The other side of this phenomenon is the dilution of ultra-radical movements by middle-class personnel and ideas. The continual bleating about 'peaceful protest' is a case in point. Who decided that protest should be peaceful? Did I miss the debate about that? Do individuals not have a moral right (and a legal right, for that matter, if you care about that) to defend themselves if attacked? If I am trying to walk along the street and a group of people block my path, brandishing weapons, and strike at me if I try to walk past them, is that not a clear case for self-defence? Maybe there are some people who claim not to believe in the use of violence, even in self-defence. But I'm afraid that playing the Simon Says game with the police does not count as radical pacifism. It's an axiom of pacifism that giving in to violence is an act of violence. Thus, submitting to a stop and search or agreeing to 'move over there' because it's more convenient is an act of violence. Being jokey-matey with armed agents of state repression who will beat you with a metal bar if you step out of line is an act of violence. For that matter, so is walking around with a pocket full of documents with pictures of the monarch on them. In my experience, the rare few who do practice radical pacifist techniques of absolute non-compliance tend to be criticised as 'violent' (or negatively as 'not peaceful') by the same sanctimonious people who claim the pacifist ground for themselves. I am aware that these issues are being negotiated to some extent especially around the Climate Camps but I fear the agenda is being set by compromised middle-class ideas, always appearing as the 'voice of reason', which is why I tend to feel extremely alienated from such movements.

It will be interesting to see how the police behave at the forthcoming Mayday Carnival protest against the EDO MBM arms factory in Brighton, after all the national publicity about police repression. I've noticed they are already preparing the ground in the local press for another bout of repressive violence. As I have maintained, we are moving towards a new and perplexing form of totalitarian state and a short-lived series of newspaper headlines will not make much difference unless a lot more people draw some fundamental conclusions from it about the nature of state-corporate power.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

It's worse than we thought: Conversation overheard on London Underground

"I bought a bottle of wine but I took it back to the shop because it was too expensive."
"I'm surprised they let you take it back. You could be a terrorist and have injected it with something."
"Nah, terrorists wouldn't buy a bottle of wine, it's against their religion."