Thursday, 9 December 2010

State violence, student militancy, and where we go from here

Today was the day that MPs vote on whether or not to raise tuition fees. On the streets, 40,000 students amassed to protest. What followed next is instructive not only in how a social democratic state handles dissent in times of austerity, but also in how the media reacts to that.

As the marches were kicking off today, Scotland Yard Superintendent Julia Pendry issued the following coded warning;
Protesters will be allowed sight and sound of parliament. However, there is evidence to suggest a number of people will come to London intent on causing violence and disorder. They are jumping on the bandwagon of these demonstrations with no intention to protest or interest in student tuition fees. This is of concern to us.

Those who come to London for peaceful protest will be policed proportionately and appropriately. But those who are intent on committing crime will also be dealt with and they will suffer the consequences of their actions.
This came as the Guardian's Adam Gabbatt tweeted that the "same four-sided structures [are] lined up all way in fron[t] of Parliament" as a barrier. Soon after the march began, the police had "rolling kettles" in place to prevent marchers splitting off.

By half past two, the march had reached Parliament Square. There, protesters broke through police lines in an effort to avoid being kettled. They smashed the barriers that had been erected and found themselves on the main grass verge. However, the police were able to close ranks and - although protesters at the front continued to push against them - the protest was contained.

The phenomenon behind what happened next is helpfully explained by MP Tom Brake;
Kettling is a tactic that should come under review. At the first sign of difficulty, the police present a wall of riot shields and batons around protesters — the peaceful alongside the problematic — and slowly squeeze them into a tighter space. People are allowed in, but absolutely no one is allowed to leave … It is not surprising that under such conditions an otherwise overwhelmingly relaxed and peaceful crowd can become agitated, then angry, and then violent. The tactic proved misguided and counter-productive. It served to alienate a whole mass of peaceful protesters.
Of course, Brake - the Lib-Dems' backbench spokesman on Home Affairs - wasn't part of a coalition government when he wrote that. But what was true when he was in the protests at the G20 is still true now that he's part of the government crushing the protesters.

Hence what happened next. Police were pelted with paint, sticks, and anything else the protesters could get their hands on.

Sky News and the Daily Mail made a meal of the fat that several police officers were injured in the skirmishes. However, most of the attacks on protesters that were reported on Twitter warranted no mention. In the name of "objectivity," even the BBC ascribes to "violence" the power to "break out" of its own accord, and reports of "clashes" which only tell what protesters are doing leaves the reader with a false picture of what exactly went on.

They missed perhaps the most appalling incident of the day. At around 4o'clock, Laurie Penny tweeted that a disabled protester had been dragged away by police. Pictures of Jody McIntyre in the wheelchair in front of police lines, and then of the wheelchair lying empty soon emerged.

On the Guardian's live blog, Peter Walker offered more detail (4.42pm);
I spoke to his brother, Finlay, who says Jody was actually pulled from the chair twice. The first time was near Parliament Square when police insisted he move from close to the front of their lines. Three officers, he said, picked Jody up and dragged him away.

The second was nearer the river, when officers insisted he and Finlay were in danger near police horses. This time, Finlays says, his brother was pulled bodily on the ground across the street.
The same blog adds that "a student medical steward – he's a trained St John's Ambulance member – has phoned in to say he's treated at least 10 head injuries from marchers being hit with police batons, around two thirds of which were serious enough to need hospital treatment."

One such injury was sustained by journalist Shiv Malik;
The crowd surged in an attempt to break through the police line, and I was caught on the same side as the police but facing towards them with the fence behind me. The fence came right up to the police line. The police started to push back then they started using their batons on protesters. I was caught then and pushed up towards the front. I ducked, my glasses were knocked off my face so I was trying to hold them. Then, basically, a baton strike came to the side of my face and then onto the top of my head. Directly onto the crown of my head. I felt a big whacking thud and I heard it reverberating inside my head.

I wasn't sure whether I was bleeding or not. I moved off to the side and asked a police officer if I was bleeding. But he just said 'Keep moving, keep moving". Then I put my hand to the top of my head and looked at my palm and I could see there was blood everywhere. I then asked another police officer, who was wearing a police medic badge, if he could help me. And he told me to move away as well and told me to go to another exit. By this point blood was streaming down the back of my head and back of my neck and matting my hair. I was wearing a roll neck jumper and it was seeping into the back of my jumper. I managed to come off to one side and make my way out where two protesting student helped me. They were cleaning the top of my head with water and some tissues. Someone in the crowd gave me a whole pack of Kleenex. Then two female protestors escorted me out. I had to walk all the way up to Leicester Square where I managed to catch a cab.

I don't know the extent of my injury. I've been told it's about an inch long gash right at the top of my crown. It stopped bleeding now, but it was bleeding badly for about ten minutes.
But for a large cross-section of the media, this is irrelevant. Their narrative, from the beginning, was dictated by the police - the usual patronising bollocks about a "violent minority" intent on "riot and disorder" - and they were sticking to it. Even the Guardian, reporting violence by the police, implicitly condemns those who fight back. The "small number" responding to police violence are to be contrasted with the "good natured" rest.

All this proves, of course, is that the media is biased in favour of established power. As we have seen on the previous student demos, and many times elsewhere, it is at best reluctant to draw attention to violence by the state. Hence the often myopic focus on violence against the state in response.

Unfortunately, reluctant is not a word we can use for the police. They have been only to happy to attack children with batons, charge on horseback into crowds of trapped protesters, and now drag a disabled man off his wheelchair and away. On the Guardian blog, reports continue to come in contradicting the claim that "peaceful protest[ers] will be policed proportionately and appropriately."

A worried parent;
My 16-year daughter phoned a few minutes ago - she is kettled (aka detained) in Parliament Square, with a big group of school students from King Edwards school in Sheffield, amongst many others. They're in good spirits but say the police are being very aggressive. I feel it's outrageous that peaceable school-kids legitimately protesting are being detained in this way.
And a concerned spouse;
I've just recieved a phonecall from my partner who has been badly injured at the protest. Apparently police contained a group of passive protesters who, when asked if they could get out, were set towards another blockade.

My partner was pushed forward and was knocked unconscious by a police officer. Bleeding and injured he asked if he could get medical attention to his head wound but was paid no attention to.

Thanks to two members of the public he was carried out towards medical assistance, still within the containment, to get his head bandaged. When he called me he was still being contained even though he was making it aware to police surrounding that he was experiencing headaches and had clearly been hurt.
All of which flies in the face of the police's statement that "the Met is extremely disappointed with the behaviour of protesters." We are to believe that "it is absolutely obvious that people have come to London with the intention of committing violent disorder" simply because "they have deviated from the agreed route."

They even make the absurd claim that police who "came to work this morning to facilitate peaceful protest" were the subject of a "continued unprovoked attack." My heart bleeds.

This is the reality of the state, faced with concerted dissidence. Peaceful and passive protest is fine, because it allows us to pass as a free country wherein dissent is tolerated. But as soon as that dissent crosses the boundaries of acceptable discourse, to the point where it could threaten the status quo, it has to be crushed. Brutally.

And we should not overlook this point - resistance can change things. Although the government won today's vote, the sheer force of anger alone has seen 30 Lib Dem and Conservative MPs vote against their parties. A continuing campaign of occupations and other forms of direct action could see universities refusing to implement the rise, simply because it is impossible to do so in the face of student action. And if this anger truly has radicalised a generation, it will hopefully feed into a struggle against austerity that could yet see today's decision reversed.

What is important now is that the momentum is maintained. This vote should not be seen as the end of the student revolts. They, as the rest of the working class, face a lot more attacks ahead. But, if we build on the momentum of the last few weeks, it need not look that daunting a struggle.