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Why violence plays into the hands of the Government

Let me conjure up a fictitious, but entirely plausible, character for you. Mary Wilson is a 45-year-old council worker who lives in Newcastle. She’s received notice from Northumberland County Council that there is a good chance she will lose her job. Despite media chatter about ‘gold-plated pensions’, she currently has a £1,500 pension to look forward to, and even that is under attack.

Mary has two children: a 19-year-old son who, like one in five young people in Britain today, is out of work; and a 16-year-old daughter who is terrified about amassing a monumental pile of debt if she goes to university. To top it all off, Mary fears that services that both she and her family depend on will soon vanish.

Mary is scared about her future, her children’s future, and her community’s future. But she is angry, too. She sees the bankers who caused the crisis getting off scot-free. It is boomtime for the wealthy, while working people like her are being made to pay. If the anti-Coalition movement can’t get someone like Mary to take to the streets, then what future does it possibly have?

The protests certainly made an impression on Mary. She saw the police charges, the kettling, the smashed windows, the impromptu missiles, the chaos. A media slant in favour of the police (sometimes farcically so) has either left her, at best, unclear about what really happened; or, at worst, believing the students really were a thuggish mob intent on violence. Even the President of the National Union of Students has slagged them off – and, not being au fait with the fascinating intricacies of student politics, that’s good enough for her.

Let me be clear. I was on the student demonstrations, and I saw first-hand how distorted the mainstream media’s narrative was. From the second demo onwards, the police employed – to use an understatement – heavy-handed tactics. I was in Parliament Square when, without any provocation at all, the police charged at us with horses, medieval-battle-style. That’s when the trouble started breaking out – angry protesters who had nearly been trampled under hooves responded by throwing sticks and other missiles. We have seen preemptive kettling used to detain thousands of kids in freezing temperatures for hours (in one case, sparking fears of a possible repeat of the Hillsborough Disaster).

There has been talk of student violence from the outset of this wave of protests: but we weren’t dealing with assaults on the person, but rather destruction of property. More accurately, this should be labelled ‘vandalism’. That’s not to say that some kids didn’t turn up for a fight: they did. But they weren’t middle-class ‘Trots’ and ‘anarchists’ who like smashing things up for a bit of a laugh. They were largely working-class sixth-form kids who feel that they have no future in Cameron’s Britain: the ‘Nothing To Lose Generation’, if you like.

If you want to talk about genuine violence, start with the number of students injured by baton charges – and the near-killing of Alfie Meadows. If he had indeed died, the Metropolitan Police would have had blood on their hands. In any case, you cannot equate ‘violence’ committed by desperate kids from the estates of Peckham with that of the official representatives of the state whose job includes protecting and facilitating the right to protest.

But there is no denying that provocative behaviour by the police has strengthened the hands of those groups arguing for aggressive confrontation: indeed, as one activist has pointed out, there is clear evidence of this already happening.

It will be an absolute disaster for the nascent anti-Coalition movement if this tactic catches on. ‘Ordinary’ people like Mary Wilson will be driven from the streets. They have no wish either to put themselves or their families in danger, or to end up on the wrong side of the law. Protests will become the preserve of a small elite of militant activists who want the police to get their ‘comeuppance’. The ‘right’ of this minority to spend a day venting their anger will sabotage our chances of building a genuine mass movement of working people.

Of course, it is in the Government’s interests that protests are ‘purged’ like this. It is difficult to know exactly what the police are up to. We know that they have actively infiltrated green groups, so it is not far-fetched to ask whether agent provocateurs are – or will be – at work in the anti-cuts movement. But even without them, the police must realise that their tactics have provoked violence and will continue to do so.

Disproportionate sentences have been given to protesters (the stupidity of some of them notwithstanding), and fuzzy photographs of alleged violent individuals released to the press in waves. All of this helps to drive home the image of protests being a playground for rampaging hoodlums.

Protesters must not rise to this bait. Not only will they provide copy for the right-wing press if they do so, but they will destroy any chance of broadening out the movement. At all coming demonstrations, we need to be as disciplined as we are determined and minimise violent confrontations with the police. If we don’t, the Mary Wilsons of Britain will confine their dissent to yelling at the TV in frustrated impotence.


  1. Steve Kelly says:

    Excellent piece. Violence from any protester just gives the Government a reason to make all demonstrations either severely restricted or completely banned. It’s what they want so everyone must make sure they don’t give it to them. Otherwise the people of this country have just 2 choices: 1) accept what’s coming to them or 2) start a civil war. That’s what is really heading our far more than in Thatcher’s day. And she was bad enough.

  2. Darrell says:

    Not sure I entirely agree with this because its too fuzzy about what causes this violence. Let’s be quite clear that the cause is not *just* the actions of a small minority and/or even the actions of the police.

    Violence is being caused by basic failures in our democracy. Witness the fact that after Millbank I saw Labour members praising the rioters. Why? Well, their logic is quite simple. They said two million marched peacefully against Iraq and where did it get us? The answer of course is nowhere; not only did the Iraq War go ahead but the press ignored the march.

    This is the problem. Before we start issuing blanket condemnations we have to understand the root causes of what is going on.

  3. Owen Jones says:

    Darrell – perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, but I was trying to make the point that the violence was caused by a combination of police provocation, and by working-class kids with no apparent future acting out of desperation.

    The failure of the A to B march model has certainly bolstered the case for peaceful direct action among activists, and I support those tactics. I don’t think that it is the driving force behind most of the so-called “violence” however (note that many of the kids were what, 9 or 10 when the Iraq war began).

    I wasn’t issuing a “blanket condemnation”, either: I was just pointing out what I think is obvious – if we are provoked into violence by the state, we are doing what they want us to do and we will purge our demonstrations of all but the most militant.

  4. Manchester march was thankfully less combustible. Sensible police force up there.

    Maxwell Confait leaps to mind re. death in police custody.

    “I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m just pissed off” was what I saw in so many of the eyes of those lads on TV. I was in Manchester and as soon as the beatbox sounded in the distance I knew trouble was afoot. I was confirmed in this when an anarchist wearing a mask jumped on top of a phonebox and waved his hands in the air. Objects were thrown at police horses, kettling or similar crowd control went on. The group was broken up and disintegrated into another area of the street. Some ran into Dover Street building and occupied. Most were too late and continued to force themselves round the side. The march broke up and proceeded back down Oxford Road when it was clear it could get any further.

    In London, thankfully no one died from that fire extinguisher. Windows were smashed in. A message was sent, for better or worse. I have friends who were there and were scared.

    I was on Iraq 06 march. I didn’t understand why some of the people were there. They waved placards about Iran and Palestine. They seemed precipitate but I can vaguely understand their feelings. London did well as a city to accommodate them, as it has radicalism and progressivism throughout its history. The closure of Parliament Square to protesters was regrettable.

    This is contrasted with the lone woman on Pennsylvania Avenue who has sat for years opposite the White House, making her views known to tourists like me. She is to be admired. The square opposite the White House contains so much history itself! As does Old Wall Street!

    A superb piece of work. It conveys the Orwellian style of writing with the topical tenacity I myself am struggling to achieve. I have an essay on centrism in the UK today if anyone would appreciate it.

    All the best

  5. Darrell says:


    Fair enough. With regard to Iraq though I wasnt meaning it was the driving force behind the last episodes of violence but it is an example of where peaceful means failed and in the case of something like Iraq honourable failure isn’t really good enough.

    These are tactical questions not ones of principle. In principle, its better to prefer peaceful means but also you have to recognise their limitations.

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