To do nothing but grumble and not to act – that is throwing one’s life away. [William Morris 1834-96]
The first three paragraphs below [in italics] were written at the beginning of the month before internet connection problems stymied the appearance of our April Blog. However I’ll let these thoughts stand and pursue the contradictions below. I have though changed the title of the post to ‘Policing the Crisis’ [the title of an influential book written thirty years ago by Hall, Jefferson et al] to capture the the present mood of concern with police strategy and tactics – see the Guardian’s sudden outrage at thuggish policing – and in memory of the death of teacher and anti-fascist, Blair Peach on April 23, 1979, which is not as neatly connected to the sad demise of Ian Tomlinson as some observers suggest.
At the same time as musing upon Morris’s quote I’ve caught myself grumbling at the poverty of the poorly choreographed spectacle of the G20 Summit with its clichéd script and mediocre performers, watched myself in the mirror grumbling in the face of Brown’s fawning sycophancy at the feet of our contemporary Messiah, Barack Obama. Moaning aside, what cannot be escaped is the deep-seated character of many people’s resolute belief in the inescapable necessity of a leadership caste, even as, to all intents and purposes, these supposed representatives of the demos remain unaccountable and beyond recall. It is a measure of their mediocrity that Obama appears to tower above them. The carefully measured tread of his cool delivery is hailed as the renaissance of the lost art of oratory. For now the mediocrats scramble for his momentary attention, believing that to feel his grace will enhance their chances of retaining influence and power. Do we really accept that this global version of the familiar world of personality politics is truly Democracy in action? Of course I know that to doubt Obama is to risk excommunication from the broad church of his countless admirers.
And, to add to my worries, I must chance too the wrath of those demonstrating against the Summit [and for a hundred and one other good causes too]. As a bit of a ‘demo’ veteran I’ve been bothered for many a year about my involvement in ritualised processions, which have as often as not served the interests of the oppressor as much as the oppressed. The scenes in the City seem to emphasise further this contradiction. This is all the more ironic, given that it might be supposed that the eclectic forces of anti-globalisation would be more creative than the organised ranks of the old labour movement. And yet, if anything, the capitalist State, its ‘armed bodies of men’ and its servants in the media seem even more in control of what people can do and of what people can think. The police talk up trouble. They ‘kettle’ and suffocate demonstrators of whatever inclination, and yet they allow a ‘violent’ few in full view of a battery of photographers to smash symbolically the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland. This is protest as Reality TV – a judgement, which is given weight by the sight of protesters using their own mobile phones to film themselves in the very act of their supposed opposition to the status quo. Forgive my harsh tone, but this strikes me as narcissistic self-indulgence – the attitude of the voyeur rather than the revolutionary.
All of which may reveal more about my own failings and prejudice than the efforts of those present at the G20 Summit itself. Certainly debates around the nature of leadership and the differing tactics of how we resist will not go away. These questions remain central to creating an opposition, which cannot so easily be recuperated by the powerful; a resistance that defies becoming merely the token adversary in a Spectacle edited and produced by Capitalism Incorporated.
Within days these scribblings were being both confirmed and contradicted by the shifting situation. As for policing it’s not often I quote Lenin nowadays, but his opening thoughts on the state’s creation of ‘armed bodies of men’ to protect its interests retain their relevance. It’s a pity he didn’t take his own analysis seriously. But it is a touch curious to listen to commentators, even Shami Chakrabarti of LIBERTY talking about police tactics at the G20 as if they mark an escalation of state violence. Back in 1977 at Grunwicks I was amongst the amazed and unfortunate, who were assaulted out of the blue by the fully kitted out Special Patrol Group – 243 pickets were treated for injuries, 12 had broken bones and 113 were arrested. At the time this short, sharp shock did feel like a qualitative change in the State’s policing strategy, reflecting the breakdown of the post-war social-democratic consensus and the rise of the neo-liberal project – even as Labour governed. Central to the success of the ‘free-market’ ideology, dressed in Thatcherite garb in its early years, was the intimidation of the labour movement and of any social forces such as black youth that might stand in its path. Thus, during the 1981 uprisings, the Black Parents Association in Manchester stated that the Moss Side police station was “long regarded as the operational basis of a racist army in occupation”, accusing the police of violent SAS-style raids. Whilst in 1984/85 the striking miners were involved in ‘ a civil war without guns’, within which the ruling class deployed its mounted cavalry against workers in plimsolls. The pivotal showdown occurred perhaps at the Orgreave coking plant where the LIBERTY of that era exclaimed, “there was a riot, but it was a police riot!” But police harassment was an everyday occurrence across all the coalfields, for miners, miners’ wives and indeed for their supporters. Only a little later on January 24, 1987 I endured the most frightening night of my life at Fortress Wapping as the police waded into all and sundry – printers, sympathetic trade unionists, journalists, legal observers and local residents. I spent what seemed hours cowering and freezing in the corner of someone’s front garden. You would have thought by then I might have learned my lesson. The police were certainly learning theirs.
Ironically I found myself discussing some of these experiences with a couple of Greek young people, who had been very involved in last December’s uprisings in Greece. Their feeling was that the memory of the 1970-74 military junta and the compliant role of the police in the activities of the dictatorship remains deeply etched in the Greek psyche. They argued that the State and its armed bodies of men is still deeply distrusted by many within the country and that the police know this well. It means that their brutality is less organised and coherent than the British variety. By and large they suggested Greek police are collectively less confident and arrogant than their British counterparts. And this is reflected too in the willingness of at least some sections of Greek youth to confront physically the State’s machine. When questioned about such a ‘macho’ stance, they turned the question round and asked why British young people seemed to fight only each other. Echoing sentiments in a thoughtful Guardian piece, Children of the Revolution, they insisted proudly that they are fighting for a future beyond capitalism. This said, for the time being, the energy and dynamism of the pre-Xmas days have faded away.
However Greek young people do feel that they are a social force with the potential to change society. They hold to a collective perspective, which brings me in a roundabout way to the plethora of photos and videos of the G20 demonstrations doing the rounds. Obviously the scornful tone of my comments about self-indulgent snapshot taking missed utterly the crucial part played by the amateur footage in exposing numerous incidents of police violence, not least the unprovoked killing of Ian Tomlinson. In this light it is tempting to reminisce about how we might have called attention to the police excesses of our past if we had possessed today’s technology. And yet I’m not so sure.
Forgive the repetition, but the historical examples I’ve mentioned from Grunwicks via Brixton to Wapping represented a conflict between the State and social forces with the self-conscious collective capacity to challenge capitalist hegemony. Thus for Thatcher, whether you were a miner, a black youth, a feminist or even an anti-fascist, you belonged to ‘the enemy within’, who had to be defeated. We were a threat because we knew that there was such a thing as society and as creative beings wished to alter radically the social circumstances of our lives. In this battle of ideologies the roots of our resistance lay deep in the relations of class, gender, race and sexuality. Contrary to the demand of the neo-liberal order we refused to be defined on its terms as individuals. Our desire to be individual was a collective and political venture. And in this battle, if we got bludgeoned, we were activists not victims. It is this that makes me feel that even if we had possessed wider photographic evidence of our beatings it would have altered very little. Across this period, by and large, the media churned out the State’s propaganda. As Simon Pirani points out, ‘The BBC News reversed the order of events at Orgreave in 1984, screening shots of miners throwing stones at police before showing mounted officers charging the miners. In 1991, though, in response to a complaint by Charles Alverson of Cambridge, Martin Hart, on behalf of the then BBC director general, acknowledged that the film had been reversed. Hart claimed: “It was a mistake made in the haste of putting the news together … an editor inadvertently reversed the occurrence of the actions of the police and of the pickets.” No inquiry or public admission occurred’
Blair Peach, murdered 30 years ago today by the Special Patrol Group, was an activist not a victim. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the local Asian community when over 3,000 police occupied Southall to protect a National Front meeting. Such was his standing in the community that over 10,000 people attended his funeral – read a poem penned by one of his students here. In Wigan a picket of the police station by teachers, social workers, youth workers and young people involved in the Anti-Nazi League demanded an answer to the question, ‘Who killed Blair Peach?’ A similar scene was enacted across the country. Nevertheless, although his attackers were known, they were never prosecuted. To sketch this picture of a man dying for a cause may seem to trivialise the death of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander, just trying to go home. But, if anything it renders his killing by a thug from the Territorial Support Group, all the more recklessly stupid and arrogant. It means that every effort should be made to call the Metropolitan Police to account – see a forthcoming demonstration against Police Violence on May 23 in London. The fact that Tomlinson was an innocent victim means that sections of the media are more willing to give their backing to the campaign, anxious indeed that the State’s repression does not inspire a wider militant response.
As I muddle my way through this argument I remain sceptical still about what was going on in London around April Fools Day. And my doubts are fuelled when I hear about one victim hiring a PR guru and charging fees for interviews. Perhaps I’m moralising, but much of what seems to be transpiring in the wake of the G20 fracas is what the Situationists called ‘recuperation’. Faced with challenges to its power the State seeks to neutralise criticism by absorbing and redefining it so that it can be regurgitated in a form utterly consonant with the inevitable rightness of the State’s outlook and authority. Thus our protestor assaulted by the police sells on the market her story, so that it can be spun as opportunity thinks fit. All of which goes to show that protest is all well and good; we’re sorry the lads in riot gear lost the plot, but we promise it won’t happen again; and besides which young protestor you’re not that different from us, you had your price. And even if the person in question gives her gains to a worthy cause, her effort to oppose what’s going on has been rehashed as an act in a ruling class script that repeats day after day this system is ‘the end of history’.
At the present moment the neo-liberal crisis is reflected, amongst other things, as a crisis of authority within the State. Put crudely neither politicians nor the police seem to know what they’re doing. The problem is that the scattered and disparate forces of opposition are in equal disarray. I remain of the opinion that we need to create together a thoroughly modern [and not post-modern] anti-capitalist movement that displays solidarity in its diversity. If nothing else this requires some serious critical chatting. Sorry if this ramble is all over the place, so it would be good to be pointed in the right direction! Next post will connect all this to policing and youth work – promise!