Friday, December 10, 2010
Personally, I really enjoyed the part where the kids showed up, pulled the plug on the reggae and started cranking out the dubstep. As much as I understand that there is a place for old protest standards, like We Shall Overcome here in the US, I can't tell you how many times I have gone to ralles and wished that someone would do the same sort of thing and start putting down some punk, noise or hip hop. Political assertiveness and cultural assertiveness are inextricably linked.
They marched to parliament square, got stopped, surged through police lines and trampled onto the grass that had been so painstakingly regrown after the eviction of the peace camp. And then they danced.
The man in charge of the sound system was from an eco-farm, he told me, and had been trying to play politically right on reggae; however a crowd in which the oldest person was maybe seventeen took over the crucial jack plug, inserted it into a Blackberry, (iPhones are out for this demographic) and pumped out the dubstep.
Young men, mainly black, grabbed each other around the head and formed a surging dance to the digital beat lit, as the light failed, by the distinctly analog light of a bench they had set on fire.
Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.
While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations - UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex - the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.
Having been very close to the front line of the fighting, on the protesters side, I would say that at its height - again - it broke the media stereotype of being organised by political groups: there was an anarchist black bloc contingent, there were the socialist left groups - but above all, again, I would say the main offensive actions taken to break through police lines were done by small groups of young men who dressed a lot more like the older brothers of the dubsteppers.
The fighting itself is still going on - I am seeing people break the windows of HM Revenue and Customs live on TV. At one point after 2pm there were just two lines of riot cops between the students and parliament and it was at this point, with nowhere to go, that people began to push forward and attack the police.
Despite that, those involved were a minority and it was fairly ritual involving placard sticks and the remains of the metal fence around Parliament Square, until people realised there was nowhere to break through *to* and changed direction.
I saw them swarm up Victoria Street, at first pushing back a line of mounted police and breaking through various attempts by riot police to form a cordon. But then in successive charges, both the mounted and the foot police charged back.
I saw heavy objects land among the police, amid a much larger volume of paint, fireworks and flashbangs. At one point the horses were unable to contain this and a policeman fell off his horse, being carried away on a stretcher by colleagues. Later the police - who were themselves trapped between two lines of protesters, lost control of their own rear and only contained the breakthrough by batoning people to the floor, including women. By the side of a pub in a nearby street there was a line if injured protesters being triaged by ambulance crews.
On a more serious note, this is another manifestation of what happened in Lyon during the recent French protests against cuts in pension benefits, radicalized young people lashing out against a hypocritical social order that will consign them to lives of poverty if they don't resist. As noted by Mason, they stand outside any generally recognized political grouping on the left, even the anarchists, and this is probably a good thing, because they need to organize themselves so as to speak in their own voice. Otherwise, they risk being compromised by those who would purport to speak on their behalf.
lenin has elaborated further on this phenomenon, and how it plays into law enforcement efforts to suppress protest against austerity:
No wonder the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition wants to impose a cap on housing benefits for low income people that would drive many of them out of London and southern England in the coming years, despite the warnings of its own advisors. For them, the dubsteppers are an angry, abrasive lumpen class of people that should be relocated to places where they can be more easily monitored, places such as the more economically stagnant northern regions of the country.
We are probably witnessing a move to re-tool the state, the better to cope with civil disobedience and strikes. Police have deployed a strategy of provoking violent confrontations with small bands of protesters. By using pre-emptive kettling, by charging at protesters with mounted police, by staging baton charges, and by lashing out at peaceful protesters with almost lethal force, the police have set up physical confrontations. They have then attempted to use their overwhelming superiority of organisation and force to coerce protesters into retreating into preemptively kettled territory. This would galvanise a small minority who would physically seek to break out, but would be effectively held back. Thus intimidated and physically coerced, they would come to resent the minority isolated as professional troublemakers and wait meekly to go home in the late hours of a chill December evening, resolving never to attend a protest again. This strategy is based on the assumption that protests break down into a well meaning but duped and passive mass, and a nefarious, organised conspiracy of upstarts, and that the police can prise the two apart.
But it didn't actually go down like that. Most of those protesters who did end up in direct combat with the cops are, as Paul Mason points out, working class sixteen and seventeen year olds from Britain's banlieues. They are not the committed anarchists that the law and order mob are braying about, and they were not resented by other protesters. More worryingly for the police, when they did attempt to baton charge, they were often effectively resisted. Using whatever ad hoc instruments were at their disposal, large numbers of protesters physically out-manouevred police on numerous occasions. Sometimes, for example, they used the same crowd control barriers that were intended to pen them to push back ranks of baton-wielding, helmeted and shielded riot police. And when the police attacked people, they often fought back. They were not cowed, despite the physically imposing stature and superior weaponry of the cops, and despite the horrifying record of the Territorial Support Group. So, far from protesters blaming a small minority of troublemakers for the violence, they are almost unanimous in reporting that the police engineered the violence. And because the police didn't get it all their own way, the FT's headline today was: Police lose control of street protests.