The day after any major demonstration always brings out the hungover “mostly peaceful, shame about the violent minority” mantra from the meeja-darling bloc. Whenever there’s an alternative popular movement that grips the national imagination, left-ish commentators and journalists fight whitened tooth and manicured nail for public alliance to this season’s worthy cause of resistance. Yet, when things become ever so spiky or unsightly, they are also the first to publicly sever connection with people who choose to vent their anger in more visceral ways.
The sight of burning barricades on the streets of London is too much for the press to resist and one of the biggest demonstrations since the Iraq war protest turns into riot porn for the newspaper columns and airwaves.
Many groups who organised actions at the March for the Alternative never take direct action beyond staging peaceful sit-ins. They challenge the norms of the A-to-B protest but never damage anything and always clean up after themselves.
Most of those who marched would never take their anger out on inanimate objects. Violence is an act of the few with an effect on the many. Regardless of where you stand on the “smash stuff up” divide, the spectacle is part of the whole. If anybody “ruined things for everybody”, it was the police with their wholesale arrests and wanton baton action.
Something out of the ordinary is happening – parts of Britain aren’t bothering to be so polite anymore. Sometimes, to make your voice heard, you have to speak softly and carry a big stick.
There are no “good” protesters and no “bad” protesters. The state sees anyone who publicly declares their dissent to its laws and policies as one thing – a threat. When a state is threatened, it sends its henchmen out to quell it. When 500,000 people take to the streets of London against public sector cuts that will affect each and every Briton, the henchmen are the police. And you – student or teacher, patient or nurse – are that threat. It matters little that you’re partying in Trafalgar square or throwing paint-filled eggs at Topshop on Oxford Street.
You can’t balance the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed. One leads to the other and violence isn’t always just a punch to the face or a brick through a window. When faced with the reality that each and every one of us will live more desperate lives, the smashed windows of a multinational or a hotel that can charge £4,000 a night matters little.
The coalition government sees no difference between a firefighter trying to hold on to his job and a student struggling to study. To try to make distinctions between a “peaceful” and a “violent” protester is inherently flawed. Dissent is a violent reaction. Saying “no” is resistance. To publicly condemn the “violent minority” is a betrayal of the cause you claim to fight for. David Cameron and NIck Clegg see no difference between protesters – and neither should you.
Westminster council say the damage to property is likely to total “tens of thousands” of pounds. More than 200 protesters were arrested, 149 have been charged and there were at least 50 reported injuries. Of the 4,500 police officers deployed on the 26 March demonstration, 31 were injured, with 11 officers requiring hospital treatment.
Although there are concerns that sporadic violence to property weakens strong arguments on the depth of spending cuts, we must remember that because cuts affect everybody, everybody is going to have a different reaction to them. Some may wish to fight back with local campaigns, others may wish to take more direct action. The point is to maintain a momentum, a united show of resistance, against a spectre that shadows us all.
The impunity with which this coalition is implementing cuts while bolstering the greed of the very businesses that got us into this mess is neither peaceful nor benign. So – many apologies to those who wish to distance themselves from the “violent minority”. But we’re in this together. You may not like having to share a boat, but it’s a lot better than drowning.
This article was first published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.