It wasn’t my first protest; although I have an anxiety disorder and struggle with large crowds, and a medical issue that means it is painful to walk for long distances I feel some things are important enough to be present for. This was one of those occasions.
Contrary to what you might have read in various right leaning news publications (many of which are coincidentally owned by the government friendly Murdoch empire), yesterday’s protest was peaceful. Incredibly peaceful. I’ve been told that the Met police reported no arrests at all. There were people from all backgrounds, ages, beliefs, abilities. There were tiny babies in arms, in buggies, children in buggies, elderly people, people with mobility issues, mental health difficulties, people using wheelchairs, students, fire fighters, political parties. I was rather excited to meet a group of deaf BSL speakers and get in some sneaky practice for my exam on Monday. SO many different groups were represented – but ALL had in common that they have had enough of austerity and want a fair alternative, and wanted to government to hear that message.
On arrival at Westminster there was a festival atmosphere –people picnicking in the street, playing music, having impromptu dance parties while pink and orange flares operated as smoke machines. Children were playing safely and happily in roads that would normally be glutted with speeding cars and HGVs.
The protest was lightly policed – nothing like the heavy handed and reactionary policing seen in Walthamstow when local residents arranged a counter protest to the EDL turning up unwanted in the borough. I barely saw a police officer until we reached Parliament Square, and those were friendly & helpful. I even saw a few enjoying the music of the impromptu dance party at one point. There was no agitation, no kettling. In fact the largest number of police were guarding monuments to make sure people didn’t draw on them.
There were a few moments that unsettled me. One was passing a large banner for Class War. It was surrounded by protesters wearing entirely black, with masks obscuring their faces, sunglasses obscuring their eyes. They stood in almost military postures; legs planted wide, arms crossed, surveying the crowd from above. Far from being of the people, for the people; they looked more like riot police. Perhaps this image is deliberate, but it felt at odds with the general feel of the rest of the protest, where the vast majority did not march with face coverings. The second was when a group of people were dancing near Parliament Square, when a masked man came up and set fire to a pile of placards. Everyone around him moved away, about 50 photographers moved in. It was a sad moment; and we knew even at that point that this photo would be spun somehow to represent the protest, when this was far from the truth. Within hours certain rightwards tilting papers were reporting this incident of one stupid and irresponsible man lighting a small fire as ‘protesters’ who were ‘setting bonfires’
I have never been involved in any trouble on previous protests. I am a peaceful protester, and always have been. I chose to show my face as someone standing up for what I believe in. I march the agreed route, stay in the agreed area, don’t shout at the police – they’re just doing their job and chances are a fair number of them agree with the larger aims of the protest. I’ve been one of those people frustrated at a minority of people who appear to be causing damage to property and giving other protesters a bad name. But I also have some acquaintances (who shall of course all remain entirely anonymous) who do get involved with more direct activism of what might be called ‘damaging’. More shouting, going ‘off route’, getting in people’s faces, beating up fascists. And yes, covering their faces.
I’ve always been an advocate of peaceful protest. Tutting at people making ‘the rest of us look bad’ or ‘distracting from the message with violence’. Frustrated at people turning legitimate protest into an opportunity to have a rumble or smash a window. But in the lead up to this protest, and on the day itself I had some very interesting conversations with others over these two approaches to protest, and I’ve found myself realising that the situation isn’t as simple as peaceful vs antagonistic, where the peaceful protesters are ‘good’ and ‘right’ and the antagonistic ones are ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’.
History tells a story of two sides to every political protest; hindsight suggests that no one remembers the peaceful protesters. The much reviled poll tax was repealed – we remember the Poll Tax Riots. There were peaceful protests too – but which type contributed to the policy being repealed? The conservative Suffragists hated the militant Suffragettes – who adopted their name from a slur thrown at them. But who do we remember as being instrumental in getting the vote? Nelson Mandela started campaigning against Apartheid on a platform of peace, but became militarised after coming to the conclusion that peace wasn’t working, and that violence needed to be met with violence. Gandhi maintained that protests should always be peaceful – but he was still arrested and others were violent in his cause, and it’s hard to say whether it was the peaceful approach or the violence that led to change.
Do the ends justify the means? Would the Suffragists have eventually got votes for women using a peaceful campaigns? Would Apartheid have been brought to an end purely by peaceful protest and political sanctions? I reckon you could probably put 5 historians in a room and they’d come out with 10 different answers. But it can’t be argued that change happened – peaceful or otherwise.
The media takes a huge part in this; peaceful protests are easy to ignore in the media and sometimes protests only end up getting wider media coverage *because* they turn violent, or because property is damaged. Peaceful protests can be ignored, covered up and dismissed by the media and the government. Antagonistic protest gets media coverage; front pages, breaking news, debate. What’s frustrating for activists – peaceful and antagonistic alike – is when all the media care about is the one idiot setting a small fire. What works best is when the protest gets picked up by the media and the cause is highlighted, debated, brought out to the wider public. If that doesn’t happen by peaceful means, I can see why resorting to less legal methods to highlight the issues might be desirable. You could make the argument that if the press bothered to highlight large peaceful protests and rasie the issues, there’d be no need for antagonism at all.
Some would argue that those who are violent are merely reacting in kind. This is easy to see in the case of those who are involved in violent retaliation against violent racist groups – the argument is that if violence is to be used by the racists, then violence should be the reply. Some might argue that as our government are committing violence against the citizens of the UK that violence is an appropriate response. I am not sure I agree that violence is necessarily the only response to violence; but I can see the logic in the argument even while I disagree with the method, and of course we come back around again to asking was it the peaceful retaliation that made the difference in the first place, or the violence? It’s hard to ask these questions without being seen to condone violent actions, which I do not want to do. Of course, the reasons for a protest turning violent can vary greatly; the media narrative is often around violent protesters getting out of hand (like they muppet setting fire to banners. Why set fire to banners that support our cause? Utterly pointless). But peaceful protests have turned violent because ordinary people have been subject to a massive police overreaction, or because of state agitators sent in on purpose to cause trouble to devalue the point of the protesters.
As for covering faces – the vast majorty of people did not cover their faces. But I did see a fair number of peaceful law abiding people with face coverings. In these days of increased surveillance where even people attending a music festival with no particular reputation for troubles are having their faces scanned, when some clubs insist on passport ID for entrance, where the government want to have rights to listen to our phone calls, read our emails, know everything about our private electronic lives, is it any wonder that many people feel that they need to hide their faces? I’ve heard people use the line that ‘people that have nothing to hide don’t need to hide their faces’ but that’s a poor line to use for the continued slow erosion of people’s liberties. While I may not hide mine, I am fully behind the choice of others to hide theirs, whatever their reasons may be.
When it comes to law breaking – not all law breaking is equal. I am fully behind some acts of civil disobedience. The impromptu dance party in Parliament Square is my kind of civil disobedience. No one is hurt, no property is damaged, people smile and some laws of questionable efficacy are mildly flouted (and it was FUN.) Minor acts of civil disobedience that cause no damage and do no harm to others are a sort of protest I can get behind – but they are often policed heavy handedly, resulting in arrests for people doing little to deserve it. And there’s my issue. I am scared of getting arrested, and how it might impact my job. I am scared of being kettled because I worry how I’d handle it because of my anxiety. I am scared of getting caught up in something bigger than I can manage.
But does that mean I can’t also appreciate that those people who get more involved in active civil disobedience, even approaching damage or property, might actually in the long run be achieving something? Does my habit of being relatively law abiding mean I must condemn those who are protesting in a different way? Or do I need to recognise that, as history appears to show, that peaceful protest and antagonistic protest are two sides of the same coin? The agitators need the peaceful protesters to show that the concerns are legitimate. The peaceful protesters need the agitators to raise the profile of those concerns in the first place.
Does peaceful protest work? Maybe. Does antagonist protest work? Maybe. Can one be effective without the other? I am not sure. But I’ve certainly found myself shifting stance of late, from thinking that antagonist protest is never acceptable to acknowledging while it is not right for me personally, I think that perhaps it’s important that there are people out there prepared to take more direct action to raise awareness of a cause. Do they do it in my name? No. Do I ultimately benefit? Perhaps.
I will always condemn meaningless violence – but is there a place in protest for meaningful violence, for meaningful antagonistic civil disobedience, when the media and government won’t listen to peaceful means? I don’t have any answers, but I am certainly asking more questions about it than I would have done a few weeks ago.