In what is becoming a depressing trend, the left’s position on the student riots is another example of polemical cul-de-sac. Their approach so far has had limited (if any) positive impact; yet their rhetoric promotes further chaos without constructive solutions.
Already the media is asking whether water-cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas should be used to control future protests. The less extreme alternative I’ve heard involves the police monitoring social media accounts and arresting potential troublemakers at the first sign of trouble. Based on the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter, blogs and the news, both these options would be seen as an act of provocation by protesters.
But what else can the police do? If the propaganda of some on the left is to be believed, the violence is an understandable reaction to the coalition’s “cultural vandalism”. The suggestion is that it is not only unsurprising, but inevitable. It may surprise these commentators to learn that such language would not invite a softer approach from the police.
If we ignore the fatalists and instead listen to those we might call the determinists, the student violence is a direct consequence of the actions of the police. This line of argument goes: you buggers started it; if you stop bashing us with bats, we’ll stop tearing up central London. Determinists know the police are the problem. The negative energy generated by all those badges and batons drive good middle-class girls and boys crazy.
You only have to remember the storming of Millbank Tower to spot the flaw in that line of thinking.
With neither side backing down, we’ll either end up with the kind of authoritarian police state radical lefties have wet dreams about, or a continuation of the misdirected aggression that will eat away at public support until talk of loony lefties and militant socialists destroy all the credibility built up by the progressive movement over the past decade.
But there could be a middle ground. Protest leaders should work with the police to confirm a mutually acceptable route and accept responsibility to ensure that route is followed. Any groups who break away from this route are NOT protesters, and can assumed to be in “breach the peace”. If they refuse to rejoin the protest proper, they should be immediately arrested. Sounds harsh (and mighty simplistic), but if this can be done quickly and efficiently there is no need for violence to overshadow the cause of the genuine protesters.
There are a few glaring problems with this.
The first being: lefty-liberals won’t like the idea. Mass arrests. Officially-sanctioned protest routes. I may as well suggest they glue identification cards to their foreheads. Many will prefer rioting. They seem to agree with Donald Rumsfeld who once said (much to left-wing derision, I might add), “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
The second problem is that I get the feeling the police were actually attempting a more liberal approach to this already. From what I understand, the theory behind kettling is that it contains a potentially unruly crowd without the bad press of arresting a whole lot of innocent people. At the moment, the police study CCTV footage after the event to identify criminals. I assume they do this to avoid inciting more trouble by dragging teenagers into police vans in front of their mates. If the less heavy-handed version of my compromise plan already enrages the left, a concerted effort to ‘beat’ the police’s change of tactics will be a certainty.
The third problem arises if the vast majority of protesters, even those who flee down side streets to escape the agreed route, are genuinely peaceful. I, for one, don’t buy the idea that these protests were infiltrated by a small group of thugs (European-anarchists have been blamed, but the worst example was on Newsnight. They blamed the violence on “London gangs” and attempted to back up this claim using a shot of a few black kids wandering through the crowd). The unapologetic language of virtually every student group and left-wing organisation, twitterer or blogger I’ve seen tells me that even if it was all the fault of a few bad apples in the pot, there’s no real desire to have them removed. However, if it really is a minority who are the problem and the majority would gladly see them identified and detained, the ‘middle ground’ approach is too broad a brush and innocent people will likely be wrongly arrested.
The fourth and final problem is that, so far, I’ve seen no evidence the organisers of the protests are willing to accept any responsibility for the chaos. They all fall into either the fatalist or the determinist camp and talk about the protests as if people randomly turn up and do whatever they want. In other words, it’s not really their problem and they don’t care. This is a failure on two levels.
- One: as Malcolm Gladwell explained in his controversial article about social activism, movements succeed by utilising rigid, almost military-like command structures. If there is no central force organising the protest they’re not only inviting anarchy onto the streets, but the movement as a whole is also likely to fail.
- Two: this makes it far more difficult to achieve a middle ground between police and protesters. Without a clear idea of who’s organising the campaign, the police can not properly plan for it and will therefore have to resort to less sophisticated, more reactionary measures to cope. Without control over the situation and a working relationship with the police, protest leaders can’t protect those who want nothing more than a peaceful demonstration, which could result in more people being hurt (by both club-happy rozzers and brick-hurling agitators).
And so we’re stuck in a game of chicken between the protesters and the police. One in which neither seem keen to back down in. You could argue the police literally can’t back down. They’ve tried hands-off and it was a disaster. At best they could move sideways and try to refine the current techniques, without resorting to more exotic tactics. I hope (but don’t really expect) they can find a way to quickly spot and remove the ringleaders, without stirring up more animosity in the process. I believe the left has far greater leeway to tone down their inflammatory language and help isolate the firebrands. But to many that would be seen as surrendering to the coalition and Police State UK.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact there’s tens of millions more people in the UK watching these protests on their TV screens than there are taking part in person, or in their own particular echo chamber on the infoweb. There’s millions of royalists appalled at the attack on the Prince’s car. There’s millions of nationalists disgusted by the desecration of our national heritage. There’s millions of bemused, ordinary people who aren’t too fond of the cops in a vague British fashion, but also reckon (in a level-headed, detached, not unsympathetic kind of way) that if you rush head-first into a line of riot police carrying clubs, you’re probably going to get smacked. There’s also millions of people whose families have never gone to university, never expect to go to university and are wondering why they should pay for a bunch of feral, narcissistic idiots to get a better career and earn more money than they could ever dream of.
The real battle isn’t between protesters and police. It’s not you versus them. It’s winning the hearts and minds of voters and politicians. Explain to me how the behaviour we’ve seen over the past month has helped achieve that.
Photo credits: honeylotus, guerillaphotography