An edited version of this post appeared on openDemocracy, 7 December 2010
‘The relationship to violence is also much better, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against throwing the fire extinguisher at Millbank. There is an understanding of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless provocateurs will try and spoil this. But this student movement, if that is what it is becoming, will not go on to create bands of terrorists like the Angry Brigade. Because it has already been preceded by terrorism, and everyone can see how reactionary it is.’ – Anthony Barnett, Open Democracy, 27 November
‘The crude truth is that student violence works better than any amount of priggish argument. When the protests of 10 November turned to window smashing, a lot of people tutted that, while 50,000 peacefully protested, a tiny minority’s violence would dominate the front pages. Exactly! Without it, the demonstration may not have made the front pages at all.’ – David Mitchell, The Observer, 28 November
As the focus of the rolling Western economic crisis moves decisively from bank to state finances, the street is once again competing with parliament as the place to do opposition. When (in September-October) I was in France at the height of the protests against the raising of the retirement age to 62, people frequently asked me why there was no protest in Britain, where the coalition government is raising the age to 66, abolishing the method of indexing public sector pension rises which has existed for almost four decades, sacking half a million public employees, and removing benefits from millions of people.
Two days of nationwide student protests – against massive increases in university tuition fees resulting from the removal of most state support from teaching – have changed all that. The protests seem deeper and broader than any student activism of recent days, provoking Barnett to compare them to those of 1968. Particularly notable is that, like the French protests in ‘68 and 2010 but unlike most British student actions, school students have also joined en masse.
However as the quotes which head this article suggest, ‘violence’ has already become a big issue. Starting from non-violent assumptions, Barnett is reassured ‘by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators’ against people throwing objects from the top of a building which could have killed or injured police officers and others. He might have added that, in the most recent London demonstration, school students tried to protect a police van from protesters who wanted to smash it up. But students’ humane and pacifist instincts will count for nothing if it is true, as Mitchell argues, that the violence of the few will always trump the peaceful actions of the many in gaining media – and hence wider public – attention. Who is right?
The record suggests that peaceful mass protest does gain media attention, when it is new and as long as its momentum is maintained across successive actions, with growing numbers and sources of support, and especially if it triggers or connects with mainstream political opposition. This autumn’s French protests did not need violence to generate a major political crisis. If in the end they were unsuccessful, this was because both the protesters and their wider public support (or most of them) accepted the legitimacy of the parliamentary institutions which ratified the pension age increase to which they objected. If peaceful protest did not work, more violence would not have helped persuade the conservative legislators whom they needed to win over to block Nicholas Sarkozy’s ‘reforms’.
However there is clearly something to Mitchell’s claims. The ‘violence’ of smashed windows and bonfires (more than the throwing of fire extinguishers), clearly contributed to the shock which the Millbank protest generated. Mainstream media feed off shocking images, and are quick to ignore the conventional. However we need to distinguish between imaginative transgression, on the one hand, and violence against people or property on the other; the former does not necessarily entail the latter. The Millbank protest would have shocked and surprised media and public opinion by the mere fact of students invading the building which housed Conservative HQ. The images of smashed windows added little to what would have been achieved by unauthorised entry.
Of course as Barnett implies, in noting the protestors’ recognition of ‘the need for no willed violence against people’, damage to property is not really ‘violence’. Yet the key to deciding these questions is not just the first-order distinction between ‘violence’ against people and ‘damage’ to property. Above all, it’s a question of political context. The kinds of ‘protester’ who get a kick out of breaking windows are just as likely to want to physically attack the police themselves. In context, the distinction between broken windows and the threat to a policeman’s life from the fire extinguisher can easily disappear, so that both become represented as ‘violence’. Even if the protesters were clear on this distinction, it is unlikely that many media outlets – or indeed TV viewers – would be impressed. We have to remember that respect for property, as well as life, is deeply engrained in Western popular culture, and its legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority of the population. Neither violence against people or ‘violence’ against property is going to help win support.
This would not matter for al-Qaida: they can use the most shocking violence to create huge media events, because they don’t need to gain the support of the majority even of Muslims, just of the small minority who are prepared to give time, money and in a few cases their lives to keep the network going. But students fighting tuition fees need mass public support, and they gain much of their political resonance from the sense of hypocrisy and betrayal on the part of Nick Clegg and his colleagues. They need to impact the mainstream political process (pushing embarrassed Lib Dem MPs into voting against the policies). The synergies between dramatic student action, sympathetic (or at least not completely hostile) media coverage and cracks in the parliamentary consensus are crucial.
In this situation, it is vital that any violence is clearly seen to be over-reaction by the police, not ‘provoked’ by protesters’ own violence. The evidence of mounted police charging protesters in the most recent demonstration gives the movement the possibility of claiming the moral high ground – but only providing it blocks its own would-be violent wing.
It is difficult to understate the importance of this issue and the necessity for activists to clearly understand it. A decade or so ago, when the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement built up impressive world-wide support, even if it was never as deeply rooted in most particular countries as are the movements today. In the end, that movement broke up and lost its momentum, largely because each of the major protests at international summits was divided by the violence – against people as well as property – unleashed by some factions. The movement as a whole failed to distinguish itself from the violent wing and was tarred with the ‘violent’ brush. Support peeled away, the final blow occurring when a different sort of violent shock, the 9/11 atrocities, fundamentally shifted the political agenda.
In Western societies today, the sense of violation and injustice among working and middle class people is deepened every day by new shocks and cuts, showing a system out of control and governments which punish the innocent rather than those who have caused the crisis. The next two or three years will see the most important opportunity in decades for people to take direct action to influence political outcomes. As in 1968, student movements may be the start of mass movements with much wider involvement and support. It would be a tragedy if student activists fail to grasp their responsibility to avoid violence of any kind, not only to win their own issues, but to shift the larger arguments about ‘cuts’ and social justice which are everywhere on the agenda.