I used to be someone who thought of protesters as 'those people' - that they brought trouble (with the police) upon themselves and if only they could do it quietly and peacefully people would take them more seriously. Recently I became reacquainted with some friends who are involved with demonstrations and the radical social scene, and for one reason or another (I had previously eyed their activities and enthusiasm with suspicion, as some kind of dubious zealotry) I am now at a point where I am far more open to hearing about such things. The more I heard (and saw, via the miracle of YouTube) about what goes on at demos with the police, from several unrelated sources, the more horrified I was - and the more interested in seeing it for myself. This was prior to the G20 debacle.
I agreed to go to the Smash EDO May Day street party with someone who as it happens backed out before the event, but, knowing some other attendees, decided I'd go anyway. Though I can't deny being slightly apprehensive, not really knowing what to expect. The meeting location was kept top secret until half an hour before the event, so already it felt exciting and slightly illicit. The organisers had been criticised in the local press for not co-operating with the police about their plans, but considering their previous experience it's very understandable that refused to talk to them. It's not a legal requirement that the 'authorities' are informed, in any case! I believe the organisers of the G20 talked to the police beforehand - something about the proof in the pudding.
Sussex's finest were quite an ominous presence throughout the day - there were police horses at the front of the crowd, unprecedented and really quite intimidating. The route was at least easily discernible for any stragglers by the trail of horse shit lining the streets... Perhaps it was some kind of practical joke for the frontrunners, shielded behind large placards held up from head to foot, to be the first to have to trample through it. Later when trouble began to look imminent, flares were set off (causing protesters and those not involved in the march to fear it might be tear gas) and riot police appeared, elbowing through the crowd. Lines of officers and police vans appeared all over the city. They may have been told to take a 'hands off' approach, but the paranoia and tension created by such an overwhelming, and frankly disproportionate, show of force, was never going to make for a good atmosphere. The change in the atmosphere during the half hour period in which the police were not present (there was a barricade on Ditchling Road, forcing us back down through a residential side street towards Preston Park - the police elected to regroup at the park ahead of us rather than try to follow us down the road) was really amazing, suddenly everyone was far more relaxed, a few face masks came off for a while, people came out of their houses to watch - curious rather than alarmed!
I'm just adding a paragraph in here to explain in more basic terms what actually goes on at a demonstration. It can be quite hard to work out when all you hear is reaction and spin. We gathered, mostly dressed in red, and then we walked, slowly, in a procession around the city. There was music - sound systems and a samba band - some chanting, some dancing, and some banners and placards professing the cause. Every now and then the police stopped us and tried to move us back for some reason. Then we carried on. The aim is not to break windows, throw stones, blow things up or direct aggression at bystanders. Though sometimes leaflets are handed out, explaining what's going on. Banks and other businesses such as McDonalds and the Army recruitment office were the subject of ridicule - a water balloon filled with red paint was thrown at the metal shutters on one premises; ribbons and a banner were tied on the scaffolding outside another. These are not threatening or aggressive activities. I wonder whether people get the idea that a demo is just a melee of angry people rampaging through the streets, scaring children and brandishing sticks at police officers, looking for capitalist drones to take hostage and force-feed lentils until they agree to stop shopping in Tesco.
Somehow I was roped into being interviewed for a local station the next day, as an eyewitness, which I'm fairly sure I made a pretty bad job of (I did warn them!). That sort of thing makes me unnecessarily nervous, but I agreed to do it because of my feeling about the way the demo had been reported in the local press - at least a vague attempt to provide actual evidence-based opinion has to be helpful, right? The feeling I got from the questions I was asked, though, was that they were trying to pass me off as some naive young person who'd gone along because I liked the idea of it, swept along by media hype and peer pressure rather than for any belief in the cause. But even if this was the case, and it may have been for some (and may be partly why I was there), it's easy to see why - there's a sense of community in uniting over a common cause that's hard to find in society these days. I've always hated the word 'solidarity', but it really does feel like that. No wonder people just want to go for the experience. And what if they do, anyway? You're giving credence and strength to something positive just by adding to the numbers.
Protesting has become so stigmatised in the last 20 years that it's not only viewed with suspicion and disdain, but as a criminal activity. And you would (as I did) make that assumption, too, if you saw the police horses, the riot gear, the vans and officers creating barricades wherever possible. When people see the demo, they don't see what it's about, they just see this, the long, eager arm of the law 'protecting' them from the menace of the
The coverage in the local rag was astounding. 'Shameful' was their headline - with a full page colour photograph on the cover, as is normally used to depict disasters of epic proportions such as terrorist attacks and tsunamis. I suppose I shouldn't have been so shocked; the more hardened activists I spoke to said it was pretty standard, and some of them even said they weren't that bothered because the people who read it (average Daily Mail readers) had such short memories, re-written each day by the next tabloid headline, that they'd have forgotten about it in a week anyway. It wasn't just in that paper though. Media spin always has worried me, and I've always known it went on, but I've never experienced it so directly before. I know that a lot of what I'm writing here is old news to a lot of people, and I don't profess to know all about it - but I do know what I saw and I want to add to actual constructive comment/discourse on the subject if I can. For weeks the paper had been making a fuss about the march, speculating on what would happen in the wake of G20; how the irresponsible the organisers were for not co-operating with the police in discussing their plans; fear-mongering that the whole city would be shut down. After this hype they couldn't really back down and concede that it had been a largely peaceful and successful demo. It felt sinister to me, though - like they were trying to show what 'chaos' erupts when the police aren't allowed to employ their usual methods.
The implications of the negative stigma really are far reaching though. At what point will people overcome their institutional prejudice and retaliate? How bad will it have to get? No one seems to associate protests over current issues with historical successful, or at least benevolently viewed, campaigns - the peasant's revolt, the suffragettes, the miners' strikes. Demonstrating is either passed off as pointless, laughed at, or attacked in some ignorant way. But isn't it a tool of social change, and what happens if no one takes advantage of it anymore? People may argue that we do not live in a society in which radical change is necessary, but it's amazing how much you can justify to yourself in order to avoid having to take any action. How else did Hitler get into power?
I'm digressing now and this post is quite long enough without idealistic political ranting about which I really know very little. There's lots I have to say on the subject but at the risk of sounding like a teenager who's just discovered George Orwell, I will stop now.
Thank you for bearing with me... We will now return to our scheduled programming.