Image of the Year: the Royals photo symbolises the productive disorder of the student protests

The shocked faces of Camilla and Prince Charles as they are attacked by a group of student demonstrators is now an iconic image. It has come to symbolise the potential of protest to break with the illusion of the separateness of worlds upon which the structures of power are built.
James Butler
6 January 2011

It's a fascinating image. You can see why it made the front pages. SHEER TERROR IN HER EYES, ran one of the headlines. A bit mendacious, that: it’s not terror, really, it looks more like she’s clucking and hooting in rage or confusion. It really does have it all: that semi-vacant, half-O face, across which all sorts of emotions could flicker, the gaping witlessness of her husband beside her, electric Regent street Christmas lights flashing in the shiny paint of a vintage Roller. It’s one of the moments you’d never really have the temerity to write as fiction: the heir to the throne gets driven in a vintage Rolls-Royce through a riot, en route to preside at the annual ritual where the media caste scrape and grovel in wonder at the rotting sump of hereditary privilege.

Nice. Those of us kettled in the cold in Parliament Square got the news not long after it happened. A friend mentioned it disbelievingly. It sounded like the rushed news you sometimes hear at actions, which turn out to be entirely fictional later. Rapidly, two forms of analysis emerged: the first held that the action was an error, either strategically (it would dominate press coverage, or alienate the public) or morally (some variation on ‘scaring pensioners’); the second that it reflected the scale of feeling, or presaged the start of a wider insurrection. Such debates played themselves out in the following days, with ubiquitous fear over media portrayal being one of the dominant threads. I cheerfully admit my reaction was one of unalloyed pleasure, and fascination at the circulation of the image itself.

One could use the image to talk about ‘violence’ and its uses, or to bewail the cosy, craven stupidity of newspaper editors, or indeed that, thirteen years after Diana, the royals apparently still haven’t learnt to wear seatbelts. One might, more interestingly, remark on the disproportionate emphasis given by some more centrist protesters to the impact on message rather than the impact of police batons on other protesters’ heads. But those things should all be obvious. I am more interested in why the photo has lingered in memory, and what’s not articulated behind the assumption that the photo embodies something shocking – i.e., that it’s a clear icon of disruption of some order we should all know instinctively.

That order itself has something to do with both what royalty is, and what form ‘protest’ should take; its disruption is tangible in the notion that there was something uncanny about the event, the deep conviction that this is a thing that should not happen. Nowhere did we read that the scandal might be that a man by dint of birth is driven through the streets in a vintage car, where others can scarcely afford to eat; everywhere was the assumption that somewhere along the line, something important had ruptured.

It was precisely the irruptive nature of that event that makes it both so disquieting and so characteristic of the student protests as a whole. In moments like these, I think one can see the authentic swell of anger among grassroots, and the radicalisation that comes as a consequence of experiencing protest. To me, what’s key is precisely that the destruction of a Topshop window, the graffiti on the Treasury, or the blockading of a royal convoy is not mindless, but quite the antithesis: the point at which structural inequality, when the whole, stinking, hypocritical con becomes utterly apparent… and is sitting there in front of you in a chauffeur-driven car.

These worlds are not supposed to coincide: it is precisely the illusion of their separateness that shores up their concentration of power. A couple of days later, the Standard ran a fervid and unintentionally amusing story ‘revealing’ the apparently scandalous news that Camilla had been prodded with a stick. That moment of touching, and what turns upon it, evidently offered some considerable allure.

It’s tempting here to think about the ancient notion of the King’s Evil, that the touch of a king could cure scrofula, or the enduring psychological presence of myths about sacred kingship and taboo. Perhaps far more interesting here is Kajsa Ekholm Friedman’s suggestion that, far from evincing a fundamental ground for notions of sovereignty, such myths and taboos come to exist, or at least are most stringently enforced, in times of great social and political upheaval. (Bloch notes, indeed, the propagandistic uses to which the royal touch was put in the English Civil War.) No one seriously believes in such things these days; either in the supernatural locus of sovereign power, nor that, should the crops fail or banks collapse, royal blood should drip off the altars of Westminster Abbey. But the aura of order and taboo surrounding them continues to work its stupefying charms, now perhaps propped up with the myth of the ‘apolitical’ head of state.

Order and touching are related: there’s rarely an occasion where someone touches Elizabeth Windsor that someone else doesn’t rumble along to talk about protocol, dignity, and respect – and, underneath that lies some occult fear that to act upon the body of a sovereign presumes that the body of the State itself can be acted upon. The fiction of order that surrounds the royals at all times – the eternal smell of new paint, extensive cleaning, ordered ranks of dazzled people – is really only rarely broken, and almost never by anything more than something that can be written off as a lone nut’s solitary plan.

Where does dissent fit in this picture? It’s not that royals have never encountered protesters before, but they have largely been of the banner-holding, neatly-assembled, contained type – what we might also dub the ineffectual type. Ineffectual precisely because their ‘dissent’ becomes a recuperated part of the very system they want to protest against – and is seen as a sign of its pluralistic values, its healthy, democratic spirit. This argument should by now be familiar: it is the rationale behind direct action, behind the refusal to co-operate with a system designed to make protest ineffectual and non-disruptive.

But it is precisely the disordered nature of such protests that makes for the most compelling narrative in that picture, because so much of state, police and reactionary response has been to seize on disorder as the central metaphor for what happens on the streets. That is to say, from the implication that protesters fail to understand the plans for education, to the suggestion that to protest in anything other than the approved form was dangerously crazy or fanatical, or indeed to the general police response, the emphasis has been on dissent as a disorder not solely in a tactical sense but a medical sense as well.

That metaphor has characterised police thinking throughout: from the ‘sterile zones’ to ‘containment’, to the argument that protesters had somehow been ‘contaminated’ by ultra-leftists; from here it is an easy step to justifying violence as a medical response to infection, and some of that was abundantly clear from the continued police jibes about students needing to take a bath. But the virtue of the medical organising metaphor is precisely this: it views politicisation as a symptom of a malady that can be wiped out, that any action resulting therefrom can be viewed as symptomatic behaviour, as lacking in cohesion as a fever-dream, that political positions dissenting from particular articles of faith are a sign not just of unsound beliefs, but unsound minds and unsound bodies. How much easier to beat a teenager when you have drunk so deeply of that poisonous brew that you think you’re doing them a favour.

Of course the state has to think of such a movement as an infection, and one that is dangerously spreading through the body politic, but it is not a metaphor that we need to accept. One thing is to make clear that we can reject the notion that political reason is found only in the heads of Westminster politicians, but is found inside every single one of us; that we can reject the logic that Cameron or Clegg or any of their class of politicians and media hypocrites claim to set the bounds of rational objection; that, precisely, we know how deeply the law courts, the glitz of Oxford street, the Treasury and the relic in the Roller are all connected.

What to draw from this? It’s apparent to me that the odd disjunctions brought to the fore by these kind of actions – which expose the sheer brazenness of inequality and the violence the state is willing to use to perpetuate and strengthen it – are part of the movement’s strength. Call it an infection, or think of it, rather, in terms of resonances, or rhizomes, or weeds, but it’s clear this decentralised approach does not preclude ideological engagement, or political commitment, that it is precisely the strength found in autonomy that has allowed such actions to proliferate. To break with the traditional model of dissent is also to find a freedom in one’s targets; things without the bounds of ‘traditional’ and easily-neutralised protest. The image of a red and black flag over Millbank, or the wave of innovative occupations, or a stick in the ribs for Camilla: these things should send an uncompromising message that we’re not acting out a puppet theatre politics, where we stick to the hollow ghost of real protest, which has been relied on to prop up the mythic pluralist bedrock of sham ‘democracy’ for decades. When the most arbitrary, fossilised, absurd avatar of class privilege and cheery face of its entrenchment gets driven into your protest what can you do other than see him for what he is? What better sign that we’re not ‘all in this together’?

This piece was originally published on Pierce Penniless.

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