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On violence, protest and London's March for the Alternative

How do we pass moral judgment over the use of political violence? What of situations that lack a basic strategy, as on London's March for the Alternative? Paul Sagar regrets the violence last Saturday, but tempers his judgment with an understanding of the underlying reasons.
Paul Sagar
28 March 2011

As previously noted, I have no problem per se with political violence. Its use and justification must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with reference to myriad factors such as likelihood to succeed, ability to justify harm to victims, long-term advantages gained, greater evils averted, and so on. Use and justification of violence – like any other tool of politics – depends on firstly the judgement of those who deploy it, and at a later stage the judgement of those (if different) who must assess it (and quite possibly, sentence it). As a general rule, it is wise to hope for better judgement than worse, and from all concerned.

Some situations allow for more judgement, particularly with regards to strategy, than others. The leaders of the ANC, or the ETA, or Hamas, typically control the means of violence in hierarchical command structures. A few men will decide when and where to use violence, and dictate orders to subordinates. In such cases, judgement (including strategic planning) is in the hands of specific individuals with relatively high degrees of control. In turn, moral judgement by other parties as to the justified or unjustified use of that violence will in large measure focus on the decisions of the commanding individuals. The same, incidentally, goes for the aparatus of the modern state – though for complex and important reasons we tend to shy away from recognising the deeply and necessarily coercive natures of the states we find ourselves in and under.

But certainly not all instances of political violence fit this model. When the so-called “Black Bloc” of anarchist militants attacked stores on Oxford Street yesterday they were not part of a (para)military organised hierarchy with a leadership exercising strategic-tactical judgement – still less the militant wing of the 250,000 peaceful marchers congregating in Hyde Park. When UK Uncut protestors launched their non-violent direct action against Fortnum and Mason, they can hardly be held responsible for the spontaneous vandalism that enthusiasts in the assembled crowd promptly launched.

In these latter cases the problem with considering the use of political violence from the perspective of strategic judgement in particular is that it quite simply doesn’t apply. Before Saturday’s outbursts of violent direct action, no hierarchy of command could exercise the sort of command and control upon which strategic judgement is predicated. Yet after the violence talk of strategic judgement seems largely besides the point. Insofar as there was any, it was exercised by individuals or small groups in loosely organised ways, in a situation of mass happenings over which nobody had meaningful control.

In turn, this makes the task of passing retrospective moral judgement over the uses of political violence on Saturday a nuanced affair. For a start, we must distinguish between the actions of opportunistic vandals, committed anarchists, young enthusiasts caught up in the moment, and those goaded and provoked by police tactics (if any of the above indeed turn out to apply).

Nonetheless, it remains possible to assume a third-party perspective in order to analyse yesterday’s events. Specifically, we can adopt a position of hypothetical strategic judgement. It is quite sensible to ask: if I had absolute control over what actions people did and did not take yesterday, which would I permit? Personally, I would have preferred an entirely peaceful protest. Not because I’m opposed to all political violence (I’m not), but because yesterday’s outbursts were unambiguously counter-productive, and predictably so.

By contrast, my strong sense is that  if the student movement had remained entirely peaceful at the end of last year, it would certainly have achieved absolutely nothing. The broken windows at Millbank and the riots in Westminster attracted levels of attention that peaceful marching never could have. And importantly, I believe that the student violence did not lead to the same outcomes that purely peaceful protest would have (failed to) achieve.

Certainly, the Parliamentary vote was passed and in that sense the student protests failed. Yet the carnage witnessed in Parliament Square – chronciled by myself, Jeremy Gilbert and others in Fight Back! – will have sent a shiver down many Coalition MPs’ spines. Lib Dems in particular must know that the ferocity of student anger means that particular constituency is lost for the very foreseeable future. Tory MPs must know deep down that if things can get that bad that quickly before the cuts have even started to bite, the next 4 years will contain some very difficult fights. Perhaps this will only make the present Government even more determined and bullish – but my sense is that it will quietly make key decision-makers more wary, and Lib Dems more skittish. And even if all of that is wrong, I still think that the student protests stood a better chance with the events as they happened than any peaceful alternative could have offered.

By contrast, Saturday’s march needed something entirely different. It needed the other face of protest: the face of hundreds of thousands of ordinary, reasonable and respectable people calmly registering their disapproval. As Paul Mason has noted, if you can get your entire workforce out to a Saturday demonstration, this means something. The scale of yesterday’s protest, quite obviously not made up of the “usual suspects”, would have been very powerful just because of its sheer size. If only it had been the main news story.

Instead, much coverage was given over to actions initially started by the “Black Bloc” idiots. I call them idiots because that is exactly what they are. Either they like to smash things just for the thrill (in which case they are Basic Idiots), or they are so politically deluded they think throwing paint bombs at TopShop will light the fuse of revolutionary explosion (in which case they are Advanced level Über-Idiots). Whichever camp of idiots yesterday’s Black Bloc thugs fell into, they did the anti-cuts campaign huge damage. By distracting attention to the loudly spectacular and meaningless away from the quietly awesome and meaningful they ruined it for everyone. Except the Tory Party.

Yet, crucially, there is more to say. For although the actions of the Black Bloc started the trouble – as Ryan Gallagher has noted – it is undeniable that many others quickly joined the violence without premeditation. Likewise the kids who stuck it out in Trafalgar Square, or who angrily confronted police outside Fortnum and Mason, cannot be dismissed as merely extended members of the Black Bloc.

Rather, they were the people who don’t any longer see the point of maintaining peaceful protest if the opportunity to descend into confrontation arises. And at a certain level they have my sympathy, for two reasons. Firstly, my generation learned quite spectacularly in 2003 that even enormous peaceful demonstrations of over a million people can make precisely zero difference. Tony Blair invaded Iraq, and didn’t give a flying damn what any of us thought.

Secondly, anybody who has been on even a handful of protests – especially in London – knows full well that the police do not hesitate to use violence, and frequently instigate aggressive confrontational situations amidst previously jovial and peaceful atmospheres. At the G20 protests in 2009, trouble only started when the police moved in – and it is probably significant that following that experience increasing numbers of protestors are drawing the obvious conclusion: if you know the boys in blue will baton you regardless, why wait around passively for them to do it?

It is significant and telling that so many recent protests have seen flare-ups of violence. The Black Bloc has been around a long while now and they cannot alone explain this. A better explanation is that many people – especially the young – are angry, justifiably untrusting of the police, and contemptuous of the old (failed) channels of political expression. As the cuts really start to bite, their numbers must surely increase.

So whilst I regret yesterday’s violence – if I could have had my way, there would have been none at all – I can understand why these outbursts of wider political violence are happening. And they do not make me optimistic about the future.

This piece was originally posted on Paul Sagar's blog, Bad Conscience.

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