openDemocracyUK

Reflections on a Riot

What happens when you go to a demonstration peacefully and are caught up in a riot? An honest account of what it is like for both sides as English higher education is marketised
Paul Sagar
12 December 2010

Paul Sagar wrote a compelling and very adult account of Thursday's riot against the assult on higher education in his blog Bad Conscience. It is cross-posted below in full with thanks. One of the qualities of his blogging like that of Laurie Penny and Dan Hancox is honesty, you learn how they feel and what they see and their mixture of emotions. This will prove to be a much more influential and effective form of politics than the old tribal sectarianism. Paul added an important comment to Dan Hancox's account of being kettled at the demo, the kids at it and their music,

Yeah out of interest, were any of these kids from the estates the same ones who brought hammers and shanks into the kettle? Who were robbing people next to the treasury and attacked a journalist who filmed them, and who then kicked him on the floor? Who beat up a friend's mate for taking a photo of them as they smashed a phonebox up?

The same kids, one of whom I thought was going to kill somebody with a hammer, when they were confronted and told to stop?

I'm all for kids coming along and protesting to save their EMAs. But there were people in that kettle there to steal, beat and cause trouble.

It scared the fuck out of me to be trapped inside the kettle with these people. They were not part of the protest, they were praying on it.

Not everybody there on Thursday was there for the right reasons. And I saw this all with my own eyes, so don't call me a liar.

The political consequences of the polarisation may be ugly. This is a comment on my report of the demo before it got kettled from BigC:

"Will the media succeed in turning the public image and understanding of the demo into mere upper-class thuggery, with Gilmour as a Mail photo shows, even up there by the Royal Rolls?"

They've not really got an uphill task there Anthony. I watched some of the demonstration in my bus garage canteen: Cheering of police baton charges and jeering at protesters' spokespeople were the norm. Working class perceptions of students in general are pre-set at negative.

The media are pushing at an open door and the hotheads are making it easy for them.It sounds pompous but there needs to be some sort of discipline of the sort we saw on the jobs marches in the 80s if all this energy isn't going to be wasted.

Paul's own Reflections on a riot: follows - Anthony Barnett


 In the press reports and police statements surrounding what happened in Parliament Square on Thursday, we’re often told that “violent extremists” ruined it for “peaceful protestors”.

But is it really that simple?

I was stood in the crowd next to Westminster Abbey on Thursday, where I saw riot police striking people with batons after they had fallen to the floor. When a young man trying to help others get away from danger took a baton to the back of the head, and came out streaming blood and unable to walk. When people around me started panicking, running, crushing and screaming in terror – and I turned around to see 15 police horses charging a packed crowd with nowhere to go.

Was I a peaceful protestor, or a violent extremist?

Certainly, I was not one of the people who brought weapons. I didn’t throw missiles at the police horses, or light flares and fireworks. The people who did that (and despite my earlier scepticism, it was true that prepared troublemakers were there on the day) can accurately be classed as violent extremists. Waving red and black flags, dressed in plain black with faces purposefully covered and snooker balls in hand, these were anarchists in the technical sense. I was not with them, or one of them, and I do not defend their actions. It would have been better for all if they had not been there.

But the prepared troublemakers were a very small tiny minority. And yet the images you have seen of the riot in Parliament Square show police battling with thousands of protestors. So what happened?

Quite simply, ordinary people joined in. As I was not on the front row of the protest – or riot, as it quickly became – I stayed clear of the violence. But I’ll be honest: I was swept up along with the enthusiasm of the situation just like the thousands around me. Very quickly it became us versus them; the ordinary people dressed in plain clothes taking batons to the head and facing horse charges, and the masked riot police trying to get at and hurt people like us.

So how and why did the situation deteriorate so quickly? Because it was exhilarating to be part of it.

Insincere apologies for breaking the taboo, but this is a brute truth the pious po-faced tut-tutters of the media and political power dishonestly deny to be the case. Riots happen because they are exciting, because they are fun, because ordinary people who did not come for any violence or trouble suddenly find themselves in the fray and simply do not want to leave. The shackles of society are off, and the animal thrill of conflict is pumping through everybody’s system. And whilst fear and the instinct to run can get the upper hand – like when the horses charge you – adrenaline for the most part takes over. And hence people stand, and they fight.

Those who would now dismiss me as a mindless thug should be aware that this equally applies to the police on the other side. It is simply obvious to anybody who’s seen riot police in action that they enjoy the ruck every bit as much as those they are fighting. And why should that be a surprise? They are only human too; ruled by the same passions and suddenly unleashed animal instincts as the rest of us.

It is true that at 2pm on Thursday 9th November, the anti-cuts demonstration could be accurately divided into violent extremists waiting to strike, and peaceful protestors only there to march and sing. But by 3.30pm, after the batons and the horse charges, the flares and the missiles, such a distinction was spurious. The riot had started, there was violence on both sides, and we were suddenly all in it together.

We can have a simplistic discourse about “violent extremists” and “peaceful protestors”, if we want; an easy narrative in which the Bad Guys ruined it for the Good. But if we stay at that level we’ll never get beyond inaccurate platitudes, and never understand the dynamics of riots as they actually happen in practice. If the police are serious about stopping this sort of thing in future they’ll take this brute truth on board. But that is to assume that they really are interested in stopping this sort of thing in future – and there’s all sorts of reasons to doubt that.

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