student blood on the streets of London after a demonstration last week
In Dizzee Rascal’s banal new music video for ‘I love this town’, an intimidating gang of hooded youth embark on a frenzied spree of good-will, cleaning shop windows, planting flowers and rescuing kittens from the top of phone boxes before getting down to rave with a squadron of riot police. The result is an anti Clockwork Orange, an inane dramatisation of a gangland neighbourhood watch group spurred into action by the automated clangour of what sounds like a David Guetta B-side.
Dizzee is not the first to engage with the contemporaneousness of street violence. The feeling that a riot is just around the corner has been widely exploited by artists and reproduced in popular culture as streets and street protest, a post-apocalyptic smorgasbord of fires and tribal whooping, continue to take over Hollywood and MTV. Plan B’s iLL Manors video sees the community of a London estate uniting against South Park caricatures of Tory politicians to a sample of Stravinsky. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ‘No church in the wild’ is a romantic celebration of Molotov Cocktails and anti-police rioting. Even Justin Bieber has got in on the action in his recent video with Chris Brown which takes place in a studio of burnt out cars and shopping trollies full of pillaged supermarket goods.
Dizzee’s contribution, however, is certainly the most manipulative and politically disempowering of these recent efforts to capitalise on ‘the protest meme’, a cynical appropriation of a desolate political environment in which critical thought, let alone resistance, is presented as farcical against a hollowed-out and dehistoricised spectacle of good British neighborliness. Cleverly, the narrative simultaneously appeals to peoples’ fears about future rioting while still offering eye candy for those thirsting for violence (the much loved masks, sticks etc). This duality is a typically British form of cultural logic. The immediate reference point of the riot clean-up of August 2011 is one such example. In some ways Dizzee’s video serves as a reproduction of that moment at a difficult time, in which the masking of institutional and historical systems of oppression are, as happened in the immediate aftermath of the riots, cast aside in a glossy vaccum-pack where anti-police sentiment is conflated with meaningless escalation. Island Records should have approached Boris to do the backing vocals. It would have done wonders for sales.
This vacuous and reactionary sentiment, a kind of new Burkeanism, is particularly painful to watch on the back of this week’s violent repression of peaceful student demonstrations by riot police. While Dizzee’s video plays on the idea that youth in the streets are inherently intimidating but ok underneath it all (fried gold for the liberal media), there is no recognition that migrant shopkeepers (those great role models of contemporary capitalism) might actually have a good relationship with local young people or, on the contrary, be on the edge of rioting themselves. But who cares about the specifics? We should all be nice, resist judging people by their appearance and generally try and get on. Go and hug a hoodie if you can find one. By focusing on fashion and smartphones the video misses a key aspect of life in London and a major cause of the riots themselves; that the police are frequently the instigators of conflict and division and, through racist processes of stop and search, continue to perpetuate a culture of disenfranchisement structurally generated by capitalism and the sovereignty of the British state. Changing this requires an organized political movement.
In the immediate case of student repression, the response has been largely non-violent from those organizing the protests. A number of pumped-up individuals shouted swear words and chanted insults (in direct response to the violent break-up of a peaceful occupation by the Territorial Support Group the previous day) but there was little evidence of physical threat to the police or to university property. It is not, and should not be, illegal to rally and chant on a university campus. But despite the best efforts of the SOAS samba band the police are not prone to dancing alongside demonstrators. On December 5, following a #copsoffcampus call-out, the response of the TSG to a demo of a couple of hundred people was the arrest of journalists and legal observers, the formation of kettles and calling in of helicopter support. Ultimately, student blood was spilt on the pavement by Euston Road despite no evidence of weapons among the crowd.
This is a straightforward example of authority coldly summoned and gleefully deployed, and the outcry, and subsequent organisation of a solidarity demo on Wednesday, is certainly justified. It beggars belief that the spectacle of a small crowd of campaigners (mainly familiar faces and many certainly on record) was enough for the University of London to take out an injunction against ‘violent and intimidating’ protests on its campus which lasts until next June. In 2010 #copsoffcampus was covered by two vans of Metropolitan Police, unsupported by TSG. The language of university management rings hollow alongside this measurable escalation. It is worth bearing in mind, for example, that it was in fact they who directly transformed a peaceful protest into a potential public order situation. And they know they did this. One has to wonder: what is university management so worried about that it is willing to risk a more generalized state of rioting?
Last week’s violence did not come out of the blue, though the longer narrative has been actively obscured by the mainstream media. Police assaults against students certainly attract less media coverage than student violence against the police (or private property). Adam Ramsay’s OurKingdom article and Aaron Bastani’s piece in the Guardian both provide excellent summaries of the wider efforts of university management to suppress dissent and the list grows longer every day. This process increasingly involves the police. In the past few weeks, evidence of regional constabularies placing spies into official (and legally protected) student union groups has come to light, the President and Vice-President of the University of London Union have been arrested for simply doing their jobs, and, perhaps the most shocking individual example, a 3cosas activist was tackled by 16 officers and strip-searched for chalking the cleaners’ demands on a wall. Cops-on-campus has, in a short space of time, become the normal state of affairs.
London is a city that feels like it wants to destroy itself. This self-destructive tendency is at the foundation of Dizzee’s video and its manipulative sentiment. In reality, contrary to the British fantasy world evoked there, it is hardly surprising that protest culture in the capital is headier and more heavily policed than elsewhere (and likewise tends towards fragmentation). When TSG are deployed to deal with a 60-person occupation, and this is shrugged off as proportionate by all official bodies this is to be expected. There is perhaps more hope beyond the capital. The remarkable occupations, demonstrations and solidarity actions at Sussex, Warwick, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Ulster, Birmingham, Sheffield and others have demonstrated the extent to which the student movement is not the preserve of a hardcore localised group in London but is developing into something national, confident and pragmatic. Nonetheless the relative ‘freedom’ of these movements should not be overstated and the response to actions in these sites has been harsh. Both Birmingham and Sheffield have sought injunctions against sit-in protests, five students from Sussex face indefinite suspension for their involvement in the occupations. This is a trend that looks set to spread.
The language of the student movement is increasingly focused on the need for long-term institution building, the necessity of building an ecosystem, beyond cliques and which is founded on solidarity with issues effecting both academic and non-academic staff. This is a small but mature form of political thinking that while operating according to strict democratic principles, indeed precisely because of this, is not afraid of taking direct action. As James Mcash summarises in his recent OurKingdom piece: “In 2010 we knew what we were against. Now we know what we are for: free and accessible education, democratic institutions, decent pay and conditions for all workers. The anti-austerity movement hasn’t yet developed a strong positive narrative. The student movement is beginning to”.
This genuine tendency to think outside of individual experience – and which given the risks involved can hardly be labeled now as a fashion statement - poses a real threat to the idea of the student as self-interested consumer and to the cultural precedent of Britishness itself. It is surely for this reason that management are so ready to call in the police. New modes of student and staff solidarity are beginning to emerge which highlight the potential for a university outside of that imagined by MPs, VCs and CEOs. Picket lines are swelling, and there is growing student support for the staff strikes beyond this. The inspiring 3cosas campaign, which crowd sourced a £5000 strike fund for a successful two day strike of outsourced cleaning staff, is one of the most inspiring examples of how students and workers can work together to build universities predicated on more than opportunistic careerism.
Far from a ‘one off example’, this growing movement therefore touches on a fundamental weakness of British neoliberalism. It is for this reason, and not the stated of public order, that university managements are so twitchy about protests on campus. The IWGB, for example, have called for a further strike on the 27, 28 and 29 of January to campaign against job losses at the Garden Halls. If 3cosas is anything to go by, the campaign will be well supported. The new economic engine, the new subject, the future of neoliberal ideology is called into question when people start to act, without fear, outside of the system. By bringing the police into this, university managements have forfeited their authority to participate in genuine discussion. It is a move which only reveals how deeply undemocratic these bodies are but also shows the fear that their vision for higher education might not actually fit with the cultural demands of those who keep the engine running.
Those watching from the sidelines should not be under any illusions: peaceful protest in Britain has gone from being a nostalgic right of patriotic liberals to being explicitly criminalized. At the same time, universities, still affectionately imagined as spaces of learning and potentially dissent, have demonstrated their total opposition to this latter function. The positive right to assemble, to march and to campaign in these spaces (as elsewhere) has been subsumed into the neoliberal obsession with negative rights: not to obstruct pavements, not to chalk on a wall, not to dissent. Given that Britain has no written constitution there is little political guarantee to protesters beyond emotional precedent and a vague assemblage of laws that seem to have become totalitarian when nobody was looking. Perhaps relying on an organic shared notion of British decency, like that peddled by Dizzee, wasn’t such a good idea after all. A written constitution is necessary to protect both positive and negative liberty and, independently of its content, would have the actual advantage of making it more difficult for those in power to weasel their way around ‘cemented’ democratic rights.
Occupations and other forms of direct action should be seen as efforts to take actual responsibility into student hands; something which simply doesn’t make sense if these movements are viewed as merely antagonistic. They have, in short a constitutional significance. Ultimately, and not just in response to this, a long-term political solution is needed which would enable those involved in running institutions a space to participate in their management. If students are not respected with the right to protest on their campuses, their movements allowed access to permanent spaces from which to organise and conduct dialogue, university management can only be considered as illegitimate. Democracy, supposedly underpins the law and if the laws fundamental to democracy, such as those surrounding protest, become undemocratic then these may be broken. This is a fundamental maxim: when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Without a codified definition around which to negotiate, it is difficult to establish at what point legitimate action can begin and anxieties about rioting are well grounded.
On its website the independent campaigning organisation Liberty writes that “maintaining proper structures to ensure that legitimate political protest can find a voice is a positive duty of Government”. This is an admirable sentiment but makes no sense without a codified constitution. This is perhaps the point. The fact that this will never be resolved by any of the main political parties is a failing of neoliberalism that is rarely acknowledged: the market is not going to protect the innocent from police brutality and neither is it going to waste valuable profit-making opportunities on contentious topics like legitimacy. In refusing to take seriously its commitment to these fundamental issues university management, the police, and the British state have opened themselves up to a rage that goes far beyond individual struggles. Dizzee’s celebration of apathy should be recognized as the sham that it is. Moreover, it is vital to recognize that the battle for the streets is only part of this story. All citizens have a responsibility to ensure that the structural violence through which Westminster maintains its power does not go unchallenged.
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