Street politics, violence, and media

The student movement in Britain against the government’s tuition-fees and spending policies faces inescapable political questions over the character and limits of democratic protest, says Martin Shaw.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
7 December 2010

“The relationship to violence is also much better, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against throwing the fire extinguisher at Millbank. There is an understanding of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless provocateurs will try and spoil this. But this student movement, if that is what it is becoming, will not go on to create bands of terrorists like the Angry Brigade. Because it has already been preceded by terrorism, and everyone can see how reactionary [that] is” - Anthony Barnett, "Student Power, 1968...2010", openDemocracy, 27 November 2010

“The crude truth is that student violence works better than any amount of priggish argument. When the protests of 10 November turned to window smashing, a lot of people tutted that, while 50,000 peacefully protested, a tiny minority's violence would dominate the front pages. Exactly! Without it, the demonstration may not have made the front pages at all” - David Mitchell, "Nick Clegg getting a good kicking?...", Observer, 28 November 2010

As the focus of the rolling western economic crisis moves decisively from bank to state finances, the street is once again competing with parliament as the place to "do" opposition. It has come relatively late to Britain, at least in comparison to France, where I was residing in September-October at the height of the protests against the raising of the retirement age to 62.

At the time, French acquaintances frequently asked me why there was no comparable protest in their neighbouring country, even though the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government planned stringent measures - to raise the retirement age to 66; abolish the method of indexing public-sector pension rises which has existed for almost four decades; remove half a million public employees from the payroll; and withdraw existing benefits from millions of people.

It was not easy to answer. By November-December, the question had become irrelevant - at least as far as students are concerned. Several designated days of nationwide student protests against massive increases in university tuition-fees (in great part resulting from the removal of most state support from teaching) have put “protest” - in all its kaleidoscopic manifestations - at the centre of politics in Britain too.

Moreover, the protests - which more recently have included a series of student occupations of university administrative buildings - seem deeper and broader than any student activism of recent years, even provoking comparisons with 1968. A particularly notable feature is that, like the French protests in 1968 and 2010 but unlike most British student actions heretofore, school students have also joined in great numbers.

It is also notable that, as the above quotations suggest, “violence” quickly became a big issue in public and media discussion of the demonstrations - largely because of incidents during the first big mobilisation in central London on 10 November, the most dramatic of which was the throwing of a fire-extinguisher from the top of a building in Millbank (where the governing Conservative Party has its headquarters) which some students had invaded.

In this respect, Anthony Barnett is reassured “by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators” against people engaging in such potentially injurious or even life-threatening acts (and an incident in the demo on 24 November when female school students protected a police van from those who wanted to smash it up confirms the point). But the humane and pacific instincts cited and evident here will count for nothing if it is true, as David Mitchell argues, that the violence of the few will always trump the peaceful actions of the many in gaining media - and hence wider public - attention. Who is right?

The political synergy

The record suggests that peaceful mass protest does gain media attention if it meets certain conditions - when it is new; as long as its momentum is maintained across successive actions with growing numbers and sources of support; and (especially) if it triggers or connects with mainstream political opposition on the broad issues at stake.

This autumn’s French protests generated a major political crisis without any need for violence. If in the end they were unsuccessful, this was because both the protesters and the wider public support that supported them (or most of this) accepted the legitimacy of the parliamentary institutions which ratified the pension-age increase to which they objected. If peaceful protest did not work in blocking Nicholas Sarkozy’s “reforms”, violence would not have helped persuade the conservative legislators whom the protestors needed to win over.

Nonetheless, there is clearly something to Mitchell’s claims. The spectacle of “violence”, of smashed windows and bonfires (more than the throwing of fire-extinguishers), clearly contributed to the shock that the Millbank protest generated. The commercial mass media feed off shocking images, and are quick to ignore the conventional.

It is all the more important, then, to distinguish between imaginative transgression and violence against people or property and to emphasise that the former does not necessarily entail the latter. The mere fact of students’ unauthorised entry to the Millbank building would have alarmed media-public opinion; the images of smashed windows themselves added little to the “shock value”.

It’s also the case that damage to property is not really “violence” (as Barnett implies in noting the protestors’ recognition of “the need for no willed violence against people”). Yet the first-order distinction between “violence” against people and “damage” to property is not the only or even the most important key to clarifying the question of the nature and limits of protest. Above all, it’s a question of political context.

In practice, the kinds of “protester” who enjoy breaking windows are just as likely to want to physically attack the police themselves. In context, the distinction between broken windows and the threat to a policeman’s life from a fire-extinguisher can quickly disappear, so that both become represented as “violence”.

The majority of protesters too were fully aware of this distinction, and that is important. But it is unlikely that many media outlets - or indeed TV viewers - would have been impressed by this. For it must be remembered that the vast majority of people in western societies accept the legitimacy of the notion of respect for property, as well as respect for life. Their support will not be won either by violence against people or by “violence” against property.

For groups or movements committed to both kinds of violence as part of their armoury, this would not matter: a group such as al-Qaida) can use the most shocking violence to create huge media events, because it doesn’t need to gain the support of a majority even of Muslims, just of a small minority prepared to give time, money and in a few cases their lives to keep the network going.

But students in Britain fighting tuition-fees need mass public support, and they gain much of their political resonance from the sense of hypocrisy on the part of those (especially the Lib Dem leaders Nick Clegg and his party colleagues) who championed the students’ case only to betray it. They need to influence the political process at its centre, by pushing embarrassed Lib Dem MPs into voting against the proposed “reform”. The synergies between dramatic student action, sympathetic (or at least not completely hostile) media coverage, and cracks in the parliamentary consensus are crucial.

The path of progress

It is difficult to understate the importance of this issue of violence and the necessity for activists clearly to understand it. A cautionary tale is that of the “anti-globalisation” movement which burst onto the global political scene at the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in November 1999, and was strong for several years afterwards.

An important factor in the movement’s loss of momentum was the violence unleashed by some factions (against people as well as property) at the protests surrounding major international summits. This made it easier to smear the movement as a whole as “violent” – an accusation that acquired even more force in the aftermath of the 9/11 and other terrorist atrocities.

In many western societies today, working- and middle-class people experience a sense of injustice and even violation as a result of extra costs and burdens imposed by governments that choose to punish the innocent rather than the architects of systemic crisis. The next two or three years will see the most important opportunity in decades for people to take direct action to influence political outcomes.

As in 1968, student movements may be the start of mass movements with much wider public involvement and support. They have a profound responsibility to avoid and prevent violence of any kind: both to win on their own issues, and to shift the larger arguments about spending cuts and social justice which are emerging to dominate the political agenda.

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