Originally published in May 2009.
On 1 April, sometime after 7pm, we happened to walk unchallenged into the area around the Royal Exchange, which was eerily deserted by protesters. A dozen or so policemen stood confused, almost dazed, at the corner of Cornhill and Birchin Lane – behind them the body of Ian Tomlinson. The death of a man at a protest that could hardly even be called a riot was certainly the most sobering aspect that we took away from that day.
The G20 protests haven’t shut down a summit nor have they been a threat to business-as-usual in the City. What they have done, however, is to kick-start a far-reaching and at times exciting discussion on the role of police during protest events. It is entirely unsurprising nonetheless that this debate is carried out within a liberal framework which does not question the role of the police as an institution or the state’s self-granted ‘monopoly of violence’.
The problem to us seems to be one of criticism and critique. We see a whole lot of criticism of policing operations, of police tactics and of the behaviour of officers on the ground. But criticism, when adequately addressed, can only serve to reinforce the image of the police as the legitimate protector of property and law and order. Outrage at police violence, while from the perspective of the peaceful protester entirely understandable (and by no means do we want to condemn the anger felt when brutalised and humiliated by a force more violent than us), can only mean that ‘proportionate’ and ‘peaceful’ policing would be acceptable (or even possible).
A critique of the police (and with it of its relationship to the state and to capital) would be something entirely different. For a start, we would have to ask questions of ourselves: how can we deal with contemporary policing of demonstrations in the UK without resorting to the help of the corporate media, the IPCC or the legal system? And in the public realm we have to push an analysis that regards the police riot on 1 April as the very self-evident and expected role of those forces of the state that try to regulate, manage and control the status quo.
We have to be careful that the good deal of bad publicity that the Metropolitan Police receives from the Guardian and other newspapers will not have a de-radicalising effect. If liberal capitalist democracy is seen to be working – i.e. media scrutiny, police accountability, judges and politicians that punish police brutality – then where is our platform for attack? By (only) criticising the actions of the police we are appealing to the status quo, not condemning it.
This response to police action was also evident when 114 climate change activists were recently arrested in Nottingham in connection with an alleged plan to disrupt a local power station. The liberal media and many activists were outraged – this kind of policing impinges on our ‘right’ to protest; rights that are granted (or should be, so the argument logically goes) by the state and facilitated by the police. If we use this appeal to ‘rights’ and the legal framework to defend our actions, where are we left when our actions are antithetical to the requirements of the state and the police?
The G20 protests also showed our strengths of course. To begin with, an anarchist movement in the UK does exist and can achieve a tremendous amount with small numbers. Also, the Climate Camp mobilised thousands of people to engage with climate change not just as an outcome of carbon emissions but as a result of capitalism (well carbon trade, at least). This move away from simply seeing climate change as a scientific problem to stressing its social and economic causes is an important step towards building an anti-capitalist environmental movement ahead of Copenhagen.
Of course, the conversation on the role of violence in movements for social change and what ‘violence’ actually entails needs to be had. The black and white picture constructed by the media, made possible by the separation of the ‘peaceful’ Climate Campers and the ‘violent’ anarchists (as if you couldn’t be an anarchist Climate Camper) - skews the discourse on violence and the reality of state oppression and forceful resistance that is, globally, a necessary part of the lives of many ordinary people.
This difference of criticism and critique is also mirrored in the political responses to the recession currently on offer. Criticism of unfettered finance capital, of bankers and speculators, is put forward by a ‘grand coalition’ ranging from the BNP (“fat-cats”) and the Tories (“stop the bonuses”) to the Labour government (“more regulation”) and the Socialist Workers (“tax the rich”). Slogans we heard on the G20 demos (“hang the bankers”) are just the more radical version of the same message.
On the other hand, a critique of the financial system requires an analysis of, say, private property, a mode of production and exchange inherently motivated by the need to make profit, economic and political hegemony, and the relationship between these processes and personal, social and environmental issues. Only then can we move away from a reductionist politics that often results in the blaming of particular social groups or institutions (bankers, migrants…). In a recession, we should not self-prescribe poverty as some protesters did (“we need to get rid of the rich”), or ask for the right to succeed on a green and fair labour market (“jobs, justice, climate”), but demand ‘luxury for all’. What this luxury could look like must emerge from our future responses to the permanent crisis of capitalism.