Riot police, broken glass, masked-up youths. A new generation takes advantage of social media to organise a mass expression of anger and dispossession and hurt. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? It wasn’t so long ago that the phrases “feral youths” and “London’s burning” were being bandied about in the media and the community of our nation was at a loss to figure out how it came to this. There are evidently very critical differences between the student protests of last winter, the violence of the anti-cuts rally on March 26th and what we have seen these past few days, but there are also crucial similarities that have to be engaged with. Activists must face up to the link between their recent actions and the riots we have seen on the streets in recent days that have scarred communities across our country.
Let me firstly stake my position as an activist. I took part in the student protests and in the anti-cuts rally. Although I myself have never committed an act of violence during those events, I have always strongly defended the right of those who choose to do so. I’ve talked at length before on this blog about why I choose to defend this form of direct action, so will avoid any repetition here by reiterating my beliefs on the matter. Suffice to say, I still believe that those who smashed the windows of Millbank or pushed against police lines in Parliament Square were right to do so. This post is not a critique of violence in direct action.
One of the notable and encouraging aspects of the recent anti-cuts and student fees protests was the sudden political awakening of a formerly disengaged generation. London swarmed with young people who had never before taken an interest in politics, let alone express themselves as political animals, whether it be at the ballot box or at the picket line. Amongst the smoke and debris there was a glimmer of hope that we were finally turning against the tide of apathy. A sense of empowerment was rife amongst the first-time protesters and acts of vandalism and violence played a crucial part in that realisation of citizen power.
Although at times the more experienced activists were overwhelmed by the pace of these newly actualised citizens, they also cultivated a very specific kind of protest that was quickly adopted and disseminated. For example, the use of social media to organise, mobilise and encourage continual protest whilst escaping the detection of the police. Likewise, the availability of legal advice and tips on what to do when confronted with the police or if we thought we might be at risk of arrest and what to do in the case of being arrested. Perhaps most importantly, many (and I count myself amongst them) put forward the case for violence – we defended it, we encouraged it and we legitimised it.
The root causes of the riots we have seen are murky, but I am in no doubt that the acts of violence committed as a form of protest earlier in the years played a role in the present outbreak of violence in the form of looting, arson and, it would seem, murder. We must ask, as activists, what responsibility we bear for the actions of the looters, the arsonists, the murderers. Outright rejection of any correlation or link will not suffice – it is wilful ignorance or shameful cowardice.
Of course, we can defend ourselves: we can say that there has been no political purpose to the riots in Brixton, in Salford, in Gloucester (of all places). I’m not so sure, actually. True, the rioters may not have benefited from an education which allows them to posit a nuanced political argument as to why they have destroyed the communities they live in – but it is sheer arrogance to deny their explanations (“to show the police they can’t mess with us”, “to fuck up the rich people”, “to show the government what’s what”) the label of “political purpose”.
We can say that smashing the windows of tax-dodging Vodafone stores or Tory HQ bears little in comparison, as a form of protest, to looting local independent businesses before setting them alight. And I would largely agree – but I wonder how many saw the former and were galvanised to do the latter.
If the riots have been influenced by violent forms of protest – if activists have contributed towards a context in which mass violence of the kind seen this week is more likely – it was certainly never our intention. Our intention was to encourage others to take a stand to protect their futures, to reverse their disempowerment, to show them that the state is subject and the people are sovereign. And we gave them our tools with which to achieve these aims. But did we giver them our purposes? Did we educate? Did we spend as much time teaching these young citizens why we use these tools as we did how to use them? And where are we now? Are we in those communities? Are we helping those communities?
I worry that we committed so much time to organising protests, getting slicker and slicker in how we out-foxed the police, smarter and smarter in whatever new social media format we expressed our message, that we forgot to talk to kids on the corner of our roads and learn what was happening around us. We operated at a macro-level, our heads in the sky contemplating the big ideas and big plans which would get the maximum press exposure, and forgot that local communities don’t operate in headlines.