Destroy trust within a broad movement and between more and less radical activists:
Some of the easiest protesters to smear are the “unwashed” in squats, with the tabloid phrasing linking back to a long history of anti-working class sentiment. With the wealth gap in the UK dramatically increasing, and the same picture repeating around the world, such sentiment is likely to increase. The most violent societies tend to be the most unequal, and while the needs of the poor remain unaccounted for in mainstream politics it seems unlikely that class prejudice and violence will decrease on their own.
Not only are the poor the most affected by cuts, but they are alo the most affected by aggressive protest policing due to differential treatment by race and class. With poverty associated with increased stress, greater likelihood of being the victim of violence, being unable to escape other forms of violence, and with having less time and energy for organising, it is unsurprising that those most affected by cuts are not always able to protest in huge numbers.
When protesters are more privileged, a new narrative comes into play, with charges of hypocrisy being made and smears targeted at prominent protesters. As previously stated, UK tabloids have typified all of the student protesters as “rich”, playing into a culture which charges all left-wingers with hypocrisy and demands that they constantly prove their credentials or else have “no right to complain”. When the actions of one protester are held to be the actions of all, it becomes both easy to drive wedges both among protesters and between them and the public at large.
While a few protesters are given the media spotlight, the police certain to be infiltrating their ranks are cloaked in secrecy. With the budget of the NPOIU, a body tasked with combating “domestic extremism” having more than doubled in the last four years, all that is certain is that there are a number of undercover officers tasked with infiltrating the protest movement. While the unit has been brought into the Metropolitan Police, its structure has not changed: one unit has a role “similar to the ‘counter subversion’ functions formerly carried out by MI5” in the 60s and 70s, and which involves working alongside MI5, likely to compile dossiers on large numbers of student and left wing activists.
To secure convictions, officers must be involved in planning actions and can be key to them happening at all. Police outside the UK have admitted to disguising themselves as demonstrators, and there are videos of them acting as agent provocatours. Whether police in the UK are acting to incite violence as part of undercover operations is unknown.
What is certain is that both courts and the media often come out against “career protesters”, even the Daily Mail and a former policeman admit that the picture of activists is mixed. This is a picture that does not fit with the news coverage of the student protests.
Another striking thing from the student protests were the attacks on activists for being “too serious” and “party poopers”, for having a negative attitude and making life difficult for the majority. This occurs even when many activists are also comedians, and when many actions are fun and entertaining.
Questioning the official narrative is allowed, but offering another in its place is not. Moreover, all questioning is depressing negativity on the behalf of the questioner, a personal failing. All other narratives can be is either fanaticism or the delusions of harmless hippies. When Obama’s adviser stated that “liberal naysayers” ought to be “drug tested”, it made news only because he conflated his attacks on hippies and party-poopers, rather than making them separately.
These attacks centre around the difficult to oppose idea of “reasonableness” in politics, which pushes discourse towards the centre. When the centre is always unspokenly moving to the right, the end result is a narrative that drifts rightwards over time with no counter to prevent it.
I cannot comment on cases coming to court, but there are a history of arrests that are unfounded but serve to stigmatise movement. The numbers of arrests can be announced in the media, and immediately a perception of “they must have arrested them for something” is established. When the media print numbers of unfounded arrests, this is never corrected, just as untrue press releases are never followed up on.
(At the time of posting, prosecutions have been dropped against over 100 of the Fortnum and Mason arrestees.)
Taken together with bail conditions preventing further protest, and punitive strategies by law enforcement, this renders political protest extremely difficult.
People can also be put off protest not only by the difficulty, but by alienation from experienced activists who often have strongly negative views of the police. When individual police decide to punish experienced activists for being too assertive, it can include takedowns, hands around their necks, use of pressure points for asking for police numbers (which they are legally obliged to give), and standing on people’s feet. Police have acted to disrupt benefit gigs for activists, and a smash EDO protest way back in 2010 saw all the now-standard tactics: kettling, mass arrests followed by release without charge, denial of toilets and water combined with press statements that proved flatly untrue.
The us-and-them mentality of police occurs any time that police anticipate conflict. In one anti-terror raid, police were rightly concerned about armed attack by one subject following the death by stabbing of another arresting officer months earlier. When he surrendered, evidence attests that police proceeded to violently beat and abuse the suspect once he was cuffed and kneeling, and again once he was in his cell.
The effects of the expectation of conflict, antagonism, and adrenaline produce brutal results, as the Stanford Prison Experiment and successors show.
There is extensive evidence behind differential treatment by police forces. Obama mentioned this in relation to race. There is no doubt that an antagonistic culture emerges between police and activists.
While checks and balances exist, many IPCC staff are ex-police, especially those in senior roles. Despite there being over 400 deaths following police contact in the last ten years, no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter. There are also serving officers with dozens of complaints against them, none of which have been upheld.
When peaceful protest is constantly challenged and faced with violence, and the agenda is removed from the hands of the public, it is unsurprising that violence emerges. No effective mainstream non-violent action or debate is ever taken to stop violence emerging.
This is shown in sharper relief after the recent rioting to which the political response has largely been punitive, with little thought given to examining evidence or to preventing violence from happening again. The evidence on public order policing shows firmly that low-key approaches are far more effective than punitive ones. The causes of the UK riots are many and beyond the scope of this piece. It is worth noting that the effect of stop-and-search on crime reduction is doubted by criminologists, while those stopped multiple times report feeling angry and alienated just as people are by patterns of racial stereotyping.
While black bloc is a controversial tactic, masking up is often in direct response to FIT teams and surveillance. After the recent riots, the legality of masking up may face more questions, leaving police FIT tactics facing less opposition.
These police tactics are international, forming patterns of violence which replicate over the globe. Activists talk of structural and symbolic violence. Removing all of these forms of violence would constitute a systemic change in the way in which the world is governed, and talking about them explains, while it does not justify, violence by various groups of people including the violence the police are called upon to perform.
Suppression in action:
All of these systemic pressures on protest have combined, in the anti-cuts movement, to result in protester numbers being reduced to a core who are middle class, predominantly white, well educated, well informed on the history of protest movements and the UK law – a minority of people which are easily contained and controlled. The other result is that people who persist in protest must have both a strong narrative behind them and supportive friends, which alienates them from potential protesters.
None of the societal forces behind this are “natural”. Some are explicitly intentional. Many others occur simply through the isolated actions of well-meaning people, actions that have systemic effects which are usually not challenged. Some acts of violence are held to be more moral than others.
These circumstances result in moves which have public supermajorities against often being implemented. NHS blood services are set to be privatised with 64% to 74% against. A majority support renationalising UK railways outright in 2009. While support hovers around 50% for bringing back the death penalty, whether this would persist after a wider societal debate is unclear. At the same time voter turnout has fallen significantly in the last 30 years.
While opinion at the time was divided the Iraq war was pushed through against mass protest, but not direct action. Regardless of the conclusions of the Iraq enquiry, there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths while massive numbers of private security contractors remain, and war rages on elsewhere.
Even without direct pressure from right-wing forces such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp these forces serve to skew the functioning of a society intended to be both free and open. Direct collusion between police, the media and politicians serves to distort, repress and perpetrate injustice to a far higher degree. This piece was written before the current scandal engulfing the British political class and News International, and the degree to which intentional corruption and collusion has played in the suppression of the anti-cuts movement remains to be seen.
While it is well established that we live in a world of growing inequality and changing climate, our decisions are made in a framework which demands constant growth, and where that growth is increasingly measured with reference to ever more speculative bank holdings. These measures ignore human and environmental costs as “externalities”. As the implications of this continue to be ignored, rational questions have to be asked about how truly adaptive our society’s behaviour is.
All the facts behind the current News International scandal have been in the public domain for a long time, yet it has not been news. The effects of war, oil depletion, or cuts are only news long after the event. This is too late to change our behaviour, or even to consider how our society functions and these decisions are made.
We seem to be a society which keeps trying the same thing while expecting different results, yet in many cases the damage has already been done and we cannot go back.
This is what democracy looks like.