political protests then and now

Then there were the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. If you look past the pundits you can see, among other things, tear gass and beatings.

Or the recent student riots in London with police charging on horseback:

These pictures make the police reactions to the Wall Street protestors seem certainly more moderate, if in some instances incredibly painful.  But those very painful incidents do not seem to provide enough contrast to  justify the Nation’s recent explanation of the low turn out for the protests:

The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police … And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.

It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.

Now, imagine you have a job you can’t get time off from, or kids. Are you going to risk that precious job security, or the safety of your children, to go protest in an event that may—if you’re really lucky—get some dismissive coverage in the New York Times?

There was a time when individuals cast aside those fears because they had union-protected jobs, and unions organized events with tens of thousands of confidence-inspiring fellow members in attendance. While those events do still occur, they’re a rarity these days as union membership dwindles, the privatization of the country continues and the establishment media still don’t grant them fair coverage when they do occur. Not one of the young people I spoke to at the Occupy Wall Street protest said they were union members. 

I don’t know what the difference between the 1960”s and protectors today in the US is, but police brutality does not seem to be it.  Nor, for those who remember the initial reporting of student protects, is it the sort of  belittling journalism that the NY Times indulged in, and the Nation is criticizing; there was plenty of that then.

Perhaps one difference is that the  protects before were coming from universities, and students were well versed in getting into groups and planning things.  Here’s an interesting clip about the planning before the Chicago riots:

English riots

And so it continues. Round here, the police helicopters were out all night, and I can still hear sirens now at half past nine in the morning. The news is showing photos of devastation across England. As far as it’s possible to tell from the news reports and the word on the ground, the riots are about getting rich by looting shops, attacking the police and the fire service, and setting fire to things – including cars, shops, and houses with people inside them. The police are reporting that many of those arrested are people known to them as petty criminals. The few brief interviews with rioters shown on the news (and there really aren’t many) confirm the impression that the looters consider themselves to be gangsters – a criminal ‘class’ out to get what they can, with little respect for anyone or anything. Groups of people have been trying to defend their neighbourhoods – often, although not exclusively, people who arrived here as immigrants in the not too distant past. Three such men were killed last night when rioters drove a car into them in Birmingham. They had just left a mosque. Others, of many different backgrounds, have been organising to clear up the mess.

There is, of course, much speculation about the causes of the current riots. I suspect Daniel Hind, writing for Al-Jazeera is right when he says ‘civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning…only a fool would announce what it all means’. But at risk of being a fool, it seems there are one or two remarks one may make.

First, those who claim the rioters have a political agenda are surely wrong. Whilst I don’t think that having a political agenda is an easy thing to capture (I doubt, e.g., that it must involve having explicit political motives and a detailed understanding of why one is doing what one does – which of us ever has such self-knowledge of, or control over our own actions?), I suspect it must involve at least some sort of political consciousness, which it’s not clear the rioters possess. People are rioting because breaking things is fun, and looting is a quick way to make some cash.

But second, those who think the rioters are merely mindless thugs, and there is no political dimension to the riots are surely also wrong. The rioters are (wannabe) gangsters, from some of the poorer neighbourhoods. It’s fairly easy to predict – if you know a city – where there will be rioting. And let me give you a clue, no-one’s predicting riots in the nicer suburbs. It’s no surprise either when the police announce they’ve arrested people from neighbourhoods x, y, and z because x, y, and z are poorer, rougher places.

So what does this mean? One part of the answer seems to be that to people in poorer, rougher areas, being a gangster looks like an attractive option. Not only is it attractive, it’s also a live option. What makes it an attractive and live option is surely that (i) one’s other prospects are bleak, (ii) one has been conditioned since birth (like everyone else living in a consumer capitalist society) to want the latest whatever, and to believe that one has the right to have it; (iii) one is surrounded by others living the gangster lifestyle. The roots of (iii) are no doubt fiercely complicated, but surely there’s some importance to the fact that being poor is stressful, stress breaks families apart, dysfunction creeps in, and once there, it reaches down the generations.

Things will no doubt become clearer with time. But for now, on behalf of all the families, shopkeepers, and other folk battening down the hatches after dark, let’s hope it’s true that the rain is coming, and rioters don’t like getting wet.

A few sensible stories:
Aljazeera, Telegraph, Nomadic Utopianism.