The phoney war of Oxford Street

The clashes at Saturday’s protests against public spending cuts were neither an orgy of political violence nor a riot of police brutality.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Since the ‘turmoil’ that reportedly erupted in central London on Saturday, alongside the big march against public spending cuts, we have witnessed a riot of hype, exaggeration, fearmongering and fantasising on all sides. This post-mortem has generated rather more excitement than the protest itself.

On one side, the Liberal-Conservative coalition government, Labour opposition, police chiefs and much of the media have thrown a collective wobbly about the ‘political violence’ carried out by ‘anarchist militants’ and ‘mindless thugs’ that they claim turned London streets into a ‘battleground’. On the other side, the anti-cuts protesters in Oxford Street have protested about heavy-handed policing; Socialist Worker rails against ‘police provocation of peaceful marchers’, while the UK Uncut campaign complains about the police victimising ‘teachers, hospital workers [and] charity workers’ engaged in their ‘peaceful and mild-mannered gathering’ in Fortnum & Mason.

Cut that out, all of you. Saturday’s small but massively media-inflated clashes amounted to neither a ‘battleground’ nor an outbreak of police brutality. This looks more like a phoney war between two uncertain sides, neither of which seems to know what they were meant to be doing on the day or what wider goals they might be trying to achieve. One blogger has described the amateur theatricals around Oxford Street as ‘a Punch and Judy protest’. It is worth looking briefly at both sides of that show, to point up some political problems facing the state and the protesters.

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old Marxist complaining about ‘young people today’ and all that, can I just say: Call That a Riot? Despite all the huffing and puffing from the home secretary downwards, there was little or no ‘political violence’ apparent on Saturday. Riots have rarely of course been coherent political acts, but the big ones of modern British history have involved outbursts of popular fury directed against the police as the oppressive symbols of state power. By contrast, this looked more like some acts of token ‘political’ vandalism, perpetrated by a relative handful of self-righteous activists to show their dislike of both the rich (hence attack banks and posh shops) and the ‘chavs’ of mass consumption (attack Top Shop), as well as their prudery (attack Ann Summers).

What political violence? Do they mean the kids I saw ripping the ‘Barclays’ stickers off the London mayor’s rental bikes? Yes, there were others who smashed a bank window for the cameras. What political point they imagined they were making by breaking into a closed branch of Santander is anybody’s guess – unless their slogan ‘make the banks pay’ refers to rising insurance premiums. Perhaps they were all second-home owners complaining about the collapse of the property market in Santander’s native Spain.

Then there was the occupation of the upmarket Fortnum & Mason department store, apparently justified by its owners’ tax avoidance but which looked at the time more like picking on a soft target given the police were concentrated around the usual suspects such as Vodafone. There were immediate reports of confectionery being thrown around in the store, reducing the protest to the level of an infants’ food fight. This violence against chocolate bunnies was disowned by the UK Uncut organisers, who, as mentioned, insisted that their protest was ‘a peaceful and mild-mannered gathering’. That’ll show them ‘Tory scum’! The lesson of protests past, that cap-in-hand-gets-kick-in-teeth, has seemingly gone unlearnt again.

All in all there appeared to be little violence and less politics in this slightly pathetic excuse for a riot. It was more of a tantrum by those who really do not deserve the name of anarchists, a serious if misguided political tradition.

Many have sought to distance the trouble around Oxford Street from the mainstream march against the cuts. Yet apart from the broken windows there seems much to unite them. Both were ultimately gestures, a screech of despair from people who turned up to make a personal statement then went home without really expecting to have changed anything. Neither offered any political alternative beyond the alternative brand of austerity offered by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

The radical tax inspectors of UK Uncut, and the demonstration’s demand for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on banks and the rich, sum up the dearth of political imagination. It seems that the height of radicalism today is to put yourself forward as the Provisional wing of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs department – arguably the most hated bureaucrats in the land. If they had ever read the Robin Hood legend, they might have noticed that the tax collector was the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham – the outlaws were the ones refusing to pay and trying to kill the Crown’s taxmen.

Far from being an old-fashioned riot against the state, then, this turns out to be a plea for more paternal state action – against evil tax avoiders. That servile attitude to the state was also reflected in the activists’ approach to the police, whom many seemed to see as quasi-parental figures to be goaded and pushed as far as possible until they got a reaction, perhaps so that they can go home with a bruise as badge of honour, something achieved. Some in fancy dress were reportedly even trying to tickle cops with feather dusters, which one does not normally do if confronted with the might of a police state (ask the Syrians for example). Was it a rave in a playpen provided by the police cordon, or maybe a riot as depicted through interpretative dance, complete with jazz hands? Nobody seemed any the wiser.

As for the police, they appeared equally lost and unsure what the point of it all was meant to be. There seemed to be no clear strategy for dealing with the more militant protesters, beyond an attempt to appear reasonable to the media and the ‘observers’ from Liberty who police chiefs invited into their control centre. (Typical of the state-endorsed British civil liberties lobby that when a conflict breaks out their role is to ‘observe’ it in an official capacity.) This was a far remove from the police riots of yesteryear. The plan seemed to be to ‘walk softly and don’t carry a big stick’ if at all possible. Thus the riot police had few helmets or weapons until later, when they donned formal dress for the fag-end evening events in Trafalgar Square.

The commanders even used Twitter rather than truncheons in an initial attempt to restrain the Fortnum & Mason protesters. Of the headline 201 arrests of ‘mindless thugs’ made on the day, 145 of them were from that ‘mild-mannered’ occupation of a fancy cake department, 138 of whom have been charged with trespass. Only one serious charge of violent disorder has been laid to date, though more will undoubtedly follow later as the police study the CCTV footage for evidence – so much less risky than actually trying to apprehend rough boys in the act.

Yet despite the non-event of the ‘battle’ between non-political protesters and unarmed police, there is now panic and hysterical talk in high places of the need for a new crackdown on activists before the royal wedding next month. The ridiculous risk-averse Tory home secretary Teresa water-cannon May is floating the idea of football-style banning orders to prevent ‘known hooligans’ travelling to protests (score one to those of us who have long argued that football fans were lab rats for experiments in new methods of social control). She has also offered the police new powers to, er, make people remove masks in public. Only if you remove the mask of a grown-up cabinet minister first, home secretary. Meanwhile one former Metropolitan Police commander helpfully points out that during previous unrest in London, the law used snatch squads, dawn raids and crack riot cops to bring the Notting Hill carnival under control. The notion that the Met could manage such military tactics now seems a far remove from the flabby reality. Lucky for them they are not up against a real riot or a national miners’ strike today.

As the few wisps of smoke clear from the alleged battlefield of London, the political impact of the anti-cuts march seems to have disappeared quicker than the childish graffiti on the city’s monuments. All that is left behind are no bodies, no victors or vanquished, but rotting piles of dead-end gestures on all sides. Ain’t that a riot?

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

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Topics Politics


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