At our last reading group, we discussed chapters one and four of the pamphlet “Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours that Shook Trafalgar Square”, a compilation of personal accounts and reflections on the Poll Tax Riot in London, on the 31st of March 1990. The Poll Tax, brought in by the Thatcher government, was a much hated precursor of the Council Tax, and the riot and its aftermath, combined with an ongoing and widespread non-payment campaign against the Poll Tax, eventually led to Thatcher falling from power and the Poll Tax being scrapped.
The first chapter we read was a short account written by one participant in the demonstration, and later the riot. From booking a babysitter and arriving to a sunny, carnival-like atmosphere, to wandering down a road covered in smashed glass in the aftermath, the account gives a different impression of a person involved in the riot than you’d get from asking a politician, or reading a newspaper.
Chapter four was a brief timeline, from 1381 until the 1990s, listing significant explosions of class conflict involving violence in the UK. This chapter was included in the pamphlet because “listening to the squeals of condemnation from Thatcher, Kinnock and co after the Poll tax riot, you’d think that violence and direct action has never happened before in Britain.” From mass demonstrations and general strikes, to peasant revolts and the Battle of Cable Street, the chapter points out that, for as long as there has been a class division in society, the conflict between these classes has involved violence, and in spite of the rhetoric of politicians condemning it as “alien to the British working class”, “sheer criminality”, or some other nonsense, this is a part of the history of the working class in Britain.
The articles were a spring board for a wide ranging discussion, but four main themes cropped up. The first was the media, and it’s portrayal of demonstrations where violence occurs. Unsurprisingly, reports on demonstrations where there has been violence focus disproportionately (or totally) on it – partly because it makes for more exciting photos and headlines, but also out of hostility towards a demonstrations aims or participants. An example of this that was brought up in discussion was when Douglass Carswell, a despicable right wing politician, got too close to an anti-austerity demonstration in London and had a water bottle and harsh language thrown at him, and so consequently had to be rescued by police (armed with metal clubs). Pictures of a politician surrounded by cops bundling him into a van and articles about a “murderous lynch mob” followed, and overshadowed the rest of the demonstration, as well as a smaller demonstration the same day. While there are better ways to be portrayed, we thought that worrying about how you are going to be talked about is a bit of a lost cause. Focusing on the better headlines is obviously what journalists will do, and no amount of hand-wringing will change this.
We also talked about how while this presentation will frame the discussion, a lot of people get information via social media platforms, which can influence the way people see events in other ways. An example brought up was when some demonstrators in the US were tear gassed and broke into a McDonalds to get milk to treat affected demonstrators. It was initially portrayed as looting in the mainstream media, but photographs of injured people being treated rapidly spread online.
Of course, people are not just empty vessels waiting for the media to fill them up with opinions, and we felt that regardless of how a demonstration is presented, people will take sides based on a variety of factors, for example the opinions they have of the issues being demonstrated over. Peoples opinions on major issues are unlikely to change after reading a newspaper report on a demonstration, either for better or worse, and to a large extent the degree to which you are campaigning around topics that have relevance to peoples lives is the degree to which people will support you.
The second topic was what actually constitutes violence, and we talked about how no two people will call the same things violence – is property damage? What about self-defence? Is it possible to be violent towards animals? We concluded that whether something was or wasn’t violent was a less interesting question than whether a particular action was useful – most people do think that violence is useful in some circumstances (to stop a murderer in the act, for example), and aside from advocates of total pacifism and non-violence, most people would have their own idea of what was an acceptable level of violence to use. Similarly, there are a lot of situations where violence is no use or counterproductive.
This tied in to our third topic, which was about what the point of demonstrations is. We talked about how there is a difference between demonstrating and protesting, in that protesting is merely to say you oppose something, whereas a demonstration is supposed to demonstrate something – sometimes just the scale of support there is for an issue, but also the level of motivation those supporters have to fight to win if they aren’t given what they want. Politicians are going to pay more attention to disruptive demonstrations than peaceful ones, even if only because they are more expensive to control and cause more problems for them. As we saw from the student movement when they attacked Millbank and a large section of the student movement broke free from the control of the NUS, large disruptive demonstrations can also help set the tone for how a movement progresses, or in the case of the Poll Tax riots, can mark an escalation in a campaign. However, we also discussed how capitalism is a social system, and is based on a set of social relationships that are reproduced in peoples daily lives, so you can’t get rid of it with ever larger and more confrontational demonstrations – only building the power of working class people to control their lives, workplaces and communities can do that.
Fourth, and finally, we briefly touched on the responsibilities people have towards other people who find themselves in confrontational demonstrations or riots. In the first chapter we read, the author assists people who are unable to cope with the situation, or are injured. We discussed how this sort of care is important, not only for its own sake, but also because it shows the portrayal of these situations as outbreaks of unthinking, inexplicable violence and “sheer criminality” to be nonsense. Similarly, people who end up in legal trouble also need to be supported.