27 March 2011

How violence subverts protest

Yesterday's massive demonstration in London provides a perfect illustration of how an outbreak of violence can undermine even the most successful protest.

The real story of the day was that hundreds of thousands of people marched in Britain's capital against the government's planned austerity policies -- The Guardian put it at 500,000, which would be almost one percent of the population of the entire country. In the main it was peaceful, as such events generally are. Yet just a few hundred individuals (widely described as "anarchists" and not even associated with the goals of the protest) engaged in violence. They invaded and vandalized buildings, started fires, and attacked the police, often viciously -- five police officers were injured, one being hospitalized.

It's hard to see how the organizers, who have no control over who shows up at such events, could have prevented this behavior, and of course they unequivocally condemned it. Yet it provided their opponents with a pretext to brush aside the significance of their achievement. The violence of the few, rather than the peaceful protest of the many, became the big story -- for those who chose to make it so.

The news reports tell the tale. The Independent, Al-Jazeera and Britain's main left-leaning paper The Guardian reported on the demonstration in a fairly balanced way, not ignoring the violence but recognizing what the real story was. The more conservative paper The Telegraph led with "mobs of masked thugs" and head- lines like "Anarchists on the rampage in London", "Police battle to restore order", "Trafalgar Square becomes a battleground", and so on. Conservative media outside Britain are likely to use the same spin, and people remote from the actual events will be all the more susceptible to it. For those who want to ignore the day's real significance, those thugs -- a not inaccurate word -- give them license to do so.

Violence initiated by the authorities can build sympathy for a protest movement, as has happened in the Arab countries -- but violence by parasitic hoodlums who show up to throw tantrums will undermine it more effectively than anything the authorities could do.


Blogger John Myste said...

This was a very intelligent observation. Ironically, if the article at said this: Violence subverts protest, and nothing more, it would have also been very powerful.

27 March, 2011 11:10  
Blogger tnlib said...

You're right, of course, but unfortunately for any protest movement, there are always going to be those goonish elements who are simply there to create havoc. And there's always going to be some media sources who look for and report on only the crazy behavior rather than the content - not unlike what our own media did during the HC town hall meetings.

28 March, 2011 08:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks. The lack of such hooliganism during the Wisconsin protests certainly made them more effective -- which is why we should be on guard for the right to try to manufacture an "incident" or two.

28 March, 2011 12:22  

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