Monday 15th August 2005
This article looks at the issue of police violence on demonstrations, and goes on to recall how social structures can force members of state and corporate organisations to participate in anti-social behaviour.
Police on demos only attack those people who are causing trouble. Discuss.
In the mid-1980s Rupert Murdoch decided to sack all the people working for newspapers like the Sun and the Times and hire a completely different workforce. At that time his empire was already vastly profitable, but had not quite reached the monopolistic strength that we see today. (People in the UK, for example, did not have to pay an Australian news magnate to watch their national game on TV as they do now.) Unsatisfied with just the few billions in his bank accounts, Murdoch attacked the Fleet Street print workers and moved his papers to a new site in Wapping.
Understandably, the printers were none too happy to sacrifice several centuries of tradition, their livelihoods and long-standing employment agreements for the cause of Rupert's mega-corporation. They decided to exercise their democratic right to protest, and to blockade the new plant to prevent the papers produced by the scab workforce from getting out to the newsagents. Every day for some months thousands of people gathered in the middle of the night to try to fill the streets in front of Murdoch's trucks, and a couple of times I was one of them. On these occasions (amongst others) I gathered some very strong personal evidence that the police are quite happy to attack perfectly peacable people, and not just on a small scale but in a highly organised and coordinated large-scale assault.
Imagine standing on a street filled with people. There are so many of you that it feels that nothing could penetrate the crowd. Then a shout of fear rings out, and you hear the rumbling sound of hooves on hard paving. Horses! Around thirty of them, ridden by police in full riot gear, heading straight down the road at the crowd at high speed. These were not cuddly ponies from Brighton beach, these were big strong animals, something like cart horses, blinkered to prevent them from shying from their task, and they were running straight at us! The feeling that the street was too full to allow entry disappeared in a flash as the crowd openned a space to let the charge through, their riders reaching around them to hit out with yard-long truncheons as they passed. Behind them came running men in boiler suits and carrying helmets and shields, hitting out at everyone. I clung to a fence at the side of the road with hundreds of others, some having escaped up side roads, some running in front of the charging horses, some poor souls left to bear the full brunt of the onslaught. The man next to me was hit at random as the police ran past. He was attacking no one.
Murdoch's papers were on sale as usual, the day after. The rights of a billionaire to break his agreements with his staff were so much more important to the police than the rights of the protesters who blockaded his factory that we were clubbed from the streets by an organised assault. At a later protest a man actually died under the wheels of one of the trucks. So much for the right to demonstrate.
One swallow does not a summer make, of course, and my small set of personal observations from Wapping and other places where I've seen similar events are not sufficient to build a case that this type of police behaviour is symptomatic of those forces in general. There is, however, a lot of documentation out there, of other demos, other attacks and other police brutalities, if you care to look for it. One example is the G8 protest in Genoa in 2001, where Carlo Giuliani was shot in the head by Italian police, who then drove over his body. Carlo was involved in attacking a police car: perhaps, in some kind of logical framework that allows shooting and crushing as a valid response to demonstrators armed with pieces of wood and a fire extinguisher that means his death was justified. So let's discard it, for the sake of argument. What, though, of demonstrators who were asleep in the early hours at the Pascoli and Diaz schools when the police broke in and rampaged through the classrooms, beating and arresting more than 60 people? These people were not attacking anyone (unless perhaps their snoring was loud enough to constitute assault), but they were
...severely beaten during the two raids, including an independent British reporter, Mark Covell, and a German journalist, Sebastian Zehatschek. Covell was unconscious for 14 hours after the raid, which left him with a vein twisted around his spine, a ripped lung, broken fingers and eight broken ribs. (Indymedia)
Of course the police claimed all sorts of outlandish things about the occupants of the sleeping bags that they'd so cruely assaulted. None of the accusations stood the test of time or that of the courts, as Jonathon Neale's excellent account of the protests shows (You are G8, we are 6 Billion, 2003).
Who Believes in Monsters?
Does this mean that the police are all monsters? Or that the journalists who consistently misreport police activities are all craven consirators bent on legitimising the abuse of state power? Joel Bakan's The Corporation (2004) contains answers to these questions.
One of the reasons why people new to an anti-capitalist world view find it hard to accept is the implication that the leaders of our institutions must be a woeful set of incredibly viscious and stupid people. In daily life such types are in a tiny minority, so it is easy to believe that leading politicians and industrialists are just as they often seem in the media — by and large pretty ordinary.
Bakan's book is wonderful for showing how the personality types at the head of our society's institutions are largely irrelevant to how those institutions construct the terrors and catastrophes of our times.
If the most powerful institution on earth is the nation state, the second most powerful, and the one with by far the greatest influence over the state, is the corporation. Bakan shows how this institution is:
- treated in law as a person who has only limited responsibility for their actions;
- mandated by law to act in its own selfish interests at all times.
Not surprisingly, when freedom to act with the rights of a person is combined with mandated selfishness a whole range of pathological behaviours ensue. Bakan quotes a psychologist who categorises corporate behaviour as psychopathic, but the key point in the current context is that institutional behaviour which is clearly against the interests of the entire human race (pollution, for example) emerges from people who are not in themselves "evil" or anti-humanist, but from the circumstances in which they find themselves. Because of the way corporations and other social institutions are constructed, destroying the planet (or beating up demonstrators) can come to seem sensible. In face of this "tyranny of the sensible" what is really needed is to look at the reality behind the comfortable consensus peddled by the mainstream news, and to examine critically the assumptions that it is based on.
As Mark Steel puts it in Reasons to be Cheerful (2001, p.216), when refering to the labour response to the "smart" bombing of a Baghdad air raid shelter full of women and children in 1991:
...the sensible disease can work in the same way with ideas as it does with lifestyles. It's not realistic to aim to overturn the basis on which the system works. It's sensible to be practical and aim simply to get a kinder government elected. But in order to get elected, you have to be sensible and check the opinion polls before making statements about gays or immigration. Once you are elected, you have to make a few cuts in services, to balance the budget. Otherwise the other lot will come back and they'll be worse. Eventually arms can be sold to dictators and crooked millionaires defended, reluctantly of course, because what else can you do but be sensible? So that bit by bit, people who were once driven by outrage against injustice, spend their whole lives justifying the injustices they're carrying out. From Neil Kinnock down, sensible politicians had watched the gasping, wailing women pounding the ground in despair alongside the ashes of their families in that bomb shelter, seen the grisly pictures of the roasted conscripts in their trucks on the Basra road, and thought, 'How should I react to this if I want to secure the floating voter?' .... the main thing is to not be sensible.
To return to our original theme, demonstrators are frequently prey to police attacks that have nothing to do with whether they are actually breaking the law or not, and everything to do with social structures that classify dissent as abnormal and extreme, and corporate actions as normal and law-abiding. Unfortunately the incidence of irrational behaviour is actually a lot more common in the latter than the former, and if humanity is to progress (or to save itself from the rising tide of melted ice) we must adopt a more rational model for our institutions. Quickly, before it's too late!