G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 1 – Liberal Moralism

The way that people approach and evaluate police tactics depends to a great extent on what initial perspective they take. I want to discuss three such perspectives, using examples from yesterday’s G20 protests.

The first and easiest perspective is to take everyone at their word, abstract from the concrete goals involved, and be a liberal. People have the right to protest within limits, and police have the right to control them within limits. It’s all about the limits. Police and protesters are bound together by a shared framework of rules and limits and are essentially on the same side. They are not enemies – they are friends who disagree over something.

This produces a moralistic mode of evaluation: were the police “restrained” or were they “brutal” (to use one of those lovely words founded on the equation non-human=mindless violence)? Did they use “enough” force or “too much”? And conversely, were the protesters “extreme”? Were they “violent” (i.e. did they shoot anyone in the head, or did they chalk a circle-A onto a wall – both could qualify as “violence”)?

In short, when the supposed “rules of the game” break down (as they often do) who started it? Who was being a ‘peaceful and legitimate’ protester and who was being a ‘thug’?

Now I said this is the easiest perspective to get into, but it’s also the hardest to defend. It’s easy because it simply accepts so much of the framing provided by the rest of society – it accepts the idea that we’re all in this together, with an essentially shared interest, that we all at some level agree on the ‘rules’ of how to resolve disagreements, that those rules are fair and just, that the initial goals of the two sides (police and protesters) are equally valid. None of this is true.

If it is “illegitimate” and “against the rules” for protesters to break windows, or for police to baton-charge pensioners, why is no government policy itself “illegitimate”? Why is it not “illegitimate” – “Taking things too far” – for the government to lock people up without charge or trial because of their immigration status, to fund kings (*spit*), to bomb villages, to grind up billions of animals into body-pulp? Taking things further, why is it not “illegitimate” to use force to maintain a system of property?

Because remember that the illegitimate actions of one group justify actions by the other that would otherwise be themselves “illegitimate”. Self-defense is an obvious example, but more significantly, it’s typically thought that if people are damaging a building, that justifies physical force to stop from the police. But then if any government policies are illegitimate, then that would justify equal physical force to stop them.

In order for this moralistic liberal perspective to make sense, it must be taken as a premise that all the actions of the government, and the threat of physical violence by police that they logically imply as the actions of a government, are “legitimate”, i.e. within the rules. Which makes clear the ludicrousness of the perspective, since it doesn’t define a set of rules, it defines two sets of rules – one for the powerful, one for the powerless.

So this is why I don’t tend to go in for much in the way of ‘outrage’ at police actions. For example, the Climate Camp in the City last evening was made up of about a thousand people, most of them without plans for directly destructive action, some of them children or elderly or disabled or diabetic. Their plan was to set up camp in the street of Bishopsgate, lay down a city of tents, and stay there overnight. There were kitchens, dancing, music, general good-natured celebration.

I had been there and was looking forward to a calm night. But then I popped out to a shop, and when I came back, every entrance to the street was blocked by a double line of police, not letting anyone in or out, and trying to push, stage by stage, into the camp to detain, search, photograph, people, to stamp on their tents, to disrupt the various internal activities.

And predictably, people inside were terrified and confused. Some of them were let out in dribs and drabs, others tried to stay to hold onto the space, and it was only at 2 in the morning, AFAIK, that the whole thing had been dispersed.

Now a lot of people articulated their response a feeling of outraged betrayal – they were, after all, pretty peaceful, just sitting around and camping. The police had decided that they would control the movements of a thousand or two people, dictate to them where they could and couldn’t go, hold them in a confined space and press them together, and, at each of the lines, progressively shove them back en masse, manhandle them if they tried not to be shoved back, etc.

They felt, not without justification, that they had been “playing by the rules”, that they had been “exercising their right to protest”, and that the police hadn’t reciprocated. And part of that is that for many people, of course they are playing by the rules, because otherwise they would be the “thugs”, the “extremists”, the “few who take it too far and ruin it for everyone”, the threatening shadow-figures who are posited as the converse of ‘playing by the rules’. In order to believe in the rules, you must other-ise those who don’t.

But I have little time for outrage. I think it’s useful to express and to talk about as a way of showing that the rules are bullshit. It’s useful as an illustration that there is NO shared community between the powerful and the powerless in which the powerless can articulate themselves and be listened to and treated like respected equals.

But it also carries risks. It’s potentially a satisfying feeling, that outrage. It allows people to aim at, and be satisfied with, ‘moral victories’, in place of actual victories. It fits nicely into ‘doing your bit’ or, even worse, ‘doing something’, into a culture of activism carried out with the focus on activists rather than with a focus on success and effectiveness.

And at the same time, that satisfaction of outrage requires other-ising everyone who’s not satisfied with moral victories -both those who are satisfied with adrenaline and a bit of spirit-raising aggro, and those who are trying to make things change (and of course, the majority who fall somewhere between those extremes). Because anything they do will drag you, the peaceful participant, into collective ‘guilt’ and deprive you of your beloved outrage.

So you’re under pressure to dissociate yourself from them, indeed under pressure to show that you are more ‘friendly’ (if perhaps unreciprocated friendship) with the police than with the ‘troublemakers’.

Sometimes people will do stupid things, dangerous things, pointless things. Sometimes I will disagree with an action but be able to see why I might agree with it. But they are still on my side, and the police aren’t. It would be sectarian madness to reject them.

Of course there are limits – but when the limits are stated it becomes clear how stupid “the rules” of official legitimacy are. Islamist terrorism in the UK, for example, with its indiscriminate killing and maiming – but yesterday, the only people with any involvement in that were politicians. The ALF, to take a good example, are for me pushing towards some of the limits but staying inside them, but for the government and ‘law-abiding’ people they are way out beyond the pale.

Sectarian is perhaps a good word, with the right flavour, both for the peaceful law-abiders who have no time for masked stone-throwers, and for the masked stone-throwers who have no time for the peaceful law-abiders. Becuase it is rather like, for example, people ‘on the left’ who seem to hate the SWP more than they hate Labour or the Tories. Whatever personal feelings people may have, we should know where our loyalties lie.

A reliance on outrage provides a motivation for ‘disloyalty’ of one section of ‘progressive’ people from another. Perhaps that really is the right position to take, but I don’t think so, and I hope that people will not drift implicitly into it, without clearly articulating why they are on one side rather than the other.

2 Responses to “G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 1 – Liberal Moralism”

  1. Reclaiming the City « One Year to Change the World Says:

    […] street” at the impassive policemen, we found an alley behind some shops and got out that way. Walling off a perfectly peaceful protest seemed completely unnecessary to me, and it antagonised the […]

  2. duncan pickstock Says:

    Alderson Warm-Fork , I am a film maker and my work for the last 6 or 7 years has been about belief. I am developing a project on protest and would like to discuss it with you. If you are interested and could get in touch that’d be great…

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