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Catching History: Vigils, Riots and the Right to Protest

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 According to the Sri Lankan-British intellectual, A. Sivanandan: ‘Resistance has a timelag, and that is because we have never been able to come to terms with the history we have made, in order to catch history on the wing and resist at that particular moment in time in a way that could bring about social change.’ Sivanandan’s observation here recalls Walter Benjamin’s insistence that history does not proceed in an orderly fashion through empty homogenous time. Rather, the present is ‘shot through with chips of Messianic time.’ In other words, anything could happen. This sense of possibility is what gives protest its glittering edge, it’s what draws us out onto the street, and it’s why seeing city streets sing with crowds puts fear into the heart of the ruling elite. It’s why the Tories want to ban protest.

A week ago, barely anyone had heard of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill. Resistance was largely concentrated in lobbying from civil liberties groups and online petitions, with little in the way of public awareness of the impending possibility of a radical extension of punitive and repressive state power. The opposition were to be whipped to abstain, and it seemed likely enough that this power grab from citizen to state might be passed with little outcry. By the time of the vote on the bill’s second reading in Parliament on Tuesday, however, there were thousands on the streets attempting to ‘Kill the Bill’. A young, broad, and militant coalition had rapidly mobilised on the streets of London and across the UK, emboldened rather than chastened by the bill passing to committee stage. Finally, after a year of lockdown, we caught a glimpse of a movement aiming to challenge the Tory government’s authoritarian agenda. 

The immediate origins of these protests, and ostensibly the driving motivation of the bill itself, can be found in last summer’s Black Lives Matter mobilisations. The protests erupted into streets muted by the pandemic, not only by lockdown but by the widespread experience of grief, unmoored from the usual modes of mourning and from the relief and comfort of being with others. The assassination of George Floyd galvanized people, not least because it was captured on video in its brutal entirety, making the intense, sadistic violence of policing distressingly clear. The protests were militant, youthful, and spontaneous. They swept the country — demonstrations were held in small villages with few, if any, black residents, as well as in big cities with an established culture of protest. The mood was of joy as well as of fury. Seen alongside Starmer’s refusal to oppose, or even criticise, the government’s murderous mismanagement of the public health crisis, it was abundantly clear that any opposition capable of taking on this government would be young, street-based, self-organized, and digitally networked. 

That few of these protests were called by established left organizations, we might think of as both a strength and limitation. Although established anarchist and antiracist organisations stepped up to offer legal support to the protestors, they had been unable to anticipate or respond to the political demands of the moment. As Vijay Prashad notes in these times of spontaneous, popular uprising: the left’s role is not to lead but to hold up the movement. Unfortunately, however, the relative absence of organisations capable of channelling this energy into more sustained forms of action allowed for the focus on state violence to be diffused by a hostile and cynical media into a general discussion of race. Institutions, from universities to the army, responded to this briefly ubiquitous conversation about racism with the false promise of diversity schemes, corporate inclusion, media representation and funding. 

Sivanandan warns us of the dangers of letting these institutional solutions obscure the origins of change in militant struggle:

But, the changes have come, they have added up. You don’t think that the black petty bourgeoisie that we have in this country today pulled itself up by its own boot straps right? They rose on the backs of the kids who burned down the cities. Even I wouldn’t be able to have a job if those kids didn’t do things in Brixton and Wandsworth and Moss Side and Liverpool. That doesn’t mean that that is the way forward, because we need to have constructive creative ways of changing society.

While the BLM protests differ from the more riotous forms of civil unrest to which Sivanandan refers here, the same dynamic is certainly visible in the proliferation of the diversity industry, with its army of well-paid consultants, project managers, and motivational speakers. 

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Like last summer’s protests, the vigil for Sarah Everard was not called by an established organization – not by the unions, not by a feminist organization, not by campaigners against police brutality – but by a small group of women, mostly comprising Labour councillors, and inheritors of New Labour’s liberal identity politics. They quickly assembled under the banner Reclaim These Streets. Unlike the youthful militants of the summer, however, this group made no attempt to actually reclaim the streets. When the Metropolitan Police refused to give permission for the vigil, they called it off. Instead, they worked through the roll call of liberal lobbying tactics: churning out press releases, making media appearances, and raising money for what they termed ‘women’s causes’ – the public face of the diversity industry’s institutional reforms.

Even after the violent scenes on Clapham Common, Reclaim These Streets pursued a pro-policing position, refusing to call for Cressida Dick’s resignation, as they did not wish to contribute to a ‘pile on’ of a successful woman in a field dominated by men. This unwillingness to challenge capricious, even vindictive, forms of state power is typical of liberal political formations. For while liberalism claims freedom of speech and assembly, democracy, and universalism as its fundamental principles, in practice, liberalism is most consistently defined by its close attachment to the status quo, its deference to authority, and its discomfort with disruption or disturbance. While liberals might view themselves and their institutions as a bulwark against authoritarianism, they consistently act as its handmaiden. If liberalism in the UK is a bulwark against anything, it is a militant and effective left movement.

In the wake of what many saw as an unforgivable political dereliction on the part of Reclaim The Streets, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut stepped into the breach. No doubt, even without Sisters Uncut’s willingness to spearhead the vigil, many would have turned out, unwilling to be herded back into their homes under the guise of safety. Sisters Uncut, who have organised several mass public actions over the years, including a 2015 ‘funeral for domestic violence services’ cut under austerity, foresaw that once an act of mourning is banned by the state, it becomes a form of political dissent, regardless of the initial intention. In the aftermath of the vigil, this analysis allowed people to connect gendered state violence and the Bill’s repressive intent, while Reclaim The Streets retreated into empty gestures.

 For many of those who spent their summer on the streets, an analysis of police brutality served as the beginning of their political analysis. But many others came to Clapham Common that evening with a firm, perhaps unconscious, sense that the police were a force for sense and order. The experience of being on the Common as night fell and the police invaded the bandstand, manhandling young women and making snatch arrests, will have disabused many of this notion. Many more will have watched these scenes play out on social media, and have had a similar experience of reorientation, all the more poignant in light of the countless stories of harassment that had spilled across the same screens a few days before. The connections between patriarchy, policing, and the failures of representational politics were coming into focus, just as the connections between police brutality and histories of empire and slavery were crystallized in the public imagination last summer. 

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The past week has recalled another historical moment: the protests against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This bill – which ultimately passed – was a precursor to the one we’re fighting now. It was aimed at stopping raves and protests, and attacked the rights of Gypsy and Traveller communities, as well as expanding stop and search. In response, a broad and dynamic coalition came together of ravers, trade unionists, anti-racists, civil liberties campaigners, squatters, and others who felt enraged or alienated by life under Tory rule. As Asad Rehman notes, thousands protested and partied together, forging connections that would fertilize the next generation of dissent. The return of roving protests this week recalled these massive demonstrations in ’94, and there are tactics to be sourced in these histories and put to work in the present.

 For many of the young people who took to the streets in June for the first time, protest is second nature: they know to share legal information and travel together, they come masked and prepared for the long haul, out on the streets long past nightfall. Black-led youth groups have formed, statues have fallen, and the institutional diversity initiatives are quickly revealing themselves as a distraction. Many are waking up to the cold reality of authoritarian rule, and its inevitable entrenchment of racist and sexist violence. Perhaps most importantly, many are realising their own power, and seeing that it lies out in the streets, sometimes dormant or forgotten, but always enacting its own pull, demanding we come to terms with our history and seize the moment while we can. 

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Sita Balani is a writer and teacher. In her research and teaching, she explores the relationship between imperialism and identity in contemporary Britain. She is co-author of Empire's Endgame: Racism and the British State (Pluto Press, 2021). Her work has appeared in Vice, Feminist Review, Novara Media, Open Democracy, Tribune, and The White Review.