I want to riot!
Why is everyone obsessed with rioting these days? Will Hamilton dodges police batons to try and find out.
I was excited at the prospect of going to the Occupy London Protests on Wednesday. After weeks of hearing about the hostility between police and protesters I was keen to see for myself what was happening and, potentially, throw a few rabbit punches if the mood struck.
Several professors in the Politics Department had arranged a trip to the Occupy London Camp next to St Paul’s Cathedral, in order to gather research for a Europe-wide study into protests. As luck would have it we were visiting the site on the same day that the London Student Protests were marching in London. This turned out to be one of the most underwhelming days in my life.
The day started with promise, after leaving the tube I saw that several out-of-London police constabularies had brought vans packed with riot gear. I’m not sure why but as we walked down Cheapside they were changing into the aforementioned gear outside of the vans. Whether intentionally or not it was an intimidating sight, especially as the nearby clock tower began to toll for midday.
Upon reaching the site my apprehensions started to manifest. The media had always given the impression of a huge and imposing camp which dominated the whole of St Paul’s. However, it turned out to be less than 500 tents just dropped on the concrete. A food tent and makeshift library gave the whole affair more of a festival feel, as opposed to the den of anarchy I’d expected.
Soon, though, I was seized by a shortish man in a combat jacket and with no teeth. He thrust a card into my hand which informed me of my rights (should I be arrested) and gave the numbers of local solicitors. Now this was more like it!
Shortly after the police (now dressed and scary) marched through the square and stood like centurions to block access to the nearby Paternoster Square. I tried to survey a couple of protesters in V for Vendetta masks on the steps to the church but they looked panic stricken and told me to get out of here before ‘it all kicks off’.
Not one, but two police helicopters soon arrived and hovered menacingly above the square. I was just waiting for something, anything to ignite this powder-keg. I looked to the cathedral and saw the most incredible thing, a kid playing with a slinky on the cathedral steps.
It was at this point that the revelation occurred. It was almost as if someone had removed a lens through which I was viewing the situation but now that I was through the looking glass, it was most disheartening.
The bloke handing out the solicitor cards wasn’t some informed guardian of the protesters. He was simply a nutcase handing out cards which, I’m pretty sure, didn’t have any useful information on them at all. Similarly, the guys with the masks on the steps in the V masks were shouting down a bullhorn to a devout following of four, whilst the rest of the crowd looked on with pity. As it turned out these guys weren’t even part of the demonstration and the actual organizers announced this from the actual stage shortly afterwards.
The police sat around disinterestedly with their helmets off and their shields by their sides. There were 4 vans parked around the corner with dozing PCs who would periodically sub in. The helicopters, as it turned out, were tracking the much bigger student protest and suddenly I became very annoyed that taxpayers’ money was being spent on two unnecessary helicopters.
Where was all the violence I’d read about?! I’d come here expecting Tienanmen Square but had wound up in mini-Woodstock. This led me to ask the question I now put to you, why do we like rioting?
At this point you might furiously argue that you don’t like riots and, if true, fantastic but someone must like them. Why would the media have focused so heavily on the anti-cuts riots this year if we didn’t want to read about them? Why has so much rioting occurred this year, as fallout from the Arab Spring? Why do we romanticize protests so much?
I could easily attribute this situation to a minority of individuals who make rioting their business. These were the people on the steps and in the masks who looked increasingly insane as the day wore on. They screamed that violence was imminent; no it isn’t now go home.
We could just as easily shift the blame to the media. As I write I’m looking at an article about the clashes between police and rioters on Wednesday, but from everything I saw there were no clashes. The political protest, for most people, remained a political protest. So why did the media decide to sensationalize this event? Perhaps they are more excited by the prospect of violence than any of us?
Also, are the police really blameless in this? They marched past twice on horse-back (and these were big horses!) and they came in full riot gear. In the morning there was definitely an intention to intimidate which I can’t really see was necessary. Maybe rioters are simply responding to the aggression of the police at these events?
So there you have it: professional anarchists, over-excited police and sensationalizing media. Who’s to blame?
I would like to end by saying that, although I was excited by the idea of a little rioting, I think that we should make the effort as a society to condemn it. It should be the worst possible consequence of a political demonstration and it undermines the efforts of hundreds of people with a clear protest strategy and a clear political goal. I can only hope that, next time, those who don’t share this goal will take the V for Vendetta masks off and go home.