It is hard to excuse the police decision to drag Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair or indeed to beat Alfie Meadows on the head with a truncheon. They’re just two of the more high profile victims of last week’s riot. There were other students hurt, and police officers too. I know not enough to pass comment on the precise circumstances regarding Mr McIntyre and Mr Meadows. Perhaps there is an explanation which makes the attacks on them understandable, if not excusable. Probably not.
I will not pass comment on the merits of the arguments over tuition fees. I want to address the actual protests and how they went wrong.
Some of those taking part in the demonstrations were not genuine protesters at all. They may have had common cause with the protesters on the issue of tuition fees, but their main gripes were with the government, the state and the establishment. They were there not to plead a case, but to cause trouble.
Consider some key events in recent weeks: the invasion of Millbank Tower; the shop windows smashed; the assault on the Supreme Court and HM Treasury; the attack on the car of Prince Charles and his wife; the violence directed at police. This is the behaviour of anarchists, not earnest protesters.
In specific cases, where the police have overstepped the mark, they been rightly criticised. They were disorganised and ineffective during the Millbank riot. While they have shown more muscle since then, it is self-evident they have been unable to fully contain the chaos. There is a valid debate over the police tactics (including kettling), but to suggest they were too heavy-handed generally is absurd.
Some of the video in this film by BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason demonstrates how severe some of the protesters’ behaviour was. But he also draws attention to the disparity between the behaviour of the majority of the protesters and the violence on the front line.
Last Thursday’s protest was not supported by the National Union of Students, who had the wit to condemn the violence of an earlier demonstration.
One of the leaders of the recent protest, however, studiously avoided words of condemnation for the worst excesses. Indeed Michael Chessum (of the the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) was hopeful Charles & Camilla were not hurt, simply because that would have caused “a potential media storm”. In effect, he sought to defend the vandalism, while saying nothing about the violence of some protesters.
He is clearly aware of the PR implications of events but shows a distinct lack of empathy for those who watched last Thursday’s riots with horror. By his obfuscation, he has done a disservice to the many peaceful protesters who feel their campaign’s reputation has been sullied by association with the actions of a violent minority.
While it is they; the violent minority; the thugs, who are guilty of hijacking the protest, others have a role to play in maintaining the integrity of their demonstration. There are steps they could take to show they’re not part of a homogenous anarchy.
The most obvious step is to avoid getting “caught up” in the chaos. At the extreme fringe, the violence is organised, but they rely on excitable and impressionable comrades to go with the flow and do likewise. They should maintain self-control. If that means going easy on the beer then it might be worth considering. Take note, Charlie Gilmour!
Condemn the violence:
Secondly, when they witness violence and criminal damage they should condemn it. That should include violence from any quarter unless it is genuinely defensible.
Isolate the thugs:
Finally, in the midst of the demonstration, protesters should consider physically distancing themselves from thugs in their midst. Isolate them; let the police remove them and let the protest continue.
If the front line of the protest is, in effect, a riot, then the second line should step back. Let there be clear open space between the riot and the genuine demonstration. This would allow the police to deal with offenders, while potentially moderating some of the worst excesses. A valuable side effect: it would put innocent protesters (Alfie Meadows, perhaps) beyond the reach of police batons.
On this point, protesters are right to promote their right to demonstrate, but they should recognise the risks they take when they join a mêlée on the front line. If the front line is violent, anyone is at risk. Of course the police have a great responsibility to avoid harming protesters, but in the fog of war it is extremely difficult to get this right 100% of the time.
Like everyone else, the vulnerable must bear some responsibility for their own safety. A disabled protester has every right to join the front line of a protest but he must be circumspect about the risks. Jody McIntyre’s disregard for those risks is calculated. He is more able of body than many realise and his own blog, Life on Wheels, reflects this:
It was an epic mission to the top. Nine floors; eighteen flights of stairs. Two friends carried my wheelchair, and I walked.
(Jody McIntyre, on the Millbank protest, 10 November 2010)
Despite this, of course the police should not have dragged Mr McIntyre from his wheelchair. They are being rightly castigated for this. But the front line of a violent demonstration is a dangerous place to be. While he would appear to be a fool for putting himself in harm’s way, I contend that he well understood the risks.
Mr McIntyre is understandably concerned that media coverage of the violence has overshadowed that of the protesters’ message. But by allowing their demonstration to be hijacked by thugs, he and his fellow protesters must take some responsibility for that.