Joseph Evans explores how the dichotomy of ‘peaceful protesters’ versus ‘rioters’ is one of the many divide and rule tactics of the authorities.
“It started as a peaceful protest.” “A few bad actors ruined the atmosphere.” “They hijacked the protest.”
These are all words/phrases commonly found in news coverage and official statements about protests, normally used on one hand to justify a disproportionately violent police response and to condemn it on the other. The same sentiment is often echoed by protesters themselves, though with a crucial shift to putting the responsibility on the authorities rather than the protesters. This isn’t just solidarity for the sake of good optics, it’s a valid response to the divide and rule tactics of the state, which is fundamentally opposed to protests and challenges to its authority.
For a protest to be effective within the bounds of the law, it has to cause enough disruption to publicise opposition to the issue that inspired it, while staying just far enough within the law to make silencing the demonstrators difficult. Too tame and the protest will just be ignored. Too far the other way and the message gets lost amid cries of “riot” – which the police have never been shy of encouraging to shift the focus away from themselves. This is the prevailing wisdom around protests, and you can see why. You can’t really grab your pikes and march on London anymore, because whatever your cause was will be buried under the media coverage of your violent and archaic methods (though in fairness they can’t hang, draw, and quarter you anymore either so swings and roundabouts). This situation is, of course, deliberate, since by forcing protest organisers to be more creative in their methods to cause the required disruption while also evading ever-tightening protest laws, (#killthebill) the act of protest itself is made harder. The harder something is, the fewer people will be willing to do it, and so on.
Alternatively, some people will decide that if achieving their goals is next to impossible within the law, then it’s time to act outside the law. If that’s not something you feel comfortable with then that’s perfectly fine, but for some groups, the luxury of being able to attend a non-violent rally or donate to a cause and then sit back and wait for change just doesn’t exist. Some groups need change now – as Martin Luther King said: a riot is the language of the unheard. A protest within the law can only create awareness and build popular support. This popular support relies on political action to be converted into change and for many of the systemic issues we face such support does not exist. When the government is resolute in opposing all calls for change, and the opposition is too spineless to stand up for racial justice or for climate justice, there is only the prospect of a long campaign to change minds, which for some will take far too long. Protesting outside the law in these cases can get results: the poll tax riots of 1990 were instrumental in demonstrating opposition to the government along with the campaign of mass non-payment, and not only got the tax abandoned but brought down Thatcher’s government with it. In a media environment that often sees more concern for broken glass in shops and property damage than for the health and wellbeing of living beings, it’s easy to conclude that to get the attention of the authorities, you have to smash a few windows.
The response of the state is to attempt to divide the protesters, to pit the “violent thugs” against the peaceful protestors, who often receive the same beatings as those “rioters”. By perpetuating this narrative, the media and observers risk silencing those whose tipping point has been reached. Whether violence is intended or not, the presence of police officers armed and armoured for a fight carries with it the implicit threat of intent to harm the protesters, and being threatened changes how different people will react. Whether the protesters are peaceful or not the authorities respond with violence, and rather than allowing themselves to be held accountable they try to turn their victims and the public against each other.This isn’t to say that protests don’t start out peacefully, or that there’s no value in spreading the narrative that they do – the state makes full use of all the advantages and dirty tricks it possesses when attempting to crush dissent, so the least we can do is retaliate with the tools at our disposal. But when spreading accounts or narratives from a protest action, be careful to keep the blame focussed on the response of the authorities policing it for using violent and intimidatory tactics to escalate the situation. Be wary of condemning the “thugs” and “rioters” without understanding that nobody chooses to risk a beating from a truncheon without deciding that their actions are worth it, and keep in mind that just because you don’t think their actions are justified, doesn’t mean they aren’t. After all, the infamous Peterloo Massacre was originally reported to be the fault of rioting protesters, and the state’s use of horrific violence against them was only widely condemned as disproportionate much later.