Condemning the 'mindless violence' of anti-capitalist protesters lets everybody off the hook - protesters and authorities alike.
After a weekend of anti-capitalist violence in Genoa, UK prime minister Tony Blair is worried about the state of the world.
‘The world has gone mad’, he said, contrasting the miles of media coverage given to the rioting with that given to the G8 leaders’ discussions. He then claimed that criticising the Italian authorities for being heavy-handed with the protesters was ‘to turn the world upside down’. Really?
In truth, it is Tony’s and the G8 leaders’ sense that everything is out of control and must be reined in that fuels the protests. The more the G8 leaders exercise a siege mentality – preparing for the worst and holing themselves up behind barriers and fences – the more they create a…well, siege mentality.
In Gothenburg in June 2001 European Union leaders met behind police-protected barbed-wire fencing – this time round they went a step further and met in Genoa’s Ducal Palace in a no-go zone heavily policed by Italian cops in riot gear. With all this embattled self-isolation it is hardly surprising that protesters came prepared for battle – and got it.
The clashes came to a head when 23-year-old protester Carlo Giuliani was shot dead, before his dead body was driven over by a riot van, on 20 July 2001 – a death condemned by just about everybody except the G8 leaders and co. But how can the police get away with such violence? One reason is the way that any protester who dares to chuck a stone or petrol bomb is denounced as being part of a ‘hardcore violent minority’ that gets what it deserves – even by some of the anti-capitalist protesters themselves.
‘Some of the obstacles to the protesters’ freedom of expression come from the movement itself, or more precisely from the violent factions inside it’, said trendy anti-globalist Noreena Hertz in an article headlined ‘Do I look like an anarchist?’, next to a photo of her posing as a harmless blonde chick. Hertz condemned violent groups, ‘who have no problem hogging the spotlight, even if that means that the voices of the many may remain unheard’ (1) – while UK charity Oxfam condemned violent protesters as ‘unrepresentative’ (2).
But what is more likely to legitimise the authorities’ heavy-handed actions than the idea that there is a core of isolated, unrepresentative, violent troublemakers who even other protesters want nothing to do with?
The trouble post-Genoa is that everybody is talking about the violence – who was to blame and what can be done to stop it happening next time. But condemning ‘mindless disorder’ avoids tackling the politics of the protests, and asking the more crucial question of what these protests are actually about.
Since the ‘carnival against capitalism’ in Seattle in November 1999, anti-capitalists have been staging ‘events’ around the world that look more like rock festivals – Glastonburies with petrol bombs – than political protests. And each time, the authorities have responded in the same way – condemning the violence while gearing themselves up for further violence at future summits as if preparing for mini-wars. The end result is that anti-capitalist protests are likely to go on and on, following a familiar pattern, without ever really being questioned.
On one side you have anti-capitalist protesters who never spell out what they’re fighting for but who know that they don’t like capitalism very much. (One protester said that on the ‘anti-capitalist train’ to Genoa, it was agreed that the protesters would ‘try to break down the fence. But we weren’t sure what we would do next’.) On the other side you have G8 and European authorities so scared of losing control that they clamp down on the protests with no sense of proportion. And as everybody rushes to condemn the violence, nobody debates the politics behind the protests.
Maybe what we need is less repression of direct action, and more discussion of the dire ideas behind it.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
The Genoa Tales by Dominic Standish
Direct action and dire ideas by Mick Hume
(1) London Evening Standard, 19 July 2001
(2) UK Independent, 20 July 2001
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