Violence is Our Enemy

And peaceful protesters must be brave enough to stand up to it

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st May 2001

In today’s game of “May Day Monopoly”, most of the press appears to have decided, the boot will land on all the squares. Armed with samurai swords and machetes, supported by Real IRA, bolstered by hordes of asylum seekers, the protesters gathering in some of London’s most famous streets threaten to bring life as we know it to an end. The police have been releasing pictures of the terrifying-looking people whom, they say, have been waiting to pounce upon innocent Londoners since the chaotic protests on May Day last year.

All this, of course, is about as likely as a Tory victory in June. The police are seeking to persuade us that unless they receive extra resources we’ll all be murdered in our beds, while some newspapers appear to be using the threat of minor mayhem as a means of delegitimising all protest, violent or otherwise. But while most of the past week’s reports are absurd, there’s little doubt that some parts of the protest movement have changed.

Four or five years ago, video newsreels such as Undercurrents and Conscious Cinema broadcast heroic images of peaceful campaigners being dragged away and beaten up by police. Today the means of instruction have changed. Crowd Bites Wolf, a commemoration of last September’s protests in Prague, produced by a collective called Guerillavision, celebrates anarchist attacks on police lines, including a firebombing in which a policeman – who had not been issued with fireproof clothing – was severely burnt. Another sequence frames a police helmet as if it were a target in a video game before the helmet is struck by a rock and its occupant collapses.

This is a fetishisation of violence, a sadistic pornography of pain. A few years ago, it would have been furiously dismissed. Today I am sure that the great majority of activists are privately horrified by these images. But they appear to have lost the will to speak out.

It’s not hard to see why. While funny, inclusive, colourful events, organised by women as well as men, still take place all over the country, some of the key planning meetings for the big demonstrations have become dominated by a handful of aggressive and overbearing men. People questioning their plans are dismissed as “reformists” or “middle class wankers”. Inverted snobbery (articulated in some cases by men whose estuary accents come and go as the occasion demands) has become a powerful weapon against competing ideologies.

A few months ago, one of Reclaim the Streets’ most prominent activists arrived at a meeting to discover that he had been branded a heretic. A list of his sins (such as speaking to the media) was read out, then he was excommunicated. When conflicting voices have been driven away and the remaining participants cowed, the organisers claim that they have achieved a consensus built on “direct democracy”.

The result is that non-violent direct action has gradually been displaced by anything-goes direct action. Though the physically and psychologically powerful people who hector the doubters at some of the meetings impose their will on everyone else, they argue that it is undemocratic to decide how the group as a whole should behave. If some people want to be violent, that’s up to them. While nearly all the protesters opposing globalisation, corporations and environmental destruction are peaceful, they — or perhaps I should say we — have become reluctant to demand that our movement abides by the principles of non-violence. We call upon the world to exercise collective responsibility for the state of the planet. Yet we seem unprepared to exercise collective responsibility for the state of our own movement.

The advocates of violence insist that their aggression is insignificant by comparison to the violence of global capitalism. This is true, but it’s hard to see how it could be construed as a justification. I have heard activists condemn the continued bombing of Iraq on the grounds that violence of this kind will only hurt the people it is supposed to protect, then go on to advocate attacking the police as a means of saving the world. If, as they argue, advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is surely doomed to fail.

They, who also maintain that activists shouldn’t talk to the press, now seek to justify violence by insisting that it is the only form of protest the media will report. There is some truth in this, but part of the reason why peaceful protest is seldom covered is that the media now expects to see bloodshed, and judges the newsworthiness of the event accordingly. The cycle blockades, the peaceful actions outside corporate headquarters, the cardboard city being built by homelessness activists on Park Lane, the demos taking place in Swansea, Bristol, Brighton, Birmingham, Dudley, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Glasgow today will all be blotted out of the public consciousness by images of violence.

Even if one were to accept the legitimacy of violence in principle, it must also be clear that it’s seldom the perpetrators of global injustice who get hurt. The only victims of rock throwing and petrol bombing are the police, passers-by and other protesters (after four cans of Special Brew no one seems able to tell the difference). By masking up and refusing to be held accountable for their actions, violent protesters provide cover for any skinhead or agent provocateur who wants either to discredit the movement or use someone else’s demo as an excuse for a ruck.

Violent activists are stealing the political space which peaceful protesters have worked so hard to secure. They are squandering the goodwill we have accumulated, the burgeoning public demand for radical change which will disappear or find another outlet if we cannot mobilise it within the next couple of years. Like the police, they compress our protests both physically and politically, lumping us together with them in the public mind, ensuring that our peaceful actions are broken up with baton charges. Violence is our enemy, yet we refuse to treat it as such.

Confronting violent protest requires far more physical and moral courage than throwing rocks at the police. It means standing up to the bullies who seek to corrall and dominate some of our meetings. It means seeking, as some brave souls have done during international protests, both to remove the sticks and stones from the hands of masked-up class warriors and to stand between them and the police. We’re likely to be harangued and vilified, perhaps even beaten up by both sides. But if we think we’re big enough to stand up to globalisation, we’re surely big enough to stand up to a handful of its opponents.

If violence holds sway, it will deliver the movement into the hands of its enemies. Many protesters have argued that seeking to tackle it would be divisive. But if we can’t divide ourselves from violence, then violence will divide us from society.