All entries for Wednesday 22 April 2009

April 22, 2009

Choosing our Words Carefully

Ok, sorry this is so close to the deadline. I went to a bbq and got a bit drunk and forgot! Argh. If it doesn't quite follow, that's why. I hope it vaguely makes sense. Right: (word count, 659)

A lot of attention has been paid to the quality of policing at the G20 protests of April 1st-2nd. At first the footage of Ian Tomlinson falling over, as if having been hit, later the footage of the violent action itself, disseminated into the public consciousness. As other accounts and retrospectives in this zine will no doubt attest, the behaviour of the police was poor, and a result of more than just a few ‘rotten apples’. As time goes by more and more questions are being asked of their actions, and rightly so. Furthermore, we can only hope that the public consciousness will begin to think about the sort of society that justifies the brutality witnessed, and reject it as undesirable.

A lot of the rationale behind kettling, the deployment of riot squads, and the way the mainstream media chose to portray the protests is couched in psychology. The weapon of choice is selective, and ideologically loaded, language, with the aim of manipulating both the public response, and the self-assessment of those involved in the protests.

It is important to take a couple of minutes just to think about how our use of language can really close down debate, make entirely contingent events seem inevitable, and help policy absolve itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is no secret that words hold immense power. One of the most encouraging stories I have heard come out of the Israel/Palestine conflict in recent years is the existence of a linguistically apolitical radio station, which refuses to use terms such as ‘suicide bomber’, because of how they prime the listener to respond in a certain way, and close down any inquisitive mental response. We are predisposed towards a certain emotional reaction that is not conducive to constructive dialogue. The same is exactly true with the issue of the G20’s policing.

Whilst I don’t want to suggest that using words like ‘brutality’, ‘authoritarian’ and the like are inaccurate when describing the policing of April 1st, they remain hugely loaded ideologically. A lot of what I saw being done to protesters was quite upsetting, but it is too easy to fall into an unhelpful, and frankly stale dichotomy between ‘fascist pigs’ on the one hand, and ‘naive hippies’ or ‘violent anarchists’ on the other. As we all know, the word ‘anarchist’ has been loaded with negative –not to mention inaccurate- connotations by the mainstream media and our political leaders. It is used to denote directionless, obstinate violence. Even worse, people on the moderate left have been sucked into using this word -and politicised tool- in opposition to themselves; the aim being to legitimise their own standpoint. Of course, this attempts to make illegitimate a wholly legitimate ideology, because it serves the interests of the police, and those in the political system to do so.

The same is entirely true of how we consider the police. Even without resorting to words like ‘the pigs’, ‘brutality’ or ‘fascist’, we are in danger of closing down useful discussion by using blanket terms. Surely it is most helpful to facilitate inclusive dialogue about how best to resolve inappropriate police behaviour, rather than alienate sections of society by referring to such behaviour as perpetrated ‘by the police’. There were at least a few police at the protests who clearly sympathised with us, and thought the act of kettling wasn’t fair or appropriate. By making sweeping accusations of brutality, which may apply to many, even the majority, we alienate those officers not culpable of such an offence, and predispose them to stand as a united front with those against whom the accusation does legitimately stand.

The solution is to be specific, and use words intelligently. It does nothing to dilute the communication of our collective anger by using less ideologically charged, and more specific terms. I think it does quite the opposite, in fact. Our message can only be more powerful if it engages others in discussion, rather than shutting intelligent discussion down before we have even finished speaking.

title undecided

When the police first moved in, the mood changed dramatically as they began to crush a couple of our tents and anything lying in their way. There was a moment of panic and a split-second defining decision of whether we would pack up and clear out or try and resist. After a few seconds of scrambling and fear, we managed to all sit down and begun to sing. It was of the strangest situations I had ever been in. Suddenly we were surrounded by cameras and press, hoping to catch footage of police attacking a group of young peaceful protestors, but all we could do was sing. By this point the one song we’d got down was ‘It’s all you love (Money is all you love)’, a rewording of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ by the Beatles, and we sung this on loop for what felt like forever. It felt as if the only thing that was stopping the police from trampling our tents and disbanding the camp was our incessant singing. Once our throats were raw from the Beatles we moved on to ‘The Green Sustainables’ (also known as ‘The Bare Necessities’) which not only helped calm us down but got people around us to join in. Singing along to the jungle book whilst bordered by a line of threatening-looking riot police just seems to epitomize the ridiculousness of the situation. We were a group of twenty or so young students with colourful make up and fun accessories exercising our right to protest through the medium of song and street theatre, and yet we seemed to pose a big enough threat to merit being kettled by police wearing full riot gear.

Throughout the evening, a few officers began to interact with us, whilst others looked onwards, uncomfortable at the situation. They were tired and wanted to go home, we wanted to make a point against carbon trading and call upon the G20 leaders to take climate change seriously. But once we had become accustomed to the situation, a couple of them seemed to want to engage with us as if we were just a group of people who happened to be sitting by them. However whatever interaction took place between us ceased immediately as soon as an order was given which travelled down the line. Visors went down and straightaway the officers who had previously been joking about wanting to leave and find out the football results became a single force with no rationality or personality. This was one of the scariest things, for they could not be reasoned with, and if they were determined to clear us out, I have no doubt they would have done so.

Much of the footage from that day shows a few seconds of us singing which seems to characterise the carnivalesque and harmless atmosphere that was climate camp before the police decided to go from keeping an eye out for trouble to becoming aggressively threatening. However, what I’ll remember from it will be the four hours where we were sat singing, hearing poems and handing out food, trying to keep our morale up whilst faced with a line of riot police who seemed intent on clamping down on our right to protest.

G20 as I saw it

12pm: I met the Warwick group at Trafalgar Square, dressed ready for the beautifully sunny day. There had been a sense of excitement in the morning armed with flowers and exchanging jokes with fellow protesters or well wishers on the tube.

12:30pm: Having got lost trying to find Climate Camp, myself and three others found ourselves outside the Bank kettle. We snuck under a policemen’s arm and were immersed in what felt like a festival with live music, massive banners and swapping of literature.

2pm: We had moved down with the crowd outside RBS. A drummer was leading chants such as ‘whose streets? Our streets!’ when the police moved in. At this point the window of RBS was smashed, not by black clad anarchists, but by ‘normal’ protesters.

3pm: We started to chalk the walls of the bank of England with messages such as ‘fuck capitalism’ and ‘anarchy is love’, then broke the police line to escape with about 100 other people.

4pm: At Climate camp I met up with the group, who showed us around. It had been organised brilliantly with a recycling point, bike powered music and kids playing hopscotch. I heard about an anarchist squat so went to investigate. On the way I found a group who had forced a Tesco to shut by superglueing their hands to the door and invited us to do the same to the opposite Starbucks. The people at the squat were welcoming and offered us a bed for the night and their phone numbers in case we got into trouble. Unfortunately these people were later arrested when the police stormed it that night. On our way back to Climate Camp we walked passed Bank where the second police line had been moved so far back that it was impossible to see what was happening inside but two injured protester told me that the police had charge with horses and dogs.

6?pm: At Climate camp the police had just kettled the protesters in and were pushing them back smashing up tents and bicycles as they moved, to the shouts of ‘shame on you’. The protesters on either side of the police peacefully sat down and sang whatever came into our heads like ‘the wheels on the bus’. The police tried to move us back so we could not see what they were doing in Climate Camp and when we refused, pulled and kicked us till we were cleared. Finally at 11pm we heard that the police were allowing people out on the other side so walked round to meet up with our friends who had been cadged in.

My day which had started off which such hope for change, with so many people from all over the country calling for the same revolution, had been ruined due to one thing; the disgusting and immoral tactics used by the police during the day. But this does not mean we shouldn’t try again, it just gives us more reason to try harder.

Izzy's Climate Camp notes


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