Monday, February 23, 2009

Can Police Quell Protests By The People?

Warnings of a 'summer of rage' from police chiefs as the recession bites hard, is a highly significant Guardian front page splash, now featuring on US Drudge website. But readers of the Orange Party blog can be forgiven for a sense of deja vu. Those warnings of 'a looming threat of the English mob' were sounded here on Saturday. 

The Met's public order chief Supt David Hartshorn, flagged up the threats: "Obviously the downturn in the economy, unemployment, repossessions, changes that. Suddenly there is the opportunity for people to mass protest."

Those views certainly chime with those of the Orange Party reported here on Saturday but then by implying such protests would be whipped up by political agitators ignores the root cause of the protests in the first place.

The Guardian reports the Met's concern that "known activists" were planning returns to the streets: "Those people would be good at motivating people, but they haven't had the 'foot soldiers' to actually carry out (protests)."

Any mass protest attracts unsavoury elements from the far right neo Nazis and far left Trots, always keen to ride on the back of a protest and pick a fight with the riot police but the danger comes when troublemakers are blamed for the protests which come from a ground swell of public anger and frustration. 

Raising the spectre of a loony right or left upsurge masks the true threat to stability which always rears its head at times of economic hardship.

Recent protest in Dublin on Saturday and the refinery workers BJ4BW protests show these are not politically agitated protests. It is civil unrest from ordinary folk.

At the refineries and power stations, protests came from workers worried about jobs and making ends meet. The usual nasty suspects who crawled out of the woodwork were swiftly sent packing. 

In Dublin more than 100,000 took to the streets. Sure they united behind traditional trade union banners, the workers' slogans were loud and clear but the protesters were just decent people. More than a fifth of the population of Dublin cannot all be rampant raging loonies. 

The threat to stability comes from the traditional lurking menace - the English mob. - a groundswell of public anger and frustration which turns into street protest. People who are basically pissed off with the "fag-end of government in collapse" and out of touch with reality. 

Mass protests are on the cards and the Guardian is right to give this prominence, as working and middle class groups could well unite behind a whole raft of protests, campaigns and issues. This should be a wake up call to the government. 

But to start to point the finger at a few loonies is a very naive analysis. A public mood and peaceful protest can so easily turn to civil disorder but so often it's a heavy handed reaction of the political police backed up by a huge arsenal of riot control measures which is the root cause.

The sabre-drawn cavalry charge ordered with savage brutality at Manchester's Peterloo massacre(1819) left 18 dead and over 700 seriously injured when a peaceful crowd of around 60,000 people gathered to listen to anti-poverty and pro-democracy speakers. But that couldn't happen in these liberal enlightened times could it? 

Many still remember the Battle of Orgreave (1984) as nothing short of a full blown attack on the miners, including this journalist who was sent to cover it.  A short-shield riot police and cavalry baton charge through an infantry wall long-shield phalanx against people worried about jobs, is well-rehearsed and well in place. 

But both were contained in tightly controlled 'battlefields'. The issue for public order police now is how to react and how far to go when a genuine and heartfelt protest comes from an 'English mob' which takes to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

Elsewhere in  Europe large-scale protests have erupted as the hardship of the recession starts to bite, with banks and governments the targets for protesters. Those protests could indeed happen here. 

April's G20 London summit could well kick start a series of protests. It is absolutely right for the State to have on hand measures to control any violence which erupts and threatens lives and property. 

The police have a duty to maintain public order but there's a fine line to be drawn. That fine line is between peaceful protest and overbearing measures to quell public unrest, when such civil unrest comes from the very people who make up the wide and varied mix which is the State. 

Today any outburst of public anger and frustration is not so clearly polarised as in the past and that would make it far more difficult to control mass protests, as a long winter of discontent turns into a summer of rage.  

Pictures: Peterloo Massacre 1819, Battle of Orgreave 1984

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