Containment

No one who was there will forget it. In the sway and passage of argument over precisely what Parliament Square signified, however, our memories may become too easily slicked, too triumphalist, or too despairing, mindful only of the brutality or of the rage and unexpected solidarity of that day. Journalists scuttled frantically to divine its significance, corseting it uncomfortably into narratives about a generation in revolt, a repoliticisation of youth, the emergence of a new politics; six months later, it is still hard to know where the balance of truth lies, but it is harder still not to think that the events of that day serve as a barometer and paradigm for interactions between dissenters and those in power. That is to say that several salient features – the kettle, the anger, the collective action, the scrabble to frame the meaning of action in the media – serve as predictors that set a tone that resonates when we are now thinking about what to do next.

The kettle is the most obvious sign of containment, and debate about it has been the foremost feature of discussion about the re-emergence of protest in Britain. Most of this has recognised the aptness of the figure, a ‘kettle’ being something which brings water to the boil, thus laying the blame for the exacerbation of anger at the feet of the police. They themselves prefer the evacuated, securitised language of ‘containment’ and ‘dispersal’; this language itself casts the police in their preferred role as protecters of a precarious order, which at all times threatens to tip over into mere chaos.

I have argued before that the language of containment, of ‘sterile zones’ and pre-emptive action, is sustained by an overarching biological metaphor, in which the police are glossed as the white blood cells, and in which dissent is seen as disease or sickness, a mark of uncleanliness. Hence, in the long corridor of jeering police through which one finally exited Westminster Bridge, the sotto voce remarks about hygiene; hence on the internet, anonymous policemen fantasise about violently eradicating a disease of the body politic. So much, so obvious.

But containment is not limited to the fragile ecology of delusion that sustains police officers when they are beating protesters’ heads in: it characterises, too, the subsequent state responses to protest, it structures our anxieties and our fears. It is not only the act of violence that contains us, but the sense (obvious to anyone who has been on a protest recently) that police recourse to violence is only ever temporarily suspended, and hangs over all interactions between us.

In practice, this means that we have seen the emergence of a psychic kettling, a repressive technique at its most effective when it imposes on us a psychic and political containment for fear of what might happen if we step outside of proscribed boundaries. Of course, this was at its most obvious when the frantic desire to avoid the kettle at all costs neutered demonstrations, but it is also at work when we don’t step on to the street for fear of what might happen, when we retreat into anonymity for fear of persecution for speaking out, when we mute our demands, when we give up.

In the first flushes of action it can be easy to misread adrenaline-fuelled defiance for lasting political change, but there is something substantively different about the way protesters are reacting to the diktats of route stewards and the police. It is not so much that people are breaking police lines, or refusing the ritualistic bumble into obscurity that defines much political protest, so much as the end of a culture of deference towards the state and its mechanisms that stunts so much of our political life. This is not novel: that politicians are motivated by self-interest and a good line in platitudinous heartstring-tugging has been the silent conviction of most people for a long time; it is with weary relief that we can shrug off the pantomime of pretending otherwise. The talismanic phrase of the Cameron government – ‘we are all in this together’ – will hopefully be carved on its tombstone as a symbol of their flagrant complicity and culpability. But most telling about that phrase is what it unintentionally admits about who the we is for Cameron: in the wake of the Murdoch phone-hacking crisis, we see that this ‘we’ extends from senior journalists and editors to judges and politicians, businessmen and PR people, television presenters, from Paul Stephenson’s nestling comfortably into the arms of News International, to the braying cabinet of millionaires, to Miliband’s robotic public cowardice and slinking off to laugh and jest with those lower than vermin while thousands were out on strike. Yes, we know who the ‘we’ is.

'LOL, complicity.'

There is some anxiety on the liberal left about the wholesale rejection of the narrow ambit of Westminster, which paints dissenters as rabid nihilists bent on destruction, or politically illiterate youth who should channel their energies in the proper setting, five years down the line. Many on the left fringes of the Labour Party are willing to talk now about a ‘crisis of representation’ – that despite the apotropaic brandishing of John McDonnell, Westminster is heaving with rot and corruption. The most astonishing part of Gordon Brown’s attack on the Murdoch empire was his willingness to lay aside the code of omertà that protects the civil service from any imputation that they might be less than neutral arbiters and functionaries. That is harder to deal with than simply saying MPs are often venal and careerist, because it suggests that the structural corruption goes very much deeper than the personal choices of political representatives. Indeed, what thematises the distrust of political representatives, placating union bureaucrats and the laughable notion of policing ‘by consent’ is not a crisis of appropriate and accurate representation, but the suggestion that the structure of representation is itself the crisis.

That to one side, the decline in deference is to me the great locus of hope. Much as the most moronic of commentators want to call radicals ‘nihilists’, the reality is that such a refusal is an uncompromising recognition that we can do far better, that we do, when organising among ourselves, practice a politics struggling to engender a far better world; it is hard not to find the frantic assertions of authority in the face of such refusal amusing and absurd. Such lack of deference irritates those in power immensely. In the video below we see precisely how true that is:

Here’s the obvious absurdity of someone arrested simply for talking to a police officer and pointing out the absurdity and extremity of their position. It is worth watching carefully. Like all conversations with the police, it has about it the fraught air of the Damoclean sword, which might at any time drop. The language, most of all, is what interests me. The initial joke being made is an attempt to recognise that despite the grim expressions and body armour, a policeman is in fact in no way superior to anyone else, and is making a tidy sum through arresting protesters arbitrarily. Like many jokes, it relies on the incongruity between the pompous gravity of the officers and the reality of the situation, as such it’s doubly infuriating because not only is the protester not sitting meekly and nodding at authority, but actively pointing out how ridiculous it is. That is one way language can work. The police response, however, conceptualises language in an entirely different way; for the policeman, language is not a mutually-communicative medium, but a series of protocols by which he can enforce behaviour. In distinction to the joke, which makes common humanity the basis for pointing out his absurdity, the policeman’s delineation of the performative function of his speech underscores the incommensurability of their positions: he is using his language to distinguish, separate and contain the person he’s speaking with. More than that, though, he seeks to remind his audience that at any time he retains a linguistic code that allows him to force you to the ground and drag you to the cells, that the moment the sword drops remains entirely in his hands. But attend to the anxiety and confusion of the performance: such reaffirmation of power is jerky, anxious, and unable to escape its own bleak ridiculousness.

Of course, such anti-deferential jests are merely a small subset of responses to police containment. Far more ire has been reserved in the comment pages for the specific act of ‘kettling kids’; in a sense this propagandistic metonymy has become the touchstone of the establishment objection to containment, as well as setting the stage for a wide range of tendentious and romantic generalisations about the youth. Yes, certainly the political outpouring can be seen as surprising if you were lazy enough to believe that teenagers had somehow become apolitical and feckless, and certainly many of the most militant and angry were both young and poor, but it’s important not to elide the range of ages and backgrounds inside the containment line that day, and far more important not to make dissent the domain of ‘the kids’.

This is why the temptation to leap on the challenge to kettling in the European court needs to be understood more widely. I hope that the challenge succeeds; I hope that they throw a spanner into public order policing for the Met. I think it is probably good strategy. But there is also a reason for us to resist talking about ‘the kids’ as the ethical object of police action: as someone who respects the ability of under-18s to think and engage in politics, I want to put them on a continuum with the rest of the dissenters, rather than locate them in a special other category. Arbitrary detention, collective punishment and indiscriminate violence on the part of the police affect all of us, and to oppose them because the category of ‘the kid’ is morally exceptional is to give them the ammunition to harass, chase down, persecute and imprison those who are less blessed with the imprimatur of public morality.

The category of ‘The Child’ is invested with a particular political morality and weight, one which means it is frequently bandied in speech by politicians to signify a deferred communal gratification, a sleight-of-hand that argues for temporary strictures so that ‘our children’ can have a better-functioning world when they grow up. That in itself is not so objectionable a desire, though it concedes too readily that change is only possible at some displaced point in the future rather than now; as we know, ‘temporary’ measures are a cloak for permanent change. The destruction of public services, the privatisation of provision, the importation of market forces to every zone of life are not temporary measures. They are permanent and unalterable. For this to be true, then, we must view children in a certain way – blameless, naïve, in need of protection from the depredations of the world. There are contexts in which that is true, but in making them the category by which the propriety of kettling is judged concedes many other things as well: that it might be justified if it were applied to people lacking that moral status, but also that the political demands expressed are a function of that status, that they are in turn unrealistic, utopian, impossible to meet. As Adam Castle points out in the linked article, a disengagement from the issues is the most ludicrous thing you could level at those inside the kettle.

There is a peculiar piety involved in talking about ‘kettled kids’ that ill befits a proper engagement with what was really happening inside the kettle – as is equally true when talking about UKUncut or the black bloc on March 26th. Arguing that police response is excessive because protest is peaceful, or because it involves bringing state violence, arrest and harassment to bear on ‘good’ people depoliticises the action and the police response to it; it suggests that the police argument that they exist to ‘facilitate’ protest is on some level true and their actions have merely gone awry somewhere along the way. A more forceful critique is needed – one that recognises that there is no base state in which dissent is comfortable unless it has been facilitated into total uselessness.

This issue is urgent, because we are now seeing the prosecutions of those arrested for the diffuse charge of ‘violent disorder’ as well as the remaining cases from Fortnum & Mason’s coming to court. That the political utility of these sentences in marking very clearly that dissenting political action will be punished harshly is not dependent on the moral standing of the individual should be apparent. It is not a matter of ‘political’ policing or sentencing: the focus of the police and CPS is always political, in that it seeks to engender particular political conditions, and lets slide the variously formal criminal acts taking place in the City of London and the corridors of power. The purpose and function of these sentences do not depend on whether the individual was a good or bad person, and to be drawn into such a discussion is to miss the crucial point, which is that they are the conclusion of the logic of containment: they contain individuals in prison as a symbol to the rest of the movement. If you struggle, we will contain you, we will blacken your name, and we will fragment you until you can do nothing.

How to struggle against this? It is hard not to get a low, sick feeling in the gut when faced with the seeming ineluctable power of the courts, the bizarre theatre of what seem already predetermined decisions, the asymmetries of power. It is hard to avoid the temptation to fade out, to avoid the harsh hand of the law, to have no opinion which might bring the vigilant eye of the state to bear on you. It is harder still to avoid the silent compromises and concessions we make by not speaking out, or to face the morass of manufactured newspaper opinion and internet bile. It is hard, too, to sustain oneself purely by anger, and not feel it winnowing away at the bonds of affection and trust so vital to being able to continue the fight.

Such suffocating containment is precisely what they desire for us, it is why collective action is so obscene to them; they want us to despair at what looks impassable. In the past year, I have met dozens of people distinguished by their passion and sincerity, some of whom are now facing prison sentences on the flimsiest of pretenses. How do we struggle against this? Perhaps one thing we might do is put away the hesitancy to speak strongly and in public to people not already on our side, to engage deliberately with the media – there are any number of remarkably acute thinkers in the anti-austerity movement, and we must have the courage to speak out more forcefully. A hesitancy to act or to speak in public or through media is understandable when committed to democratic and non-coercive means of organising; it would be cretinous to believe that the corporate media want to do anything other than sell papers, but for all that’s true, let’s see if we can’t push a little more out there than there is currently.

The battle is not purely discursive, either. It’s crucial to avoid, also, the ritualistic repetition of demonstrations without purpose, operating under a logic of registration of dissent, that if somehow the right number of voices were raised, we would change things. We know that power loves nothing more than a good demonstration, an opportunity to fawn magnanimously over the reanimated corpse of democratic participation, as we trudge zombie-like into futility. The ‘left’, too, is hardly without stain: the lure of self-ennobling failure, in which we struggled with purity but tragically lost, is seductive for all that it promises about affirming one’s worth as a person. We must be uncompromising with those nominally on our side who cheer and jeer when someone they dislike is hounded by the media and the courts for taking political action; we must come to understand how vital it is that we defend those victimised by the courts, deprived of their liberty, that we do not sit licking our wounds – in short, we must break the kettle.