Laurie Penny – the artist alternatively known as Penny Red – channels Martin Luther King in justification for late Saturday’s mayhem on the streets of London on the New Statesman blog yesterday. She reminds us of a King quote, oft-used but almost as often misunderstood: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
A cursory glance through old Martin Luther King Jr texts and the fullest context for the quote is quickly found. He explained it most clearly in “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”:
“Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating riots. A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard…
“As long as people are ignored, as long as they are voiceless, as long as they are trampled by the feet of exploitation, there is the danger that they, like little children, will have their emotional outbursts which will break out in violence in the streets.”
So the riots to which he was referring were self-defeating – and throughout the 1960s US cities experienced a variety of these. They were an emotional outburst like those of little children. Of course, any cursory understanding of Martin Luther King’s doctrines of non-violent protest would have provoked some quick research of the context of such a seemingly incongruous quote. Standards have slipped at Oxford it would seem.
The violence was sparked by the police argues Laurie Penny. Apparently, they had the audacity to try to arrest someone whom they suspected of being involved in criminal damage. Well, that’s what police do; they arrest criminal suspects. Terribly inconvenient this rule of law malarkey.
Other (sensible) accounts have questioned the proportionality of the police response and, as always, serious questions do have to be asked about the nature of the response and the tactics deployed. And UK Uncut does claim to have a non-violent ethos. Of course, I am completely sympathetic towards anyone who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or who was wrongfully arrested.
Yet, having turned up to march with a few hundred thousand others, I’m deeply frustrated with UK Uncut. How dare they unilaterally decide to conduct their own protest and divert attention from the main event. Inevitably, media focus would go towards civil disobedience – which is why UK Uncut uses the tactic (for more on the reality of the media – question it though we may – Charlie Beckett’s blog on this is definitely worth a read.) Equally predictably, the fast moving, networked, disobedient fringe is the bit that would attract the violence; an obvious gateway for the anarchists. Even if we accept that there was no violent intent from any members of UK Uncut they selfishly, self-servingly, and naively dragged attention away from the main message of the march.
Laurie Penny refers to the lively, excited, determined many who marched from Embankment to Hyde Park as less ‘involved’ than the direct action groups, entertaining themselves ‘munching houmous in Hyde park and listening to some speeches.’ How insulting. And it’s a serious misjudgment of the New Statesman to allow copy that not only insults the intelligence of its readers but also insults their actions and conviction – many of its readers were on the march. A hasty apology and retraction of that part of the piece would be welcome.
These were people who were there to make their voice heard. They were there to give voice to the sick, the disabled, those in need of care, of education, of community support of all types, who are threatened by cuts agenda. And this is not in any sense the voice of youth versus the rest- that framing is just wrong. There were far more young people on the march than the sit in or the violent put together.
Last week, I wrote about the clash of networks and institutions. Saturday was another example of this. The marchers were there to persuade. They were there to show that they are a rich and representative cross-section of society. They weren’t there to bring down the government (though they’d clearly love it if that happened), to foment revolution, or to smash the state – or Fortnum and Mason. They were there to articulate that there was an alternative, to show strength in peaceful numbers and to build support for that alternative. They believe in the institutions of democracy of which mass protest in one aspect.
Instead, UK Uncut – the fast moving network alternative – thought they knew better. This was not their day and yet they unilaterally decided it should be. They ignored the wishes of the majority and substituted their own agenda instead. In so doing, they turned down the volume on the important message of the day: there is an alternative.
When UK Uncut has returned to its revolutionary meetings in north London pubs, when they have finished riding the wave of publicity, when they have all gone on to secure columns in national newspapers, jobs for lobby firms, or have decided that the struggle is too expensive so a job in the City might suit after all, the people whose voice is never heard will still be silent. This was their day and UK Uncut did the work of the coalition for it in stealing some of their voice.
The group’s retail outlet of protest choice is TopShop. Instant gratification consumerism has a mirror image in instant gratification politics. The dopamine rush of credit card financed prêt-a-porter fashion finds its corollary in the jejune fantasies of the retail activist chic. Meanwhile, those who are really hit hard continue to suffer.
I hope the TUC continues marching. I hope it gives voice to the voiceless in every village, town, and city in the land. UK Uncut owes a lot of apologies. Without trading Martin Luther King quotes – a glib game as we have seen – better instead to respect and understand his legacy. We can overcome. But only if we are wise. A small minority were not only unwise on Saturday. They were downright dumb.