In early December I attended a national demonstration in London against the cutting of state funding for higher education. For me, the demonstration was not just about the replacement of state funding with higher student fees. It was also about what I see as an attack on the role of the university within society. This attack involves the partial privatisation of the university system, opening it up to market-oriented competition and allowing for the private enclosure of a public good, while at the same time involving an increasingly draconian administration of higher education by the state. In the process there will probably be a substantial shift in the culture of the university as students are redefined as consumers and the necessarily reciprocal relationship between teachers and learners is distorted into one where students see lecturers as providers of a paid-for service. In this context education will be reframed as a bundle of skills that only have a value in terms of employment after graduation and in terms of ‘value for money’. What will be squeezed out through these changes are conceptions of the university as a space for open-ended imaginative exploration. Such exploration would in part be concerned with thinking about what society might be rather than simply being premised upon an uncritical acceptance of what is. More broadly I understood the demonstration as being in opposition to the general programme of cuts in public spending being pursued by the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. Cuts that are aimed at shrinking and disabling the public sector in the UK and are a further step in the politically driven process of the Neo-Liberalisation of British society that has been underway since the early 1980s. Moreover, for me, this and other demonstrations I have recently attended, are about finding a political voice within a society that has – in line with the general effects of Neo-Liberalism elsewhere – become significantly less democratic.
I travelled from Manchester to London by coach with students from my university and a few other lecturers. We arrived late in London, having been delayed for a number of hours by a road accident on the motorway. The coach dropped us near Trafalgar Square and from there we proceeded towards the Houses of Parliament. People in the group from the coach had been in mobile phone contact with others who were already at the demonstration and we were told that the majority of the demonstrators were in Parliament Square near the Houses of Parliament despite the fact that the demonstration was meant to proceed on to the Victoria Embankment where there was going to be a rally. Looking from Trafalgar Square we could see that one route to Parliament Square along Whitehall and Parliament Street was blocked by lines of police. Consequently we headed towards the river and Victoria Embankment in an effort to outflank the police who were present in the area in large numbers. Retrospectively I discovered that the Metropolitan Police Force had assembled over four thousand officers to police some twenty thousand demonstrators. By travelling alongside the river and then turning right onto the end of Parliament Street we were able to enter Parliament Square, which was full of demonstrators and showed signs of earlier confrontation where temporary barriers erected by the police had been torn down. For me the most striking sight on entering the square was the fortification that the police had constructed along the side facing the river and the Houses of Parliament. This route out of the square extending for about three hundred metres was totally blocked by a deep barrier and lines of riot police. It was clear that the police were determined that no demonstrators would get near to the seat of British governance. This planned response to the demonstration was partly the result of damage to property and scuffles between demonstrators and the police during an earlier demonstration in November when students invaded Somerset House where the Conservative Party had its campaign headquarters. These events were widely covered in the media and represented as highly violent. This media coverage also implied that the police were unprepared and had not done enough to prevent trouble, thus in December they were taking no chances.
This barrier across one side of Parliament Square had also been the site of earlier confrontations between police and demonstrators angry about having their freedom of movement restricted. A chant on many of the anti-cuts demonstrations late last year was ‘Who’s streets? Our streets’. The demonstrations were therefore defined by the determination of the demonstrators that they would not play by the rules imposed by the police and allow their route through urban spaces to be predetermined, or enclosed. In response the police had applied a tactic, standard to their policing of demonstrations since the late 1990s known as ‘kettling’, through which large numbers of police officers are used to temporarily imprison groups of demonstrators in public spaces. In most instances kettling seems to have been a pre-planned strategy on the part of the police, rather than simply a response to the actions of demonstrators. As such this practice can be understood as a strategy for enclosing and deterring public dissent. It can also be seen as a form of incitement through which the enclosure of demonstrators provokes them to react in more confrontational ways, thus fulfilling the expectation on the part of the media that the demonstrating ‘mob’ will express its inherent propensity towards violence and lawlessness.
Once in Parliament Square, I wandered around for a while with another lecturer looking at the police lines and what the demonstrators were doing. The actions of the latter seemed rather disorganised. There seems to have been an earlier collective decision to stop the demonstration and occupy the square, but once the occupation had been established no one knew what to do. Some people lit fires using placards to ward off the cold, while others chanted slogans, or posed for the media who were present in quite large numbers. This kind of activity went on for sometime, before a large group decided to try to leave the square via Victoria Street next to Westminster Abbey, but were quickly blocked by riot police supported by mounted officers. It was during this confrontation that there were a number of injuries amongst both the police and the demonstrators. I saw one demonstrator being attended to by police medics in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. Although this person was conscious, he was clearly incapacitated and was carried away on a stretcher. It was also around this time that an undergraduate student received a brain injury caused by being hit very hard on the head with a truncheon. He later under went emergency surgery.
It was also around this time that the police decided to kettle the demonstration by blocking the remaining exits from the square. Night was falling and the temperature was dropping, and I joined about one thousand people at the now blocked entrance to Parliament Street, where the police were intermittently letting small numbers of demonstrators through their lines. But this process was very slow and people wanted to leave quickly. The crowd began chanting ‘Let us out’ and at one point surged forward breaking the police line. The line was reformed and after about thirty minutes I managed to get through the police onto the Parliament Street, only to find that this was another site of confrontation between demonstrators and a different line of police carrying shields and truncheons. There were also a number of police on horses involved in pushing the demonstrators back towards the square. It was clear that I would not be able to leave this way and was in fact trapped between two groups of police. By now it was fully dark and I witnessed some surreal scenes: a police officer being dragged off by a colleague to prevent him from hitting a female demonstrator; police charging demonstrators who were assembled beneath the Cenotaph national war memorial; demonstrators being pushed back by mounted police while one activist with a megaphone called to the horses to ‘behave decently’ despite the ‘orders’ they were receiving from their masters. Much of this was witnessed while I stood beneath a statue of the World War Two hero Field Marshall Montgomery.
It was while on Parliament Street that I ran into two of my students. We nervously smoked cigarettes while being pushed back by the police. Every now and then we had to run to get away from the mounted police, who were making short charges at the crowd. Finally we ended up amongst some police vans between the police lines. Not far away at the entrance to the square other demonstrators were charging a police shield line using metal barriers that had been installed in the square years before to stop demonstrators from congregating there. The sound of the barriers hitting the shields was frightening and made me fearful that the police in Parliament Street would soon charge in amongst the vehicles so that they could help push back the demonstrators in the square. This fear was justified as a large number of police, masked and in full riot gear, charged at us pushing us up against a wall. They commanded us to move back into the square, but we were stuck and unable to move no matter how much they shouted at us or tried to use their horses to push us along the wall. Our inability to move was recognised by more sensible officers amongst the police and for a while there was a stand off. Then suddenly the police ranks opened and they let us out, presumably because the group I was with was not doing anything and because the police did not like us being on their flank. We walked out along Parliament Street and back to the coaches.
Other demonstrators were not so lucky and as the police lines pushed into the square they were trapped in a decreasing space. The police let many of these demonstrators out one-by-one, but not before photographing them and recording their details. I understand that the rest were finally pushed from the square onto the nearby Westminster Bridge where they were held for hours in the freezing cold. During this time the police lines kept squeezing the remaining demonstrators. Many complained in subsequent days of bruising received in the crush and of difficulties in movement and breathing. Others who were pressed up against the waist high barriers of the bridge testified that they were afraid that they would be pushed into the freezing waters of the Thames below. None of these actions on the part of the police had a clear policing function and I can only interpret them as a form of collective punishment.
Overall what the policing of the demonstration made me think of was Susan Buck-Morss’ notion of the ‘wild zone of arbitrary and violent power’ that lies at the core of all modern sovereign states, even those that are ostensibly democratic. This violent and wild power, that is supralegal and perhaps prelegal in the sense that it is the power that underpins the very establishment of the law in the first place, cannot be democratic (Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2002). It is the violent power of the sovereign that is revealed at points where those seeking greater democracy exceed their allotted places in the established order of things. Seeing the police act in threatening and violent ways towards ordinary people, no matter how peacefully they were behaving, gave me a brief glimpse of what resides in this wild zone and a sense that when it comes to political matters the police are far from being servants of the public good.
I have written on the subject of the wild zone of power before in relation to Israel/Palestine (Simon Faulkner, ‘Land, Landscape and the Wild Zone of Power’, in Einat Manoff, ed., NatureNation, Jerusalem: The Museum on the Seam, 2009, pp. 255-244) in an article that addressed how the occupation of the West Bank has involved the creation of a seemingly permanent territorial wild zone where the civil law that defines life within the internationally recognised borders of Israel does not apply and where even the military law that is used to govern the occupied territories is often suspended through acts of sovereign violence. This kind of longstanding manifestation of the wild zone of power in a specific geographical area is clearly very different and much more serious than the relatively low key and fleeting glimpse I had of the violent potential of the state on the demonstration in London. However the violence of the Israeli state against the Palestinians and the heavy handed policing of demonstrations in the UK can be linked through Buck-Morss’ thinking in that both are manifestations of the need for violence on the part of sovereign power to establish and maintain its regime of control. We might think about this further via Slavoj Zizek’s suggestion in relation to class struggle that ‘the very existence of the state, as an apparatus of class domination, is a fact of violence.’ (Slavoj Zizek, ‘A Permanent Economic Emergency’, New Left Review, 64, July/August 2010) In this sense, what is seen when the wild zone of violent power is made visible for a brief period of time or in a particular territorial area is not so much an anomaly in the normally non-violent workings of the state, but a glimpse of what the state fundamentally is as a protector of private wealth and power, or in the case of Israel, as the maintainer of a regime that divides Israeli Jews from occupied Palestinians in terms of a relationship of domination and colonisation.
The other thing that my experiences on the demonstration made me think about is the British artist Mark Wallinger’s work State Britain that was installed at Tate Britain in 2007. This work involved the replication of the images and slogans that had constituted a forty-metre long protest display established in Parliament Square by the anti-war activist Brian Haw in opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of this display had been seized by the police in 2006 under the 2005 ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ that resulted in the declaration of a one thousand metre diameter exclusion zone around the Houses of Parliament within which it was illegal to demonstrate without prior permission from the police.
Wallinger had taken photographs of Haw’s protest display prior to the police confiscation and it was from these images that the display was reproduced at Tate Britain.
Wallinger also worked out that the perimeter of the exclusion zone ran through Tate Britain and marked out its projected path on the gallery floor in black tape.
This meant that part of Wallinger’s work could be read as constituting an illegal protest, though the fact that the galleries of Tate Britain are within a public building rather than an open public space meant that even if the work was it was highly unlikely that the police would move against it. This meant that the gallery space could function as an alternative site for the presentation of a political protest that had been banned elsewhere, but only because the liminality of the gallery seemed to render it irrelevant to what is conventionally understood as the political. Tate Britain was a space of relative freedom in comparison to other areas of the exclusion zone, but this freedom came at a price. This is why Buck-Morss has observed that ‘artistic “freedom” exists in proportion to the artists’ irrelevance.’ (Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, New York and London: Verso, 2003) Though we should not necessarily conclude from this that the replication of Haw’s protest display as an artwork in Tate Britain had no potential for political effect. The very act of replicating the protest display in a space of high art drew attention to the attempt by the state to delimit dissent elsewhere. By pushing dissent into a space of relative political irrelevance, a different kind of dissent was made manifest: an artistic dissent against the original segregation of political dissent.
The act of censorship that led to the creation of Wallinger’s State Britain and the policing of the demonstration in Parliament Square are both worrying manifestations of the democratic deficit within contemporary Britain. Yet they both point to the ways that the state itself can be provoked and even intimidated into responding in ways that reveal the wild zone of power at its heart. What this means is that dissent continues to have its own power, albeit a much lesser power when compared to that of the state and capital.