Laurie Penny has become the object of much self-righteous outrage for her account of last Saturday’s march in London in the New Statesman. So far her article has generated 482 comments. These numbers are unusual for a Staggers piece, but the tone is not. Many comments dismiss Penny’s description of a police overreaction in Trafalgar Square as ‘fiction’ – though how they know this is not clear, since these commentators offer no evidence to refute her claims and do not appear to have even been there.
In another Staggers article Mehdi Hassan compares the supposedly frivolous and irresponsible protests of Penny and the ‘thugs’ who threw paint at Oxford Street shops/staged sit-ins at Fortnum and Masson, with responsible marchers like himself ‘who really want to change things.’
Elsewhere on Twitter David Aaronovitch, ex-Stalinist and stalwart defender of the working man, accuses Penny of demonstrating a ‘contemptuous’ attitude toward the TUC. A snide article in The First Post sums up what it claims to be the prevailing consensus amongst mainstream journalists in describing her an ‘adventurist who doesn’t put enough distance between herself and the stories she covers’ .
This is something that presumably could never be said of fearless and independent journalists such as the BBC’s Ben Brown, whose credulous acceptance of the police version of last year’s demonstrations was such that he found himself ludicrously accusing a wheelchair-bound demonstrator of using his wheelchair as a weapon. In an article inLabour List, Anthony Painter accuses Penny and her cohorts of hijacking Saturday’s protest and demands ‘apologies’ from UK Uncut.
The pompous indignation heaped on Penny from Labour supporters and establishment leftist is not a pretty sight. She is a fresh, vibrant and angry voice from a new generation which is beginning to show a radical fervour that has been conspicuously absent from British politics in many years. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some establishment leftists feel challenged and even threatened by this.
I was on the march and saw the aftermath of the paintthrowing episodes in Oxford Street and Fortnum & Mason. It is obvious that people who go on marches dressed in black and wearing masks and balaclavas are not going to listen to Ed Miliband’s tepid rhetoric, and there is no doubt that some of the anarchos that I saw in Oxford Street on Saturday had their own agenda and that some were undoubtedly looking for a confrontation with the police.
Nevertheless these incidents were on a very small scale compared with the tens of thousands who marched without even being aware of them – a scale that needless to say was not reflected in the apocalypse now imagery in many newspapers.
The vitriol heaped on Penny & co assumes that dignified, orderly and peaceful marches will always have an inherent moral and political impact on society. But as the much larger anti-Iraq war march once demonstrated, this is not the case. Governments take little account of such protests in taking crucial decisions, no matter how large and peaceful. Marches and demonstrations are often more important as inspirational and galvanising events for those who participate in them than they are as instruments of political transformation.
The media invariably focuses more on violence than peaceful protests, even when the former only involves a small minority, as it did on Saturday. Numerous demonstrations and protests have shown that politicians and the media rarely include even the most brutal actions of the police in their conception of ‘violence’ – a tendency that was reflected in the coverage of Saturday’s march.
So did the paintbombs in Oxford Street contribute anything positive to a broader anti-cuts agenda? Probably not. Were such tactics counterproductive? Undoubtedly, since the government, police and media hawks will almost certainly use this episode as another justification to curtail the right to protest and broaden police powers to act against future demonstrations. But as long as ‘legitimate’ protest continues to be ineffectual and ritualistic – there will be those who challenge the boundaries and seek confrontations in the belief that the revolution is just a riot away.
Such expectations may be naive and wrong-headed. But the anger of the ‘responsible’ centre-left would be better directed against the staggering injustice of the Coalition’s cuts agenda than against a writer-activist like Penny and the generation of protesters that she represents, who are perfectly entitled to seek something more from the future than another Labour government – even if they are not quite clear yet what that alternative is.