Saturday, 29 January 2011

some quick thoughts on today's demo in London (29/1/2011)

The protest march against tuition fees & spending cuts held today (Sat 29th Jan) in London passed off peacefully without any major incidents that I am aware of. I was interviewed earlier in the week in Parliament square by an independent media company, and one of the questions I was asked was whether I thought there would be disorder on today's demo. My answer at the time (which I worried may have come accross as me sitting on the fence) was that it depended entirely on how the event was policed. I feel that the lack of collective disorder today has supported that view, because the Police tactics today were noticeably different from those employed at the previous 3 anti-fees demos held last November-December.

There was much less of a visible Police presence accompanying the march, and while there clearly were still a lot of officers deployed, they stayed much more in the background, protecting strategic targets, and not deployed in protective riot gear. Indeed, the only protective gear I saw all day, was where some officers who were deployed in front of Parliament had riot helmets attached to their belts but were not wearing them. There were a few places where they set up defensive lines (such as in front of Millbank & the Egyptian embassy), but I saw no attempts by protestors to force their way past. Generally speaking I feel that the demo was a very well-natured one, and this was facilitated by what appeared to be a more sensible approach to managing the crowd by the Police.

I think all this shows that collective disorder when groups of people come together to protest is not inevitable, and crowd management strategies that start off from the premise that there is a likelihood of disorder, risk becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. Furthermore, the idea that if disorder occurs, it is because a protest has been 'hijacked' by naughty extremists, is a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence. On today's demo there was a diverse range of protestors including those that some in the media like to label as 'extremists', but their presence did not incite others into disorder, and more importantly why should it? This argument only seems to make sense if one accepts the notion that crowd members are inherently gullible and uncritical of what goes on around them, and if others start behaving in more militant ways, then they will do so as well. However, this is again a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence and only serves to perpetuate the idelogical and reactionary views of crowds that are held by many. Hopefully, greater examination of events like today and comparisons with situations where there has been collective disorder will help counter such views    

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