The symphonic narrative of a violent demonstration

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The Independent Culture
THE SIGHT of angry mobs, baton charges and burning police vehicles is not what you normally expect to see at Euston station on a Tuesday evening. "That's strange," I thought when I saw the pictures on the news. "That's not how people usually react to the cancellation of the 18.08 to Milton Keynes."

I had been unaware that there was such a strong groundswell of feeling against the WTO. But now I actually feel rather ashamed that I'm not doing anything about the destruction of the planet or increasing poverty in the Third World. I did do one bit of campaigning last year, knocking on doors with a petition. It was successful, too, and residents' parking was introduced soon afterwards. But somehow the overthrow of global capitalism just seems like a slightly bigger fish.

Some commentators have suggested that this week's violence erupted out of an increasing sense of powerlessness in citizens of the undemocratic global economy. There may be some truth in this, but seeing the bloke next to you get his head smashed open by a police truncheon must also be a factor.

I have been on enough marches and protests to know how violence erupts. There is a symphonic narrative to a demonstration. It begins quietly - a gentle stroll with a few light diversions along the way, such as the vision of the statue of a 19th century statesman holding a placard saying, "I'm gay and I'm proud. Abolish clause 28". The symphony enters its second movement as the chanting begins. It is led by someone with a megaphone so distorted that you can't tell what it is you are shouting about. He might well be screaming, "The opposite of `In' is..." and you reply "Out! Out! Out!"

Then the march reaches its destination and its climax. A tense stand- off begins in which a bunch of young blokes wait around to find out what will happen if they shout insults at a line of policeman in full riot gear. The police may well be on the receiving end of the odd improvised light missile, but bits of plywood sticks broken off banners are unlikely to pierce a line of riot shields.

But that is all the provocation that is needed before the order comes down, "Send in the overreaction squad!". These are officers who have spent months training how to overreact to perfectly containable situations. Those who do not act with extreme and unnecessary violence are told they don't make the grade. If they respond to this by tipping up the desk and punching their senior officer in the face, then they are in.

When the police charge demonstrators, anyone is generally fair game. This is the moment when a jolly day out turns into a scene of ugly and upsetting violence. On one demo I remember seeing an old hippie who would clearly never hurt anyone being felled by the truncheon of a policeman in full riot gear.

One moment he is telling everyone to cool it, the next he has blood pouring down the front of his face - he's crying from shock and frustration and you feel an enormous anger that makes you want to hit back at the idiots who could do such a thing to a harmless bloke who just went on a march because he wanted to make the world a better place. With one stupid piece of indiscriminate violence the police manage to turn us all into an angry, spitting mob.

As a rule the genuinely ugly violence on demonstrations is started by the police. According to that well-known anarchist Glenys Kinnock, the awful scenes witnessed in Seattle this week were no exception. A few years back there was an attempt by some German police officers to discover who really starts the trouble and they infiltrated a demo disguised as protesters. They got their answer when they were set upon by several uniformed policemen and beaten senseless. Of course there are always a handful of demonstrators who go looking for violence, but that doesn't mean that anyone has to give it to them.

In this era of reconciliation I am surprised that Tony Blair has not made any effort to bring the police and eco-warriors closer together. Truncheons should not be made from tropical hardwoods but from trees grown in sustainable forests. More effort should be made to recruit officers with big metal studs through their eyebrows. For their part, eco-warriors should spend a month working out in the gym and then be kitted out with black padded uniform and riot shield with extra-long baton. The temptation to whack someone in a clown costume doing circus acts must be quite strong.

But for now it seems depressingly inevitable that these protests will end in violence. On Tuesday night Railtrack was forced to close Euston as pitched battles were fought between police and rioters, vehicles were set alight and the mob wreaked havoc. And then at last the silent majority found that they too had something to be angry about. "Honestly!" they tutted, ``what excuse will Railtrack come up with next?"