by Conrad Landin
What if, in spite of what we’re constantly told about violence and vandalism on demonstrations, such action usually does have a political basis?
Is there such a thing, as David Cameron described the events of August, as “criminality, pure and simple”? As Suzanne Moore argued on Wednesday, if the PM was right about the riots, why then, and not before or after?
I would never defend the rioters and the destruction faced by predominantly-working-class communities. But can we look each other in the eyes and truly say that such events are apolitical?
In last week’s Radio 4 play Ancient Greek, this is the charge levelled at sixth-form student Alex King by his geography teacher Mr Ibrahim. Illegible graffiti have appeared; painted in corridors and etched into the deputy head’s car. And the culprit is the studious Alex, about to take up a place to study classics at Cambridge.
Mr Ibrahim isn’t having any of it. There’s no justification, he argues. But more importantly, he can only see it as a moment of madness.
“The first time I did it”, explains Alex, “I didn’t think about what I was saying. I was angry. I had a marker pen and there was a bit of space on the toilet wall. I just wrote a word. Ελευθερία [ancient greek for “freedom”]. It was the same day we got the letter. It was the universities saying that due to this and that they were raising the tuition fees to nine grand a year”.
Those who were quick to distance the riots from politics take heed. Just because the articulation isn’t pure or ideologically-focused, it doesn’t mean there’s no cause.
Oliver Emmanuel’s script is sometimes shaky. And if you listened to the play, well done for surviving the monotonous tones of the opening lines. But playing the disaffected King, who is frustrated at the failure of conventional protest, Alex Austin is superbly natural in a rather far-fetched educational situation for a working-class 18-year-old.
Almost exactly a year ago, on the eve of the vote on tuition fees, I co-organised and took part in a 24-hour sit in of school premises. Ancient Greek was vivid for me, because I too have had much of Mr Ibrahim’s critique of protest levelled at me.
The argument usually goes that whatever your motives, nothing can negate from the destructiveness of what you’re doing. When this is smashing up shops or damaging the car of someone entirely innocent, fair enough. But in the BBC play the panic aroused in Mr Ibrahim was greater than anything we’d heard in relation to the graffiti, when the rest of the sixth-form are found to be standing in lines, completely still, in the playground after hours.
This is the sort of action, like our sit-in, that really can articulate the voice of the voiceless. Our sit-in led the news bulletins that evening on both BBC and ITN, and a friend of mine was invited into the Channel 4 studio to debate the fee rise live with Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb.
Yet I remember one teacher – who I like and very much respect – snapping in anger when a friend gave an optimistic justification of our peaceful occupation: “If you genuinely think that, then you’re more politically naïve than I thought”.
Before the night was out, we had the head in the hall. “There are other methods of protest”, she said calmly, “which we encourage you to take up”. What were her suggestions? Lo and behold, the old favourite of writing to MPs.
“I even tried writing to Nick Clegg”, says Alex in the play, rather sconfully. “What did I get? Nothing”.
You might not get something concrete out of stunts or direct action either. But there’s a real tendency on the left to dismiss protests which defy the norms of parliamentary democracy and A to B marches. But they’re effective, and most importantly, there’s usually something serious behind them, even if this isn’t presented articulately.
Alex scribbles in ancient Greek, it would seem, to make the point that it is the articulation of anger, and not coherence, that matters. Coming up with policy is the job of political parties. If they don’t respond to anger, we’ll see a lot more of it.
Conrad Landin blogs here.