‘The revolution is in the mind.’ Those words were scrawled in wobbly spray-paint on Nelson’s Column on March 26, at the end of a day that saw half a million union members and outraged citizens march against government spending cuts in central London. The plan, cooked up by students and activist groups and advertised benignly on Facebook, was to have a picnic party and ‘Turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square,’ as if some sympathetic magic could summon the regime-toppling energy of the Egyptian uprising to these soggy shores. What it turned into instead was a bloody mess.
As dusk fell, 200 police in full riot armor descended on the picnic without warning, cracking heads, breaking limbs and penning hundreds of young protesters in the biting cold for hours, with no water, no shelter and no way out. This is a form of collective punishment known colloquially as “kettling.” Its use at the London G-20 protests in 2009 was recently ruled illegal in a landmark decision by the high court.
The same dangerous police tactics were employed in London last winter at the student protests that saw hundreds of thousands gather in London to challenge a prohibitive rise in college fees and the privatization of the British university system. School children and students carried placards that asked, “Where’s my future?” Instead of getting an answer, they were subjected to a vengeful model of “public order” policing that has radicalized this generation with breathtaking speed.
Or take the royal wedding. On this day a quarter of a billion people watched Britain deliver what it does best: an exquisitely choreographed pageant of power, privilege and continuity. The wedding was a fantasy of faded imperial glory, a fairytale image of how we want the world to see the United Kingdom and how we would like to see ourselves. What far fewer people saw was how thoroughly and how violently that image was edited before its release to exclude all dissent, airbrushed to conceal anything beyond fawning, flag-waving deference.
The night before the wedding, activists were dragged out of their homes all over the country and arrested for unspecified crimes they had no intention of committing. Squats and community centers were raided and protesters were seized on the streets in an operation, foreshadowed in the tabloid press, to “preemptively arrest” radical elements using the wedding as an excuse. In central London, ten young people were cuffed and arrested outside a railway station simply for holding a placard saying “democracy now.”
A climate of fear has been drummed into being. Young protesters are now routinely the subject of public witch-hunts: 20-year-old student activist Alfie Meadows, who was beaten so badly by police on December 9 that he was left comatose and bleeding into his brain, has now been charged with violent disorder for his actions that day. This has become a propaganda war, as Parliament and the police attempt to wrest back control of the narrative by portraying every peaceful dissident as a violent hooligan.
The word “kettle” conjures the terribly English image of a nice, calming cup of tea. In fact, it’s a deeply traumatic form of collective punishment. Imagine: you came out with your friends to exercise your right to peaceful protest, but you find yourself trapped behind walls of armed police. The cops move forward in waves, bellowing in your face, raising their batons, crushing you into a smaller and smaller space with thousands of others. You can’t breathe or move; you start to panic. Young protesters, terrified and enraged, begin to throw themselves at the police, which is precisely what the police are waiting for.
They start to beat into the crowd with shields and sticks. You are surrounded by screaming, bloodied teenagers, and you try to protect yourself, but there’s nowhere to go. At first, you are incensed, appalled, but then the cold sets in, and you realize that until everyone calms down and shuts the fuck up, you’re not going to be allowed to escape. There’s a lesson about compliance that the police are extremely keen for you to learn.
After a few hours, you’re freezing and tired and hungry, and you’ve seen some frightening things. You need the toilet desperately. You’re prepared to say anything to get out, to get home. Your phone has run out of battery, so you’re cut off from the outside world, and you’re worried about your friends, your family. When you do eventually stumble through the police lines, your legs like blocks of cold wood, exhausted and seething with bitten-back rage, the policeman insists on taking your name and photograph before you can go. When you get home, you find the news reporting that the police took reasonable measures to control a violent riot.
Kettling is a perfect psychological metaphor for the tensions being played out in Britain today. It seals off dissidents and enforces compliance by beating them back if they try to break through, provoking panicked protesters into self-defense, showing the outside world a picture of a “violent minority” – the phrase is consistently used by the British press – making trouble, a picture taken from outside the police lines. It’s what activist journalist Dan Hancox calls “strategic brutality and unabashed doublethink.” It’s the cognitive dissonance that allowed the London Metropolitan police to crush thousands of people in treacherous subzero temperatures on Westminster Bridge in December while claiming that it was all for their own protection.
One year ago, the British left looked longingly across the channel to Europe, where ordinary people were actually putting up a fight. It seemed impossible that Britain, the briefcase-clutching auditor of supply-side economics, could ever hope to muster similar public dissent to the global austerity consensus our leaders helped broker. But now, we’ve already seen Metropolitan police on horseback charging thousands of rioting teenagers at the gates of Parliament. We’ve seen mass arrests for civil disobedience, hundreds of thousands on the streets in protest, and the birth of a smart, popular counterculture that seeks to contaminate the brand structure of casino capitalism. It began in November, when student protesters demonstrating against the privatization of higher education deviated from the march route and smashed up the headquarters of the party in government. It has now become a national movement, led by young people organizing nonhierarchically. It can happen anywhere if it can happen in Britain.
So can a revolution happen here, just like it happened in Egypt? Well, do you want the simple answer or the subtle answer? The simple answer is: no, of course it can’t. Even though the oppression taking place in the UK is grounded in the same transfer of wealth to the global rich from the global poor, Britain is a different sort of country from Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, and if a cultural shift of anything approaching a similar magnitude is to take place on these shores, it will look very different from the cinematic revolutionary spectacle of Tahrir Square.
Because we have not had to wrestle with 30 years of military dictatorship, Britain is a far more sophisticated example of neoliberal statecraft. Power is dispersed between the government and business elites, and extensive state surveillance is employed to keep unruly elements in check, with police violence employed only as a last resort. Meanwhile the British government, desperate to downplay its history of support for Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, makes a point of ramming home the differences between the uprisings taking place in the Middle East and the protests taking place closer to home.
With the collusion of the tabloid press in Britain, the Libyan rebels in particular are drawn as heroic freedom fighters resisting an evil dictator, bravely aided by British Tommies who almost never end up slaughtering civilians by mistake. Protesters in London, meanwhile, are a “violent minority” of anarchist hooligans whose demands for economic and social justice are thuggish and absurd. Social injustice, we are told, is something alien, something that happens elsewhere, in mysterious foreign lands, and definitely not in your own country, in your own neighborhood, on your own street. You may be angry that your government has just closed your local library, made your spouse redundant, reduced your salary, kicked you out of your home and privatized the college system so your children will never be able to afford university, but David Cameron is not Gaddafi.
In Tripoli, dissent is gunned down. In Trafalgar Square, dissent is merely stifled, sealed off from the outside world and clubbed into temporary submission. A “sterile area” (the official police term for a kettle) is created wherever protesters gather in numbers, as if resistance and protest were an infection in the body politic to be cauterized by police violence.
This is psychological kettling as done by the government and business elites: rule by manufacturing public consent, by creating an illusion of need and then by branding themselves as the ones to meet it. This brand of power is contaminated by protest, and as popular resistance has escalated in Britain over the past six months, that brand contamination has become more and more effective. It’s no accident that UK Uncut, the direct action group most effective at damaging the brand image of major banks and whose flash protests against corporate tax avoidance have attracted supporters of all ages and political affiliations, was specifically targeted for mass arrest. Last month, during a peaceful protest, 148 key members were rounded up and taken away in handcuffs, ordered to strip to their underwear and held in the cells without food or human contact for many hours.
So, can it happen here? Are you ready for the subtle answer? It comes through like a whisper, half drowned out by the crash and squeal of cargo-cult patriotism and smothered by right-wing tabloid tub-thumping, but if you listen, it’s there. The answer is: of course it can happen … it has happened before.
For as long as rich, powerful men have hoarded the wealth and power and enclosed the land in this country, the people of Britain have fought back, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, sometimes autonomously and sometimes with the backing of organized labor. The history of Britain isn’t just a history of kings and queens: it’s also a history of practical and psychological revolution, of ordinary people fighting for their right to suffrage and survival. It’s a history that can be traced from the miners’ strikes and poll tax riots of the 1980s right back through the suffragettes, the Chartists, the Peterloo protests, the diggers and levellers of the English civil war and the peasants’ revolt in the 14th century. The British people have always fought the rich and powerful in their efforts to contain and silence dissent. And every time that resistance has been crushed, those ideas have lived on until the day their realization becomes inevitable. If we can fight the war of ideas and win, on this atomized, atrophied little postimperial island kingdom, anyone can.
Even today, UK activists have developed a sophisticated free smartphone system that allows protesters to anticipate and escape police kettles. The app was cooked up by a team of students and IT professionals calling themselves Sukey, and it has proved incredibly effective. Wherever the police attempt to sterilize dissent, protesters can and will reinfect; wherever a kettle forms, in the streets of London or in the political psyche of the nation, activists can and will learn how to break it.
In the early months of 2011, on bus hoardings and billboards across London, and then across the country, a specific set of stickers began to appear, plastering the paid promotional space of casino capitalism. Apathy is Violent, said one; Cuts don’t Cure, said another, covering the airbrushed face of a model promoting a new perfume. These stickers, created and distributed among students, activists and schoolchildren, have become a secret code, a reminder that the imagery of power can and should be – and is being – questioned, a reminder that despite the savage police crackdown on known dissidents, there is hope. There is always hope.
As I walked home tonight, I spotted a sticker slapped across a hoarding congratulating the Royal Couple, small but perfectly legible. Destroy their hallucinations with our desires, it said. Resist. Strike. Occupy.Laurie Penny, 24, is a columnist for the New Statesman and author of Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism.