If you were making the case for the right to protest, it couldn’t have had a worse ending: a police van on fire, two women filmed squatting to piss at the feet of riot cops, a man arrested for allegedly carrying a homemade spear, and 40 injuries suffered by officers. What had started in Bristol as a peaceful rally against the crime and policing bill ended as a riot outside Bridewell Police Station, then spilled into days of disorder.
If you were Priti Patel, of course, this was, if not exactly a desirable ending, certainly a helpful illustration of what the Policing and Crime Bill can claim to be defending the public from. Of course the right to protest is a sacrosanct part of an open democracy, she said; but not this thuggishness, not this criminality, not this violence. Whoever argues against the bill now — and there are serious arguments to be made — will have to make their case against the image of a police van blazing in the night while protesters cheered the destruction.
But while you can make a cynical argument that the scenes in Bristol serve Patel’s more authoritarian interests, you can’t accuse her of having willed them into being. There was violence in Bristol because some people came out wanting violence, and they got it. Protests attract a kind of hanger-on who don’t truly care about the politics, but love a ruck. They don’t usually have anything as ostentatious as a homemade spear to give themselves away, but they’re always there, a shadow of aggro trailing every left-wing demonstration.
Violence is exciting. That crackle in the air, the surge of adrenaline: it feels good. The pure purpose in making a weapon of yourself. The very few times I’ve successfully faced down a physical confrontation (and being five-foot-one and female, it’s not exactly something I’ve gone looking for) it’s always left me shaken but elated. Staying on my feet when muggers tried to snatch my handbag, or shouting something sarcastic at masked anti-feminists who’d turned out to disrupt a talk I was giving then scampering to safety — those are things I remember with a shiver of pleasure as well as fear.
So I suppose I can understand a little of what drives the troublemaking element. I can understand, too, why some people are so infatuated with violence that they look for ways to justify it. Someone broadly supportive of the Bristol protests has two options when it comes to the subsequent riots: you can defend the principle of dissent while deploring the bad actors, which sounds mealy-mouthed and prissy even if it is right; or you could go big and argue that not only is the violence justified, but it actually further demonstrates the justice of the cause.
It’s that latter approach that you’ll find on the far-Left of British politics. After the 2011 riots, there was an impulse to weave the looting and destruction into a story about the deep suffering in British society: if people were compelled to act so outrageously, went the reasoning, they must have something powerful to be outraged by. One of the more bizarre examples of this was the claim that, because most of those arrested in the riots were men, they must have been revolting against the “feminisation” of the economy — as though it isn’t always men who commit most of the violent crime.
In the same spirit, this week saw hard-Left outlet the Canary claiming that: “The people who besieged Bridewell Police station were fighting against state violence and authoritarianism, standing up for freedom and for the oppressed.” In this circular logic, the fact of the riots proves that the riots were legitimate: the violence of the rioters is evidence that they were reacting to the violence of the state.
Sisters Uncut complained that “the media drew a contrast between a moral majority and a small number of violent protesters”, and then set themselves resolutely on the side of the rioters: “The stigmatisation of protesters is a tactic of division that we won’t stand for. It is a fearful response by a state that thrives on division and scarcity.” Meanwhile, Novara hosted a discussion about the “utility of riots”: perhaps this had been counterproductive in the short term, it was mused, but would go on to drive a wider movement.
It’s always easier to see the “utility” in the violent actions of someone you suspect might be on your side, of course. None of these outlets were offering apologias for the Capitol rioters in Washington at the beginning of the year: the violence then was not obvious evidence of a populace confronting a state’s oppressive force, but of entitlement and delusion. Instead, the Bristol riots were blessed with comparison to the Poll Tax riots, the prime example of explicable political resistance expressed as destructive impulse.
The point here is not that the Left is uniquely enamoured of its own aggression, but that the hard Left is labouring under a specific kind of hypocrisy — a hypocrisy that allows people to claim to be against violence while at the same time celebrating, relishing and instrumentalising it. It is a recipe for bad faith. It means never having to ask the question “is this violence politically justified?”, because you’ve always already decided that any violence is really the responsibility of the “other side”; and if the other side hasn’t committed anything close to actual violence, you can always upgrade words or even beliefs to the status of “symbolic violence”.
Whatever “your side” does is vindicated in advance, so long as you can make it part of your preferred story. The stories can be flexible here, because they have little to do with principle: the only principle is the pleasure of destruction, the longing to warm your politics in the glow of arson.
As for the people who actually have to live in the wreckage, well, they hardly count: after the 2011 riots, the Left fostered a particular strand of contempt for local residents who went out to tidy their own streets. (“Symbolic cleansing”, one blogger called it, as though the proper Left-wing thing to do was pick your way through broken glass in your neighbourhood indefinitely.)
The ecstasy of violence in Bridewell will probably have ensured support for the Policing and Crime Bill, but the point of the riots was clearly never to persuade parliament. The point of the riots was the riots themselves, the pleasure of destruction, the joy of the flames, the satisfying crunch of a body against another body. The point of the riots was to claim violence, and the point of those defending them is to turn that violence to their own ends.