The "National Iconography of Riot"

The recent student protests in the U.K. over education fees seem to have kicked off a debate that I think has been bubbling for a while, at least since the elections earlier this year and the absolute farce of a government that resulted. As the protests turned violent, with a small group of students and their supporters breaking into the Conservative party headquarters opinion became divided, with some people praising the 'direct action' and others condemning it. The interesting thing for me is that while I expected condemnation from the government and the official Union spokespeople, there were murmers of support from within the education industry, specifically Goldsmiths College's University and College Union. Now I am all for peaceful protest, but as we saw in 2003 when thousands and thousands marched through the center of London (and other cities) to protest the invasion of Iraq, peaceful protest doesn't always get the government's attention. Are we seeing a return to the energy and activism that Britain saw in the Thatcher years and that carried over into such things as the Poll Tax riots and the Reclaim the Streets movement?

Britain has a long history of mass protest, of mobs and grassroots activism, indeed, of violence and revolution. We may not have the defining moments that the French, the Russians or the Americans have (check your English Civil War history and the restoration of the Monarchy for a typically English approach to rebellion), but there has always been a sense that the everyday person has a right to protest the government and make their opinion felt in a very public way.

It will be very interesting to see if these student protests become a catalyst for the public expression of dissatisfaction with the Tory led coalition government. In particular, I wonder if the Liberal Democrat members of Parliament will join these protests from their benches in the House of Commons.

Of course, the protests were not all violent and were in fact mostly peaceful, but what the media has picked up on is the sensational side of the story. This is the photo that seems to have been most widely used to illustrate the day.

Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

On the Guardian website I read an interesting - if pompously worded - article examining this particular image. If you can get past the language, Johnathan Jones makes some pertinent observations on why this image was used, and how it fits into the cultural context.

I'll be in the U.K. in December and am looking forward to some armchair revolutionary discussions in the Pub with my non student tax paying friends on how things are. I'm a bit old and a bit past my 'building occupation' days. Besides, it'll be cold and I'll have the kids with me and as a final excuse; my wife would kill me if I got arrested. So I think the limit of my protest will be a grumble to the landlord about the price of a pint. I definitely won't be doing anything as stupid as throwing fire extinguishers into large crowds off of tall buildings..

This is more my revolutionary pace these days..

Photograph: Richard Jones


Ciara said...

have you seen this image Tom?
interesting, I think.

Tom White said...

Thanks Ciara. Indeed. It's the standard "Kick in the window for the cameras" protest shot. It happens at every demonstration that 'turns violent'!

Media manipulation in full effect...