The student protests I witnessed yesterday afternoon in Westminster looked nothing like the “riots” broadcast through the evening and splashed, in incomprehensible narrative, across London’s papers today. Once again, the bias toward the drama of conflict had the effect of distorting reality.
That said, I’m really sorry I missed the “assault” on the royal Rolls-Royce. What honest member of the common people wouldn’t feel some pleasure in Prince Charles’ slack-jawed bafflement? And to see it first-hand—ah, it’d be an I-was-there-story to beat them all.
Even though yesterday’s Parliamentary vote over new tuition fees went against the students, the photographic evidence, such as it is, should count as a victory for the protesters.
It’s doubtful that Camilla’s look of genuine shock will prompt a pro-aristocracy backlash. Welcome to the Great Recession, royals! We’re all that scared, all the time.
In any event, to the tape!
In which you can clearly see the Rolls being escorted by police among a small crowd of screaming people.
This bit of rowdiness now eclipses the bigger story. Here, the bigger story is the piece-by-piece dismantlement of the welfare state, with its promise of education for all, that inspired these protests in the first place.
And yet here’s PM David Cameron’s response:
“It is shocking and regrettable that the car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was caught up and attacked in the violence.
“It is clear that a minority of protesters came determined to provoke violence. The police have responded with courage and professionalism, and deserve the gratitude of the public.”
The PM is right that the “violent” protesters were in the minority. Even the Sun, in its fervor (amid claiming that Camilla was “hit in the ribs”—through her car door?) is forced to disclaim: “The car was kicked, rocked and hit with paint bombs as up to 20 demonstrators attacked it and chanted ‘Off with their heads!’ and ‘Tory scum’.” Up to 20, you say? And yet the photographs and videos, suspiciously, show no such “attack.”
What’s more, Cameron’s not quite right about the police showing “courage.” Embarrassed by their impotent showing at the last big student protest, the police this time adopted crowd-control tactics that served to empower the most violent members of the pack. The expansive police corral—or kettle, as everyone calls it here—physically forced anyone who might’ve hoped to participate in a peaceful protest to join ranks with the masked-and-hoodied “yobs” who showed up to fight.
The corral is the most efficient tool police have to discourage a demonstration from getting any bigger. It certainly discouraged me. Rather than look for trouble, I retreated to the pub.
The corral also has the effect of exhausting and agitating anyone stuck inside. Think about it: What would you do if you found yourself trapped and facing a yellow line of armored riot police, while pressed into suffocating proximity with thousands of strangers, for hours on end, uncertain whether you’d be leaving freely, or in handcuffs? What if the police horses charged into your friends? You might hurl a stick, too. You, too, might feel tempted to put your greasy handprint (the horror!) on the Prince and Duchess’ shiny, chauffered limousine as it rolled along toward the theater.
Also? When will America’s millennials do something so interesting?
I don’t want to give the yobs too much credit, here. Arson is just arson, whether it occurred or not. Nor do I want to be too hard on London’s constabulary force, whose typical polite professionalism serves to make American cops deserve every unflattering stereotype. The crowd-control tactics in Westminster were positively tame compared to those practiced, under the direct supervision of the mayor, at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, where anyone could get arrested for looking the wrong way at some beefed-up prick carrying a riot shield and a club.
As it happens, I actually went to two protests in London this week.
The other took place on Tuesday, outside the Westminster magistrate court, where a judge was ordering Julian Assange to jail. For all the media attention and Anonymous online support Wikileaks has been getting lately, the pro-Assange flash mob amounted to maybe one dozen warm bodies.
Score one for Malcom Gladwell, whose claim that the revolution will not be Tweeted turns out to have some merit.
Corey Pein is an American journalist living in London. Take that, Brooklyn. His latest project is War Is Business.