Aside from the London riot police’s manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, who may have been simply trying to get home from his downtown job, last week’s demonstrations surrounding the G20 meeting were, in terms of raw events, nothing particularly new. (A nice timeline of events and collection of photos and video can be found at Indymedia London here.) This is not to say that protester’s efforts were in vain or insignificant, only that the mechanics were familiar – smashed bank windows on the street and workshops in the Climate Camp. Unfortunately, these familiar actions failed to take advantage of the unfamiliar backdrop.
Until recently, these meetings were buttressed and sheltered by booming economies and a great deal of financial security among attendants’ home populations. Previous demonstrations were pressed to draw from the far off frontiers of unchecked capitalist expansionism to paint their picture of the pain, damage and lunacy of late capitalism; the most telling and powerful stories came from third world factories and destroyed wilderness. However, the populations of the world’s wealthiest nations were comfortable. First world economies were strong, the people rich in consumer goods and, in many ways, deaf to the notion that the system was sick. For many, the solutions to these problems was simply tighter regulation and better enforcement.
The backdrop of this meeting, however, is quite different. Not only have the ‘problems’ worsened (i.e. ecological damage, workers’ rights, etc.), but the cracks in the system have begun to widen to a point where even the wealthiest populations cannot ignore it. Even the casual, suburban American observer can see that there is something fundamentally wrong, that things aren’t adding up properly, that the basic logic of it all is, at the very least, shaky. Regrettably, this unique situation was not met with an equally unique response. Buildings were occupied, people marched and the police flexed their muscle. What was missing was a clear message, a narrative for those at home to connect the dots with smashed windows, the work of the Climate Camp and anti-capitalist thought. Instead, the police and capitalist hegemony were free to develop their own picture in the press. For example, the Financial Times printed a bizarre and mocking article by Robert Shrimsley, a faux ‘performance review’ for anti-capitalists. He writes:
Right, well, let’s just have a look at your Key Performance Indicators for last year. I see from our website’s statement of aims that you were set three targets for the year. One: organise a carnival party at the Bank of England; two: plan events demonstrating against the G20 during the meltdown period; and three: overthrow capitalism. So how do you think you’ve done? Hm. Well I think we have to give you number one and we can put a big old tick against number two. But I’m afraid that on number three we have fallen short. That does, of course, mean that sadly your bonus this year will pay out at only 66 per cent….One last thing, we’ve been talking to image consultants who feel we need a brand refresh so we’ll be putting an umlaut over the 0 in G20 in all future literature.
Similarly, the absence of a coherent message to frame protester ‘violence’ leaves it in the realm of chaos, allowing the police to confuse their manslaughter with questions of wether Ian Tomlinson was a protester or just trying to get home. It should not matter, a man was killed, but the image of unfocused, violent masses bought the police some time in the shadow of ‘understandable confusion.’ The heightened public awareness of structural volatility may be slight, but it is not to be taken lightly. It is an historical moment.