Rioters, protesters and terrorists. Semantic violence at its most provocative

08.12.2011 - London - Silvia Swinden

“Reading the Riots: [the Guardian]( is the only research study into the causes and consequences of the summer riots involving interviews with large numbers of people who actually took part in the disorder. A project run jointly by the Guardian and the London School of Economics (LSE), the aim was to produce evidence-based social research that would help explain why the rioting spread across England.”

Not a moment too soon. Following this summer UK riots “explanations” were given by the whole political spectrum: “common criminals”, “a feral underclass”, “disaffected youths”, “gang culture” and many other theories, pontificating without any data to serve whichever agenda was being promoted. Preliminary results released by the Guardian/LSE study indicate the multiplicity of motivations including:
– 59% were unemployed.
– a range of political grievances, a pervasive sense of injustice
– police shooting of Mark Duggan
– involvement in looting was simply down to opportunism
– stop and search by police as a possible “motivation factor” for black and Asian rioters (73% had such experience according to an independent panel set up by the government)

On this basis some commentators have concluded that the riots did represent some kind of protest, albeit chaotic, disorganised, cathartic and self-defeating.

Meanwhile protesters from the UK Occupy movement have found themselves included in a document circulated by the police to the business community about terrorism and domestic extremism (see photograph). Under the title **“Do the City of London Police really see Occupy London’s peaceful protesters as domestic extremists?”** the [Occupy London]( website questions the “Terrorism/Extremism update for the City of London Business Community, document handed to Occupy London at its Bank of Ideas building by someone claiming to be a local businessman. The document has since been confirmed as genuine. The use of fear as a political tool has been well described by others… The City of London police’s recent communication – of which there have presumably been a series – starts off with Al-Qaeda and ends with a blameless educational sightseeing tour of Canary Wharf(1), casting aspersions on the electricians’ continuing industrial action along the way. The document exhibits other signs of worrying paranoia. The reference to “suspected activists” seems to demonstrate a disturbing loss of perspective. Activism is not a crime and the desire to participate in democratic decision-making should not be a cause for concern for the police in any free society. We would welcome clarification from the City of London Police as to what exactly constitutes “hostile reconnaissance reports concerning individuals who would fit the anti-capitalist profile”.

It is clear that the system knows exactly how to deal with violence (riots) but nonviolence leaves it twisting things to such a degree in search for an image that will turn peaceful activism into some kind of threat for the general public and justify the use of the Antiterrorism Act to deal with tents and sleeping bags.

In this climate of semantic brigandery, are we then allowed to use the word terrorism to describe what the Credit Rating Agencies (CRAs) are doing? No sooner than the European Union managed to concoct some kind of hopeful proposal to deal with the crisis in the Eurozone [Standard and Poor]( was at it again, threatening to downgrade, increase the price of borrowing and stifle any possible recovery. Surely this is more likely to induce terror than a few tents parked in inconvenient places denouncing inconvenient truths about the economic system. Perhaps *bullying* is a better way of describing what the CRAs are doing without having to resort to the **”T”** word. Nor should it be used for peaceful protesters.

School yard name calling is not a form of mature political dialogue and is not likely to lead to any kind of conflict resolution. Neither is brute force (the City had already booked the police to evict protesters from the occupied UBS bank empty building *before* the Court case was heard. As it happened the judge found the City had not followed due process and postponed eviction procedures).

Without doubt as the crisis progresses and ordinary people become more engaged in demanding participation in the decision making process and a more fair system things may turn uglier. Only compassion and solidarity can prevent a total social breakdown, with its cost in violence and darkness. Compassion towards those we make responsible for our problems, or towards those we fear and hate, is not easy, but it is itself a revolution.

(1) Occupy London is organising ‘Occupy London Tours’, a group offering guided tours of Britain’s most iconic financial centres.

Categories: Europe, Politics


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