It should, I think, be uncontroversial to state that using a chemical agent that does this to peaceful protestors is pretty fucked up, to say the least. I was at the UKUncut Boots action on Sunday, and the sight of innocent people staggering blindly around while screaming in pain through tears and mucus is not an experience I want to repeat.
I am a bit sceptical, though, of the conclusions some have drawn about the wider implications of it. True, there have been some frankly scary comments from senior officers about the future policing of demos, but my impression in the immediate aftermath of the spraying seemed to be that it was a rather stupid overreaction on the part of one officer rather than the result of any kind of deliberate strategy (either to protect ‘corporate interests’ at the expense of individual citizens as UKUncut themselves would have it, or as part of a crackdown on peaceful protesters, as the Guardian suggests in the voiceover to their video) by those higher up the police chain of command. I was told by other protesters that some of the police at the action were openly saying they thought using CS spray in that situation was a very stupid thing to do, which indicates quite strongly against it being official policy. Depending on what other information comes out over the next few days and weeks I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but that’s my hunch at the moment.
But even leaving that debate aside (and I’m sure most people who read this are going to disagree with me on it), there are more pressing issues to focus on. Call me cynical, but what’s the betting senior Boots executives are really, really grateful to Officer CW 2440 right now? There’s been barely a mention anywhere over the past couple of days of why the protest was actually happening – the fact that Boots is avoiding untold millions in tax; practically the only time Boots got a mention is in the description of how staff in the blockaded branch volunteered to treat some of the UKUncut demonstrators who were worst-affected by the CS spray.
I get why this happens; no matter how often police brutality occurs, we shouldn’t ever accept it as merely some kind of occupational hazard when we exercise our right to protest. But (at the risk of descending into cliché), it can be all to easy to let it distract us from the real issues. I’m sure UKUncut’s already-impressive media profile will be boosted greatly by what I saw happen outside Boots on Sunday, but now there’s a real risk that all the news cameras will be after is more dramatic footage of police violence, with no airtime left over for substantive discussions about tax avoidance and its implications for the cuts agenda.
And it’s not just media attention that matters; one of the best things about UKUncut’s actions so far has been the response from the public. I experienced this myself on Sunday; passer-by after passer-by offering us words of support, or wanting to know more about the campaign. If people start to associate UKUncut actions with violence (regardless of the fact that it’s not us committing it), how likely is it that new people are going to want to get involved, or that the general public will keep on seeing the campaign as something more than just an inconvenient interruption to their shopping? If the way UKUncut actions are policed is the only thing people are paying attention to, what’s the point in protesting in the first place?