Yesterday’s news that the Met is giving its officers access to plastic bullets for tomorrow’s student demonstration is, obviously, pretty disturbing. I’d guess it’s pretty unlikely they’ll actually be used – making a big announcement to the press two days before the event looks a lot more like an attempt to warn off any would-be troublemakers than anything else – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be cause for concern. If they are deployed, it would be the first time they’ve ever been used for crowd control in mainland Britain, and they’re nasty things – not as deadly as the rubber bullets they replaced, but they were used pretty extensively in Northern Ireland during the 70s and early 80s, and apparently killed at least fourteen people during that period.
But the fact that the police are considering using plastic bullets isn’t what really worries me, discomfiting though it is. What’s far more concerning is that there’s a good chance that if the worst does happen and the police do end up shooting someone tomorrow, no one’s going to care.
OK, maybe not “no one”. But certainly no one outside of those you’d expect to worry about excessive police violence anyway – those involved with the demonstration and the wider activist groups and networks that were involved in organising it, and assorted leftwing and liberal commentators (this blog included). Jenny Jones’ denunciation of the use of plastic bullets, quoted in the BBC story linked to above, is undoubtedly admirable, but how likely is it really that “[a]ny officer that shoots a student with a baton round will have to answer to the whole of London”? The memories of August’s riots are still fresh in people’s minds, and a clear majority of people were pretty happy to support harsh retribution for people who were involved in those. People in the UK tend to be pretty illiberal on crime and punishment at the best of times, riots scare people, and it’s not exactly news that people tend to care a lot less about civil liberties when they’re scared.
This being the case, how likely is it that most people are actually going to care if the police use plastic bullets on student demonstrators, especially if that news is read out over TV footage of protesters breaking windows, chucking bricks and letting off flares? I wouldn’t hold out much hope.
Just to be clear (and to forestall some of the criticisms I can imagine this piece is likely to receive), I’m absolutely not arguing that a few smashed windows tomorrow would in any way justify the use of plastic bullets – it wouldn’t. Nor am I out to excuse any of the other examples of dubious police behaviour, such as sending letters to those it apparently sees as potential troublemakers to scare them off trying anything, as they apparently did today, or to get into an argument about the rights and wrongs of vandalism and violence as methods of political protest – I’ve had enough of the rubbish which people come out with on all sides of that debate to last me a lifetime. All I’m saying is that my impression is that for all that people might have little love for the government, the public mood is currently leaning more towards the forces of law and order than it is towards masked protesters with a propensity to smash stuff.
So if you’re going on the demo tomorrow and you care about having popular opinion on your side (which I’d sincerely hope anyone involved in trying to build a mass campaign does), how about trying to avoid doing stuff which might put off the average viewer of the ITV evening news? That doesn’t mean I’m hoping that nothing happens tomorrow beyond all the protesters marching from A to B like good little boys and girls – there are any number of other ways to protest than that (legal and otherwise), as UKUncut and the like have proven time and again. Not being violent or smashing anything doesn’t guarantee the police won’t be violent, of course (whether that takes the form of plastic bullets or not), but it does make it a lot more likely that there’ll be some public sympathy for you – and, at least as importantly, for the cause – if it happens.