About 5 or 6 six years ago when I lived in London’s Soho overlooking a street plagued by crackheads and drug dealers I remember hearing more shouting than usual and looked out of my window to see two junkies fighting and rolling on the ground. This wasn’t an unusual sight but being early evening there were lots of people about and what was unusual, at least to my eyes at that time, was that the majority of the crowd who had stopped to watch, had taken out their mobile phones and were filming the fight. Needless to say no one intervened but thousands more would have watched the sight of these wretches rolling in the dirt as the video clips were uploaded to the net in the days to come, for violence, like sex, is something many people like to watch.
Six years on it is as if nothing is real unless it has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, and yet with the reality has come an unreality as the line between film as fantasy and entertainment has increasingly crossed with film as a record of truth and real events. So it was that March 26th’s anti-cuts riot had the bizarre spectacle of being both riot and entertainment, as news crews and the general public along with anarchists jostled with each other not to throw things but to get the best angle in which to film the ‘action’. Equally each rioter seemed to have one eye on the police and the other on the nearest news crew so that he or she could be captured in their best revolutionary pose.
This was unrest for a generation weened on X-Factor and Glee, not so much the children of Che Guevara but of Simon Cowell. Every moment is captured, analysed and discussed, every pose, flame and flicker, blood and bruise is a potential front page image or Youtube sensation and another step up the blooded ladder of protest stardom. Now, as youth cults have all but been consigned to the past, and sad old punks, teddyboys, goths and skinheads look like anachronisms from Grannies attic so finally has a generation that had all but been written off as apolitical, narcissistic and obsessed with posting inanities on Facebook found itself taking the world by surprise, and creating something, that if not exactly new, then reinvented for their generation; Moral, Righteous Violence and Organised Anarchist Chic. Protest as a virtue and anger as a state of mind.
Suddenly the old mainstream Left and Right had to take notice, as first Millbank Tower and then Prince Charles and Carmilla, found themselves caught up in a wave of anger and destruction than was both unpredicted and unpredictable. For many this was a new entertainment, a new adrenaline rush that mixed violence, camaraderie and infamy into a heady brew of celebrity with a cause. If Cheryl Cole was 19 now and wanted to to get on the front page of the nation’s papers what better way than to dress in black neo-Red Army Faction, radical-urban-terrorist-off-the-peg-at-Chelsea Girl Class War chic and wow the press with a bit of posing and teasing while lobbing a brick through the window of the nearest Ann Summers or Barclays. Within days every teenage boy, and quite a few girls, would have their anarchy sex symbol poster up on the wall and their heads filled with thoughts of love on the barricades.
For the hundreds of young, black-clad, masked-up anarchy-angries racing from bank to bank, pausing only long enough to smash-up symbols of wealth like the Porsche showrooms in Mayfair on the way, their main pursers were not the police but film crews and photographers. For every black-blocer smashing a window there were between ten and twenty photographers, maybe six or seven film crews, a few ‘legal observers’ making sure that the niceties of rioting were upheld and possibly the odd policemen looking self-concious and irrelevant. This was anarchy chic and riot-lite, no one gets killed and the only buildings trashed belong to the behemoths of bad capitalism, the banks and tax-avoiders. Collateral damage was limited to the odd tourist in the wrong place at the wrong time and the occasional bystander who got kettled. For everyone else this was a chance to go wild, keep the moral high-ground and watch it all on TV and your smart phone later on.
Yet so far this has generally been a very civilized, middle class kind of rioting with the police seemingly preferring the role of benevolent prefects rather than fascistic stormtrooper, and with the media literally interviewing plummy-voiced rioters as they smashed in windows and hurled bricks at the police it has so far been a very jolly affair all round. Virtually all the arrests made on the 26th March consisted of UK Uncut unfortunates who had peacefully occupied Fortnam and Masons and then ‘surrendered’ only to be arrested en masse by a police force desperate to be seen doing something other than getting hit by paint bombs and arriving outside wrecked banks long after the wreckers had moved on. The other arrests amounted to less than fifty in total and are unlikely to deter anyone from turning up again apart from the police who might decide they would be more effective if they stayed away.
Yet this is now, riot and protest, as with films, sex and violence, lose their edge when you’ve seen the same theme repeated again and again, sooner or later you have to raise the ante and that is particularly true of protest as adrenaline rush. Shortly those clips of black-blocers smashing windows or black-clad anarchists pontificating and posting pretentious drivel as to why they’ve targeted this or that store will just sound like so much self-centred waffle. People will escalate the violence and the state will escalate its response and then hopefully the reality and fantasy of what we watch on screen will separate and people will realise that protest at this level is both real and dangerous and that actions have consequences.
I have no doubt that our new generation will make mistakes and for myself would wish that the philosophy and motivation behind the protests had a more libertarian, right wing direction, but while capitalism’s bloated banks continue to hold out their cosseted and profligate hands for ever bigger helpings of the States money to bail them out and save them from their mistakes, that can never be. In fact when the leading trends magazine, The Trends Journal, and its outspoken publisher Gerald Celente, begin predicting the virtual collapse of Western society due to its mismanagement by our current rulers, then perhaps it is probably time to stop watching and start doing and we all take to the streets.
“When the money stops flowing to mainstreet, the blood starts flowing on the street”