It appears that stab-proof body armour, shatter-proof polycarbonate riot shields, hard helmets, metal batons and the supporting presence of over 2,500 fellow officers with riot vans and horses aren’t enough to make the average riot cop feel secure in his dominance over a crowd of kettled student protesters.
Rubber bullets (“baton rounds”), water cannon and tasers are what they’re asking for, and the savage glee with which they contemplate using these weapons on teenagers is really something to behold (see comments, but do feel free to stop reading if you start feeling sick).
One telling comment in that thread refers to using a water cannon to “clean” protesters (referred to as “swampy & his soap dodging mates” - seriously, Swampy? The Newbury bypass protest was in 1996, before the youngest of these protesters were even born…). This is, one understands, an attempt at humour, akin to the torturer’s habit of giving jokey names to his apparatus and procedures (“put ‘im in the bath…hurr hurr…”). The underlying identification of disorder with uncleanliness, an identification which is transferred onto the disorderly themselves, supports the cop’s self-image as a preserver of public moral health, keeping the clean and decent citizen separate from the filthy and abject underside of society.
This is a phantasmatic operation, one which expresses itself through coercive projection. The spectacle of public urination, an unavoidable necessity when people are detained without access to toilet facilities for hours on end, feeds into the cops’ perception of protesters as incontinent animals wilfully befouling the public monuments of great and upright men. But the perception precedes the creation of the spectacle which supports it: people who need to see other human beings as animals (in order to herd and cull them) will in due course endeavour to reduce those human beings to bare animality in order to bring reality into line with their perceptions. No amount of patient, dignified, self-disciplined resistance can overcome the primary psychological need of the cops to see the protesters as human filth. They may be looking at fresh-faced, trendily-dressed teenagers singing and dancing in the streets, but what they’re seeing is “Swampy”.
When real social antagonism becomes visible, it often takes the form of a reactive spiral of abjection, projection, rhetorical and practical escalation - the conditions Burroughs described as going “nova”. The outcome is “nova war”, a Manichean conflict in which each side ends up committed to the total extermination of the other. In fact, and in spite of considerable provocation, people are who have every reason to be furious with the police have remained rhetorically and practically restrained in their reactions: calling for non-violent protest and the collection and dissemination of factual evidence of police brutality, rather than getting tooled-up in preparation for increasingly brutal street warfare.
As difficult as it is, this is the only politically responsible way to continue: the alternative was expressed in 1967 by Gudrun Ensslin, after the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg at a demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran: “They’ll kill us all. You know what kind of pigs we’re up against. This is the Auschwitz generation. You can’t argue with people who made Auschwitz. They have weapons and we haven’t. We must arm ourselves!”. It’s a seductive position, a way of dealing with the terror of organised state violence by resorting to a heroic, militarised image of resistance; by contrast, not the least impressive thing about the young people who risked imprisonment and injury in last Thursday’s protests has been the humanity and self-awareness with which they have recognised and expressed their anger.