By Jill S. Russell
It is my fourth year writing a Guy Fawkes blog for Strife. In the time I have been doing so, my interests in the role and implications of public order in society have grown, and, I hope, matured intellectually. The first year was certainly a leap into a relative unknown, because even as I had a long-term interest in urban warfare, the matters of riot and public order were not at the forefront of my thinking. They very much are now.
You may be wondering at the title. There is a reason for it, and I will get there in due time. As many across the UK prepare to have a bit of fun for in dubious honour of Guy Fawkes, there is as well anticipated the Million Mask March, unironically organised and fronted by the various incarnations of Anonymous.
I suspect many in London (and in other metropolitan centres across the UK) are apprehensive about the prospects for this event. Disorder in Lambeth and Southwark this past weekend, and some chaos yesterday at the student tuition demonstration, has led many to voice concerns that the police can no longer, because of numbers, training, or will, ‘control the mob.’
And now I will say something wildly controversial that will put me in, as usual, a party of one or few of those who would agree. I think the British police have in these last few years, in fact, hit on the correct approach to the mob. In sum, it is to ride the disorder, control it at the margins and police to public safety.
I hold this opinion understanding the peril it can mean to police officers, and I do so with no small degree of difficulty. I had the opportunity to discuss recent disorder in Manchester with an officer who has significant experience of it. Watching video of the various events, when we got to the August 2011 riots, and he described how at one point it was quite clear the intent was to draw the police in for the purpose of an ambush, the implications were downright scary. And so, I am not unaware that what I propose is a terrific burden for those who must stand on the front lines, in London tomorrow night and around the UK going forward.
Why do I favour such an approach? If one looks carefully at history, it is not the mob, not the disorder, which damages or destroys societies. Rather, it is and ever has been the robust response of government, military, and police which sparks the anger and emotion of disorder into conflict and revolution. Certainly the roiling history of London’s frequent but politically ineffective mobs suggests this.
For the UK more broadly in recent times, its history of no revolutions in the eras of democratisation, industrialisation and radicalisation further sustains the idea that the reasonable government weathers the storm the best. During the period between the early 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, the march of its progress was marked by relative proactivity in reform and social programs, and a generally light touch in reaction to moments of upheaval. For this, the UK did not suffer the political fallout of the times, unlike its continental cousins. In contemporary terms, we confront the reality of this conclusion on a daily basis as the protests of the Arab Spring have turned more into a ferocious Hurricane Season of conflict.
We can also look to another recent comparative which bears out the thinking that the lightest touch in dealing with disorder is the better approach. For all its fury which the police could not contain, London 2011 was the expression of anger and, once done, it dissipated. It has become an issue for the larger society to deal with the deeper problems, as it should be – the police cannot solve them on the street and in the face of anger. On the other hand, the rolling continuation of the Black Lives Matter protests, having met with a fair degree of organised and aggressive policing, suggests that strength against protest does not work. The confrontations between the people and the police continue, as does the animosity. One worries that this is damaging interactions across the spectrum of police and community engagements, leading to more potentially dangerous confrontations between them. And this will feed into a cycle wherein more violence will lead to more robust policing will lead to more use of force will lead to more protest. It seems there is a deteriorating spiral at work, and the longer it continues the more of a threat it will pose to society.
Recommending a light touch may seem contrary to my discussions elsewhere that the mob has a potential to be weaponised. To my thinking it does not, as it has been my intention to highlight the inherent risk of such tactics in hopes of avoiding the problem of over-reaction. We can simultaneously understand how an enemy might use the mob to suit its conflict strategy and still understand that the bulk of the crowd is not to be treated as combatants.
Thus, while the chaos of the 5th of November seems poised to unfold upon London’s streets and will look, in the short term quite dangerous, it is important to bear in mind that Guy Fawkes is remembered in light-heartedness and jest. It, like many other attempts to stir the mob to topple the government, did not prevail. And so, as much as I learned and enjoyed my opportunity to observe the protesters and the MPS policing of the march of chaos last year, this year I will miss out on it for the commemoration of another event in UK history, the Battle of Trafalgar. In political terms, for the health of the society and country as a whole, I think I have the proportion correct on the relative importance of the events.
Jill S. Russell is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. She has recently defended her doctoral dissertation on American military logistics and strategic culture, and is currently teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham. You can follow her on Twitter @jsargentr.