In the midst of increasingly heated and anxious discussion about the impending events of Saturday 9 October in Leicester, here's a piece I like by Zoe Williams in today's Guardian. It gives an opportunity for those of us in the thick of it right now to stand back and look at the bigger picture, take in the longer view.
Politics has changed but our urge to protest is undimmed
Demonstrations may not achieve much, but from the Iraq war to the G20, taking to the streets has an inimitable energy
Access this article online and see the large number of readers' comments on it (maybe even add a few of your own):I used to enjoy disagreeing with Theresa May as a reflex, but that's one of many pleasures to have disappeared under the coalition. She's home secretary now, you may have noticed. The sheer breadth of her decision canvas means that she will, unavoidably, sometimes be right – as she is this week, in turning down a request from the English Defence League to march in Leicester. A request from Unite Against Fascism was also rejected.
Peace in the centre of Leicester this Saturday is expected by almost no one, however: the EDL is rarely given permission for a march. It just goes ahead anyway, with a "static demonstration", which entails less marching but approximately the same amount of unpleasantness. (It's never the walking that's the problem, is it?) You need no permission for a static demo, though expect the infamous "kettling" – where protesters are penned in, for however long it takes for them to be clearly bored and ready to go home: a bit like being arrested, without the washroom facilities. It is so annoying when it happens to you, but when you see it happening to someone else, you have to concede it's effective.
Earlier this year, clashes between the EDL, UAF and police in Bolton led to 74 arrests and several injuries. The spectacle is depressing: however much legislation there is against incitement to racial hatred, there is apparently no way to halt a gathering of people who chant "Muslims off our streets" and, in their Welsh incarnation, are openly Nazi to the point of doing the decreasingly funny walk.
UAF has to demonstrate in order to refute the far-right agenda since, as its spokesman Anindya Bhattacharyya points out, there is a symbolic aspect: these gatherings recall the 70s idea of "strutting" as a kind of ethnic cleansing, turning the streets white. You have to reject a message like that as a community; you can't just shrug and leave it to the police. And yet, at the foreground of all the symbolism is a lot of real, unmetaphorical violence. Bhattacharyya says, with gusto, that the National Front demos were ultimately faced down not by a police presence, but by the people who lived in the streets the NF was trying to ethnically refashion. While that's true, here they are again – civilised people having to skirmish for the protection of ideals enshrined in law for a generation.
The left will always feel a responsibility to answer demonstrations by the far-right: those on the right don't feel the same when the far-left has a demo, believing themselves (I'm guessing) already represented in the form of the police. Try to imagine a gang of Tories counter-marching against a G20 protest.
The business of protest is transfixing. So much has changed over 30 years in the rest of politics; the left and right have collapsed into each other, and what's left of a class war is muted and euphemistic – we've had our third way, and are now settling into a fourth (the same, only without the money).
And yet protest looks like it always has: there are large, legitimate gatherings that are genuinely peaceful and yet have no impact. If they did have an impact, it would be totally undemocratic. However large a demo is – and those against the Iraq war were as big as they come – that's never going to be a majority of the nation's adults: they're just the people with the most motivation. You can't have a government-of-people-who-can-be-arsed. (Or maybe that's what the "big society" is going to look like?)
There is a good argument for these demonstrations: that, even while proving your citizenly impotence, they paradoxically give you a sense of power and optimism. And that's borne out, in the long term, by the idea that they incrementally change the temperature of a debate – so, for example, a person like Nick Clegg would probably never discuss axing Trident were it not for CND marches. Sometimes you also meet nice people.
The alternative is the unauthorised march, the May Day protests, the EDL versus the UAF, the G20 demo. They create a genuine confusion for the police since, being unauthorised, they are almost already illegal before the fourth person arrives: and yet, as the EDL plans this weekend demonstrate, they are not illegal, whether mischievous, riotous or poisonous, or not until some ancillary crime has also taken place.
Add to that the hovering threat that some riots will, with hindsight, turn out to have been a civil rights movement and you have a lot of ambiguity, which the police deal with no better today than they ever did. The officer who assaulted Ian Tomlinson shortly before he died is up for dismissal before Christmas: that incident – not just the violence but the subsequent evasiveness – could have happened in any decade between now and the 60s.
There are new themes – anti-globalisation is one, though it's not the great mobiliser it was five years ago; hating Muslims is now the public face of racism – but this landscape hasn't changed. There's always a danger, when you talk about activism, to invest every act of protest with the dignity of Martin Luther King, and brush away the racist and the reactionary. There is nothing inherently good about taking to the streets in furtherance of a belief. But it has a stubborn and inimitable energy.