Yesterday I attended the anti-cuts protest in London. Half a million people marched through central London to articulate their rage against public sector cuts that will cost hundreds and thousands of jobs, persecute the poor, disabled and elderly, and erase many cultural and academic institutions.
Dramatic pictures of anarchists smashing windows, throwing paint bombs and clashes between protesters and police now dominate the media. You would think that half a million peacefully marching was actually just a handful of teenage anarchists wanting to smash up fancy buildings for kicks. From the comment sections of the news sites covering the protest, you would think that the majority of people in the country supported tax-dodging companies, regarded all protesters as benefit scrounging layabouts and would quite happily see the NHS sold off, funding to education slashed and swathes of public sector employees to be laid off.
Originally, I wanted this to be a photo-heavy blog entry. But the photos I have fall into the same trap, the same lust for drama. The photos I have are about smashed windows of the Ritz, intimidating rows of police in riot gear, paint-splattered pavements and anarchist graffiti signs. Sure, there are also photos of winding lines of protesters packed onto embankment, the occasional witty placard and fun carnivalesque costumes, but the ratio of photos depicting damage outweigh those of the placid but impassioned majority of people (of diverse classes, professions, ages, regions) that simply wanted to voice their dissent. Middle-aged teachers, gentlemanly pensioners and run-of-the-mill families just aren’t as sexy as intimidatingly dressed youths who may or may not be posing any threat to anybody.
Indeed, lumping anarchists with UKUncut activists that focus on passive resistance to further a cause which, let’s face it, the majority of people agree with (i.e. companies should not avoid paying millions of tax) with cliché images of unruly youths is an example of this massive distortion of reality. In spite of reports that UKcut smashed up Fortnam & Masons, we have photographic evidence that nothing was damaged on the inside and things were peaceful. The damage was mainly a fringe of anarchists on the outside who have nothing to do with UKUncut, which has been organising peaceful sit-ins for weeks now.
Yet, when you stop becoming a protester and start becoming an observer, the desire to see ‘something to kick off’ becomes a priority. At points, during the more aggressive moments at Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus when anarchists (not UKUncut protesters) smashed windows, there seemed to be more photographers than there were activists. Journalists, passerbys, photographers were all hungry to get a perfect shot of something happening in a cocktail of expectation and danger. The entire protest was transformed from half a million people demonstrating peacefully to a ridiculous spectacle of a handful of black-clad youths clashing with police in full riot gear.
There is so much un-truth, distortion and manipulation in the newspapers this morning. Online comment threads are dominated by astroturfers who diminish the work of everyday teachers, firemen, nurses, and try to distract everyone else as much as possible from the issues being discussed.
Photographs that are held up as a mirror to truth are, in their selection, completely misleading. And language, that delicious alchemical substance, conjures volatility that was never there, spins biases that cannot be verified and lumps peaceful protesters with violent yobs.
Everyone who protested there yesterday knows that it was, for the most part, peaceful. Any idiot with half a brain cell would realise that if half a million people smashed London up, none of it would be left.
But that is not the “truth”, that is not what “happened”. That is not what people will believe when they listen to the news this morning. They will only hear of violence, destruction, burning, brutality – whether that brutality is from anarchists or from the police.
This is the victory of astroturfers, shoddy on-demand journalism and self-interested newspapers.
I’m glad I went on the march and witnessed its many faces but the one thing I can take from it is just how distorted the world of language in the media is. In this mad matrix of distortion, is the only armory we have other narratives, hyperbolic fantasies and fictions? Can we only fall on cliché archetypes to make a point? Shall we just accept that fantasy has won out and even if we were given truth, we would simply find it too boring to accept?