Monday, 15 November 2010

Further thoughts on Garda brutality at Dublin Demonstration

He's not mental, he just stubbed his toe
Now that the media and the USI leadership have been knocked down a peg or two by the emergence of video evidence of Garda brutality at the national tuition fees demo, it's important to take a step back and question the signficance of the Garda show of force on the demonstration.

What was new about the events of that day was not the type of protest employed, but the reaction to them. Take the sit-down protest outside the department of finance. About two years ago, during the last major anti-fees demonstration, about 300 of us did the exact same thing outside the Dáil. Now while there was a difference in numbers (there were close to a thousand at the dept. of finance protest) the sit-down protest at the previous demonstration was entirely uneventful. We literally just sat down for an hour or so while the Gardaí stood there, more to control traffic than to control the protest.

The other event of the day was the occupation of the dept. of finance. Again, this is now new. A few weeks before the 2008 national demo, myself and about 15/16 other UCC students occupied the president's office. We couldn't get the door shut, so we sent out a press statement and waited for an hour and a half before voting to leave rather than be arrested (by this point a Garda was standing with a pair of handcuffs ready). We generated a bit of media attention and buzz around campus and I even managed to make my 12 o'clock lecture without the need of a daring escape from Anglesea St. Garda Station. On that same day, an occupation was organised in Paul Gogarty's constituency office in Dublin. This ended up being a bit more of a confrontation with the door being barricaded successfully and the Gardaí breaking in. The occupiers were arrested and later there was a slightly ludicrous attempt to press charges. Though I think that all this had a lot more to do with Paul Gogarty kicking up a hissy fit and overreacting than anything else, after all, he has form.

What is signficant therefore about the Dublin demo was not the actions of the protestors, but those of the Gardaí. Why has there been a sea-change in their reactions to protest? Come here to me drew some interesting comparisons with the 1960s. The confrontations between Gardaí and students, housing activists etc. in the 1960s which often led to broken noses and bloodied faces were largely a result of the fact that the 1960s Gardaí, like other police forces in Europe, had only been trained to deal with riots. As such when confronted with occupations, mass demos etc., which were an entirely new phenomenon in Ireland, they reacted the only way they had been trained to.

However, the Gardaí of 2010 are a modern police force and are hardly unprepared for demonstrations. Actually, for a more relevant comparison, you could do worse than to look at Britain in the 1980s. Police brutality and heavy-handedness in those years led to rioting like in Toxteth and Brixton. At the same time, the role of the police became more like that of a paramilitary body than a law-enforcement agency, as seen most clearly in mass confrontations like the battle of Orgreave. This was not a coincidence. The Thatcher-led Tory government were preparing for the most savage programme of cutbacks and privatisation in modern British history. They knew well that there would be mass resistance and as such, made sure that the police would be like a domestic army to put down the inevitable rebellions that would follow from their policies. The view of the police as an 'army of occupation' which was felt in areas like Brixton was not far from the truth.

In Ireland the situation today is not entirely different. The next three budgets will mean fiscal savagery of an almost unfathomable magnitude and, following from that, mass resistance both in industry and in working-class communities. We should not be surprised by the actions of the Gardaí at the anti-fees demo. The only surprise is that this hasn't come sooner. The actions of the Gardaí in Dublin may simply be a sign of things to come. In the coming months and years, their role as a quasi-military force used to protect the ruling class at a time when it's authority is in peril will come more and more to the fore. As Gene Kerrigan writes in the Sindo:

'Students who had their heads bloodied at the anti-fees protest last Wednesday shouldn't take it personally. The tactics used by gardai seem to represent a government statement of intent, addressed to the general public.'

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