Sunday, 10 June 2007

Black Bloc, White Bloc

This blog got its name from a book I failed to write.

It was July 7th 2005 and, as news came through of the terrorist attacks on London, I was in the middle of an anti-G8 protest camp in Scotland. For the past week, I had been weaving in and out of different groups of campaigners, from the Make Poverty History march to a collective of anarchist hill-walkers, from the Black Bloc kids fighting with the police at Gleneagles to the Edinburgh leg of Bob Geldof's Live8 concerts.

After staying for James Brown's last encore at Murrayfield, I ended up spending the night on the steps of Waverley station with a group of teenage concert-goers who'd missed the last train home - and it was there, in the early hours of July 7th, that I had a conversation which brought my puzzlement into focus. "What I don't get," said the girl from Middlesbrough, "is these anti-G8 protesters. I mean, why do they want to stop the G8 making poverty history?"

Here was this intelligent young woman, trying to make sense of the world on the basis of what she saw on the news and read in the papers, and she'd decided that the anti-G8 protests must be some kind of pro-poverty campaign. It was at once insane and an entirely understandable conclusion.

The next morning, back inside the police lines at Stirling, I was still thinking about that conversation when the news from London spread through the camp. The mood changed in moments. People clustered around wind-up radios, listening to the live news reports, or tried to call friends and relatives to check that they were safe. The confirmation came through that this was being treated as a terrorist attack.

A few minutes later, I heard the BBC presenter interview a terrorism expert, a man called MJ Gohel. Yes, he said, this looked like a coordinated attack, but we mustn't be too quick to point the finger of blame: it could be Al Q'aeda, but it was "equally possible" (those were his precise words) that this had been done by people protesting against the G8.

For months, I kept going back to those words. You had to tread carefully, in the context of so much horror and grief, to place significance on one pundit's off the cuff opinion. Yet what I wanted to know was how it became thinkable for a "terrorism expert" to put the anti-G8 activists on a par with Osama bin Laden as likely suspects for an act of mass murder.

So far as I could tell, the only deaths with which the anti-globalisation movement had been associated were the shooting by Italian police of a young protester at Genoa, and the self-immolation of a Korean farmer during the protests at Cancun. Anyway, I had spent months hanging out with these activists - and, while the more militant believed in the destruction of property and picking fights with the police, even this minority had no taste for violence against innocent civilians. In that respect, they stood in contrast to the leaders gathered inside the Gleneagles Hotel, among them the architects of the invasion of Iraq. Anyone suggesting Bush and Blair might have a hand in the London bombings would (understandably, I think) be branded a conspiracy theorist - yet the anti-G8 activists had somehow become plausible suspects.

This plausibility was, I felt sure, part of the same distortion that had confused the girl from Middlesbrough. Somehow the spectrum of protest I had seen on the ground in Scotland was polarised, in the media and the language of politicians, until it seemed like two opposed forces - the moderates and the extremists. I started writing about this, trying to work out how it came about. Plenty of the activists I talked to were happy to believe it was a deliberate policy on the part of the media - yet I had worked in BBC newsrooms and I knew that such "paranoia" (as journalists saw it) was part of why activists were treated with suspicion. At the same time, I was fascinated by the way that elements within the different groups of protesters seemed to contribute to the polarised portrayal - most obviously, in the iconic (if accidental) contrast between the "infamous" Black Bloc anarchists and the white-clad Make Poverty History marchers. (None of which excused journalistic laziness or political cynicism.)

As the summer went on, it became clear that something very similar was happening in the portrayal of British Islam in the wake of the bombings. Muslims were divided (by the media and politicians) into "moderates", whose leaders were happy to be photographed shaking hands with government ministers, and "extremists", who were evil and beyond reason. It was striking how this mirrored the representation of campaigners in the run up to Gleneagles - Geldof with his arm round Blair's shoulder, while police chiefs thundered warnings about the dangerous and irrational anti-G8 protesters...

To cut a long story short, I wrote a first draft of the book over the summer and, after some delay, found an agent who wanted to help me get it published - but as I tried to act on her advice, the project seemed to lose shape. To be honest, I wasn't ready to write a book - I hadn't grasped the disciplines of form which apply to a project of that scale and are quite distinct from the ability to write a half-decent sentence or paragraph. But every now and then, when I watch news reports (such as those from Germany last week) or hear a politician speaking, I am reminded of those themes and find myself wishing I'd managed to give them the treatment they deserved.

4 comments:

SimplyTim said...

Dougald,

In times of urgency, of crisis, in the immediacy of having to make quick decisions, the mind moves very rapidly, and it sorts through much information, combines it with scenarios of possibility, and then selects a variety of worst case scenarios which may then form the beginnings of a plan for action.

Now that's a mouthful!

Things are selected in on the basis of prominent details which for the basis of a rough outline of potential danger.

In the woods if you come around a bend in the trail and there is a piece of colorful braided rope, several inches long, on the trail, and you know about coral snakes, you would probably jump back. When your heart stopped jack-hammering you might notice that it is a rope and all of your friends will have a great laugh at your expense for years to come.

But that's how that first reaction happens. Just generalities, bad scenarios, quick reflexes, and please hold on all the detail because that will impede the near instantaneous response which is called for in a time of potential survival.

Of course, those with further agendas can use that process to manipulate, especially if the initial thoughts are given more attention and energy, etc.

That's my thought.

Tim

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comment - thoughtful as always! I recognise your description of the way we react in a moment of crisis - and it certainly applies to some of what went on in London that July.

I'm particularly thinking of the bystanders present at the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes - at least one of whom gave interviews saying he'd seen wires trailing out of his jacket. The mind fills in details that turn out not to be true, like mistaking a rope for a snake. I was working in a newsroom that day - and, in retrospect, I was troubled by the way we had used those "eye-witness accounts", lending authority to what turned out to be wholly inaccurate information. Had the truth not emerged in the days that followed, our work (done in good faith) could well have been used to cover-up the killing of an innocent man.

I'm not sure that your analogy entirely works for Gohel's comments, though. It's probably worth saying that the UK's experience on July 7th was very, very different to America's on 9/11. I was in Nashville that September and I remember the days of shock and disbelief that followed. The London bombings, by contrast, were the arrival of something pretty much everyone in Britain had been expecting for a long time - certainly since the beginning of the Iraq war.

So, in the heat of the moment, it's true that people cast around for possible explanations - some of which may turn out to seem nonsensical in retrospect. But having been hanging around the anti-G8 protesters that year, there was just no way that these people were candidates for an act of terrorism - and, even in the heat of the moment, Gohel wouldn't have thought of them if there didn't seem to him to be at least an outside chance that they were such candidates. That's a pretty substantial sort of misunderstanding - it certainly feels so if you're on the receiving end of it - and so I guess I'm interested in what makes these activists look like a snake to anyone, even in the heat of the moment - and I think there's a close connection to the way they are represented in the media and the way they often fail to communicate their message to people outside their immediate subculture. (And while I say "they", I'm talking about a subculture which I've had at least one foot in myself over time.)

SimplyTim said...

Dougald,

Thanks for your thoughtful and extending response.

An immediate comment, however, I never intended the comment re snakes to attach to the anti G-8 activists. I was only addressing a process which is hardwired into us to promote survival in times of urgent threat.

A few other thoughts, but they are generalized since I have no first hand experience of the tragedy in London.

You make reference to a process of what happens in the heat of the moment. That's vitally important in it's own right, but I was referring to the really quick scan that hovers right around the time of adrenaline surges summoned by real fear. Teasing this last statement out much further may not be that helpful at this point.

So, for example, you have apparently been around the anti G-8 activists at times. So you know them perhaps as dedicated and intensely principled people who are sounding an alarm, and you know some of them as friends and acquaintances. So your perspective may be substantially different than those whose impressions are almost exclusively based on media representations.

Years ago there was a world trade conference in Seattle. (I think I have that right.) The only thing I remember of it is images of chaos, tear gas, bandaned young people throwing rocks, police behind barricades, fires, looting (I may be adding that now to the memory). It was a series of clips which spoke of danger, chaos, anarchy, etc.

Did it happen? Yes.

Did it come close to describing what the majority of people who were at the protest wanted to be seen and heard? My guess is, probably not. But it made for good sound and video bites.

So that was the context in my mind when I made my original comments. It was that process.

However, and obviously, I have no personal knowledge of the braodcaster you were referring to, and I have really simply no idea of the intricacies and nuances of what happened around that time.

On a slightly different note, I posted something on my website (not my blog) you may find interesting in light of this conversation. You can find it at:

http://timhodgens.com/meander.htm

and then go to the post entitled: Training for Disaster, dated 7/9/05

Tim

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for clarifying and extending your thoughts! It's taken me a few days to return to them, as my life is more than usually busy at the moment - and since I spend a lot of it criss-crossing the London Underground, your 'Training for Disaster' piece feels distinctly relevant! I'm going to take your third suggestion and make a little emergency pack to carry in my bag.

There are a couple of other strands that tie in with your comments about the media representation of the Seattle WTO protests - so I've had a go at writing about them in another post.

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