Pre-Summit Paranoia

One of the many strands of discussion that has surfaced since Bob Geldof officially announced the Live 8 events to highlight anti-poverty discussions at this year’s G8 summit and called for a million people to march in Edinburgh has been focussed on police fears about the event. We should probably be used to police scaremongering in advance of a major summit by now.

Past summits of this sort have been the scene of some violence. From the Seattle WTO ministerial in 1999 through to the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 there was a sense of escalation, with each summit bringing new waves of protest and increasing casualty figures. Events culminated in Genoa with the brutal killing of a protestor by a young police officer, numerous police injuries, and thousands of peaceful protestors being tear-gassed. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the violence grabbed the headlines and quickly became amplified out of proportion.

It usually seemed that the violence at these summits was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The tabloid press was filled with poorly substantiated stories of ‘training camps’ for ‘violent protest’ (most training that did take place was in methods of nonviolent direction action) and police spokespeople talked of the heightened security measures they were preparing, expecting violence and designing flash points months in advance.

I had held out some hope that the Scottish police would be more thoughtful than their brutal (on that occasion, at least) Italian counterparts. This reaction would seem to hint otherwise. While it is unlikely that the scale of force used by the Italian Carabinieri in Genoa will be repeated in Scotland, hysterical responses like those we’ve been hearing this week hint that these police too have failed to realise that the best way to defend against violence at protests is to facilitate the democratic exercise of free speech by those looking to protest peacefully.

While any large event will have its trouble spots, protests do have a tendency to be self-policing. On the other hand, when protestors already angered at the reticence of their elected leaders to engage with them on crucial world issues are blocked from giving voice to that anger, tempers will be tested.

In this case, it seems like what’s mainly lacking is some common sense. Geldof is calling for a million people to go to Edinburgh. The people likely to respond to such a call are generally middle-class, middle-aged people such as those who made up the majority at the 1.5 million-strong anti-war demonstration in London in February 2003. He’s not calling for a Black Bloc, or even for a return to the high spirits of early Reclaim the Streets events.

Surely when we see ongoing low participation in ballot-box democracy, a peaceful demonstration over a crucial issue is something to be encouraged?

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