“Thuggery” this was the term Priti Patel used, among others, in an outpouring of contempt it seemed largely towards the righteous demolition of the Edward Colson statue in Bristol. This act was conflated with mindless violence, an act of destruction and anarchy that had to be cracked down on posthaste. So when, this Saturday, we find a heaving crowd of inebriated reactionaries throwing their fists in every direction, throwing Nazi salutes and urinating on monuments, we have to wonder whether this is the thuggery they were talking about, and from the evidence, given the clear fears expressed by the likes of Boris Johnson and a host of journalists/commentariat, it was not.
The hypocrisy almost doesn’t bear mentioning it is so absolute. To appear under the pretence of defending the nazi-defeating honour of “our history” and give nazi salutes next to the cenotaph is enough to give us the lay of the land here. As has been mentioned elsewhere, it becomes obvious that rather than the defence of figures like Churchill we hear, some from these neo-brownshirts themselves, as the bastion against fascism, what really provides the animus here is that we defeated Germany, not the nazis. The exceptionalism of the Britannia rules the waves story of world war 2 is, need it be said, completely separate from any understanding whatsoever of fascism; it revolves around a continuation of colonial power, a make Britain great again political program in which the fact we defeated Hitler is a matter of nationalism vs nationalism, the pure hearts of the British vs the corrupted psyche of the Germans. The irony too, of the statement someone attached to the boarded up statue of Churchill –
“Do not destroy our history. Keep our history and learn from it so the same mistakes don’t happen again.”
Of course, politicians and commentators can’t not condemn what was happening here, and on cue, both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson can yet again be heard uttering the word “thuggery” alongside the often rather pedestrian comments from other politicians. At least they decided to be consistent on this we might be tempted to say, but we shouldn’t cut any of them slack for rather obviously whipping up the exact sentiment that led to these rallies in the first place, and this applies just as much to liberals who have long trafficked in triangulation and both sides compromises and the conservatives who plump for the traditionalist law and order position, anyone who gave any credence to the notion that Black Lives Matter was an illegitimate movement, undermined by unacceptable acts of anarchy.
The word “Thug” is a loaded one, replete with notions of the unsophisticated barbarian, the knuckle dragging neanderthal. When it is unleashed on a movement fighting for racial justice, the pregnant associations hiding behind such language often mirrors the war on terror, and further back Stuart Hall’s policing the crisis. It is ambiguous enough to ensure plausible denial, but evocative enough to provoke a host of behaviours and unsavoury associations. The fact that this is the term that was directed at Black Lives Matter always exuded a horrible odour, but now something interesting has happened. It is important to note on the one hand that the Tories have already implied a “both sides” narrative simply through the similarity of statements made regarding both BLM and this far right retaliation, the only small difference being a minor acknowledgement of legitimate cause with the former. It is also true, however, that what has happened here is by its nature somewhat humiliating; the seething moral panic that developed in the last week over protecting history, in which a mob of cultural revolutionaries was supposed to be preparing to rampage across the country pissing over our heritage, is replaced by one of our brave history-protectors pissing over a monument to a dead police officer.
And so “Thug” is now used to imply equivalence, to suggest that the drunk fury, racist chants, and testosterone fuelled violence of this Saturday is on any way level with a group of excited protesters pulling down a statue. They are all thugs, it is all wrong, we make no distinctions, left or right, we’re not taking sides… this must be resisted. There is a key difference delineated in what you are fighting for, not in the difference between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest, riots and demos, but between fighting for justice and fighting for an imaginary history and against the oppressed. The term used in reporting by some to describe the protestors, “anti-antifascists”, the very generous label applied to them of “counter-protesters”, all speak to the insidious ways in which reactionary outbreaks of violence are framed as exceptions rather than rules, while riots and looting are framed as the rule itself, an essential characteristic.
Where for some thuggery is something that they occasionally break into, a symbol of momentary lost control, for others it is taken as who they are, it is extrapolated into the undermining of their entire cause.
And that, inasmuch as it applies to the media apparatus and the framing of current events, is the problem.