Understanding Conflict: Protest and Political Violence

Provide tea and biscuits, and you're sure to get a good turnout!
Provide tea and biscuits, and you’re sure to get a good turnout! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

This Monday, I attended the annual symposium of the University of Brighton’s conflict research group (or to give it it’s full name, Understanding Conflict: Forms and Legacies of Violence Research Cluster). With members from disciplines across the arts and humanities, the group seeks to understand violent conflict and its legacies. The annual symposium was organised by postgraduates from the research cluster, and featured a range of presentations by staff and students on themes that ranged from Belfast’s ‘peace walls’ to the aesthetics of AK-47s.

The first question asked by Professor Bob Brecher during his introduction to the symposium was ‘what is political violence?’ It may be a question that the research cluster never fully answers to their satisfaction, but I wonder if protest will be included in any definition that they do come up with. Certainly some members of the research group are working on protest or protest-related topics; Tim Huzar presented at the symposium on the topic of ‘Black Lives Matter and the Question of Non-Violence’, and Zeina Maasri talked about the aesthetics of the AK-47 rifle, and its symbolic role for anti-imperialist struggles during the Cold War. I have often thought about the role of violence in protest movements, and I was hoping that attending this symposium might crystallise some of my ideas.

At the very least, I was about to draw lots of connections between the papers presented at the symposium and my own work on the historical geographies of protest in London. One interesting idea that came out of a lively discussion about drone warfare was the idea of the threat of violence as a controlling force. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the intense surveillance they enable can give the appearance of God-like omnipotence. The threat of a drone strike can have as much as an impact on people, if not more, than a strike itself. In a similar way, the threat of violent and excessive policing can be used to alter the behaviour of protesters and potential protesters. The threat of being arrested, kettled, or manhandled by police can prevent people protesting; I know it has factored into decisions I have made about whether or not to attend protests.

A recurring theme during the symposium was the ways in which violence is remembered and memorialised. Ian Cantoni presented a paper about the new memorial museum at Camp Joffre in southern France, used as an internment camp for much of the 20th Century. Dr. Eugene Michael talked about the use of the Holocaust metaphor to interpret the conflicts in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Just like conflicts, protests can often have difficult and contested legacies. I am currently working on the Battle Cable Street, which is memorialised in the mural shown below. It is a contentious site, and has been vandalised several times since the project began in 1976. As the name suggests, the Battle of Cable Street was a violent protest, and there are multiple conflicting narratives that surround it. The legacies of violent pasts are difficult to process, yet we continue to try, whether that violence took the form of a protest, a riot, or a war.

The Battle of Cable Street memorial in Cable Street, in Tower Hamlets in East London.
The Battle of Cable Street memorial in Cable Street, in Tower Hamlets in East London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is clearly a lot of overlap between conflict and protest, especially violent protest. Protest has an uneasy relationship with violence; violence is a frequent part of unrest, but many activists reject it, for a whole variety of reasons. Nevertheless, I think that any study of protest (even those about deliberately non-violent protest) would be improved by at least a passing consideration of the causes, characteristics, and impacts of political violence.

Thank you to the Conflict research cluster at the University of Brighton for organising such an interesting day and giving me so much to think about!

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