There have been two events in the space of a month where politicians have called the people on to the streets and the resulting scenes of chaos have been broadcast around the world.
The first was Mr Trump’s call to his supporters and the storming of the Capitol. 5 people died. The second has been Navalny’s call to take to the streets on 23rd January. Comparisons may not be wanted but they cannot really be avoided.
Riots have been a feature of history and there have been many different ways of stirring them up and of quelling them. Cleon and Alkibiades stand as images of demagogy. While Libanius argued for clemency and Piso favoured reason in dealing with a rioting mob but for the most part riots in the ancient world, however they were started, were met with the brute force of a military crackdown.
The riot act of 1714/15 was only repealed in 1967 and effectively meant that if people did not disperse when told to do so, they faced death. Hence, the phrase “to read the riot act”.
Last year, the George Floyd protests turned violent and 5000 National guard were deployed across 15 states and Washington DC. Parallels were drawn then with the riots in the UK when protests over the death of Mark Duggan in early August turned into 4 days of looting and riot. In the British instance, copycat riots flared up acros sthe country leading to more than 3000 arrests and 5 deaths, a number of serious injuries and £200 million property damage. These were the early days of social media and a combination of twitter and the more prestigious blackberry system (BBM) was used to direct looting. People posed for photographs, selfies, with their stolen goods and indeed these self-same trpophy pictures were later used by the police to identify them and make arrests.
The Daily Mail and BBC were quick to blame Twitter. The Daily Telegraph particularly talked about twitter as a means to “incite and film the looting and violence”. Some of this could be put down to pique that the traditional media was late in getting the story, and there is also a case for arguing that twitter was simply the “messenger” of choice. But ease of communication must be a factor in the spread and speed of the riots, the flash-mobs that moved from venue to venue and the subsequent looting. Following the riots, the MP for Tottenham David Lammy called for BBM to be suspended.
Various other factors have been advanced to explain how a peaceful protest might turn into a riot. Police over-reaction, and response as well as the presence of agitators in the mass of protestors can be decisding factors. Often, it is a matter of nightfall. What is peaceful during the day turns nasty at night.
In the UK, the right to peaceful protest is well documented and is defined by the mass marches seen regularly from the Jarrow crusade to the countryside alliance against the Blair fox hunting law. Indeed, the right to protest peacefully is enshrined not only in common law but also in the human rights act of 1988. Buttressing these is Article 10 of the European convention on Human rights which explicitly protects freedom of expression free of state interference and Article 11 which guarantees the Right to Peaceful assembly.
There are grey areas, of course, as these laws are interpreted in a variety of different ways that might permit, for instance, police practices like kettling and guiding protestors, filming and monitoring them and placing restrictions on numbers and location of protests, particularly those taking place near Parliament. It might have been interesting to have seen what would have happened in practice had Jeremy Corbyn won a National election and then had to face down a protest led by his brother Piers.
But the rights of freedom of association and of assembly are qualified rights and, certainly in Britain, protests can be prevented in the interest of health and safety. Under the tiered lockdown, a protest might have been legitimate but I wonder if it would be equally legitimate under the current blanket lockdown rules. I know there were plans to tighten up the rules and that the Government has discouraged mass protests.
This brings me to the protests across Russia. So far, I understand that about 2000 people have been arrested and detained; film records suggest that many of these arrests were targeted by the police at known supporters and “ring-leaders”, and it is also clear from before the protest began that the police intended to stop it citing a variety of reasons, only one of which was covid regulations and health, another was about “encouraging minors to commit illgal acts that might endanger their safety”. The number of people who turned out, therefore, despite the threats from the authorities, is remarkable. Perhaps more remarkable is the absence of any reports so far of looting. This, to me, marks this protest out as very different to the one that took place on 6th January in Washington. Looting, violence and shooting suggests something terrible which was aggravated by Trump’s failure to call his supporters to heel even if they might have been inclined to disobey him. At its heart, therefore, is the question of “incitment” which has always been tricky in an age of free speech and mass media. My argument would be very simple, that a head of state should not be in a position where this is even under debate. Trump chose foolishly to place himself at the heart of an angry mob. Trump’s role as a sitting President puts the riot of 6th January in a completely different box to anything called today to support the cause of Alexei Navalny.
AS for the Nalavny story itself, there is now a new twist emerging. The Kremlin has clearly decided that its policy of denial is no longer working. It has now started to aportion blame and claims that the Navalny telephone call to Kadryacheb could not possibly have happened without American secret service support.
I am afraid this is a lame claim. I will finish therefore with a small story from my own experience. When I was trying to work out what had happened to my partner in detention in Crete in 2001, and to secure justice for him, I found myself facing not only a stone wall of legal indifference mounted by the judicial system in Hania but also by a form of manipulation from the very charities that should have supported him, whose offices in Athens behaved scurriously. In some desperation, therefore, I called the coastguard office and, by pure chance, spoke to an official who not only knew of the case but was clearly friends with the men who had been responsible for Necati’s assault. Simply because I spoke to him in Greek, this man assumed I was part of the navy defence team and I am afraid I did not make any effort to clarify my role. Accordingly, he sang like a canary and confirmed many of my worst fears, chief of which was that tehre was implicit State support for Dandoulakis and Vardakis. I did not need US sceret service support to make this phone call. I simply relied on the rank stupidity and boredom of the staff who answered the phone. Equally, I did not intend to have the telephone conversation that occured. It was a matter of pure chance. I am sure that Navalny was able to do exactly the same and the story he tells about his exchange with Kadryacheb sounded very familiar indeed to me.
This is now a story that can only have one ending. How that happens, God knows, but Putin’s time has been called and it is up to him to look over to Trump and to negotiate a more dignified exit. If I were now in Navalny’s position, I would ensure that an up to date and detailed manifesto is published as soon as possible. He has secured the youth vote. He now needs to reassure the older generations and business leaders that he has the means to deliver a better future and a stable, functioning government. He might be the face of this movement at the moment but he needs a much bigger team around him, and more dynamic local leaders to lend their voice to his or it will be a matter of replacing one autocrat with another. This should not be about revolution but about Russian reasurance.