Thursday, 8 July 2010

Our Martyred Dead

From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

Our rulers have had a variety of ways to deal with resistance and demands for change in the last 200 years
or so, but when all else fails brute force has always been an option.
When the Israeli Defence Force murdered 10 activists and injured many more on a flotilla trying to get aid to Gaza on May 31st it was, historically, another episode in a history of massacres by those with power against those without.
At Burford in May 1649 Cromwell’s troops cut down radical soldiers who wanted to be paid off rather than go to Ireland and participate in the massacres that he had planned there. So began a long history of protest, revoltand repression.
In central Manchester in 16 August 1819 when the Yeomanry, troops on horseback, cut down with sabres
unarmed demonstrators for the vote. Thousands had marched from surrounding towns and villages to the City to demand their democratic rights. At least 13 were killed in what was dubbed Peterloo. An official memorial to those who protested and died for democratic rights is still awaited.
That, perhaps, is the key point. The authorities hope that a blunt and murderous show of force will squash protest flat. Initially of course it may. Not many go on a demonstration with the thought they could get murdered. Indeed, the historical point is that protesters are invariably peaceful. The violence comes from the forces of the State.
Father Gapon, for example, had no intention of sparking the 1905 Russian Revolution. It was the reaction of the Tsarist Government to a peaceful protest that set matters in train.
But even in the short term, there are the funerals of those who were killed and the accounts of those who escaped. These are mobilising points. In the longer term the memory of those who fought and died for a cause brings new generations onto the field of struggle.
In more recent times killings of those demanding a better world have become more common. Capitalism allows murder on an industrial scale and hugely well armed State forces sometimes confront unarmed protesters with predictable results.
While most demonstrations pass off peacefully enough, the instances of those where State violence leads to death and injury are now substantial enough to fill a book. South Africa under apartheid saw two key massacres of those fighting for the kind of democratic society that now exists in that country — Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 when 69 were killed and Soweto on 16 June 1976 when 23 were killed.
From Hungary in 1956 to Prague in 1968 and Tiananmen Square in 1989 Governments that pretended to stand in the name of workers but did not cut down those who wanted a genuine socialist society.
Closer to home again the British State sent paratroopers to shoot down 13 protesters for civil rights in Derry on the 30th of January 1972. They tried to claim they were terrorists. Later they agreed that was a lie, but the latest inquiry into what took place is only now set to report almost 30 years on.
We should also remember situations where individual protesters have died—Kevin Gately in 1974 at Red Lion Square and Blair Peach at Southall in 1979, both fighting the National Front, and Ian Tomlinson in the 2009 City of London G20 protests — though he was not even actually a protester. More might well have died on each occasion. That they did not was a matter of luck.
Again there are historical antecedents for individual deaths on demonstrations. The original Bloody Sunday was on 20 November 1887 when police killed a young clerk Alfred Linnell demonstrating in central London about Government policy on Ireland. The result was more and larger demonstrations and a significant growth in influence of Marxist groups like the Social Democratic Federation.
As the words of the Red Flag note:
‘Come dungeons dark or gallows grim this song shall be our parting hymn’.
In other words: do mourn, but in doing so also mobilise.
Or perhaps as the framed and executed organiser for the US Industrial Workers of the World Joe Hill had it
‘don’t waste time in mourning ... organise’.
Keith Flett

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