Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Comment: Blaming the protesters

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #64 (Summer 2018)] 

Image result for peterloo

From Peterloo 1819 to Gaza 2019 

The author and beard wearer Michael Rosen has commented on social media that when it comes to protests when the authorities injure or kill protesters, they invariably claim that the protesters are to blame. Certainly that seems to be the official reaction to deaths and injuries of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border on 30 March 2018. We should be cautious about historical comparisons because we can’t be sure we are really comparing like with like. Each situation has its own specificity yet even so Rosen’s general point has validity.
When the Manchester Yeomanry cut down and killed and injured protesters for the vote at Peterloo in central Manchester on 16 August 1819, the authorities blamed this on fleeing protesters. Still, that was a long time ago. This is what E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class about protest and justice at Peterloo:

If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact. Within a fortnight the congratulations of Sidmouth (Home Secretary - KF) and the thanks of the Prince Regent were communicated to the magistrates and the military ‘for their prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace’. Demands for a parliamentary enquiry were resolutely rejected. Attorney and Solicitor-Generals were ‘fully satisfied’ as to the legality of the magistrates’ actions. The Lord Chancellor (Eldon) was of the ‘clear opinion’ that the meeting was an ‘overt act of treason’.. State prosecutions were commenced, not against the perpetrators, but against the victims of the day- Hunt, Saxton, Bamford and others- and the first intention of charging them with high treason was only abandoned with reluctance. If the Manchester magistrates initiated the policy of repression, the Government endorsed it with every resource at its disposal.. Hay, the clerical magistrate prominent on the Peterloo bench, was rewarded with the £2,000 living of Rochdale.' 

Interestingly on the 150th anniversary of Peterloo in 1969 the Sunday Telegraph repeated the point. Even at that distance the reality of the massacre had to be denied. The Mandrake column (20 July 1969) was headed ‘The massacre that never was’.

Reviewing a new book, Robert Walmsley’s Peterloo: the case reopened (MUP) it noted ‘most of the day’s comparatively few casualties were caused were caused by a trampling panic amongst the crowd’. That is a reassuring explanation, and even if not a factual one, a reminder about how to spin unfortunate events in the present day perhaps….

Keith Flett 

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