From top: A Mural in Ranelagh, Dubliun 6 by the Greay Area artist collective depicting the forced removal of protesters occupying a vacant premises; Bryan Wall
When protestors, under the banner of Take Back the City, occupied a vacant building on North Frederick Street in Dublin, they most likely expected that the government forces would come calling.
Usually this involves threats of legal action with the protestors eventually leaving of their own accord or being removed, sometimes with force, by the Gardaí.
North Frederick Street was different though. Instead of the usual Garda presence, the activists were now faced by masked private security — mercenaries given the context — who were backed up by masked Gardaí.
As expected whenever masked security forces make an appearance, and after literally beating and cutting down the front door, the activists were abused and attacked by the masked men. Four ended up in hospital with a range of injuries, including neck and head injuries.
At least one suffered a concussion which “will need further [medical] attention”. The reaction from the supporters of the state and various government ministers has been par for the course, which is absolutely unsurprising.
But, and this is what many seem to have missed, indicates something much more dangerous and sinister: That the government has both contempt and fear for such activism and that they will stomp it down no matter how it looks.
Contempt for activists and protestors is nothing new in the Irish political milieu. When the anti-water charge protests were at their peak Joan Burton was quick to dismiss the concerns of the activists by referring to the expense of their phones.
Similarly, when Leo Varadkar said there was a “very sinister fringe” involved in the same anti-water charge movement he was, like Burton, displaying a contempt for the activists and protests.
It is fine to question government policy but only within the polite and constrained bounds of Irish political discourse. This means you make representations to your local politician and they do their best to see that your wishes are examined.
Of course, this all depends on the fact that the politician in question deems it worthy of their interest and effort to bring your issue to the attention of others within the political system. If it isn’t worthy, then democracy has spoken and the system has functioned as designed.
Filtering of political issues ensures that the “real” work of governing can get on in spite of the interests of the populous.
When you dare to go around this hierarchy and engage directly with the world then you can be deemed as deserving of nothing but contempt given your disavowal of a perfectly functioning democratic system.
In this way you can then be denigrated as “sinister” or as not truly representing the working class given your particular choice of phone.
In the case of North Frederick Street, the activists are too ignorant to warrant even talking to, therefore they can be dealt with by a private mercenary force.
But the contempt shown for them also betrays a fear of this kind of activism.
This fear exists because the activists in question have gone around the system. Just as the fact that engaging directly with the world and undermining the top-down political hierarchy results in a feeling of contempt amongst the ruling classes, it also engenders fear.
Fear emerges because activism of the kind shown at North Frederick Street demonstrates that the current representative system of politics, in which people and ideas are filtered out, is highly inegalitarian and undemocratic.
To show another way in which society can function will cause a “crisis of democracy” — something I have written about earlier — whereby people who have previously been denied a voice in society finally find an outlet for it.
These kinds of people must not be allowed to gain a foothold, however. Any demonstration of an alternative to the current system must be suppressed.
Hence, the contempt and fear of the ruling elite legitimates their use of force. And that is what makes the violent eviction of the activists on North Frederick Street an important moment in Irish society.
Unless you are willing to play by the neo-liberal rulebook, you will be crushed regardless of how it looks. The system, as it is, must stand.
Those rushing to defend the fact that masked Gardaí were defending a masked private security force miss this very point. For them, the violence inflicted on others will never reach them. Oftentimes, however, people find themselves involved in political or social movements where they never had been before.
This is becoming increasingly so as neo-liberalism and climate change pummel the majority of the planet’s inhabitants. So whilst right now they see themselves as being out of reach of the baton of state-sanctioned violence, this could change at any moment.
All it takes is for one small event to politicise that person and then they are not only within the reach of the aforementioned baton, but they are on the frontlines of a movement.
Instead of realising it too late they must be made to realise now, while there is still time, that fascist tendencies can be as close as only one legislative moment away.
In the aftermath of the eviction, the Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, said that he would be in favour of legislation to ban the filming or photographing of Gardaí “as they try to go about their policing duties.”
Although the Taoiseach, when asked, said that the government had no plans to introduce such legislation, the mere suggestion of its introduction, by a Justice Minister, should be of great concern.
The concept of a masked police force supported by, or supporting, a likewise masked private security force is a central pillar of an authoritarian state. This is axiomatic and anybody concerned with politics understands this very simple concept.
That a Minister of Justice can advocate for a more or less anonymised police force means that he either has no understanding of democracy, and its obverse, or he does, and favours the method that involves the population being kept in line by brute force.
Although in the instance of Frederick Street no specific legislation was passed in order to violently evict them in defence of a property-owning class, it should be self-evident that the tools of repression can be used according to the whims of those who hold the monopoly on said violence. Here that monopoly holder is the state.
With the suggestion put forward by the Justice Minister in mind, it is obvious how the state resorting to violence and creating a framework in which it can flourish is, if not at the forefront of the minds of some government ministers, then it at least occupies some space in their range of tactics; out of sight but never out of mind.
Along with state violence the use of contempt and hysteria both play an important role in ensuring the success of the former. If this involves intimating or outright claiming violence was carried out by the actual victims, or suggesting that they are inherently violent given their specific set of political or social beliefs, then all the better.
Victimhood at the hands of state-backed violence is not a legitimate defence in the eyes of apologists.
Having the temerity to question how society functions is enough to ensure your place outside of the acceptable limits of political discourse. This being the case, the state and its supporters denigrate, obfuscate, and fearmonger to their heart’s content.
In the aftermath of the evictions, one group in particular has been singled out. An anarcho-communist group, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement (W.S.M.), have had their role in the occupation on Frederick Street highlighted by the state broadcaster.
As the WSM. pointed out, “any or all of the 17 groups that actually comprise Take Back the City” could have been mentioned, among other things, in the reporting of the eviction.
Instead, the W.M. was the only one named. Similarly, former politician, and now talking head, Ivan Yates decried the occupiers, labelling them as “anarchists” and thereby, in his mind at least, calling into question their motives.
That Yates unlikely knows the finer points of anarchist philosophy or theory is of no importance to the wider message. In his mind, anarchism is synonymous with chaos and violence.
In labelling the occupiers as “anarchists” in the derogatory sense he intends, the message is clear. Anyone who is an “anarchist” can be dealt with by masked men willing to commit violence on behalf of state power.
And given that the WSM. were the only organisation involved in Take Back the City who were named by RTÉ., the goal is clear: Undermining the activity of groups like Take Back the City but more importantly, attempting to counter the message that they send to people.
A message that tells people state power can be bypassed and that direct action is an inherently positive undertaking is a threat to a system which relies on the filtering out of certain groups of people.
Brendan Howlin, the leader of the Labour Party, has said that the occupiers and protestors of Take Back the City are “not something I would be associated with”, presumably lamenting the breakdown of the filtering process.
Given Labour’s recent history of its betrayal of the working class this is unsurprising. It is nonetheless maddening in its routine defence of the current political and social system which has seen homelessness and an artificially created housing crisis take hold of the country.
But these issues are unimportant relative to the fact that the system as it currently functions must survive; unimportant to the government and its apologists. If that means masked men working for private security have to kick down doors and beat a few protestors, so be it.
To try and bypass the system in order to create a more just society, or to even merely demonstrate in protest of such injustice, is to declare oneself worthy of a visit from men wearing masks.
What this means for future protests in Ireland is unknown but one thing is certain. Once used, private security in order to support state power is a genie not put back into its bottle.
And whilst this puts activists and protestors on the defensive in the short-term, if anything it shows how effective something like Take Back the City is and how fearful the state has become.
Bryan Wall is a PhD candidate in the departments of sociology and philosophy in University College Cork. His interests are in citizenship, human rights, democratic and political theory, and the history of Zionism. Read his work here