Glasgow’s Ongoing Tradition of Protest

Glasgow has a long tradition of struggle, probably the most notable among the cities that currently comprise the UK state.  From the Act of Union in 1707, when people attacked the provost’s home, after he refused to allow anti-Union messages to be read, stormed the council chambers and were stopped from marching to Edinburgh by the military, to today, unaccountable political measures are implemented through the use of state violence.

On occasions there is tensions within the state.In 1725, a Malt Tax introduced to fund the war with France, was extended from England to include Scotland.  When the customs officials entered Glasgow there was  fierce resistance, and they were blocked from entering the brewery to assess, and threats were made to burn the home of the local MP who had supported its introduction.   The MP sent for support from General Wade, the head of the military who dispatched 400 soldiers where they met with streets lined with angry riots and curious spectators.  Firing into the crowd, twenty were killed and the soldiers were ran out of Glasgow.  When the Glasgow magistrates tried over 100 people accused of participating and found the vast majority not guilty, the Lord Advocate arrested and tried the magistrates, and although acquitted, a letter was sent round the Royal Burghs demanding they suppressed resistance to the Malt Tax.

Over the next century, troops were regularly sent in to disperse the hungry crowds caused by high unemployment and rising food prices and six weavers were shot by the army while on strike in 1787 and the leader of the strike exiled.  United Scotsman Societies sprang up, organised in secret cells of no more than 16 members .  On the 1st April 1820, a proclamation appeared all over Glasgow and further afield,

Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that torpid state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives….

“Equality of rights (not of property)… Liberty or Death is our motto, and we have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more…. we earnestly request all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the first of April [until] in possession of those rights… To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are but a brave and generous people determined to be free.

A failed insurrection saw a strong clampdown.  As prisoners were being transported to Greenock prison, solders opened fire on the crowd, killing eight.  The gaol was later stormed the prisoners freed.  Hardie and Baird, two of the insurrection’s leaders had no such good fortune.  They were hanged and beheaded in front of a 2000 strong crowds who swore vengeance as the Sheriff, instructed the crowd to go home and read their bibles.  Buried in an unmarked grave, they were later reburied by comrades in Sighthill Cemetery.

In 1919 a strike, called by the Clyde Workers Committee, to demand a forty hour week saw the Provost read out a statementfrom the government in George Square. When a tram, a key point of conflict in the dispute as the strikers had demanded no trams should run except those on essential business, ran through the square, the police charged at the crowd, who retaliated. Shindwell and Kirkwood, the representatives of the CWC who were meeting with the council at the time quickly left the city chambers to calm the crowd.  On exit, Kirkwood was attacked by police and both were immediately arrested.  When the Sheriff attempted to read the Riot Act, a  furious crowd tore it from his hands, refusing to give up the square and instead marched to Glasgow Green led by many who had just returned from the front and been promised a land fit for heroes.  That night, troops stationed at Maryhill Barracks were locked in, as the government drafted in thousands of young English soldiers and stationed tanks in Glasgow to deal with the insurrection.   Kirkwood, Shinwell and Willie Gallagher were all tried for incitement to riot.

If you know your history
Then you know where I’m coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the hell do I think I am

Buffalo Soldier, Bob Marley

 For those who think that this is the dim and distant past, the authorisation of baton rounds and the threats to use water cannons to deal with the unrest last August, as well as the authorisation given to use rubber bullets against student protesters in November last year and the eventual recommendation from Her  Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to use water cannons, plastic bullets and live ammunition in any future civic disorder demonstrates the UK state is still willing to turn violent on its citizens.  Austerity that is coming, and the homelessness, food insecurity and fuel poverty caused will be accentuated by the rising inflation taking hold.

A political elite determined to drive their own agenda through showy celebrations of nationhood in the Olympics, the monarchy and the cultural imperialism of Union Jack iconography rather than attend to the civic needs of the population will see a backlash by those affected by these measures, while far right ideologies – as has been seen in Greece and Spain – fertilised by the state approved nationalism may take root.  It is critical that we defend the right to protest, to directly challenge those who push through damaging measures through the threat of state violence.  The policing of Critical Mass demonstrates how far the state is willing to go to shut down dissent or any challenges to its authority and narrative.

While the situation may not be quite so bad in Scotland, we have seen the arrest of groups of people associated with the Hetherington Occupation where police supported a heavy handed attempt by the University to evict following the attempt.  We have seen arrests of peaceful demonstrators at an anti-cuts rally in Edinburgh, on Palestine demonstrations, on refugee demonstrations, on diversity rallies and again at an anti-cuts rally in Glasgow.  Breach of the peace, a loose and vague piece of legislation, but one which can carry prison sentences of up to 12 months, is being used to shut down dissent.

The state has always used the violence at its disposal to silence the population.  We need to ensure that policing is accountable and proportionate.  In Greece, a police force overrun by fascists has become a threatening presence, and while the threat may not be of the same order here, armed police deployed at an NHS demonstration in London, and the security measures put in place during the London Olympics shows a worrying trend. The English Riots, a year ago demonstrate what happens when a population faced with repressive and violent policing have no opportunities for redress.

It is critical that there are outlets for valid dissent and that justice system protects all citizens and upholds their rights.

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