No one stood up, perhaps that’s the strangest thing about it. When a woman dressed in a blood red gown walked into a formal dinner last night, calmly but confidently past Mark Field MP – and when he unexpectedly raised a hand to push her into a stone pillar, shoving and grappling with her angrily and gripping her neck as he finally marched her away – nobody stood up. Nobody appeared to be shocked, or angry or even, by the looks of it, marginally disturbed from their dinner as it happened. And then it was over.
Last night, as the footage of Field’s actions was shared and shared and discussed, a trickle of horror turned into outrage. All morning the video played in loops on newspaper landing pages as readers fell into distinct groups: those who watched agog, in disbelief that and MP would have the temerity to behave in such a way, to a peaceful protestor raising awareness for Greenpeace; and those who thought the assault was “well-deserved”. “My wife would know the consequences if she did something like that,” one commenter said. “Boy done good!” another told Field.
Meanwhile the MP for cities of London and Westminster was apologising “unreservedly” to the protester he attacked, and being suspended from his ministerial role in the Foreign Office. Theresa May found the incident, which many say amounts to assault and should be a matter for the police now, to be “very concerning”. Field referred himself to the Cabinet Office to “examine if there has been a breach of the ministerial code”. In a statement released early on Friday morning, prior to his suspension, Field said he had reacted “instinctively”. He was “genuinely worried”, he said, that the protestor might have been armed.
He “grasped the intruder firmly in order to remove her from the room as swiftly as possible”, he said. “I deeply regret this episode and unreservedly apologise to the lady concerned for grabbing her but in the current climate I felt I needed to act decisively to close down the threat to the safety of those present.”
Almost immediately his statement was backed by several (mainly white, male, middle-aged) MPs, convening with Field’s anxiety about attacks on MPs. Rather crassly, Jo Cox’s murder was weaponised to this end. And there must be anxiety for any politician – or anyone in a public role – it is a natural defence to threats of violence. Except, in this case, the argument seems to conveniently ignore the 100-strong audience who were moved to do… absolutely nothing given this “threat”, even when Field ironically became violent himself, as the protester walked very calmly beside him.
Imagine, I thought while reading them, if a woman behaved in that way each time she felt threatened in this country.
Imagine if we fizzed up with rage every time they walked uncomfortably close to us on the street. If we pushed men when they followed us, or cat-called obscenities at us. Imagine if we became physical every time someone groped us on the tube or slipped a hand up our skirts or didn’t take no for an answer. Imagine. We don’t, though – we don’t fight back. Instead we hold ourselves in and ignore it and we make very sure that we do not “ask for it”; we change our routes home and carry rape alarms in our backpacks and keys in our hands so that we do not risk our integrity. Because, unlike Field, we are well aware that our privilege doesn’t allow us the option of fighting back – we wouldn’t be “justified” by a threat, we’d be blamed.
And that’s really what this is about. It’s not about “people” or “politicians” and “protesters” – though it is worth saying that it’s a crying shame the woman at the centre of this video’s cause has not really been heard in great detail – or even gender, really. Field would have reacted like that to any male he perceived to be below his stature. Rather, it’s about class its ability to justify unjustifiable actions. Once again, we saw immense privilege trump very basic civility. Field wasn’t afraid to act violently in front of a room full of people, in front of cameras and colleagues, because he thought it was acceptable. He wasn't scared, he was a little bit uncomfortable and he was angry – and he felt justified in his anger because of his position. Sadly, he was validated at once by a room full of people who did nothing.
I am not surprised that no one stood up at the Mansion House dinner last night and I’m not surprised that thousands of people are now defending Field’s actions. What do we expect when society continually diminishes the impact of violent men? “We are used to it,” one commenter remarked. And that is the sorriest thing about it.