Sunday, March 27, 2011

26th March Protests Across London: Why are windows and the olympic clock more important than people?

The Trojan Horse of the Apocalypse and the Big Society on Westminster Bridge.
Well, yesterday was the big march for the alternative which I almost made myself late for by blogging about before leaving the flat. As I mentioned in that, I was worried about being kettled by the police and having all manner of weird health problems, not to mention the risk of being hit, so I packed a bag full of food and drink, a scarf that could be used as a picnic blanket a nice warm hat as well as a medic alert bracelet and spare medication, just in case I needed to talk to medical staff about why I'd need to leave - although I'd decided that if I was trapped in, I was staying in, not playing a get-out-of-kettle-free card.

I got to Kennington at eleven to meet a group of people and while they assembled, chatted to strangers and gave directions to the park to a range of families, sweet old ladies, people who'd travelled in from very far out of London and a fairly noticeable contingent of young people who'd come in hoods and face scarves that matched my picnic-scarf, but with the idea of keeping their identity away from the police who were already filming people even as we were just gathering outside of Oval station. The presumption of innocence seems to be a thing of the past.

In the park, there was a really friendly mix of people (I have the sense I'm going to be repeating that again and again, but it bears emphasis). I got a few texts from friends asking where we might meet and when I'd said I was at Kennington, a couple replied that they'd heard it was where the big Anarchist lot were starting from, so I should be cautious. That might explain why the police were filming things, if their intelligence had picked up the same thing that friends of mine had heard, so there's a bit of common sense to it.

As we started moving off, the chatter was chirpy, mostly people surprised at the enormity of the march we were on and how this was just a small feeder march that the Police had tried to discourage, saying that it had seemed unnecessary to them (according to one person with a megaphone, anyway, I suspect this might have just been hubris) and people just really enjoying the wit of the banners, and those without them taking the ones handed out by Socialist Worker people, berating them for using bleached card, then tearing out the part that said "Socialist Worker" so they could just keep the slogan.

The horse was amazing. It was one of four horses of the apocalypse, but was the most impressive, and I think it was built at Camberwell, but I might be mistaken. If so, I'm proud. Either way, it was one of the things that gave the march a sense of procession and carnival that really focused the point around bringing people together rather than the horrible politics of division that we're relentlessly exposed to at the moment.

As the march got to Lambeth North, we were told to turn and cross at Blackfriars Bridge, not Westminster, with the argument being that we'd be detained if we kept to the original route, but the bulk of the march refused this and although the vanguard of the march (which I was in) had been moved around by the police and the TUC stewards, so we dashed back to join the main body as they stuck to the plan and pressed on towards Parliament.

There, the anarchists in hoods and scarves started shouting "Oh, 'cause standing around's going to cause a revolution? 'being polite's going to change a fucking thing? The police want you to turn left, oh, I mean right, um so you go right?" and everyone giggled. The megaphone went quiet after that.

By the time we were coming up to Trafalgar Square, the reported numbers were ranging from 250,000 to half a million people. I think that the counting point was along Embankment, so by crossing Westminster Bridge, the tens of thousands who came up from Kennington were not counted, and I wonder how many other feeder marches missed whichever counting point was used. There might be another counting method used, based on helicopter images and an assumption of three people per square metre, which is where I guess the half-million would come from, but by half twelve, when I was approaching Trafalgar Square, people were already solid from Hyde Park Corner all the way along the route along to Trafalgar Square (which was full), down Whitehall to Parliament Square, along the Embankment as far as opposite the National Theatre on the North Side and as far back as Lambeth North to the South. However many square metres that is in people, I don't think it really matters, but it's a lot of people, and that's not including the UK Uncut groups gathering in Soho as they prepared for the occupations in Oxford Street and Piccadilly.
What was really stirring about the march was the diversity of it; you had pensioners' groups marching next to families who were broken-hearted about the cuts to Sure Start services, you had Disabled People Against The Cuts next to youth sports groups. You had people whose focus was on elimination of the tax loopholes which cause the divisions between rich and poor to widen, next to anarchists who believe we should throw out the whole damn system and just start again.

I can't say I agreed with everything that everyone was marching for - the masked kids wanting to smash the state I kind of wished they could travel a bit more and get to have a bit more of an appreciation of what's actually brilliant about this country and the system we've got compared to how it works in other places, but I can empathise with the anger and frustration, but a fresh start needs a transition plan and a sense of what happens afterwards, which there just never seems to be.

These fliers irked me, though - I think to draw comparisons between England and Egypt, Trafalgar and Tahrir, while appealingly alliterative, is lazy and demeans the feat pulled off in the face of live ammunition by the Egyptians and it disrespects the history of political engagement we've got in this country, even though we've got a broken democracy that's at best an elective oligarchy which affords only the illusion of representation, where we get to pretend that our system somehow is something others should aspire to and risk their lives to attain. Oh, and while they're fighting to get there, maybe they might like to buy some British weapons to fight for their democracy against the awful dictator we armed a couple of years back when we thought he might get us some cheap petrol.

I forgot to take a picture as we passed the Ritz, but I remember thinking it odd that two men were shouting "Fuck the rich, smash the Ritz!" which just got a reply of "What's that got to do with anything?" from a woman near us. There was a Sky News camera crew just next to them, and the pair disappeared from the march just afterwards.

Now, I don't want to be suspicious or anything, but I also heard of people being offered money from reporters to throw bricks at windows (£25 was the going rate, allegedly), so the fact that the reporters just happened to be exactly at the perfect spots to get the perfect shots might not be entirely coincidence when those photos get them the front pages to net the outraged front pages.

The march was overwhelmingly, and I mean that in the sense that it was stirringly and heart-warmingly, peaceful and friendly. The chances of the reporters knowing to be at the exact spots where the 16 people who, during the day, engaged in criminal activity resulting in arrest out of a crowd of 500,000 beggars belief, frankly.

I mean, look - is this a bunch of mindless yobs intent on destroying London and Londoners?

No, it's a fucking enormous number of people in Hyde Park, milling around, chatting and being a bit twee, trying to put the world to rights over a picnic. This was the contents of my backpack:
Sure, that scarf could be used to cover my identity and I could douse it in water to protect me from pepper spray, and the oil content of that cheese dip could help to lift pepper from my skin if I were exposed to a chemical attack like that, but really, sometimes a picnic is just a picnic.
Here's what Oxford Street looked like - closed off to traffic because of the horrific threat of riots. And here's the tremendous damage done to BHS by the UK Uncut people:
Oh, some paint. The Police were reporting "Ammonia devices have been employed against officers." I think there's a world of difference between the kind of chemical weapon that implies and the likely truth of it, that they really mean a joke shop stink bomb. Sure, it's disruptive and nasty, but to say chemical weapons and a sustained assault of missiles from a hard-core of violent people intent on ruining everything for everyone is a bit of a diversion. I mean, this was the main target of UK Uncut:
There's a lovely irony about the slogan in the window, and the main flashing wasn't violence but the flash of people posting pictures up onto twitter. In the centre of Oxford Circus, there were the ashes from where the giant horse had been broken down and burned - now, I'm not sure if this was a genuine Trojan Horse to use as a weapon, or just because it was cold and people needed to warm up when they were being held without charge for hours and had no access to food, water or somewhere to go to the toilet.

Generally, though, the policing that I experienced, was very low-key, friendly and polite - the Met police were a little cowed, even, as though ashamed about how things had gone down in the past. One guy caught himself cruising me, we laughed at each other, then his role forced itself around him again like armour and he couldn't meet my eye as he became a policeman again, but the reminder that it's people who are generally motivated by a desire to do a job that involves a social conscience and a connection with people (maybe not just cruising protesters, admittedly) was important.

I have to admit, I'm confused by the attack on Fortnum and Masons, who give a large amount of their income to charitable ventures in the arts, education and other areas and have quite a clear corporate social responsibility policy which would, in my eye, imply they're taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but I'll freely admit to not knowing the full picture, and the UK Uncut people generally do their homework before picking their targets, so I'm not going to let my love of fancy cheese colour my opinion too much before I worry about it being a class war action rather than something more clearly about closing tax inequality.

Trafalgar Square was a party. We went there and there were people drumming and playing music and dancing around. It was a laugh. People were chatting to the police and drawing in chalk on the pavement outside the National Gallery. It was a party, and the people there were having fun and relaxing after a nice day. There was still stuff happening in Piccadilly, but the people in Trafalgar Square weren't the people who'd set out to smash things, they were there to dance around and have a laugh.

We left with a smile on our faces and even commented that the police had been really relaxed.

On the train back, I heard from other friends that I'd just missed madness. Someone had tried to put a sticker on the Olympic Clock, the police had tried to stop him, his friends pulled him away, the police arrested him and hit some of his friends, then released him, while others rallied around and shouted at them for being unreasonable - a couple of people threw their water bottles, by which point the riot police had been radioed in. The police by the Olympic Clock released the man and things eased off, but the riot team came in hard and attacked people, including an unarmed teenage girl who was already crying when she was hit, so the people who had been drinking and dancing fought to protect the people being attacked and it turned into a major situation, all because one man tried to put a sticker on the Olympic Clock.

The news reported it as a hard core of violent protesters intent on causing property damage throwing missiles at police officers. The policeman interviewed described them as "Mindless yobs" which seems more than a little off, as does the police twitter feed which said:

Police UK
Its nearly 0000 London is feed up of you it is time to go home without causing further violence to londoners

I think that you can read all you need into the level of literacy displayed there. We need a much better education system in this country so we can have a much better civil society.

All the property damage stuff and the nonsense about how the BBC News woman interviewed Laurie Penny and refused to let her say anything other than "The people in the square are criminals" is a wild distraction.

We had an enormous number of people on the streets of London yesterday, uniting to express a shared sense of a need to address inequity in society across a wide range of issues. The march was dealing with complex issues, the mandate this gives to the unions and the wide range of groups marching to progress with arguing the case for a fairer society is a powerful one.

We need to move the discourse away from relentlessly attacking the undeserving poor and the mindless yobs, and instead perhaps question the solipsistic yahoos in power and the rich who lack the sense of humility, responsibility and grace we used to associate with wealth and then let's see where this movement can take us.

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