G20: At the scene…
On Wednesday 1st April a friend and I attended the ‘Financial Fools Day’ demonstrations in the City of London. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about our experiences until today, but I feel it’s important – especially given how the event will be likely interpreted by the big media – to contribute to the swathe of first-hand documentation of the protests already developing online.
Beginning at London Bridge, we joined the ‘Silver Horse’ contingent protesting against the crimes, incompetence and greed of the moneyed classes which have symbolised the injustice of this ongoing crisis. Inevitably, the April 1st demo was going to be smaller and of a different milieu than the TUC- and NGO-sponsored march last Saturday. There were, from what I recall, no trade union banners for instance, and the ‘mainstream’ voices of the movement had evidently decided that the financial Powers That Be, having had a jolly good talking to on the weekend, deserved a bit of a rest during the actual G20 meetings.
The demonstration was, however, friendly, diverse and had (in that worn but accurate cliché) a carnival-like atmosphere. The Green Party was well represented, as were the usual hoodies-and-masks ‘Anarchists’, but otherwise it is impossible to pigeon-hole the politics of the march. Socialist Worker sellers and a group waving red flags emblazoned with ‘Revolution’ marched alongside people in fancy dress and face paint, families with young children, white boys with bad clothes, worse dreadlocks but a brilliant taste in reggae, and presumably a fair number who’d just come down to see what all the fuss was about.
I don’t know about the other three groups, protesting against war, climate change and land enclosures, but the silver march passed peacefully along its route between about 11am and midday, with brass bands, chanting and all your usual demo activities. The mood was upbeat and the display colourful and imaginative – skeletons in wheelchairs with tenners pinned to them, pall bearers with coffins marked ‘capitalism’ etc. God knows why the City even bothered telling its workers to come in, as they must have spent half the day looking down on this strange morass of people slowly rolling its way past their offices. A few peering financiers were invited to “jump” and even more received shouted invites to join us – but alas, the opportunity to form ‘Bankers against Banks’ was missed.
When we arrived outside the Bank of England, the street party atmosphere continued, with the other groups arriving around the same time. Sound systems were set up, people began to chalk slogans on any available space (my favourite – “People will stop robbing banks when banks stop robbing people”), and there was generally a good mood, although we, and I imagine many people, were left with a feeling of ‘now what?’ as the march came to an end. I was pleased the “organisers” had succeeded in getting the four marches to converge, and it had been worth it to see all the wonderful creative pageantry of the people set free, even if a few black cabbies would undoubtedly have loved to run us all down for shutting down the roads…
Deciding the demo was spent, my friend and I decided to head off to a Stop the War demonstration scheduled for later in the day. We then realised the police had surrounded the square from all sides and were refusing to let people leave, without explanation or exception.
Over the next several hours the mood of the crowd became increasingly frustrated. There were no toilet facilities (although a few people had begun to urinate on the railings of closed Bank tube station) and people only had the food or water they had brought. Verbal confrontations with the police slowly increased, with people pleading to leave being replaced by calls of “Let us go!”, “Shame!” and “You’re supposed to be protecting us, you twats!” The usual Forward Intelligent Teams were meanwhile busily photographing people from above the square, regardless of whether they were (peacefully) confronting the police or simply remaining in the body of the demonstration unconcerned by the lockdown. In hindsight, my friend and I considered why the police had evidently planned to contain the protest beforehand (just think of the red scare running for weeks in the ‘papers). It was obvious the crowd’s mood would degenerate – indeed the police seemed to understand the provocative nature of their actions, openly getting into their riot gear long before the submissive mood of the march was replaced by a desire force them back.
The first open confrontation occurred several hours after the police had detained the entire march. A small section of the protest, perhaps five hundred people, had been excluded from the man body of people and cordoned off to one side. There was absolutely no conceivable reason for this, as the group in question looked and behaved exactly the same as the rest of the march. As people’s bladders got fuller and their legs more tired, initial attempts to make light of the situation – waving across the police lines separating the two groups, kicking balls over for people to distract themselves with – were replaced by several attempts to link arms and push the police lines back and join up with those cut off. Each time the police responded badly, hitting out randomly, growing more violent.
Suddenly, we managed to create enough weight of numbers to push the police back, allowing the excluded section to rejoin the main demo. The police, evidently worried about the crowd escaping their ad hoc, open air jail, began lashing out wildly (I took several elbows to the face from a charming member of the Metropolitan Police, each time accidently I’m sure – incidentally thank you to the kind couple who kept me on my feet). The cops promptly legged it, fearing the worst and… then nothing. In the brief five minutes which followed the collapse of the police lines, what anarchy, what terrible disorder was unleashed? Nothing. People, so-called Anarchists included, simply began to walk down the one, suddenly opened street, to go – well, wherever they wanted.
Treated as human beings, we behaved like them too.
Minutes later of course, more vans, packed with fully geared-up riot police, screeched to the scene and blocked the crowd’s exit and from here the situation deteriorated into a series of running battles as the protestors, having their brief freedom of movement snatched back, quite simply snapped. Police charges followed as they attempted to break up the demonstration into smaller units, using the F.I.T. squads to pick people out for arrests. And the crowd responded. So yes, RBS was broken into. Empty cans and bottles were thrown. Cop’s helmets were stolen. A single teenager frustrated a police van’s attempts to drive through the crowd for a good five minutes – ha, the hellish chaos of it all! With a hard core growing more determined to resist the heavy-handed response, the police began to concentrate on the cluster of protestors trying to push the police back and reopen the streets – I imagine most people were eventually able to leave simply because the police were too busy trying to keep this section under control. Late in the evening we managed to slip out by a back street, not having eaten, drank or gone to the loo all day, during which time fires were being lit and the conflict escalating further – I am glad we did. It was not a pleasant experience: as the chalk along the tarmac of one of the blocked roads described it, leaving the demonstration and attempted to get past the police and off home felt like leaving freedom behind and walking into a police state.
I’m not sure what my point is, or even if I have one. I am left simply very bruised and pissed off. The police, as ever, prepared for a fight and made sure they provoked the crowd into giving them one. Thousands of people, including children and the elderly, were denied any dignity, forced to stand for hours on end without rest, detained without any explanation or justification, in the centre of London, while bankers looked down waving ten pound notes and young unarmed people were battered by truncheons. Not a pretty site, certainly, but proof enough that something is deeply wrong with this society, and that making some noise is a first step to fixing it; why else would the bastards have been so keen to break up this particular demonstration of popular anger.
Hopefully it will not be the last such display.
(Article by Dan Ashton, who tried to post it when the TCF server was playing silly buggers.)