Friday, November 12, 2010

Wednesday's demonstration: all in it together

I thought we would be late. I thought it would all be over. I was working till 12.30 on Wednesday and my brother and I raced down Oxford Street, hoping to catch the tail-end of the demonstration. As two confirmed old students (possibly for life) we knew we had to be there, but had no great hopes that it would be well-attended, especially after the first few anti-cuts demonstrations, which mostly consisted of left activists trying to give each other leaflets in a desultory manner.

In fact, the demonstration was fantastic. As we came into Trafalgar Square, people were still pouring off the coaches, running past Nelson's column to join what I can only describe as the throng. The sun shone down on thousands of innocent upturned faces, people of all ages (and, I would argue, social class... on which, more later) innocent upturned faces singing to the heavens:
Build a bonfire/ build a bonfire/
Put the Tories on the top/
Put the Lib-Dems on the middle/
And then burn the fucking lot.
Songs they must have learnt at their mothers' knee, and which, presumably, their mother had hoped they would never need to sing.

Because while many of the crowd were young striplings or doddery lecturers, or quiet, hard-working researchers and workers from somewhere in between, the mood was not at all sweet and restrained. These were intelligent people demonstrating how extremely, passionately and doggedly angry they were. Yes, it was a peaceful march, and the officious NUS stewards commanded (probably too much, as they were a bit too moronic for my liking) a teacher-like authority over the kids. Police presence was the lowest I've ever seen it and the most outré act of rebellion was the flash-mob-inspired Mexican-wave-style cat-call that occasionally soared along Whitehall. But don't for a moment confuse 'peaceful' with 'accepting' or 'weak'. The kids were as angry as I've seen anyone since the beginning of the Iraq War.

And this is the lie propagated by the media, propounded by the government, and vomited all over us by the filthy Labour careerist Aaron Porter, and I hope it is a lie that stinks so badly that Porter can never wash it off his hands and the students who came out on Wednesday never forget the betrayal. And that they then tell their friends on Facebook and other social networking sites. The lie of the 'violent minority'. The lie of the qualitative difference between the 19-year-olds in the I Love Justin Bieber t-shirts and the 24-year-olds with the black kerchiefs tied around their faces. The lie that 'a peaceful protest was spoilt'. The lie that led to 14 injured activists, 32 arrests and will surely lead on to well-publicised prosecutions of those unlucky enough to still be defending the almost certainly unplanned occupation of Millbank Tower after the sun went down and the riot police turned angry.

Because in fact we were all there because we were full of rage. There's not one way of demonstrating where we all pick flowers, share a roll-up and go home to write our essays, and another where black-clad anarchists plot weeks before the event in secret cellars to spray-paint Tory Scum onto precious private property. Fact is, this is a war. Of course, it's only an opening battle in a war that might never really get started. We know not to get our hopes up every time the newspapers declare a winter of discontent, but if we are serious about combatting state violence against the poor, in the form of attacks on their health, their housing and their access to education, we must unite.

I don't know if the Millbank occupation was a great idea or not (or at least, I'm unwilling to fully commit myself on this point in case my boss reads this blog - oh, go on then, it was pretty cool) but I know that the people united will be defeated rather less often and rather less painfully, and that those 50,000 people shared a common goal: to protect education for the gold-mine it is, not as a stripped-down, efficient and competitive cash-cow. (It must be noted here that the march filled out both sides of Whitehall, and that before I arrived in Parliament Square my father was passing the Tate Modern, so 50,000 strikes me as an underestimation. But what do I know?) (Also, on the word 'efficient', more later.)

Not all of them were politically-conscious or left-wing or, heaven forfend, revolutionary enough to be specifically the kind of dream left-wing activist I see when I close my eyes and fantasise about a future society. The Daily Mail, black-cab drivers' read of choice, claims they were 'middle-class'. One youth had a placard with 'Nick Clegg! You promised!' daubed on it in a plaintive kind of way. He wasn't the only one disappointed with the results of his first ever general election: others cried 'Clegg, Clegg, shame on you/ Shame on you for turning blue!' There were loads of Lib-Dems in evidence, and their sense of betrayal was heart-breaking. Some students held signs asking to keep the cap, rather than scrap the fees. Others were mere school-kids with their uniform still on, including a bright spark (hopefully a future prime-minister) clutching a life-size cardboard cutout of David Cameron with a penis felt-tipped onto his forehead. (Compare with rather more intellectually-minded placard reading 'Try breaking this sign, Nick Robinson, you meretricious wanker,' and you learn something about the richness of British student culture as represented on Wednesday)

Well, much of what I saw on Wednesday was seen and reported by other, faster writers, but some things need noting.

1. I didn't realise it until afterwards, but we were effectively kettled for a long time. As crowds swelled on Whitehall, police stopped the entrance to Parliament Square. This was about 2pm, the same time the first randoms wandered into the Tory party headquarters. As I said, there were hardly any police on the march, and it was obvious they had planned the whole thing extremely badly. As the first rumours of an occupation filtered back to us, we stood immobile for over an hour in the middle of a docile mass of people, with the way forward blocked by a small number of police. Nobody complained. (I did, but only when I and M both ran out of cigarettes). The police had panicked about the situation on Millbank, and blocked us off in order to control the situation. Kettling, since the Tomlinson murder, has been restricted and would not have been allowed at this time of day, but just blocking the march at one end, probably almost as dangerous, is fine.

We weren't informed of what was going on, and it's a testimony that the demonstration was peaceful to a fault and angry to a considerable degree because the people neither pushed, nor became unruly, nor turned back up to Trafalgar Square to go home, but merely stood and waited, and waited, and waited. And when at last they were allowed to move foward, a trickle at a time, they continued in an orderly manner along Millbank to support the occupation.  The people around us were determined to complete the march even though the stewards were chanting 'make your way home' and the rally had been called off. Apart from some cute ones, who attempted a sit-in outside Parliament.

2. Around this point in time (maybe 3pm) the police really panicked. We were walking calmly down Millbank when we were barged by about 30 officers, the same ones who had been staunching the protest into Westminster Square, as they ran headlong towards the Tory headquarters like frightened rabbits. 'They've set the Tory headquarters on fire!' someone shouted, and we smiled affectionately at the terrified coppers staggering forward to do their duty. Bless their hearts.

By the time any riot police turned up, we had made it as far as Lambeth Bridge. Instead of swinging left to where the Tower loomed, less than a hundred yards away, the three police vans turned right towards Parliament and roared into the crowds at at least 30 miles an hour, hooting and wailing while people scattered out of their path. I don't know if their GPS wasn't working or if they wanted to scare any kids into going home, but I suspect the latter. Riot police, huh. When I lived in France and we were marching to save the teacher training porgramme, we used to chant
On veut notr' CAPES/
Pour pas finir CRS. 
(We want our PGCE/ So we don't end up working for the riot police)
They're pretty similar the world over, it seems, like stupider Daleks drunk on violence. A metaphor for the state itself that never becomes any less ironic. The stewards were silly, the police were stupid, the riot police were waiting. I had to leave for work at 5, and I knew the 'violence' so widely-reported would never kick off while I was there. Wait till the kids and the older people and the prams go home. Wait until it gets dark. Thing is, no one went home. And that, in my opinion, is why 'battles raged' for so long. The police wanted the majority to go home so they could put their training into use, the crowd were feeling a heady mixture of curiosity and solidarity. And it's the only way to stop this kind of violence: stick around. The batons come out when the kids go home. When I left, several thousand were still camped solidly below the Tower. 'Tory Scum! Tory Scum!' Well, they are scum. So what do you expect?
3. It was a really good, successful, nice demonstration. We stood in front of Millbank watching the flags being hung over the side of the building, and we felt optimistic. People, newbies and well-seasoned activists alike, were saying 'Isn't this great?' to each other. All kinds of people.

It's been widely reported how diners in the ground floor Pizza Express at Millbank Tower kept eating through the whole thing: well, as I stood outside the door, a middle-aged Asian couple waited patiently for the waiter to unlock the door to let them leave, and the woman gave me the brightest smile as she trotted off into the middle of the crowd. This at the same point in the afternoon that protesters are alleged to have been 'hurling missiles'. And in exactly the same spot. Neither the couple, nor the waiter, attempted to use an alternative exit, but instead opended the door directly onto the semi-circle court that was the epicentre of the alleged violence. Threatening? I don't think so. 


Anonymous said...

Great post.

I have to say that a bit of controllable telegenic violence in central London will have done the police no harm at all as far as their own budget is concerned. Paul Lewis raises some interesting points about their 'unpreparedness' in the Guardian.

Sicily said...

Amazing article. People need to stop perpetuating the idea that some violent twats ruined it for everyone. In a demonstration there's no "them" and "us".