Sunday, 27 March 2011

Class war on the streets of London

So, it's been and gone. Perhaps the biggest event in a generation, the TUC's "March for the Alternative," is past. The media is filled with images of fires, riots, and broken glass, playing a narrative of "violent anarchists" who "hijacked" a peaceful demo. So what was the point of it all?

From the outset, "the point" depended entirely upon your perspective. Most of the people there were marching quite simply because their jobs, their services, and their livelihoods are under attack. This included those of us in socialist and anarchist blocs, who also argued for a much broader perspective and recognition that capitalism itself was the issue, not just the current "ConDem cuts." Whereas, for the TUC, the point was to stage-manage popular discontent and give the Labour Party a platform.

Arriving in London, myself and other members of the Liverpool Solidarity Federation headed to Kennington Park. This was where the South London feeder march would be assembling, and we met up with other SolFed members, as well as members of the Anarchist Federation and other class struggle anarchists to form the Radical Workers Bloc on that march.

Particularly amusing was seeing the Scum's prediction that "student protesters are building an 18ft wooden horse which they plan to burn together with a cart containing effigies of the royals" come true. Albeit in slightly less impressive form. Flanked by some superbly crafted effigies representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse and bearing the legend "TUC Armed Wing," it was less an imposing threat to public order and more a novel carnival float. But then, as one South London SolFed comrade put it, Chris Knight may represent the batshit-crazy wing of the anarchist movement, but he is at least entertaining.

After we set off, the march passed largely without incident until the police tried to direct us away from the route which would take us over Westminister Bridge and allow us to feed in to the main march. There were several moments of confusion, until a group decisively broke through and brought the rest of the march along with us. This led to a rather proud moment where a line of police blocking the bridge stepped aside for a mass of several hundred people, the Liverpool Solidarity Federation's banner at its head.

Crossing the bridge, what struck me was that we could see the main march snaking far ahead and far behind the point that we entered it. It was enormous, and densely packed too. Yet we couldn't see either the front or the back. The TUC states that they stopped counting at 250,000 people, and the media's most generous estimate is 500,000, but there had to be at least a million people protesting in London that day. If not more.

The result of this was that the march moved extremely slowly. It was so densely populated that holding a banner aloft was difficult at best.

We shuffled past the fortress that Westminister had become, lines of police staring stone-faced at us from behind crash barricades. The pace picked up as we went beyond Downing Street, where protesters engaged in pantomime by hurling a chorus of boos at the abode of a Prime Minister who was very far away from the protests against his government.

As we travelled down the route, we kept seeing the green bibs of Liberty, operating under the pretence of "legal observers." All had their backs to the police, watching the protesters. Later reports from other comrades suggest that they were pointing out people to the intelligence gatherers of FIT, and even taking photographs themselves. None of them handed out bust cards, as the genuinely independent legal observers of the Green and Black Cross were doing. They were, after all, part of the police operation rather than being there for our protection.

Finally, we reached Trafalgar Square, where it was possible to step out of the march for a break and some food and water.

Up to a hundred people were congregating around the base of Nelson's column, with a couple sitting on the backs of the lion statues. Further back, a huge banner had been unfurled that stated: "we demand regime change!" The occupation of the square was due to begin at 5pm.

Shortly afterwards, the rest of the Radical Workers' Bloc reached the square and stepped out of the march as well. Copies of the booklet No Comment: The defendant's guide to arrest (PDF) were handed out. The bloc then reassembled itself to march through Trafalgar Square, separate to the main march, and on towards Oxford Street. What followed was the source of the hysteria which defined reporting of the day.

The breakaway march was good natured and lively from the offset. North and South London SolFed's banners were at its head. Chants rang out: "1-2-3-4! This way to class war! 5-6-7-8! Organise and smash the state!" At this point, there were roughly 300 people marching.

When we reached Oxford Street, UK Uncut activists were already there to engage in actions against Topshop, Vodaphone, and others. However, as soon as the Radical Workers Bloc turned on to the street, the police started to draw together. It quickly became apparent that their intention was to kettle, and we turned off down another street to avoid them.

Marching around the streets behind Oxford Circus, the bloc held together impressively. Directions and information were relayed from the front to the back and vice versa through megaphones. We were able to respond rapidly to police movements, whilst not being reckless enough to rush cut differet sections of the bloc off from one another. The only question now was how long we could continue to lead this chase and exactly what the end goal was. At this point, nobody was entirely sure.

We managed to push back onto Oxford Street, and surged up the road, passing the UK Uncut demonstrators once again. Chants of "who's streets? Our streets!" rang out. Any police we passed were met with cries of "your jobs next!" Though not much sympathy for that fact. As we moved along, we passed several riot vans - all of them full and sat waiting.

Turning down another side street, we hesitated upon seeing police gather as if ready to seal off the route behind us. But the front of the march was already pouring out the other side, so it was safe to move on.

It was as we approached HSBC that genuine trouble flared. It was hard to tell exactly what happened in the mass of people. I heard cries of outrage somewhere ahead of me, and the section of the march ahead of that turn towards them. There was a scuffle, and I moved forward to see several cops being shoved back and a protester being helped to their feet. More cries of outrage and angry chants rose up around me.

When the march was in the process of turning down the road past HSBC, smoke bombs were set off. Red smoke rose into the air, followed shortly after by green smoke.Some people charged at the doors, attacking them with boots and flagpoles.

When the door fell in, the move to occupy it fell back at the shout of "here's the riot police." A significant section of the crowd surged backwards. Police in full riot gear moved to protect the entrace, shoving away anybody who was too close. This use of force in defence of property was met with a hail of paint balloons, sticks from placards, and bottles.

Though this has already been written up as "attacks" on the police, none of these things had the potential for any serious injury, and the bottles were plastic - most likely the ones people had been drinking from during the march. I'm also not going to apologise for or rationalise the damage to property on behalf of anybody. This was a legitimate expression of class anger and will be an inevitable part of any campaign to halt the cuts by inflicting damage upon the economy through direct action such as blockades and occupations.

Nonetheless, the police responded by attacking the crowd and there were fights as the bloc struggled to get away from this and move on. Unsure of what was going to come next several people, myself included, took this opportunity to avoid the scuffles and break away.

By the time Liverpool SolFed members regrouped in the pub, the march had moved on. We watched on the TV as BBC News described scenes of "violence" against such inanimate objects as windows and cash machines, trotting out various commentators to wonder why the police weren't more effective with the "law and order" of bashing people's faces in.

Eventually, many ended up rallying outside or joining the UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum and Mason. There, again, we saw the police fulfill its role upholding the state's monopoly of violence, containing people even as they ended the sit-in of their own accord.

But if you wanted to witness police brutality (and media bias) at its height, you had to watch the coverage of the Trafalgar Square occupation. Those who took over the space were not, even if you accepted the mainstream definitions of violence and direct action, thugs or hooligans. They were revellers, building fires and setting up campsites in order to make a stand for 24 hours.

This, after being made a fool of by anarchists earlier in the day, was more than the police could tolerate. Reports from those in the area came, via Twitter, of journalists being forcibly removed before the protesters were kettled and attacked. Both Sky and BBC News showed lines of police and, beyond them, people doing nothing much at all that could threaten law and order. But their rhetoric went on as though the police were valiantly battling a dissident army intent on carnage and murder. A BBC newscaster, talking to Laurie Penny from inside the kettle, chastised her to "be absolutely objective about this" when she challenged the official narrative.

All of which, incidentally, was broken up with interludes from Libya. There, those opposing the government don't have plastic bottles, sticks, red-and-black flags, or catchy chants. They have machine guns. As it happens, I agree with them fighting tooth-and-nail to oust Gaddaffi. But seeing the media cheerlead them whilst describing domestic protesters as "hooligans," "thugs," and "criminal mobs" should be eye-opening for anybody not already familiar with the standards of established power.

However, I won't labour the point about the press and the establishment. Nor about the TUC and the absurdity of the reformist, social-partnership position. I've done that numerous times before, and anybody who wants to read it can do so here, here, and here, for instance.

The important point is that whilst the aim of local protests is to draw people in to a movement as something to build from, national protests need to be built to. The sheer weight of effort required to build up numbers that means something needs to come out of them other than a passive march from A to B and some speeches at the end. Break-away marches and direct action as an expression of class anger are more than justified in that respect.

But even so, they mean and accomplish nothing if that is the end of it. If anarchists went to London for a riot and that's that, there was no point. However, if we are able to push the momentum of the direct action into a broader movement of active resistance, then it becomes a genuinely pivotal event.

What has to follow next is to build from attacks upon the economy in the middle of London to attacks upon the economy as a whole. We are already active on the picket lines of striking workers, fighting our own bosses and showing solidarity with the struggles of others. There have also been occupations of closing services, and moderate examples of economic blockades which could be far more effective if fired with militancy.

The point now is to turn them from outstanding events into the norm, not as part of an "argument," but as a tactic. If we want the government to back down, the cuts must become the more expensive option. We have to make the country ungovernable.