Saturday, March the 26th marked a new stage in the campaign for an alternative to cuts and austerity in the UK, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a massive protest.
The march, called by the Trades Union Council, was joined not only by unions, but also by local groups formed to oppose cuts, political groups, national umbrella organisations such as the Coalition of Resistance and the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, and groups like UK Uncut who advocate peaceful civil disobedience. Side streets to the planned starting point were jammed with protesters from 11 o'clock onwards, and the stream of marchers soon took up all the streets from Blackfriars to Hyde Park, the rally point.
Halfway along the official route, UK Uncut and supporters occupied Fortnum and Mason's, a prestigious Department Store. Their press release explained that Wittington investments, the owners of F & M, had dodged millions in tax using foreign holding accounts — the type of correctable loophole that allows corporations to avoid 25 billion pounds in tax every year, almost a third of the value of the "unavoidable" public sector cuts. On seeing the UK Uncut logo appear at a window along with a Coalition of Resistance placard and a red and black anarchist flag, the atmosphere outside the store was one of elation rather than the mayhem and disorder focused on in the mainstream media. Inside the store, the protest was totally non-violent and non-destructive. The only damage done, apparently, was when a display of chocolate rabbits was knocked over and then fastidiously restored to order. As crowds and riot police massed outside, some paint eventually found its way onto the F & M facade, and mass arrests for aggravated trespass were carried out amid accusations from protestors 1 that the police had promised release when they agreed to exit the store 2 . On the other hand, the BBC reported that many off-duty rank-and-file police, hit by a pay freeze and other measures, had joined the march.
Later, there were some tense scenes on Oxford Street, with some smashed windows and minor injuries, and later still, crowds attempting to occupy Trafalgar square were battered by police TSG squads after their snatch tactics succeeded in provoking scuffles, according to some witnesses 3 . On top of this, many protestors unlucky enough to arrive in Hyde Park early were battered by a speech from labour leader Ed Miliband. But for most of the protestors the day was peaceful and high-spirited. Protesters dressed as doctors stated their intention to turn a Boots pharmacy into an NHS hospital; a live comedy venue appeared in Soho square; a cardboard tank bearing a peace symbol roamed the streets; dozens of decorated soundsystems moved though the stream of people. Inside the crowd, anti-cuts organisations were busy handing out literature, talking with protesters, and trying to encourage further involvement after the big event.
Protest in context
The reporting of, and official response to, the protest, follows a pattern that has been in evidence in the UK for some years, with a few new developments. Liberal papers and other media also portrayed a spilt between "good" protestors, who do nothing but walk the planned route, and do nothing else but go home afterwards, and "bad protestors" who injure police officers and throw paint bombs. There were several references to "anticaptialists" in the papers and on television news headlines, for instance on the BBC, Sky News, and in The Independent and the Guardian the following day. I did not notice one instance of "anticapitalists" that was in a sentence that did not also include words like "violence", "clashes", or "disorder" — treatment formerly meted out only to the dirty word "anarchist". Clearly anticapitalists are to be identified with the "bad" camp. This kind of suggestive framing can have very strong effects. No news channel would have been crass enough to directly implicate Saddam Hussien's regime in the 9/11 attacks against all the evidence. But after a hail of sentences and stories in which Saddam Hussien was mentioned alongside Islamic terrorism and the 9-11 attacks, a Newsweek poll revealed that, at one point, 49% of Americans believed that Saddam's regime was directly involved in planning the atrocity. Media reports in the UK are similarly leading people to believe that anticapitalism is a creed of distruction and disorder, without having to make a direct, biased and easily countered claim.
It has recently been the strategy of those in power, especially the Labour party, to deal with protests in this way, smiling and nodding at passive dissent while marginalising any deeper criticism, associating it with disorder and violence. In 2005 at the G8 conference in Gleneagles, this pattern was particularly evident. Critical groups suggested that the government's policy was in fact to open poor countries to exploitation of their workers, markets and natural resources in order to secure profits for powerful corporations, and had nothing to do with eliminating poverty, which could be achieved with a negligible fraction of G8 Government spending if there was political will. Rather than suppress or oppose all protests, Labour saw an easier way. Gordon Brown and others joined in with the call to "make poverty history", wearing the same white wristbands as "protestors" and listening to U2 tunes at what became little more than a pro-government rally. The message was that the government needed encouragement and support from the people in its mission to lead the rest of the G8 against poverty. This tactic was used to drown out anti-government dissent and hammer a wedge between radicals and other protestors. One of the lessons drawn by radicals at the G8 was that more effort needs to go into interacting with and informing other protestors — a message that has perhaps not been taken to heart as much as it should have been since then 4 .
On Saturday we saw some of this dynamic at work, as Ed Miliband spoke before the crowds, attempting to co-opt the memories of such historical movements as the civil right struggle in the US, and the fight for the Women's vote at home. These were to be taken as examples of "good" protest. The strong character of civil disobedience in both cases, the radical criticism of governments of both parties and talk of the root causes of economic, racial and political oppression in the civil rights struggle, and the sometimes militant actions that eventually led to successes in that case, were brushed under the carpet.
In some ways this tactic has been a success. Most people have no contact with any far-reaching critique of society's problems. But on the other hand there is great potential, which many people who would be open to the message taking to the streets. One Gaurdian video report, a woman is asked what she thinks of a passing group of militant anarchists. "I don't really know what they're about to be honest — I'm just a mother. I'm marching for my children and my children's future." This echoes similar comments on a BBC report on the "Really free school" occupation, in which locals are heard saying "I really would like to know what they're about — you know, what does it mean?" Again, in an Evening Standard Report on a London Underground strike, one angry commuter (the only kind that the ES was interested in interviewing) admitted that she had no idea what the strike was about. Predictably, in none of these cases did the media source who reported their comments oblige with a description of "what they're about" despite easily available press releases and other material.
UK Uncut's actions at Fortnam and Masons gave the lie to this "good passive protestor / bad critical protestor" split, bringing peaceful civil disobedience back into the limelight for anyone that saw it directly or read truthful accounts. Meanwhile, some of those with a radical point of view gave out papers and leaflets, attempting to get the main message across to newcomers: asking nicely is not enough, because power never gave up anything without a fight. This is a part of the struggle that is left to others by many young anticapitalists, but is just as vital as (or at this stage perhaps more vital than) involvement in the more exciting direct actions.
The question now is whether a movement can grow from Saturday's event that understands how to win, moving from passive G8 style "protest" to active dissent bolstered by occupations, boycotts and industrial action (as was the case in the struggles of the 60's that Miliband cynically misrepresented in his speech). Despite the press coverage, have more people moved from not caring to caring? Have more of those who care moved towards active dissent? Have the active protestors gained solidarity, useful experience and understanding, and organisational clout? Have groups that are telling the truth about the power structures of our society grown in numbers and gained money and influence? These are the real measures of success and failure. If the movement against cuts has scored well on this, we may see it gain strength to the point where the costs to government (and its wealthy supporters) of carrying on outweigh the costs of backing down.
Winning the argument for action against constant media pressure is not easy, and requires a lot of hard organising work. But everyone serious about opposing cuts needs to join with these efforts by seeking out their local and national anti-cuts groups and getting involved. Inside Fortnum and Masons, one bystander was heard to say "I'm a socialist, but I think this type of thing is too much… I just came in to buy some fresh marshmallows, and now I can't." An ethical labyrinth indeed. Marshmallows or the NHS? Marshmallows or libraries, life-saving school crossing guards, jobs, prosperity and security for all? Tragically, a few more people may have to go without their marshmellows if we are to have any hope of turning back the austerity agenda.
(2) This claim should be read against the background of the previous record of police brass honesty at London protests: the denial that horse charges were employed at the student protests, which is hard to understand as anything but a knowing lie after later youtube revelations, or claims that toilets had been provided in "kettles" during the student protests, repeated by the media but denied by all or the denial of the use of undercover officers at the G20 protests, later admitted to under pressure, or the numerous cases of foot dragging, dissimulation and obstruction surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson
(3) See Laurie Penny's article.
(4) See the book Shut Them Down!: The G8, Gleneagles, and the Movement of Movements by the Dissent Network, published by Autonomedia.