Demonstrating the alternative

…on a carpet of shimmering police epaulettes

Ian Chamberlain writes about his experiences in London on Saturday 26/03/2011.

I started the day with a group of people who practise anarchist principles everyday. We met at 11am in a plain old building just off the Strand in Westminster. As we drank our pre-march coffees with curdled soya milk and ate our home-baked chocolate cup cakes, we discussed plans for the day ahead.

A half-hour moment of reflection, we stood in silence on the street outside as confused by-passers, not used to the sight of silent protest, read our banners and slogans. The group’s commitment to equality, autonomy, justice, a mistrust of leaders, icons and concentrations of power, and a long history of confrontation with the state, protest and non-violent direct action for causes ranging from slavery to war, reveals a lot in common with anarchists. They just happen to be called Quakers.

We joined the march at Trafalgar Square, greeted by an enormous, and insanely friendly, Unison contingent high on the delights of whistles, chanting and waving mass-produced union flags and balloons. Standing, as I did, at the front of our block holding a “Quakers for Justice” banner, I enjoyed many frivolous reactions from fellow protesters, from “it must be a bit noisy for you lot” to “the problem with you guys is that you give religion a good name” but also joyous banter as we marched together as one.

Anyone who joined the march on Saturday must surely feel that as far as walking from A to B in front of “important” buildings and the gaze of photographers and TV cameras, it was enormously successful. An impressive turnout (over 500,000), and a sense of inclusiveness and diversity made for a dynamic yet peaceful demonstration. Perhaps not until our group reached Hyde Park could we truly appreciate what we’d been a part of. The park was brimming with hundreds of thousands who had travelled from all over the UK, representing trades unions, churches, women, queers, socialists, anarchists, at least one Daily Mail reader, and many more for whom this was an entirely new experience, both young and old.

I remember almost nothing of the speeches made to the gathering crowds. My pen struggled to move across my notebook’s empty sheet to record their hollow words. They were mediocre and never inspirational. Every time I suspected Ed Miliband might just have built enough momentum to be rewarded with cheers, it bottomed out. But the crowds were good humoured and willed the speakers to succeed as they listened intently and clapped at pregnant pauses. Perhaps the highlight was a brief mention of national strikes when the sound of the masses showed their most audible support.

Running late, I left the park at 3.15pm to get up to Oxford Circus where UK Uncut, a new but highly successful campaigns group focussing on tax evasion, planned a mass direct action after two other events earlier in the afternoon. On my way, a teenage boy, with a black hoodie and young, fearful eyes peering out over a scarf, collided with me. Several imitations ran after him, panic stricken, adrenaline flowing, yelling “go left, they’re behind us!” I asked them who they were running from. One of them angrily replied “the police are charging this way!” whilst avoiding eye contact. I glared back from where they came and saw blue smoke billowing out of a pub, but there were no police in sight. It reminded me of the “knock and run” game I played as a child, where the sense of risk, rebellion and humour of the occasion was exaggerated by the innocence and safety of a small community. Perhaps I’m wrong, but politics didn’t seem to be their game. At the same time I felt sympathy, contemplating the future they might face if we fail to set a new political agenda.

As I walked along Oxford Street, the evidence of previous actions was all around; paint splattered across high street bank windows and my boots crunched on broken glass from the Top Shop frontage. I heard the end of a debrief from my friend when I caught up with her just before the spirited but anxious mob of hundreds, who had gathered at Oxford Circus, ran after the red umbrella which would direct us to the secret “criminal” shop.

Away from the bleeding edge of running activists, I just missed my opportunity to enter Fortnum and Mason. Around three hundred or so occupiers did manage to enter the shop – an icon of remote privilege and corporate tax dodging – before police lines barricaded the entrance. As I stood around for the next twenty minutes, paint bombs were thrown and the usual cramming and pushing ensued. The Tweets that appeared on my mobile reporting the singing and dancing inside – and later hearing that no criminal damage had been administered in the shop – served to inspire but also evidenced how well organized these direct actions are, with there sense of purpose and personal discipline.

In the stalemate, my friend and I decided to move down to Trafalgar Square where people planned to camp overnight. We took a break, grabbed some food and followed the direction of the booming samba beats. As Nelson’s Column came in sight, the first thing that struck me was how dark it was. All of the lights that normally point to the square were off and a small number of police surrounded the fountains. Just down from the National Gallery a growing circle of people danced around thumping drums. A sound system could be heard from the crowds moving to the beats at the Column, and people drew murals of peace and protest on the ground with huge pieces of fudge chalk. The numbers were never huge, maybe a few hundred, but it had the atmosphere of a festival; it felt free and safe, like a space we’d won the right to. It was ours.

I should note at this point that I had witnessed almost no police aggression up until now. Whilst legal observers from Liberty milled around earlier in the day, the police were calm and well behaved, and large sections of the march had been unmanned. But as the party people stuck stickers to the Olympic clock, small numbers of police moved quickly to surround the edifice pushing young and old out of their way. Seconds later, huge reinforcements came rushing down the steps from the gallery with batons and shields. The crowds were shoved and pushed around as the police assembled their defence line. The party vibe quickly evaporated as shouting and chaotic running around replaced the music and dancing.

As the batons hit, new police lines emerged around the square preventing quick escape while another line forced people at the fountains towards the column. As the odd idiot or two threw sticks and bottles, protesters stood in front of the police to form a human shield while shouting “no violence!” in a desperate attempt to bring calm but were rewarded by thumping shields on their backs, forcing them to the ground.

Escaping the column kettle, I witnessed a young girl being dragged along at the bottom of the steps by two officers. The space that was now clear revealed a carpet of shimmering police epaulettes. I looked back towards the column, and there they were, a line of unknown police officers without their IDs.

As the kettle was held, I spoke to a police officer as I had done at Parliament Square in December. We discussed politics and police tactics. “I don’t know why we’re ordered to do this” he whispered nervously. “I reckon if we cleared off, and left you to it, you’d all be gone in half an hour cos it’s fucking freezing.”

Demonstrating the alternative was first published on Ian’s blog,

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