Sunday, 27 March 2011

Day of Dignified Protest

This is a brief first-hand account of today's protest in London against government cuts. It will probably differ markedly from those in the mainstream media for these reasons:

1) It will be a personal perspective from someone who was there.

2) It will not contain any police press releases, parroted verbatim.

3) It will actually be reliable.

My day started with a wake-up call, early for a Saturday morning, at 9 am sharp. Cups of tea were made. Music was played. Breakfast was eaten. Appearances agonised over. I reassured my girlfriend that she looked great; great enough to attend a revolution. No, really, she is hot. Anyway, we took the train and disembarked at Waterloo.

We met up with a few hundred other UK Uncut supporters at the National Theatre, South Bank, at 1130am, before eventually setting off over Waterloo bridge and up to the Strand. The atmosphere was that of a carnival, with people in fancy dress, carrying flags, playing music, handing out leaflets and shouting slogans. At the Strand, there was some confusion about which way we were supposed to go. Marches can be quite choatic, with everyone following everyone else and only a few people knowing the correct route. Some of us headed up to a pre-arranged rendezvous point in Soho Square, after a much-needed pint in a local pub, whilst the main march continued through Trafalgar Square and on towards Hyde Park, where the main TUC rally passed off entirely peacefully.

Pre-kettled Clown. Photo by Noa Bodner
Unison Banner. Marching families. Photo by Noa Bodner
It turned out that all the banks and shops on Oxford St had already closed their doors, so we convened for a mini-rally and comedy gig in Soho Square, headlined by Mark Thomas. Fun times, no problems. There were about a thousand of us here, not all of whom would consider themselves UK Uncut activists. A group of perhaps a hundred or more went off to occupy Fortnum & Mason, another shop run by tax-dodgers (for tax-dodgers?). I wasn't with them, but went along later to see what was happening. The occupation was very peaceful, according to sources inside, with whom I was in contact, but there was trouble in the street outside, where a minority of people (presumably radical anarchists), not UK Uncut, were trying to vandalise banks and the Ritz Hotel.

UK Uncut comedy gig and rally in Soho Square
Comedian Josie Long at UK Uncut comedy gig in Soho Square. Photo Noa Bodner.
Comedian and disabled campaigner Lisa Egan, Soho Square. Photo Noa Bodner.
Comedian (or dangerous subversive?), Mark Thomas at UK Uncut gig, Soho Square, clearly surrounded by violent anarchists. Photo Noa Bodner.
Independent columnist, Johann Hari (in blue shirt, left) chats to comedian Chris Coltrane during Josie Long's set.
A surprise appearance from the royal couple at UK Uncut's Soho Sq comedy gig. Photo Noa Bodner.
Big Brother's floating eye-in-the-sky above Soho Square. Hope they enjoyed the gig. Photo Noa Bodner.
BBC reports insisted that police were clashing with UK Uncut supporters, which is just a total lie. I don't know whether this was just lazy journalism or deliberate police misinformation, but it was definitely a falsehood. Later reports from the BBC talked of police coming under 'sustained attack' in Trafalgar Square. I saw no evidence of this at all. What I did see was BBC footage consisting of about three brief shots repeated on a continuous loop, masquerading as 'live coverage', in which I could see no violence of any sort. Eyewitness reports from the scene, from reporter Laurie Penny and friends of mine, are consistent in agreeing that the great majority of those trapped by police in Trafalgar Square were peaceful and not breaking any law. In spite of this, they were attacked by riot police.

A lone protester knocked over by riot police in Piccadilly.
A mixed group of protetsers in Piccadilly, mostly peaceful, although clashes are taking place at the back right of the shot between police and a very small group of anarchists attacking a LLoyds bank.
I did also see evidence of vandalism by a very small number of protesters - nothing to do with UK Uncut - who decided to smash a few windows, daub graffiti and throw paint bombs: an Ann Summers store, the Ritz Hotel and a few banks were damaged. There are also reports that a Porsche dealership was attacked. I was annoyed and very disappointed by this, as I knew that the media would blow it out of all proportion and that it would detract from the real message of the day. I also suspected that the facts would be misreported and that there would be an attempt to pin blame on peaceful groups, such as UK Uncut. So it turns out. 

Damage to Banco Santander in Piccadilly, by a small group of anarchists.
It irritates me enormously that some small groups do feel that a protest is not a protest unless there's some criminal damage involved. In my view, that's not anarchism, but just vandalism; totally counter-productive, selfish and bloody stupid, because it buries the message. However, these groups numbered only a few dozen at most, on a day when half a million people marched peacefully in London.

(Update 4/4/11: This article was written in the immediate aftermath of the day, when my feelings were running high for many reasons. I've decided to leave it unedited, but would add that my initial irritation has subsided over the following week. I neither condemn nor approve of those who took part in damage to property on that day for political purposes, but I do feel it was unnecessary and counter-productive. Their actions have been blown out of all proportion and decontextualised by the media, and that is the point. Then again, I always strongly oppose the use of physical aggression against people - including the police. I note that most - though not all - of the physical aggression appears to have been initiated by police in riot gear).

On the other hand, UK Uncut has shown that there is a place for peaceful direct action. It works, it gets the right kind of attention and it magnifies the message, rather than burying it. This still carries the risk of arrest, of course. Indeed, many of my friends were arrested today after occupying Fortnum & Mason's in Piccadilly. I'm guessing this would be for the crime of 'aggravated trespass', which was invented by the last Conservative government mainly for use against ravers and anti-roads protesters in the 90s.

Moses only needed ten commandments. John Major added an 11th in 1994: 'Thou shalt not commit aggravated trespass'. Now, we all know not to covet each other's oxes, but I doubt many of us even know what 'aggravated trespass' means. It's amazing how many new crimes have been put on the statute books since then. The proliferation of such crimes makes a very telling counterpoint to the deregulation of the financial sector, the explosion of offshore finance and the opening of ever larger loopholes for tax avoidance. As ever, greater freedom for financial capital is accompanied by less freedom for people.

When histories are written, the protesters who were arrested for occupying Fortnum & Mason will be remembered as heroes, whilst the vandals will be forgotten. Tonight though, we have to contend with a lying, duplicitous media.


  1. You obviously missed the TV coverage because you were on the march. Watching a policeman getting a barricade thrown at them, watching a policeman getting a firework thrown at them and having to be taken away on a stretcher.

    And you think this is a lying duplicitous media? Well I guess you would as you are signing off as "Insane Gibberish".

  2. I can only report on what I saw, and what I saw was in complete contradiction to what was reported by Sky and the BBC in particular. I do not deny that tiny groups of protesters did clash with police, but that's only a small part of the truth. When the BBC reported that UK Uncut were involved in those clashes, that is an outright lie. It is also an outright lie to report that UK Uncut was smashing up Fortnum & Mason.

    So, yes indeed, the media is lying and duplicitous, as the video evidence from inside Fortnum's proves. The truth will not be suppressed any longer.

  3. Further @Anon: Both you and the media want to give the impression that all the violence was instigated by protesters. That's very much open to debate, but the casualty figures are not:

    66 injuries, of which 13 police and 53 protesters.

    16 treated in hospital, of which just 1 policeman, 15 protesters.

    So where is all the video footage of injured protesters and police being the perpetrators rather than the victims of violence? We know it happened, because the casualty figures prove it. Well, the footage is out there on youtube and in blogs, rather than the corporate and state media. Sadly for them, they no longer control our access to the truth.