London Underground: An Eyewitness Account Of March 26Posted: March 29, 2011
Hi all. It’s been two days since the anti-government rallies and the accompanying media coverage, and rather than the usual essay I’m just going to put my thoughts, actions and reactions in a tangled mess here. If that’s alright.
Much of the media coverage has drawn a distinction between peaceful protestors – those who stayed on the designated march route and toddled home after the speeches – and Violent Anarchists. The truth is much more complex.
There were certainly anarchists (and anarcho-communists). I was there when they marched from Malet St; I was there when they broke away from the official march and surged up towards Oxford. I spent much of the rest of the day chasing after them, arriving just too late to see what really happened at TopShop, HSBC, Santander and The Ritz.
But they were just one of many groups, and they had specific goals and tactics which go well beyond the media depiction of mindless violence. As Laurie Penny said of last year’s Millbank demonstrations, the anarchists’ attacks had specific targets: banks, corporate tax-dodgers and enclaves of the rich. Not greengrocers, not Pret A Manger, not Pizza Hut, not even the invitingly vast glass facades of West End theatres. I do remember a cracked pane at a McDonald’s. I’m not sure whether that’s an aberration or a given.
This is in stark contrast to UK Uncut, who targeted the same businesses but sought to close their doors in humiliation rather than fear. When they failed to reach a shop before police they stood back and waited, and cheered as the shutters rolled down. When they invaded Fortnum & Mason, well, see for yourself. This is the lobby during, and this is the lobby after. I wasn’t there for the occupation, but from what I’ve learned police arrested nearly 150 people there on suspicion of criminal damage and trespass, held them for nearly 24 hours and then dropped the criminal damage when it was patently obvious none had taken place. [UPDATE: and now there’s this.]
It’s worth noting that the anarchist contingent had moved well on by this point. While all this was going on at F&M I had just found them again, stuck on either side of police blockades at either end of Picadilly. I stood between the lines and as the sun went down I saw genuine attacks on police for the first time that day. I saw bottles and sticks and fireworks, and an officer knocked to the ground unconscious, and I saw someone throw a roadflare at him as he lay on the ground a minute or so later.
I did not see any officers act or react violently, and I can assure you I was watching closely. The police held their ground, just as they had when forming cordons around shopfronts earlier in the day, but they did not use their batons as anything other than a barrier.
I was still there at 8:30pm as the crowd began to blend with a sea of shoppers and theatregoers, as the police continued to hold the line on Picadilly and Regent St. The demonstrators had begun to melt away. Several dozen still milled around drums and a small fire on the footpath, others sat sedately in front of the police line while the All Union Communist Party and its allies belted out The Internationale from on top of the memorial fountain. Again, the police were silent, vigilant and non-violent, and I decided to go home.
And then all hell broke loose in Trafalgar Square.
I visited the Square four or five times during the day, the last one probably around 5-5:30pm. Every time it was the same scene: young people dancing at the foot of Nelson’s column to drum bands and drum’n’bass, unfurling banners and cheering as police looked on. Officers walked through the crowd in twos or threes but were given space and left unharmed, and most stayed at their posts lining the steps of the National Portrait Gallery or in wagons parked up the street.
That all changed around 9:45. As I said, I wasn’t there so I can’t be 100% confident what triggered the crackdown. But all of a sudden officers who had been consummate professionals all day suddenly turned into men who smashed other men in the groin with their shields and hefted people through the air to land flat on their backs on the concrete. And we all know how that pans out.
I wasn’t there. But it seems neither were the people who’d been antagonising the cops all day. These ones just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at the end of a long, hard day, and something or someone told the officers to just let loose. I’d left town with a heightened respect for the Met, but it seems like a lot of officers became anarchists themselves once the lights went out.