It’s been a very, very long time since my last post, and a lot has happened between then and now. I decided to run for a sabbatical position at my students’ union, won that election, then got myself involved in staff strike action at university, probably more demonstrations and marches than I’d ever been to before in my life, plus a little thing called my degree, so it’s been a very busy time.
The latest demonstration was called the March for the Alternative this past Saturday, you may have heard about it from the media coverage. In fact I’ve just been watching Theresa May answering questions about it, and the way Parliament is speaking you would think the media was on the side of the so-called violent minority. That’s far from the case. So here’s an outline of my day:
We set off from Edinburgh by coach at 11pm on the Friday night, and parked about 9.30am. On the way we’d seen the stage in Hyde Park which was presumably where the rally was to take place later, and IIRC overhead it read something like “all cuts are wrong”. I could imagine Ed Miliband talking there later saying “well they are wrong but we’d do most of them anyway”. Some of us went straight to the starting point at Victoria Embankment whilst the majority, myself included, decided to head to the Education feeder march at ULU. I noticed the first signs of conflict there, where a large group of more militant activists using Black Bloc tactics had already formed up and were getting restless. I later realised that the Militant Workers Bloc was supposed to be setting off from ULU an hour earlier than the Education feeder, and impatient to set off, they started getting frustrated with who they thought were the SWP, but who I knew were actually there as activists from the Glasgow anti-cuts group.
We set off at around 11.15, and the feeder was actually the best part of the march, with plenty of chants and songs going. Some of our group had instruments, and played various lefty tunes on the way. We eventually joined the main march at the embankment, and the atmosphere there was noticably different. Noone joined in with chants or songs, and the majority of people were just walking along chatting. Even uncontroversial chants like “no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts” got no response. This was a very different march to the ones I’m used to, but given the numbers, it’s hardly surprising. It was also good to see all the old-fashioned TU banners, I’d only really seen ones from the UCU and a few from the Fire Brigade strike before.
At around 1.30pm, we got bored of the march and decided to head towards Oxford Street where UK Uncut had some action planned. We went via Trafalgar Square where a large group had gathered, and then on the way to Soho Square (near the middle of Oxford Street) we bumped into a lot of splinter groups that had already broken off. I think the 400,000 figure that’s being bandied about at the minute is a massive underestimate. A lot of demonstrators didn’t go to the march at all.
We got to Oxford Street and it reached 2.11pm, when a lot of action was supposed to start. The UK Uncut action appeared to have been taken over by people in the Black Bloc, who split up into 2 groups, heading towards each end of the street. A small group of us noticed a lot of police heading down to either end, and it seemed like a kettle waiting to happen, so we stayed in the middle, wandered down some side streets and tried to keep our friends in both groups aware of which way the main body of police was heading. Riot vans were speeding from one end of the area to the other, so it was obvious that the protestors had been too quick for the police. We passed a McDonald’s restaurant that had been smashed in, and heard about a few HSBC branches, the Ritz, Topshop and Starbucks.
After 45 minutes of that we went to Oxford Circus, where UK Uncut were supposed to be announcing a big target at 3.30pm. It was right next to Topshop where there had already been a confrontation with the police, and they dragged a Trojan horse into the Circus, and had a street party, which was nice. Apparently they later set off fireworks from near the horse and it caught fire and went up in minutes. Oh well. Instead of just announcing the target, they told everyone to follow the people with the red umbrellas, who went towards Picadilly Circus. We already knew there were masses of riot police down there, so again, to avoid a kettle, we took the back streets, and ended up in Trafalgar Square again, where there were still thousands of protestors, and we met up with other people we knew. This was at about 4.30 and we could see down the street that the main march was nowhere near finished yet. We stayed there for a while and enjoyed the atmosphere, then went back to the bus. Brilliant day.
A quick note on the violence. It’s interesting to note that the media (and the police) have latched onto UK Uncut as the main instigators. In fact, the people smashing windows in the Black Bloc were almost certainly not regular attendees of UK Uncut events, for a fairly simple reason. UK Uncut is generally run by Greens and the Robin Hood Tax people, social democrats in other words. Many of those in the Black Bloc were carrying anarchist flags, and campaigning for certain companies to pay their taxes doesn’t fit very easily into an anarchist ideology.
There was also a difference in targets (they overlapped, but I don’t know of any UK Uncut demo at a McDonald’s, for example), and a difference in tactics (UK Uncut generally just sit in the doorway and don’t let anyone in, rather than smashing windows), so it’s misleading to conflate the two groups. Some of the more typical targets of UK Uncut like Barclays and Vodafone seemed to have already shut their branches so there was no point in doing a usual demo there. I’d also point out that whilst the media goes into its usual hysteria about “anarchy in the UK” or whatever, as far as I know noone was actually hurt in any of the vandalism on businesses – most injuries were sustained in confrontations with the police. It’s worth keeping in perspective that we’re talking about some windows being smashed, property damage, nothing that can’t be fixed. All the right windows were smashed. Where the more typical UK Uncut group took a more typical direct action by sitting in Fortnum and Mason – nothing that could be called violence or even property damage, they were arrested and had their phones and clothes confiscated, despite being told they’d be allowed to leave. That’s probably the action that I most agreed with, the least controversial one, and yet that’s the one the police cracked down on. They were very strange and unusual tactics.