This piece was written in April 2011 after going on The March For The Alternative, a TUC-organised protest against the spending cuts being brought in by the coalition government. Other independent protests took place at the same time, including UK Uncut’s occupation of Fortnum and Mason. And various (ahem) “anarchists”, including many from the so-called Black Bloc, decided that smashing windows on Oxford Street (and also, er, the Olympic clock) was a really grown-up thing to do, bless ’em. Or not.
Individually, and out of their natural habitat, anarchists are mostly benign. Obviously I wouldn’t let one hand out the scissors or keep watch on a milk saucepan, and they tend to get confused and sulky when asked to explain how allowing people in Edgware and people in Morden to individually construct their own ethical systems free of centralised authority can be squared with needing a regular service on the Northern Line, given the complexity of the track layout at Camden Town – or how they can be opposed to cuts in the tax-funded education budget when they don’t believe in a tax-funded education budget – but largely I just think: whatever. After all, toddlers aren’t capable of sustained logical argument, constantly spout non-sequiturial nonsense, and seldom grasp why they can’t just go round hitting things, but we don’t ban them (though see also my forthcoming blog entry, Why Toddlers Should Be Banned) – we just avoid pubs that allow them in the main bar and wait for them to grow up.
And, as with toddlers, so with anarchists; there’s certainly no point trying to engage them in debate: I once had a lengthy discussion with an awesomely crusty one that was trying to slip through the barriers with me at Brixton station, in which I explained that, if no one paid, there wouldn’t be any trains, especially if the people of Walthamstow had constructed an ethical system that wasn’t compatible with the one constructed by the people of Stockwell, but he just lowered his head and pushed harder – even though, at this point, I still hadn’t actually put my travelcard in the slot. Unfortunately, keeping anarchists at arm’s length doesn’t really work if, like an excitable golden retriever at a picnic – or possibly a black labrador – they decide they want to come up and say hello anyway, ruining your quiche and dips and possibly your whole day out.
The moment we boarded the 10:22 at Greenwich station last Saturday morning and realised that almost everyone coming in from Charlton, Woolwich and Slade Green was clutching a placard of some sort, home-made or official, we knew this was going to be a good day. And discovering, on changing trains at London Bridge, that in Lewisham, Sidcup and Dartford the people were equally uppity, just compounded this. As our carriages snaked above the rooftops and into Waterloo East, I couldn’t help thinking of those anti-war marches back in 2003 and of how, as we’d walked up Kennington Road on that bright February morning towards a sunlit, traffic-free Waterloo Bridge, and seen people streaming in to join us down every side street, all united in common cause, we’d felt something quite rare and beautiful: we’d felt POWERFUL.
The people in Iraq still died, of course. And the people in Whitehall who treated us with contempt and told us we were wrong still haven’t apologised or been arrested. So… was that power illusory? Did we fail? I’m not so sure. Imaginations were fired that day. There were more than a million people out there, and not all ended up disillusioned and fatalistic; for many, that fleeting, unaccustomed feeling of what could be possible was just a beginning.
Down on the Embankment last Saturday, having failed to find anyone willing to hold the other end of my Self-employed Magazine Editors Against The Cuts banner, I adopted the colours of Lancaster and Morecambe NUT on the grounds that the nearby Westminster Teachers Association flag was lacking an apostrophe. The mood was joyful, optimistic, partyish. But then, of course, amid the drummers and the bagpipers and the pushchairs and the Robin Hood hats, the first red and black flags were spotted. From what I hear, most of them lost their way – probably put their balaclavas on back to front – and ended up in Oxford Street where, cross at having missed Ed Miliband’s rabble-rousing peroration, they got Capitalism muddled with litter bins and threw some paint at policemen. Well, it had been a long day – they were probably just tired and over-excited.
Now, obviously anarchist theory emphasises the self – that’s sort of the point: individual liberty and personal responsibility. But… hum… is the arrogant self-centred yobbery of the Black Bloc mob really what those old philosophers had in mind? Hijacking others’ hard work for your own little headline-grabbing tantrum requires a level of cynical self-interest any corporate banker would be proud of, I’d say. Not only arch-Capitalists champion selfishness as a modus vivendi, it seems…
Then again, political theory doesn’t have much to do with it: like a toddler refusing to shut up and stop throwing Lego when the adults want to talk, the silly little boys in the balaclavas’ general attitude seems to be that the rest of us, with our good humour and witty banners and practical solutions, are simply a dull nuisance, and that protest would be a lot more fun if it was just them and the police lobbing Molotov cocktails and tear gas at each other. And the police, in these times of cutbacks, aren’t going to quibble with that; images of breaking glass on News at Ten and of mindless thugs in the Daily Mail – rather than of half a million people marching thoughtfully but less photogenically down Piccadilly – not only sell newspapers and advertising, but also help get the Met the powers and resources it wants.
Meanwhile, those who weren’t there, and see only what the press and TV show them, will think twice about standing up for what they believe in, because they’ll be scared of what might happen. Kettling is already having this effect – not everyone can take whole days off work to go on protests and, if they can spare only a couple of hours, or have health problems, or need to pick the kids up, they’re not going to risk getting stuck inside a police cordon without access to food or drink or toilet and medical facilities till midnight. Soon, protest really is going to end up being just a game for the aggro-hungry boys in black, while the rest of us fume impotently at home.
Which is, of course, what the government would like: because all governments prefer a cowed and compliant populace that doesn’t answer back, be they in Beijing, Bahrain, Tripoli or London. We’re already not allowed to protest in Parliament Square because it upsets the MPs. We haven’t been allowed to walk down Downing Street in years, not since Maggie got frit. Now, after last Saturday, Theresa May has announced an increase in police powers – yet more reasons for the timid majority to keep their heads down.
Half a million. HALF A MILLION. One in every hundred people in this country walked up Whitehall last Saturday. We might have all had different areas of interests, and different solutions, but we all walked together, and didn’t feel the need to go off in a self-indulgent strop to attack the Olympic clock. Vince Cable has said it won’t change anything, and he’s probably right – just like that march eight years ago didn’t stop a war. But there’s always next time. Imaginations have been fired. The worry is that there won’t be a next time if headlines about anarchist yobs are the only ones in circulation, or if we shrug our shoulders and hand our protests over to those who think that chucking paint and kicking a cash machine are how you win an argument.
There were only 201 arrests on Saturday. And 147 of those occurred, shamefully and shockingly – but that’s another story – at UK Uncut’s peaceful protest at Fortnum & Mason. 499,799 people managed not to be arrested – if we stick together and don’t let ourselves be bullied, that’s a pretty unvanquishable number: we are many, they are few…
DON’T BE SCARED. These things are too important. And if you meet any anarchists, don’t give them any orange squash or other sugary drinks.