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G20 London report: Meltdown in the City
ireland / britain | anarchist movement | feature Wednesday April 08, 2009 20:57 by Bill Stickers - Industrial Workers of the World (UK), London Anarchists, Liberty&Solidarity London
an account of April 1st, central London
When it was announced that London would host the first G20 meeting since the beginning of the worst financial crisis in almost a century, everybody knew it was a matter of time before protests were called. First the Climate Camp network – known for their annual ecological direct action camps – announced it would set up a ‘flashcamp’ in the City to make sure the G20 leaders put stopping climate change on their agenda. Their language was inoffensive and acceptable – the media found nothing to demonise in it – but they were well aware that any attempt at direct action protests in the City came with a precedent of serious disturbance and radical anti-capitalist politics, from the Stop the City marches in the 1980s to June the 18th 1999.
The second group to call a protest, “G20 Meltdown”, were all too happy to publicly embrace this legacy, with publicity calling to ‘storm the banks’ and ‘eat a banker’. This exceptionally loose coalition centres around a 66-year-old university professor called Chris Knight who is currently suspended from work for telling the media that ‘if the police want violence, they’ll get violence’. Funnily enough, G20 Meltdown were united by anything but violence, more their love of making strange statements and dressing up – having a ‘zombie pancake walk’ for instance, the message being that ‘capitalism is dead and bankers are therefore zombies’. Indeed.
ExpectationsClimate Camp were to ‘swoop’ on the European Climate Exchange, a malicious institution which sells pollution permits: your company pays them so that you can continue to destroy the ozone layer. It was largely expected that the plan to suddenly converge on the Exchange at 12.30 and set up a tent village (a ‘flashcamp’) would work: not only would it be hard for the police to stop, but Climate Camp draws large numbers and has earned a reputation for pulling off far madder plans. By comparison, the G20 Meltdown was not expected to get to its target the Bank of England because it had announced 4 start points for marches, all tube stations. The police could easily cordon, or ‘kettle’, the crowds at the stations or march them to a park as they have done before. At the last Meltdown meeting before the day there were 8 people: we expected whatever turnout to be small, and then split 4 ways. But we’d not expected the unexpected – always a serious mistake.
Hype-a-driveAs soon as protests were announced, the Metropolitan police had been working hand in glove with the national media to hype up the day as a huge riot. Their current press liaison officer is a former journalist for rabidly right-wing and dishonest Daily Mail. On record the police said they were prepared for trouble, but off record they were clearly naming groups and individuals they wanted to be seen as leaders, especially focussing on anarchists, and suggesting there’d be serious violence. To make sure they could claim what they liked, the press resurrected dead groups they’d written about before, the WOMBLES and Reclaim The Streets, simply re-running old pieces they had on them. The Daily Mail claimed to have an infiltrator for over a month in the local Whitechapel Anarchist Group, describing their events as ‘war meetings’. The week before the media hype was so ridiculous, anarchists were being contacted by more serious papers to talk down the hype. The police gave us one final ominous story: sending letters to city workers telling them to dress down to avoid attack. This was of course followed by stories of plucky bankers who would wear their pinstripes proudly and beat off the anarchist thugs. So before the first flag had been hoisted, cops and journo’s had already written the story of the day the City resisted the hooligan threat and maintained good old British order. Probably intended to scare people away, it is likely the huge coverage promoted events and also brought people out in defiance of the press scaremongering, in what was to be the biggest anti-capitalist protest in London so far this century.
On the day(full chronology: http://www.lasthours.org.uk/news/mobile-timeline-of-apr...ests/)
Police put the numbers on the 1st at 5,000 – the Guardian at 10,000. Climate Camp got double or even triple its expected turnout and they set up on Bishopsgate without a hitch. Setting up tents and marquees, playing music, making food and giving talks on the environment, they did their thing happily until 7pm. The 4 Meltdown marches faced more difficulty, with some early attempts at kettling the crowds, but people seem to have stayed mobile or simply been too big a crowd to control. It arrived at the Bank of England, 6 minutes walk from the Camp, several thousand strong and in a defiant mood. Royal Bank of Scotland, notorious for being bailed out with twenty billion pounds of public money then paying its bosses Christmas bonuses with the cash, was attacked at 12.35. Breaking in through the windows, the crowd trashed the office, smashing computers and spraying angry messages on the walls, but failing to torch the place before police arrived. The mega-bank HSBC had its windows smashed later. This end of the street faced the police all day, suffered lots of arrests, and an unprecedented number of head injuries as the police held their lines by batoning the crowd. It was a mixed bunch, but many people in the crowd were militant and resisted the police. The day ended for the Meltdown in a number of cordons at different places, eventually letting people go in ones and twos if they gave police their details. Around 7pm, 47-year-old Ian Tomlinson died in the cordon. Whether he meant to be on the protest and exactly how he died is unclear – but the cordon and the aggressive policing are seen as responsible for preventing medical aid from saving him. The Climate Camp was first attacked by the police at 7pm, not to clear it but just hold it in a tighter cordon. The non-violent crowd was batoned and hit with shields by officers in full riot gear as they raised the hands above their heads. Things continued in the City until about 1am, and it is reported that approximately 300 young people fought a rearguard battle with the police all the way back to Hackney.
Concussions and conclusionsThere are many conclusions and evaluations of the day. The most obvious is to say that apart from Climate Camp – who lay out their demands in detail, backed up by scientific reports, a specific PR effort and media team (no facial piercings allowed!) – politics on the day were can be summed up as ‘a lack of’. The Meltdown march was everything to everybody so long as they opposed capitalism in some form – lots of protestors recorded in the media only go as far as saying the crisis is being handled badly or the bankers need to be reined in, although we know from experience they prefer not to publish radical statements (e.g. ‘replace capitalism with a democratic system through the direct action of its victims’..?) This is not necessarily a problem, the fact that people felt opposed to capitalism enough to defy the police and media warnings, then physically defy the police on the day is a great sign. 10,000 people at an openly confrontational event is remarkable, and certainly a sign of the times. Progressives who want to replace capitalism with democracy might take note: people pay attention to these protests. They may at times feel ridiculous, but the hint that something more than the non-event of a march to Hyde Park for a mass whine at the government is going on can be enticing. When a march happens that ends with left-wing MPs calling for left-wing reforms, the media and outsiders to the event do not generally end up questioning capitalism. After events like April 1st they do, especially when they can see that force is used to maintain capitalism.
That said, there are a raft of better ways of doing this kind of demo, and the G20 Meltdown collective are essentially a theatre group which stumbled upon a golden opportunity for an audience (which refused to stay in its seat); their prior events have drawn no public attention and always less than 100 attendees, and have been based on satire, not action. If the message was unclear, we shouldn’t blame the individual demonstrators but the organisers. What would be smarter publicity would be to combine the radicalism of street action with concrete and rational demands; yes, we want to abolish capitalism, but today we’ll occupy the headquarters of this failing company until they hand their bonuses over to their sacked workers. Targets should be related to daily struggle, like RBS was. The police probably let RBS get smashed up to justify their tactics and all the bullshit they had pumped into the press – but more fool them. Just like when Fred Goodwin’s house got smashed up, the reaction is going to be pretty positive, people who aren’t radical are going to link it with their anger at the banks, and they’ll be far less opposed to radical activity in general. At the very least, we need to have people ready to speak to the press; the most basic message from events like the 1st should always be made clear to those watching – we are here because we are our own political leaders, and our actions are happening because only we can change our society. That politics is not the first 3 pages of the paper or the heads of the 20 richest countries but your life – and we want to fight along side you.
Article written for Anarkismo.net.
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