Now that the commotion caused by the anti-capitalist demo on Mayday has died down, it’s possible to judge the effect it has had on the future of the ‘green’ protest movement in this country. I have written about the movement for five years – about the Newbury bypass protest, the Fairmile tunnellers, the street parties. At the start, it was characterised by courage, cheek, idealism and wit. But now a battle is being waged within Reclaim the Streets and other groups over the use of violence at protests, and the belligerent minority isn’t interested in these virtues. I have always been – and still am – deeply sympathetic to its aims, but it seems to me that the protest movement is betraying itself, its own best beliefs and its own spirit. This is not the end of modern protest. Not even the beginning of the end. But it is the sad end of the beginning.
The Mayday protest began in Hyde Park with a ‘Critical Mass’ bike ride. The first cyclist and the first copper on the scene were having an amiable chat. ‘Yes, we’ve gone too far with car culture,’ the officer says. The cyclist gives him a copy of Evading Standards, one of two spoof newspapers produced for the day. A ‘pagan’ samba band arrives, accompanied by people wearing green and gold body paint and masks of ferns, ivy and straw. One woman dressed as an angel gives out ‘miniature gardens’ – McDonald’s cartons filled with grass or cress. People bring bales of hay and bike-trailers of cabbage – for once Hyde Park smells like a park rather than a traffic jam. Then the black block arrives. They march en masse: black clothes, masks, hoods and balaclavas, like a cloud hiding the sun.
All day, there’s the swarming sound of police helicopters: you feel buzzing in your head, while the drumming of the samba band makes the ground vibrate. Parliament Square is overrun with banners: ‘Global Capitalism Is Not Very Nice’, ‘The Worms Turn’. Wheelbarrows trundle, and someone decorated with sunflowers plays a watering-can as a musical instrument. The ‘guerrilla gardening’ begins and the square is symbolically transformed as supposedly common land is reclaimed. Police guard the Houses of Parliament, fearing protesters may try to get ‘inside’, but they wouldn’t bother.
Chard and rhubarb are planted, with rosemary, lemon balm and hemp. A maypole is put up with a garland of flowers at the top and children hop round it. Someone sand-sculpts a huge-breasted Gaia opposite Big Ben and another makes a six-foot-long penis with pubic hair of straw. The statues are decorated. Lord Derby has a spliff in his hand. Jan Smuts is wearing a cycling mask. Churchill has his famous grass mohican and ‘murderer’ painted on the plinth by the Revolutionary Communist Unionists of Turkey.
RTS, the main organisation behind the protest, began holding ‘stop the streets’ parties in 1995. These actions, held first in London, then around the country and around the world, were intended as a form of political street theatre – roads were filled with stilt-walkers, balloons, sound systems and sandpits. Influenced by the Situationists, RTS planned to start sudden and subversive political actions and then to say, with a shrug: ‘It’s out of our hands now; the rest is up to you.’ After the ‘Stop the City’ protest held on 18 June last year (‘J18’ as it is usually known), which began as a carnival and ended up as a full-on riot, some associated with RTS felt that the movement had come of age; others thought it was a disaster, alienating a huge number of potential supporters.
The overture to J18 was the ritual trashing of a McDonald’s. Then the London International Financial Futures Exchange was stormed, targeted as an embodiment of the globalisation process and the power of capital. Elsewhere in the City, water released from a hydrant erupted in a 40-foot fountain; people sang and danced in the water of the walled-up Walbrook River. The rivers and streams of London, RTS supporters pointed out, are also ‘commons’: they were once freely accessible for swimming, drinking and fishing, but were then effectively stolen from commoners, first by pollution from factories, later by the enclosure of the rivers by private developers. The Walbrook used regularly to well up and flood the vaults of the Bank of England. On J18, for perhaps the first time in five hundred years, it bubbled up into the sun.
I was halfway up the escalators in the LIFFE building when I was showered by broken glass, as the man above me and the man below smashed every pane they could reach. I was scared. This violence, its defenders would argue, was targeted against a specific institution and designed to draw attention to other acts of violence, the ones we don’t see: the systematic ‘legal’ seizures of land by logging and mining companies; the ‘legitimate’ forced homelessness of thousands on thousands of people in order to build a dam in Laos; the ‘lawful’ invasion of U’wa land in Colombia to steal the oil which the U’wa people believe is best left in the earth, as a result of which they have threatened to commit collective suicide.
In April this year, Time Out listed the hundred most influential people in London. At number 11 was ‘Pete the Anarchist’ who ‘lives in a squat in East London, can muster an army of thousands and organised . . . J18 . . . which brought the City to a standstill. The anarchists will next flex their muscles on Mayday.’ ‘Anti-City mob plans fresh riot,’ ran a headline in the Sunday Telegraph. Well, here’s the ‘planning’. RTS meets every Tuesday evening in the back room of a dismal pub behind Euston Station. The front bar is taken over by the Alcohol Liberation Front. In the back room, which is reached by walking through the toilets, the guerrilla gardening is being planned. Dan reads out a ‘tatt list’: ‘we need live willow for coppicing, and loads of soil; we need beach balls, performance artists, permaculture specialists and a parachute.’ There’s a hopeful proposal to float a maypole down the Thames. Several people want an ‘open mike’, an impromptu ‘People’s Parliament’. About forty people attend the RTS meetings, the majority of them men. They include environmentalists, social justice campaigners, socialists and anarchists. There are three rather stiff rules: no smoking, no interrupting, no journalists. There’s also a language of gestures effective for group communication: hands rolling round each other means ‘wrap it up – you’ve made your point’; hands rapidly waved equals ‘strong agreement’; fingers making a P shape signals a proposal, and T stands for a technical point.
Writers and designers put together a spoof newspaper called Maybe, based on the free Metro. The aim is ‘to create an inspirational revolutionary piece of our own print media’, and this paper is one example of a growing DIY media movement. This group does not admire the mainstream media which, it says, are in the hands of the state and corporations. (Consider, for instance, the BBC’s invitation to the chairman of BP Amoco to give a Reith Lecture.) Its opposition to the media gives RTS a headache, however. By not talking to the press it grants journalists ‘licence to print lies’. One protester, Steve, comes to a meeting fresh from court, where the Vestey heir, Mark Brown (accused but found not guilty of organising J18) is on trial. ‘The press, they were scum today; they were parasites.’ Outside the court, he says, RTS activists and the press were involved in a scuffle: ‘One cameraman got his camera smashed.’ (Sarcastic murmurs of ‘shame’.) Steve adds with (understandable) relish that one of the witnesses for the prosecution, Keiran Sharpe (the head of the police investigation into J18), told the court that a Sunday Times article which had claimed that RTS used gas canisters and stun guns was ‘pure fabrication’.
The group is riven with contradictions. It seeks equality but is, by its own admission, warped by machismo. Hating religion, it has a fundamentalist streak, and speaks of a radiant future in the way evangelicals speak of heaven. Arguing for tolerance, it sometimes – for the sake of ideological purity – derides opinions barely half an inch from its own. It preaches diversity but can practise a narrow monoculture of thought. It is both capricious and obsessed with orthodoxy.
At the final meeting before Mayday, things look grim. Two van-loads of police are outside, and a police cameraman films everyone who enters. Being filmed against your will leaves you ill at ease. To go in, you have to run a gauntlet of four officers. I ask one of them why they’re here. ‘We’re overpolicing. Zero tolerance. It’s Big Brother.’ He looks at me with something like hatred. The previous day, the police turned up outside a flat and filmed people arriving for an RTS permaculture meeting; people going to the prop-making workshop were stopped and searched.
The most heated quarrels at the meeting are about violence. The Maybe collective want to print a statement calling for the action to be peaceful; a minority disagree. The traditional RTS line is that violence is ‘neither condoned nor condemned’. But not to condemn seems to me to condone. The vast majority in RTS believe, as I do, in peaceful direct action; a small and vocal minority support violence against property. (No one condones violence against people, though violence against property inevitably leads to violence against the police.) An aggressive minority can create an aggressive atmosphere; and those who favour peaceful means are heckled. To strengthen the argument for peaceful protest, a group has recently been formed called ‘Reclaim the Satyagraha’, after Gandhi’s policy of passive resistance.
The direct action movement (starting with the anti-roads movement) was one of Britain’s most successful exports in the 1990s. RTS sent ‘delegates’ to the US last summer to prepare for the ‘Battle of Seattle’. The tactics of American protesters and those of the British protest movement – or part of it – seem to be diverging, however. In the US there is an attempt to engage with the public, via the press, and the movement has been able to form broad coalitions (such as the Direct Action Network at Seattle) by asking all activists to agree to a strategy of non-violence. British direct action appears to be moving the other way: despising the press and therefore ignoring the public, while becoming more open to those who espouse violence. As a result, public support for the movement is rocketing in the States and withering in Britain.
At Seattle, black blocks of anarchists smashed shopfronts which were not protected by the police. One unsigned leaflet doing the rounds at an RTS meeting in April proposed that anarchists do the same on Mayday. In Seattle, it explains, ‘the police were completely occupied’ so ‘the black block had a virtually free rein’ in the city. There is no doubt, it says, that Parliament Square will be ‘swamped with cops’ so ‘imagine how police-free the rest of the city could be.’ In effect, this undermines the guerrilla gardening by implying it could be used as a decoy (though the leaflet’s author says he was actually trying to keep the black block away from Trafalgar Square). A number of those at the meeting are worried about violence on the part of the police, who want a ‘rematch’ after J18. Some suggest that, because of the trouble last time, many peaceful demonstrators will stay away while the army of the disaffected will come precisely because they want a ruck. An RTS supporter who works with the police outside London conjures a mirror image: ‘all those volunteering for duty on Mayday are the young and thuggish ones, which is really pissing off the older and nicer ones who think the young ones just want a scuffle.’
Some speakers take the view that the Government wouldn’t mind a bit of violence on Mayday – the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which effectively criminalises political dissent, will be passed with much less fuss if protesters are seen to be violent. If the Bill becomes law, the threat of violence against property ‘for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause’ will constitute an act of terrorism. In other words, Greenpeace’s actions in pulling up GM crops, though supported by 80 per cent of the British public, mean that it could be charged with terrorism. The law makes it an offence to “support – even just with words – any political movement abroad which may ‘endanger life by damaging property’: supporting the ANC would, under the legislation now proposed, have been illegal; support for Ogoni activists in Nigeria or Kurds in Iraq or Turkey could become illegal. At the first RTS meeting I went to, someone asked me: ‘So you don’t mind being labelled a terrorist, then?’ (Clause 18 of the Bill states that it is an offence, punishable by up to five years in prison, not to pass on any information about ‘terrorist’ activity discovered while acting in a professional capacity.)
Meanwhile, back in Parliament Square, there’s a wooden woodcock on a pole. What does it mean? ‘It’s a decoy,’ grins the pole-bearer with a wink. It’s funny, superficially, in a cops-and-robbers way. In another way, it isn’t funny at all. The masked, scarved-up black blocks move down Whitehall. There are police and press cameras everywhere; three cameramen are beaten up by protesters. One or two of the CCTV cameras have been neutralised, covered with RTS stickers. Protesters hate cameras: CCTV represents the ‘overhead’ powers using ‘surveillance’ – ‘keeping watch from above’. ‘Don’t spectate, participate’ is a key RTS motto.
The carnival atmosphere is on the turn: the masks of ivy and ferns are rare in the crowd; the masks of the black block are beginning to prevail. Masks are central to carnival, offering the liberation of anonymity. At the M41 street party a gigantic stilt-walker wearing a ballgown and playing the bagpipes was masking a Kanga drill under her voluminous skirts. It was being used to dig up the tarmac and plant a symbolic tree. Here, though, the masks look very different, and are used to very different effect; black hoods and balaclavas are the uniform of the militia-mentality.
The crowd moves past the gates of Downing Street and the Cenotaph, which – to the consternation of some RTS activists – is daubed and used as a urinal. Then on to a McDonald’s. To general astonishment, it is unprotected; there it stands, a red (and yellow) rag to an anti-capitalist bull. There is barely a pause before someone chucks the first rock and everyone piles in: windows are smashed, chairs flung out, golden arches attacked. You could have predicted this after J18: it’s something of a tradition. McDonald’s and the police must have seen this coming. Missiles thrown at the police hit press and protesters. With 5500 officers on the streets, and another 9000 on standby, the police seal off Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square. Some demonstrators are trapped in Trafalgar Square for three hours, but the Parliament Square crowd are luckier, moving off en masse to Kennington Park. A group of protesters smashes a souvenir shop, a stationers, a mobile phone shop and several parked cars.
Kennington Park at the end of Mayday: a game of protester-football on one side and a line of riot police on horseback on the other. Meanwhile on the street outside, riot police pointlessly charge at the park railings. Behind the railings, protesters pointlessly chuck bottles and stones at the police. For a moment I think I’m going to get hit. A rock whizzes past and splinters on the ground by my feet. A protester walks by eating a bag of chips; a missile scores a direct hit on the chips and they explode out of his hands. A young girl in pagan robes with streams of long brown hair and a sash saying ‘PEACE’ walks out into no-man’s-land, and the rain of missiles slows. A glam-puss in pink steps out, faces the protesters and pulls up her blouse. All missiles cease. Only breasts can do that.
While the lovers and the football players enjoy themselves, the aimless ritual of police versus protesters continues. Who is there, ripping up tarmac and trees from the park, masked but recognisable? Activists from Earth First! – a body dedicated to protecting the environment – are chucking rocks at the police ‘for fun’ (their words). And who else is there, shoulder to shoulder with the black block, throwing rocks at the police? The National Front.
All in all, a few nihilists wreck a few shops and a few cars. The media predictably overreacts. The Express’s headline is ‘May Day Mayhem: Terror on the Streets’. A Telegraph editorial complains that ‘some of those who perpetrated the worst violence were not even British subjects.’ The Daily Sport talks of ‘foreign rioters bussed in to wreck Britain’. The Daily Mail claims that one ‘furious magistrate’ discovered that nine of the 13 men he remanded into custody were born abroad. In all the reports, violence is privileged, as ever. Five days after Mayday, 30,000 took part in a rally for the legalisation of cannabis: there was no violence and no press coverage.
At road protests over the past five years, activists have sought local support and won national backing. ‘We shall fight them in the beeches’ read one banner unfurled from the treetops, and some war veterans gave their campaign medals to the tree protesters of Newbury in the belief that they were fighting for the same things. The characteristics the war veterans saw in the road protesters – many of whom, incidentally, had been in the Army themselves – are still present in the protest movement: a love of freedom and an identification with the underdog. Some of the people from Newbury who received campaign medals were on the RTS protest, but it also involved people who were more interested in violence than principle – a split which has, I suppose, emerged in many protest movements. During yet another quarrel about violence at one RTS meeting Rebecca intervened: ‘Let’s stop arguing about that,’ she said. ‘Let’s talk about guerrilla gardening, that’s what this whole action is about.’ A sly voice cut in: ‘Oh no, it’s not.’ The RTS let an atmosphere develop in which violence was surreptitiously encouraged and then refused to condemn that violence. Nobody had to take responsibility for it.
On Mayday, I recognise one of the famous tunnellers, once a green idealist, fantastically chirpy and eager to talk to anyone who would listen. Now, all in black, hooded and scarved-up, she seems to recognise me, but she definitely doesn’t want to talk.