‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’
The Algerian state is in crisis. The popular refusal to accept a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has immense constitutional implications and confronts the army commanders with a massive dilemma. Public opinion is not repudiating Bouteflika personally; it is indignantly rejecting the suggestion that, in his permanently crippled, wholly incapacitated condition, he should be considered eligible for another five years in office. The Algerian people are defending the constitution, not violating it. Article 102 clearly defines the procedure to be followed ‘whenever the President of the Republic, because of serious and enduring illness, finds himself unable to exercise his functions’. This should have been set in motion long ago.
On 20 January, during the anti-abortion ‘March for Life’ in Paris, Thomas Salgado and other activists from Act Up arrived at a Metro station in the 16th arrondissement to take part in a counter-demonstration. Within seconds, they had been surrounded by CRS officers, who ordered them against the wall for an ID check. Salgado asked why they were being searched. To prevent a threat to public order, he was told. ‘No rights for you; only duties.’
The latest government crackdown in Zimbabwe is not wholly surprising, but it is still shocking in its brutality. The people who took to the streets two weeks ago to protest against fuel prices and the rising cost of basic commodities have been beaten, arrested and raped. The state has also attacked anyone suspected of having the potential to protest, i.e. those living on the breadline, the only people desperate enough to risk it. The protests were sparked by the overnight doubling of fuel prices, but the anger and frustration have been building for months. When I visited Zimbabwe in December – I left on 11 January, just before the recent violence – people’s budgets were stretched to breaking point. There were twelve-hour queues at petrol stations. Friends asked me to bring them cooking oil for Christmas.
As the gilet jaune revolt moves forward and another destructive showdown looks imminent tomorrow in Paris, the government – and the president – have opted for the lesser of two contradictions. The greater: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you set aside progressive fiscal policy and tax rich and poor at the same rate, putting social justice – a grand French aspiration – in parenthesis. That didn't work. The lesser: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you get alongside low earners and help them through a difficult transition, even though the climate jeopardy of clapped-out diesel UVs is absurdly obvious. But that hasn't worked either.
Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called 'gilets jaunes' led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron's fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers' movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don't like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.
‘Give us back May 68!’ a group of students shouted in front of the Odéon in Paris. On 7 May, the theatre had scheduled a May 68 commemoration. First there’d be a play, then some intellectuals and artists would talk. ‘We must emphasise the importance of the Odéon,’ the blurb said, ‘which … was the main platform for “everything is possible”. There, on the stage, everywhere in the theatre, a community of young people tried to invent a utopia and to live it. This was a contradictory and experimental space for speaking out.’ The students outside the theatre fifty years later had been protesting against a law that changes the conditions of access to university and introduces academic selection. They demanded to be let into the Odéon to take part in the discussion – to no avail. Inside, an audience mostly composed of smartly dressed white older people listened politely to the speakers. The theatre’s director called the police, who sprayed tear gas and arrested four students.
The first time I saw one of Kaya Mar’s paintings was at the March for Europe a week after the Brexit vote. I took a picture of him, as did many of the people he walked past: a small man with a neat moustache carrying a peculiar painting, apparently original, of a cart being pulled by a blindfolded donkey towards the edge of the white cliffs of Dover, driven by caricatures of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, with tiny naked bodies and beatific faces.
The Polish government says there were 24,000 protesters on Warsaw’s streets last Monday; the protest organisers say there were 116,000. Whatever the number, the ‘Black Monday’ demonstrations in support of abortion rights were an uncommon display. The protesters, most of them women, were on strike from work, school, housework and their children to oppose a law that would have banned all abortions in Poland, and imposed jail sentences of up to five years for both doctors and patients. The protesters wore black and held signs showing diagrams of uteruses. Schools, universities and government offices were forced to close in at least sixty cities, and sympathetic employers gave their workers the day off to participate. In the capital, where it was raining, they bumped umbrellas and chanted: ‘We want doctors, not missionaries.’
On 4 March the UK Supreme Court ruled that police surveillance of John Catt, a law-abiding 90-year-old peace campaigner, was legal, and that a detailed record of his movements would remain in the national domestic extremist database. ‘The composition, organisation and leadership of protest groups,’ Lord Sumption said, ‘is a matter of proper interest to the police even if some of the individuals are not themselves involved in any criminality.’ Using the data protection act, Catt obtained a copy of his police file in 2010. At one protest, it recorded, he ‘sat on a folding chair... and appeared to be sketching’. At another, ‘he was using his drawing pad to sketch a picture of the protest and police presence.’ Another entry noted he was clean-shaven. The Network for Police Monitoring said that the ruling ‘allows the police extraordinary discretion to gather personal information of individuals for purposes that are never fully defined’.
The atmosphere of the student-organised, leaderless, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last week was hopeful, even jubilant, although the police had attacked the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday 28 September. Under torrential rain, tens of thousands of peaceful Hong Kongers made their way to Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok. I was volunteering at a station to distribute supplies. On Tuesday we had to refuse any more water donations, we had so much already. Food and first aid workers were abundant. Strangers quickly became friends. ‘Hong Kong people are so practical,’ one fellow outlying islander said. ‘They go to work and then come to protest.’
I didn’t expect to see Occupy Central on the streets when I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of September. Like most tourists from the mainland, I went down to Central with a couple of friends for a close-up look at one of the world’s greatest consumer cultures in action, but the protest had been brought forward. On the subway there were dozens of teenagers wearing yellow ribbons in support of the cause. My friend in Hong Kong, who knows a little Cantonese, overheard one of the girls saying the boy she had a crush on had gone to the protest and she wanted to join him. They got off at Admiralty station, close to the demonstration. Love is the handmaiden of revolution. Later on TV we saw the pepper spray and tear gas, and we heard rumours – it turned out later they were orchestrated – of rubber bullets and armoured vehicles on the streets, yet there was calm for the most part, despite the odd flurry of projectiles and an attempt to shove through a barrier. The police reaction seemed guaranteed to bring more people out.
I took a cab from Bedford station to Yarl’s Wood last Sunday. Britain’s biggest immigration detention centre for women is on the edge of a business park in the middle of the countryside. The guard at the gate said there were ‘people around the premises’ when I asked him about the protest I’d come to join, but he wouldn't tell me where they were. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave,’ he said. I walked away through the business park, past a giant warehouse that looked like an empty distribution centre, past the Red Bull Racing wind tunnel, until at last I saw a group of people protesting by a gate. But I was inside the business park and they were on the other side of the fence.
'Housing is a right, tax-dodging is wrong,' read a banner outside the Oxford Street branch of Vodafone on Saturday. UK Uncut had organised a day of action in cities around the UK. Vodafone recently reported a post-tax profit of £59.4 billion for the year to March. For the third year in a row the company has paid no corporation tax; in 2010 HMRC wrote off a £6 billion tax bill. Meanwhile, the government says it can't afford not to make cuts to social housing. The protest took the form of a housewarming party. There were balloons, music and fizzy drinks outside the shop; inside, a few people behind a half-lowered shutter. Three women, a toddler and a man in a wheelchair had managed to get in there early. The protesters at the door had a minor scrap with the staff, then chatted to the police. An activist in a Gary Barlow mask explained the amount allegedly owed by Vodafone. One of the officers asked him: 'Yeah, but have you done your own investigation?'
'I don't normally cover my face, but I don't want to be identified,' the young woman told me last month. A student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was wearing a pink hijab and sweatshirt with a mustard-coloured bandana over her face. 'This is me,' she said, pulling aside the bandana with a smile. She couldn't have been more than 20. Many of the other young women around us had wrapped their faces in scarves to conceal their identities from the soldiers and policemen standing nearby.
At noon on 25 August 1968, eight men and women walked out onto Red Square and unfurled a banner: ‘For your and our freedom’. They were protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: eight people out of an empire of 250 million. Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the most famous and most controversial of them, because she took her baby with her. Afterwards she spent three years in punitive psychiatric wards, force-fed haloperidol. In 1975 she emigrated to Paris, where she died last Friday. The eight protesters were dissident heroes. ‘They cleansed our conscience,’ my parents told me.
On my way to band practice last night, I came out of Camden Town tube station to find a group of men and women dancing about, singing songs and tooting on kazoos. They were, they told the assembled crowd, the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, and they were there to protest against Camden Council’s decision to ban unlicensed busking in the borough.
As well as tripling fees and changing the repayment structure of student loans in 2010, the government has been looking into ways of ridding itself of loans that predate 2012, currently worth around £40 billion. They asked Rothschild to produce a report on the possibility of selling off the loan book to private investors. The report was delivered in November 2011, but only made public in June this year after a Freedom of Information request and a botched attempt at redaction.
Cambridge University promises its students ‘a supportive environment’ and ‘specialist assistance should you need it’. ‘Students who are struggling with a particular problem or feeling a bit lost won’t go unnoticed,’ it reassures us. ‘Don’t worry.’ But when the Guardian revealed last week that Cambridgeshire police have attempted to infiltrate student activist groups and record the names and details of protesters, the university declined to comment, saying the case was a matter for the police.
When my father was a student at the University of Cape Town in the 1970s, the university went to court to prevent the police coming onto campus during political demonstrations. Yesterday Michael Chessum, the president of the University of London students’ union, was arrested on suspicion of an offence under Section 11 of the Public Order Act – failing to notify the police of a public procession. The procession in question was a demonstration the previous day of maybe 200 students, on the pavement outside the students union, around the perimeter of Senate House and in the Senate House car park.
Since the summer, members of the London Chinatown Chinese Association say, the UK Border Agency has been targeting businesses in Chinatown, looking for people who may be living or working in Britain illegally. Most of the raids, according to the LCCA, have been speculative ‘fishing’ trips, based on no intelligence and designed to intimidate. Almost every business in Chinatown has been hit. At one restaurant the officers showed the manager their warrant only after the raid was finished – they were at the wrong address.
For the past year, outsourced workers at the University of London have been demanding 3 Cosas – pensions, sick pay and holiday pay on the same terms as directly employed staff – and staging regular protests at Senate House with the support of students. Last week the university tried to put a stop to them.
Bosnian politics since the 1995 peace accords have been locked in stalemate. The armistice took bureaucracy to another level. The country is divided into two ‘entities’, one Serb, one Bosniak/Croat; before the war no such distinction would have been possible, but atrocities homogenised formerly mixed areas. There are three presidents, one from each of the three ‘constitutional’ ethnicities, and countless ministries, cantons, sub-ministries. Laws are incredibly difficult to pass. This suits nationalist Serb politicians, who argue that the state is chronically dysfunctional, beyond repair and therefore should be split in two: they’ll veto any law that implies a common, contiguous polity. The situation suits Bosniak leaders, too, as it means they can blame everything on the filibustering Serbs.
From my window I can see the Shard. Today there are helicopters, flying low. A man driving a van stops at the lights and sticks his whole torso out of the window, right to the navel, and twists to look up. Six women are climbing the Shard, to protest against the expansion of drilling for oil in the Arctic. Their mission-statement is written in the vernacular of Hollywood disaster movies: ‘1 skyscraper. 6 women. No permission.’ The Shard juts up at the mid-point of Shell’s three offices; the tallest building in Europe, it is the closest thing to ice-climbing that London can provide. I walk to the Shard. Everyone along Borough High Street is moving with their faces turned up, and the people who stop to watch have the faces that children wear at the circus. The sun is in everyone’s eyes. In the hour I am out, I see three pairs of people collide.
How it changes. When I was in Istanbul last April the mood was sombre. Even the most ebullient of friends were downcast. The latent hostility to the regime was always present, but the AKP’s hegemony, I was told many times, went deep. Erdoğan was a reptile, cynical but clever and not averse to quoting the odd verse from Nâzım Hikmet, the much-loved communist poet imprisoned by Atatürk. The poet had escaped in a boat and been rescued by a Soviet tanker. ‘Can you prove you’re Hikmet,’ the captain asked him. He laughed and pointed to a poster in the captain’s cabin which had his photograph on it. He died in Moscow in 1963. His remains are still in exile.
I used to walk through Gezi Park every morning on my way to work. But on 1 May the park was closed. There are plans to build a shopping mall on top of it, and the mayor of Istanbul and the minister of the interior had used this as an excuse to cancel the May Day celebrations there. Trade unions and opposition political parties organised marches to Taksim anyway. The stand-off led to a curfew in all but name. On May Day I looked out the window of my flat and counted ten police officers on the street, one outside every building.
There are a few hundred outsourced workers at Senate House and other University of London buildings in Bloomsbury, including the intercollegiate student halls. Most of the caterers are employed by Aramark; the cleaners, security guards and maintenance by Balfour Beatty Workplace, the services arm of the construction giant. Most are immigrants; from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and, overwhelmingly in the case of the cleaners, Latin America.
This photograph was taken on 16 January by Rachel Kawapit, a member of the Whapmagoostui First Nation, who live in Northern Quebec on the shores of Hudson Bay. It shows David Kawapit, Stanley George Jr, Geordie Rupert, Travis George, Johnny Abraham and Raymond Kawapit, aged between 16 and 19, with their guide Isaac Kawapit (47), setting off to walk a thousand miles from Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuaraapik to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, through temperatures lower than -30ºC, as part of the Idle No More movement, protesting against the violation of Aboriginal Treaty Rights.
Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.
That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.
On the drizzly evening of 7 November, I joined a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Athens. Like the estimated 100,000 other people in the vast square and surrounding streets to protest against the imposition of yet another – the fifth – round of austerity measures being debated inside the building, I wasn’t in a good mood. My pension had already been cut by 40 per cent, the tax rate on the remainder nearly doubled, and a further cut was planned. We were kept away from the building by multiple rows of police, a terrifying sight with their bulky black uniforms, white helmets and visors, assorted weapons and communications gear, tear-gas canisters and water cannons. The scene that wet evening made for a peculiar image of democracy in practice; the people’s elected representatives cowering inside the temple of democracy, protected from the people’s wrath by a praetorian guard. That was bad enough. Inside the building, parliamentary democracy was getting short shrift.
On last Wednesday’s demo, I and three other PhD students marched as the UCL Historians' Bloc. Our placards summoned the spirits of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. It can seem as if raising a smile is the most to hope for from a protest when its manner, timing and location are subject to police permission (last year when the police threatened to use rubber bullets demonstrators responded with: 'If I wanted to get shot I’d play Call of Duty’). Coming down the Embankment I bumped into an undergraduate from the course I teach on the revolutions of 1848. I'd been marking their essays the evening before for approximately £7 an hour. He told me he was one of UCL's delegates to this year's NUS conference. The slogan they chose for the demonstration was: 'Tax the rich to fund education.'
‘It’s taken twenty years but suddenly I’m a hero,’ says Martin Šimečka, one of the Slovak dissident writers of the 1980s. ‘After the liberation no one wanted to talk openly about the Communist period. Dissidents weren’t heroes but reminders of people’s own conformism – but now there’s a young generation who want to stand up to the state, and they turn to me as a role model.’ I was in Bratislava for the Central European Forum: an event held annually around 17 November, the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The Forum brought together the old generation of Eastern European dissidents with participants and observers of new protest movements: a member of the Spanish indignados talked about utopia in a euphoric rush; there were Hungarian anti-Orbán activists, Occupy, Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei specialists. ‘The new generation here are hopeless – they wanted to protest austerity measures in Slovakia but couldn’t achieve anything,’ according to Zuzana Szatmáry, a Slovak poet and essayist who worked in a factory for 20 years. ‘I enjoyed the factory, I learnt how to get tangible results. If you want change then you have to adapt protest to the specific state you’re battling.’
On 25 September, thousands of Spanish citizens from students to pensioners set out to surround the parliament building in Madrid, demanding an end to the current political system and the establishment of a new Constituent Assembly. The deputy prime minister dared to compare it to 23-F, the failed coup in 1981 when pistol-popping Civil Guards took the parliamentary chamber hostage. Days before last week’s action, the national police fenced off the whole area. I was in a bar nearby when three cops wandered in for a drink the night before the demonstration. What did they think about it? ‘As police officers, we’ll do our job,’ said one. ‘But we are also individuals in society. I’d be out there with them.’ ‘Yup, 90 per cent of us would be there,’ said another. Maybe the other 10 per cent included the riot police, who in the event did their job with convincing enthusiasm.
Moscow isn’t short of places to waste your nights in. The city comes into its own after dark. As in Spain, despite the difference in latitude, you eat late and drink until even later. At the height of the oil boom, Saturday night could be spent spinning through a glittering whirligig of clubs where Chechen gangsters snorted coke with cross-dressing performance artists, Kremlin spin doctors hung with theatre directors, grinning thirtysomething billionaires seemed intent on spending oil wells of money at the bar, and the cloakroom girls looked like supermodels. The mood was part LL Cool J video, part Studio 54, part Petronius’ Rome.
The Republican National Convention’s first day was cancelled out of deference to tropical storm Isaac, but for most of Monday Tampa was rainless. At around 4 p.m. I was standing a block from the convention centre, next to Charles O. Perry’s 1985 sculpture Solstice, which looks a bit like a space age Christmas tree ornament, or a pair of Slinkys copulating, beneath the Bank of America Tower. On a Saturday in January 2002 a 15-year-old-boy called Charles Bishop crashed a stolen Cessna into the tower, killing himself and nobody else, because, as on Monday because of the storm scare, there were few people downtown. ‘Osama bin Laden is absolutely justified in the terror he has caused on 9-11,’ Bishop wrote in his suicide note. He has brought a mighty nation to its knees! God blesses him and the others who helped make September 11th happen. The US will have to face the consequences for its horrific actions against the Palestinian people and [illegible] by its allegiance with the monstrous Israelis who want nothing short of world domination! You will pay – God help you – and I will make you pay! His parents at first blamed the incident on acne medicine-induced psychosis but before long dropped their $70 million lawsuit against its manufacturers. On Monday the skies were protected by helicopters. ‘Here comes a mob,’ a pedestrian said. At the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street beige-clad policemen in riot gear formed a line to meet a protest march. The ‘mob’ turned out to be the Poor Man’s March, a permitless echo of a demonstration earlier in the day that had resulted in one protester being arrested after getting tackled by a cop for wearing a mask. Leading the crowd was a man on a bike pulling a trailer with an upside-down Stars and Stripes waving on a pole. Several marchers were carrying pizza boxes. ‘I don’t know about the pizza theme,’ one said. A man with a megaphone addressed the cops: ‘I’m an anarchist. I hope you’re not scared of me because I’m not scary. They’ve got you dressed up like turtles.’ He was wearing a black plastic boot on his head, had a rat-face toy gas mask dangling from his neck, and is apparently called Vermin Supreme. ‘Read my op-ed, it’s an open letter to the city to provide you with corn starch to prevent chafing in your riot gear.’ The signs – ‘Capitalism Is Cannibalism’, ‘Dump Both Parties of Wall Street’, ‘Food Not Bombs’ – were more standard-issue than the chants. ‘We are the proletariat, we are the pizza resistance!’ ‘The pizza ignited will never be reheated!’ ‘Fuck Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney is a fuckin’ asshole!’ ‘What does $50 billion look like? This is what $50 billion looks like’ – i.e., like a bunch of turtles in beige.
On 28 July there were violent clashes between thousands of local residents and police in the Chinese city of Qidong, north of Shanghai. The protesters were concerned about pollution from a Japanese paper factory’s planned new sewage outlet, which they thought could contaminate drinking water and harm the city’s fishing industry. They overturned several police cars, stripped the mayor of his shirt and entered local government offices, where they found expensive bottles of alcohol, condoms and cigarettes, all things that officials are often given as bribes. Some demonstrators were beaten by riot police. The protest came to an end when it was announced that the sewage pipe project would be permanently cancelled.
I watched the Olympic opening ceremony sitting on the roof of a narrowboat near King’s Cross. Boat dwellers have had it hard under the Olympic regime, and many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the Olympic Park, moved on because they supposedly presented a water-borne security risk. Danny Boyle’s nostalgiafest was projected onto a screen stretched between two trees on the canal bank. I didn’t pay close attention – the trees got in the way, the BBC iPlayer kept cutting out – but cycling, which the British have been expected do well in, seemed to feature heavily. Bradley Wiggins rang a bell; Chris Hoy paraded round waving the Union Flag; hundreds of winged cyclists flapped their way, ET-like, into the evening sky.
Uri Avnery on protests in Israel and the West Bank: At the end of [last] summer, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, nominally a member of the Labor Party, sent his “inspectors” to demolish the hundred tents in the Boulevard. The protest went into prolonged hibernation over the winter and good old “security” pushed “social justice” off the agenda. Everyone expected the protest, like the sleeping beauty, to come to life again this summer. The question was: how? NOW IT is happening. With the official beginning of summer, June 21, the protest started again.
Though there have been few large demonstrations in Germany against the austerity measures introduced by the European Union, it was inevitable that Frankfurt, the home of the European Central Bank, would become a target. Blockupy Frankfurt called for a series of protests and actions ‘against the austerity dictatorship’ from 16 to 19 May, culminating on Saturday in a march to the ECB. I spoke to Thomas Seibert, a philosopher and member of Blockupy Frankfurt, at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb. ‘We wanted to say there is a choice,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to stick to the German government. We wanted to say, in the Occupy sense, we are the 99 per cent.’
Last November, the higher education minister, David Willetts, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk, in a series about 'the idea of the university' organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. But as he came to the lectern, a number of audience members (both students and academics) stood up and read, or performed, collectively, a poem articulating opposition to the policies he was advocating. They continued to read and repeat the poem until after a few minutes Willetts was ushered away and the lecture and question and answer session cancelled. In the aftermath of this, and of the small occupation of the lecture theatre that followed it, one PhD student was singled out for reprisal by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures.
Charred bricks and broken glass form the bulk of what was once the Attikon cinema, burned down by hundreds of rioting Greeks in protest at the harshest austerity measures Europe has ever seen. Five lethargic firemen hose water onto the smouldering ruins. Behind them a ring of about 20 camera crews film the scene, and behind them, a ring of bystanders hold up their phones and take pictures. Even for crisis-hit Greece, the violence has been severe.
Port Said, the city at the northern entrance of the Suez Canal, has seen its share of pain. In 1956 it was the centre of Egyptian resistance to the Tri-Partite Aggression. Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1967 turned it into a war zone and shut down the canal, its main source of income; the city was evacuated. Even after the 1973 war restored some Egyptian pride, and Anwar Sadat gave the city duty-free status as a reward for its sacrifices, Port Said never really regained its old cosmopolitanism. After an alleged assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in 1999 – many people believe the ‘assassin’, who was shot dead by security forces, was carrying a letter for the president, not a weapon – some of the fiscal privileges were withdrawn. After the violence at Port Said's football stadium last night, in which at least 74 people were killed and more than 1000 wounded, it isn’t surprising to see so many Egyptians not only decry the lack of adequate policing at the stadium, but accuse the police and the military of having manufactured the whole thing.
Supporters of Occupy Edinburgh were thin on the ground at the city’s sheriff court on Wednesday, 25 January, Robert Burns Day. Only 15 or so activists went to protest against their eviction from St Andrews Square, outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose chief executive has just received a £963,000 bonus). ‘Oh, you’re with that lot,’ the security guard manning the metal detector said when I asked where the Occupy case was being heard. ‘Should have got rid of them months ago.’ After rummaging through my rucksack and confiscating my Dictaphone, he pointed in the direction of Court 13.
One of the first thing the Putinoids did when they got into power just over a decade ago was kill the satirical TV show Kukli (‘Dolls’), the Russian version of Spitting Image. After years of unchecked power they have become their own spitting image, easy targets for the satire of protesters demonstrating against the rigged Duma election. Putin himself, already ridiculed for his macho preening and such PR stunts as ‘accidentally’ discovering archaeological remains on a diving trip broadcast on TV, is now known as Mr Botox. His recent facial enhancement treatment has made him look like a rubber doll.
As the number of wounded and killed has climbed in Egypt in recent days, a number of journalists and bloggers have reported that several of the tear gas canisters being fired at protesters in Tahrir Square carry blue ‘Made in USA’ stamps, and indications that they were made by a company based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, called Combined Tactical Systems. Comparing a recently posted picture of one such shell with the illustrations on CTS’s website suggests it may well be a 40 mm projectile with the catalogue number 4230.
I got a message on Sunday that the Tahrir Square field hospital needed medical help and supplies. As I used to be a nurse, I went. The tear gas is toxic in a way it was not in January. Various people have said that the cyanide component is greater or that phosphorus is causing the problem. I can positively confirm that the gas injuries are completely different and much more severe. We treated hundreds of youngsters who had totally collapsed and were not breathing. Most came to quickly but we had two deaths and one, a young boy, asphyxiated. This evening, every gas victim has come in twitching or seriously fitting. Some gas wafted into the mosque. You couldn't see it but immediately my eyes began to stream and my skin started to burn. In the January Revolution, I saw the gas coming and the effects irritated my eyes, nose and throat. The eye irritation was intense but this is different. I never had a sense of my skin burning in January even with close range exposure.
The University of California, Davis, where I teach, has long been popular with parents looking for a safe and sequestered life for their children, deterred by the history of student radicalism at Berkeley or Santa Cruz. Until the weekend, the only spraying known to be going on at Davis was on the university farm (it was founded as an agricultural college). Last week a small rally was organised partly in protest at the recent violence of the Berkeley campus police force, which set about dispersing a peaceful occupation with night sticks. The chancellor (who was in China at the time) described it as ‘nudging’, but it looked – and by all accounts felt – like vicious beating. But now other California campus are rallying in support of the Davis students.
On Tuesday morning, just a few hours into the post-eviction era of Occupy Wall Street, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times tweeted: ‘Could #Bloomberg be a secret Occupy Wall Streeter? He seems to have just revived the movement.’ Official reaction in any form motivates and inspires the protesters. By driving them from Zuccotti Park, the mayor put OWS back into the news cycle, just when major media outlets seemed to be growing bored of the story. The eviction unintentionally pressed a giant ‘reset’ button, solving two intractable problems at once: the growing presence of homeless, mentally ill or unstable people in the park, and the lack of a graceful exit strategy in case the winter weather proved overwhelming. But the first test was clearly going to be the demonstrations on 17 November. If participation was low, it would be spun as proof that the protests were dying out, aimless and unmoored without the home base of Zuccotti Park. In the event, of course, the turnout was massive, the mood buoyant and determined, the atmosphere electric.
On Saturday, a 23-year-old woman called Ashlie Gough died from a suspected overdose at the Occupy Vancouver protest site. Before the weekend, the city's mayor, Gregor Robertson, had been treading carefully around the protest, stressing the need to avoid violent confrontation; his main opponent in the election due on 19 November, Suzanne Anton of the right-wing NPA party, had been demanding its closure. Both showed up for photo opportunities at the site on Sunday.
The campaign to get rid of Oakland's mayor reaches City Hall.
The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’ Once you have reduced the Tahrir Square protests to a call for Western-style democracy, as Applebaum does, of course it becomes ridiculous to compare the Wall Street protests with the events in Egypt: how can protesters in the West demand what they already have? What she blocks from view is the possibility of a general discontent with the global capitalist system which takes on different forms here or there.
On 14 July, months before the first protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park, Israel’s version of Occupy Wall Street began when Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old filmmaker, found herself unable to pay her rent and pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. July 14th was the day the public conversation in Israel began to change. For decades Israeli politics had been stuck in an endless debate about the Palestinian issue, but while they quarrelled among themselves Israel’s citizens had failed to notice that a large part of Israel’s economy was now in the hands of 14 families. From being the most egalitarian country in the developed world, Israel had become the second most unequal one. But since the protests began, Jews and Arabs have been discovering solidarity and the welfare state.
It seems as if the student occupations and protests of last year have already passed into legend. There have been documentaries, books, e-pamphlets, anthologies, songs and now TV dramatisations. In last night’s episode of Fresh Meat, Channel 4’s new (and increasingly funny) comedy about being a first year at university, the Manchester housemates took a coach to a London march. The screen split in two, and as the fictional students on the top of the screen pulled moonies and discussed which target they would throw their pigs' blood at, the real students marched on Parliament Square below.
Around 600 protesters gathered in Prague on Saturday morning near the Old Town Square. 'No Corruption', the banners said: 'We are One'; 'Game Over. Insert CHANGE to Continue.' We marched first to the stock exchange, then on towards the Vltava River, surrounded all the way by police, who often stopped us for no obvious reason. At one of these halts a man in plain clothes took photographs, which caused some anger, but otherwise the mood was cheerful.
When I got there the signs were already up: 'Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter any premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.' Bundles of legal papers were duct-taped to the archways leading into the square. Police stood about, watching. A few tourists drifted in and out. Photographers stood by, crash helmets dangling from their waists.
A wedding party turned up, on their way to the reception. At first the bride and groom sat in their Merc and waited. Then they got out, and the crowd surrounding them, which got big quite quickly, chanted the Wedding March and cheered as the glowing couple walked off.
On my first visit to Occupy Wall Street, two weeks ago (but it might as well be years, given how rapidly the movement is growing and changing), I sat in on a meeting of the Media Committee. A paper was being passed around, and we were asked to provide email addresses, a list of our skills and the equipment we owned that could be put into service. Of the 35 or so people at the meeting, I informally counted 12 filmmakers, six or seven editors, three video artists, a couple of sound engineers and a director of commercials. The average age was around thirty, and the debate about software, platforms and compatibility was fierce. I dutifully wrote down ‘theatre director’ and listed as skills... um... good communicator? knowledgable about space? strong familiarity with the plays and essays of Brecht? I got the message: these people weren’t fooling around.
After the hopeful Wisconsin flutter, might this be the beginning of an Egyptian summer in New York? Spring has absconded from the heart of political America for far too long. The frozen winters of the Reagan and Bush years didn't melt with Clinton or Obama: hollow men who rule over a hollow system where money overpowers all and the much-maligned state is used mainly to preserve the financial status quo and fund the wars of the 21st century. Discussion, serious debate, openness have virtually disappeared from mainstream political life in the United States and its more extreme versions in Europe, with Britain as the cock on the dung heap. The extreme right is small. The extreme left barely exists. It is the extreme centre that dominates political and financial life.
Their proposed route would have led them past the labour exchange, but, as the leader of the procession wheeled to the right towards a side street, the policemen in front about faced and formed a cordon. The column halted: drum and bell were silenced. The organiser stepped forward desirous of an explanation, receiving scant courtesy of the inspector, who, pointing his stick down the road and staring elsewhere than at the man to whom his remarks were addressed, said: ‘Keep straight on.’... The police farther down the line behaved strategically, breaking up the column into several small portions, preventing further augmentation of the crowd blocking the roadway higher up. The Battle of Bexley Square took place on 1 October 1931,
Uri Avnery on divisions in the tent protests in Tel Aviv: Something very strange – or perhaps not so strange – happened to the media on this occasion. All three major TV stations covered the event live and at length. Itzik’s speech was carried in its entirety by all three. But in the middle of Daphne’s speech, as if on orders from above, all three stations cut off her voice and started broadcasting “comments” by the same tired old gang of government spokesmen, “analysts” and “experts".
When the Israeli tent protests began, some of the movement’s fiercest critics – outside the Israeli government – were progressive Arab intellectuals and activists. The protests seem to draw inspiration, tactics and even slogans from Tahrir Square, but to many people in the region they look a lot like ‘Israeli falafel’: a bland imitation of the real thing. Omar Barghouti described the protesters' failure to target the illegal occupation of Palestinian land as a ‘hysterical denial of the colonial reality’. But the denial may not last. While the army raises the spectre of a ‘radical Islamic winter’, Israeli demonstrators and the press are beginning to ask tough questions about the corruption of the military-industrial elite.
More than five months into Syria's uprising, at least 2200 people have been killed and thousands more detained. The activists involved in the protest movement have insisted on non-violence and non-sectarianism but it’s not clear how much longer that can last. I recently accompanied a doctor and an activist as they made their rounds of Harasta, a small town on the northern outskirts of Damascus.
Largely shielded from the European and American financial crises, the Israeli economy has been growing at an astonishing rate over the past five years: 4.7 per cent in 2010 alone. But the wealth isn’t evenly distributed: most Israelis living inside the 1967 borders struggle to make ends meet because of the high cost of living and relatively high taxes, which are largely spent on security and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
On Jadaliyya, an anonymous eyewitness account of the violent dispersal of a protest outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday night: The Lebanese security detail disappeared, and the now larger group of counter-protestors began to push towards us, clearly trying to intimidate us into leaving.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to demand clean and free elections. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, has a history of fraud, intimidation and other thuggery at the polls. The Bersih rallies (Bersih, meaning 'clean', is the nickname for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) were non-violent, but the government struck back with brutal force. The police attacked the demonstrators with batons, water cannon and tear gas, killing at least one and putting many in hospital, including the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, who was photographed with obvious wounds to his head and legs. More than 1500 people were arrested.
In the last few days, more than forty of us have collectively resigned our membership of the Peer Review College of the Arts and Humanities Research Council: we will no longer referee colleagues’ (usually hopeless, often hapless) applications for research money. We quit in protest at the AHRC’s announcement a couple of months ago that the Big Society was to be one of its research funding priorities, and its subsequent insistence that this did not impugn academic freedom – on the grounds that the decision was an independent one and not imposed by government. More resignations are expected as the AHRC digs in over this ‘justification’ of its Browne-nosing hope of favour. For British academics to act like this is unprecedented.
Last Wednesday evening, when disappointed hockey fans rioted in the streets of Vancouver, I was at a performance-art cabaret I’d curated called Rereading the Riot Act II, an interrogation of the events of 23 April 1935, when the mayor of Vancouver, Gerry McGeer, read the Riot Act to protesters from the Relief Camp Workers’ Union and their supporters who were gathered in Victory Square.
After the protests in Ürümqi on 5 July 2009, thousands of extra police and soldiers were brought into the city. On 7 July the authorities reported that almost 1500 people had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration, which they described as ‘a pre-empted, organised violent crime’. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published eyewitness reports of official brutality, but there hasn’t been much corroborating evidence. Last week however a video appeared on YouTube that shows police and soldiers making arrests in Ürümqi. The clip appears to have been shot for state TV, since the reporter has permission to film.
WHATEVER WE WEAR, WHEREVER WE GOYES MEANS YES AND NO MEANS NO! The main chant of Saturday afternoon. Also: THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING, especially from the impressively ambulatory stiletto-heeled contingent. HIJABSHOODIESHOTPANTSOUR BODIES OUR CHOICE THIS VIRGIN-WHORE DICHOTOMY IS GETTING PRETTY FUCKING OLD
A given number of parliamentary seats in Lebanon are proportionally assigned to representatives from different religious communities. In theory, this prevents any one group from dominating the political agenda and encourages compromise (though it’s not really working like that at the moment). It also, however, assumes that everyone is religious, and that they want the country to be governed accordingly. On 20 March, 30,000 people took to the streets of Beirut to call for secular laws to be applied to marriage, domestic violence, child custody, divorce and inheritance, currently under the jurisdiction of the separate courts of each of the 18 recognised religious communities.
The organisers of the ‘Rally Against Debt’ on Saturday made a lot of promises. On their website the event was described as ‘a great networking opportunity’. There were to be ‘a fair share of journalists’ so any attendee stood ‘a good chance of getting your face out there'. The rally would give voice to the ‘silent majority'. Comparisons were made with the Tea Party movement. The organisers were pitching to an inexperienced protesting crowd. The website provided tips on how to make a placard, along with a selection of recommended slogans: ‘I understand economics’; ‘Stop reckless politicians spending our money’; ‘Mind the fiscal gap.' I didn't fancy getting my face out there, but was curious to see what kind of support a pro-cuts demo could muster.
The revolutionary upsurge in the Arab world has caused no little stress in Washington, but until Wednesday (27 April), it was reassuring in at least one way: Palestine hardly figured among the protesters' list of complaints. For many Western journalists in Tahrir Square, this was a sign of a newfound Egyptian political 'maturity', as if it were immature for Egyptians to be concerned about a blockade of their Arab neighbours that was partly facilitated by their own government. True, the question of Palestine was not entirely absent – Egyptians made plain their displeasure with the blockade, and with the sale of natural gas to Israel at a discount by Hussein Salem, one of Mubarak’s cronies who has since fled the country – but it was not prominent, either.
Since the protests began in Yemen earlier this year, writing the top line of news stories has become a daily wrestle with the limited possibilities offered by the metaphor of the ‘brink’. The country has stepped closer to the brink, edged towards it, and stood at it. It has yet to go over it. But tensions are running high. Money changers are running out of dollars. Every day, more serious weaponry is visible on the streets.
Escalate, an anonymous 'collective of writers and activists from around the University of London', has just published a stimulating Marxist analysis of the TUC march against the cuts: What happened on March 26? The official answer is clear: hundreds of thousands of ‘people from all walks of life’ marched for an ‘alternative’. Who in fact were they, and what are their interests? And what material recourse do they have against their managed impoverishment? Among all the cloddish asininities emblazoned in grim edible pinks across a million A6 flyers, not once does the TUC mention class. Its current agenda is one of banal inclusivity...
‘Fortnum and Mason’s is surrounded by police as this is a crime scene. Persons responsible will be arrested’: a message sent out by the Metropolitan Police text service for protesters at 18.33, just as I was getting home from Saturday’s TUC march. The slogan was ‘March for the alternative!’ – ‘what sort of alternative?’ Evan Davis asked on the Today programme that morning – but UK Uncut’s flyers encouraged us to ‘occupy for the alternative’. Fortnum’s was targeted because its owners, Whittington Investments, ‘have dodged over £40 million in tax’. Inside, ‘this has basically turned into a giant picnic,’ Laurie Penny tweeted, apart from the moment a display of chocolate bunnies was knocked over and had to be put painstakingly back together. Pictures and videos show protesters sitting on the floor, nestled between the glass cabinets and wooden counters or gathered behind brass railings, singing. The occupiers were arrested: of 149 charged by police on Saturday, 138 were done for 'aggravated trespass' or sitting on Fortnum's carpet for a few hours. Even Fortnum's have admitted that 'the damage is minimal.'
From Swamp Post, a time-lapse video mapping protests in North Africa and the Middle East from 18 December 2010 to 7 March 2011. Painstakingly compiled by John Caelan.
Pressure is building on the Saudi regime as opposition forces inside and outside the country are planning a Day of Rage on Friday. Precise details haven't been released, for obvious reasons, but demonstrations are likely to start around 4 p.m. in cities across the Kingdom. Opposition activity on the internet is at fever pitch and widespread civil disturbances are expected. In recent days at least three different public statements calling for reform have been issued, each with hundreds of influential signatories. Several new political movements have been launched including the Islamic Umma party, led by ten well-known clerics; the National Declaration of Reform, headed by the well-known reformer Mohammed Sayed Tayib, with Islamist, liberal, Shia and Sunni members; Dawlaty, an amorphous online movement with several thousand signatories and thousands more accumulating every day; and the Al Dustorieen movement of lawyers, linked to Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who are calling for a response from the king on a petition they submitted in 2005.
Getting back to Tahrir Square in the middle of the celebrations after the fall of Mubarak was a lot easier than getting out of Egypt on 3 February had been. In our apartment on the eighth floor, glued to al-Jazeera, my flatmates and I had watched on TV what was happening in the street below – the men riding into the square on horses and camels, the petrol bombs, the casualties. Our building was guarded by a group of men with big sticks. When people started throwing rocks at our balcony, we decided it was time to leave.
Eric Cantor can’t have been expecting a warm reception when he came to speak at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Forum last Thursday. The House majority leader, who represents Virginia’s seventh congressional district, has consistently voted against abortion, gay marriage, union rights, affirmative action and gun control, but in favour of outlawing flag burning. So he must have been prepared for some hostile questions at the end of his address, vaguely entitled ‘We are a Nation at a Crossroads’. But before he even got inside the Kennedy School he was met by a crowd of around 500 students – from Tufts, Northeastern and Lesley as well as Harvard – protesting against House Republicans’ budget proposals.
On Sunday 13 February, more than a million Italians, most of them women, took to the streets to demand that Silvio Berlusconi resign. Their slogan was taken from Primo Levi: ‘If not now, when?’ Their theme song was Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’. The demonstrations (which took place in 231 Italian cities, as well as in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Brussels) were organised, without official political backing, by a variety of groups including Il Popolo Viola (‘The Purple People’), a web-based youth network, established in December 2009 to campaign against Berlusconi and the political ‘caste’ governing Italy. Berlusconi’s resignation was not forthcoming. Instead, he looks set to be possibly the first prime minister of a democratic country to stand trial while still in office, charged with abuse of power and the ‘exploitation of underage prostitution’.[*] Berlusconi is still in a surprisingly strong position, domestically.
Twenty-year-old Nasta Polozhanka was detained by the Belarusian KGB for more than two months. One of the leaders of the youth movement Molodoi Front, she is accused of organising ‘mass disturbances’. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison. The ‘mass disturbances’ in question were a largely peaceful protest against last year’s rigged presidential elections. As soon as polling stations closed on 19 December, the Election Commission announced yet another landslide victory for Aleskandr Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been in power for 16 years.
Thanks to the public employees of Wisconsin, thousands of whom have occupied the state capitol building for the past several days, the class struggle has returned to the United States. Of course, it never really left, but lately only one side has been fighting. Workers, their unions and liberals more generally have now rejoined the battle.
Information is patchy as communication networks are down, but reports from Libya all indicate that after 42 years in power, Colonel Gaddafi’s time is up. The tribes are heading to the capital en masse, soldiers still answering to the regime are trying to stop them, and the violence is escalating. According to the latest reports the regime has deployed helicopters and jets to crush the uprising, allegedly flown by mercenaries from Eastern Europe, Cuba and elsewhere. Meanwhile, former regime stalwarts have been defecting in growing numbers. The head of Afriqiya Airways, the head of the Libyan Chamber of Commerce and several ambassadors are among those who have resigned or relocated. Many of them are reportedly now in Dubai. Islamic scholars in Libya spoke up today for the first time to rule that fighting Gaddafi was legitimate jihad. The demonstrators are calling for a million people to march tomorrow on Bab al-Aziziya, the fortified military compound where Gaddafi lives in Tripoli. But no one knows where he is now.
Hosni Mubarak was the Israeli government’s favourite dictator, so it was hard for them, and for the mass media, to say goodbye to him. Coverage of the uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East has been fairly supportive of the protesters, but Egypt was a special case. As Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired head of the army, put it, ‘stability is preferable to democracy.’ The refrain throughout has been: 'Israel is anxiously following events.’ But on 26 January, the Israeli establishment was hopeful that its neighbours would fail in their struggle for democracy. The daily Ma'ariv, under the headline 'Trusting Mubarak', said: 'Israeli officials are optimistic: Egypt will overcome’ – ‘Egypt’ here and elsewhere meaning the despotic administration, not the people.
Demonstrations by hundreds of people in Libya’s second city of Benghazi yesterday were met with rubber bullets and water cannon: at least one person died and around 14 were injured, including 10 police officers, according to media reports. Yesterday also saw the first mass demonstrations by Libyan women against the regime. 'No one is clear what is going to happen or what is being planned,' a Libyan opposition figure told me. 'There are no opposition movements inside Libya but many young people have had enough of the regime.'
The BBC is encouraging its specialist reporters to blog, as a way of going into subjects at greater length and a greater degree of wonkery than they can manage in their broadcasting. The results are often interesting, especially on the economics side, where writers such as Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston often allow themselves to get more technical than they can when they're appearing on any of the Beeb's various news outlets. Here is an absolute corker of a piece from Paul Mason, offering 'Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere', from UCL to Tahrir Square. Here are some of them:
Mahmoud, my driver in Cairo when I reported from Egypt last year, didn't talk much about politics, and – an understandable precaution – kept his views to himself unless he was asked a direct question. But when he dropped me off at the airport, he launched into a sharp attack on the Mubarak regime. 'The Egyptians are a very patient people by nature, but their patience is running out,' he said. 'They could explode.'
Resistance was futile. The X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s sickly debut single, ‘When We Collide’, made Christmas No. 1. The two favourite outside chances – Billy Bragg et al’s version of John Cage’s 4’33”, and Captain SKA’s ‘Liar Liar’ – didn’t even make the Top 40. If it seems obvious now that the nation would choose the most popular participant in the nation’s most popular game show over four and a half minutes of near-silence, or a slice of ebullient agit-pop, it didn’t seem that way a few weeks ago. Both tracks had well-run campaigns behind them, Facebook groups with masses of members, whips on Twitter; ‘Liar Liar’ disgusted George Osborne on Newsnight while the Guardian thought 4’33” likely to be the ‘most serious competition the forthcoming X Factor winner will have to face’. Sadly it wasn’t.
If you're in London and not sure what to do on Saturday afternoon, why not grab a book and head down to the read-in at the Vodafone shop on Oxford Street? It's being organised by UK Uncut to protest against both the mobile phone company's tax avoidance and the recently announced cuts in local government funding: The Library bloc’s mission is to target Vodafone and highlight the government’s 27% cuts to local government budgets. Vodafone’s £6bn tax dodge could pay for every single cut to every single council everywhere in the country for the next two years. Library bloc will meet inside Vodafone’s flagship store to stage a read-in. At exactly 1.04pm, on the librarian’s signal, everyone will sit down, take out a book and begin reading.
Walking from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday afternoon took about two hours and was very good fun. We were near an art-school crowd who were boisterously throwing glitter and confetti about, and had built an impressive ten-foot vulture out of bin bags and part of a hoover. The sun was out, London looked great, there was chanting (‘Tories, Tories will tear us apart again’ was a favourite), cheering and a brass band. The banners ranged from official university ones to the very much homemade ('CUnTS'). Everyone was there because they were angry but it was like a celebration of us mobilising ourselves so all the way up to Millbank it felt like a kind of important party. On the embankment everyone congregated outside the Tory HQ where people had speakers, there was even dancing. When everyone noticed a crowd had made it up on to the roof we all cheered them, and they cheered back.
One of the most striking things about yesterday's student protests, culminating in the ransacking of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank Tower, was not the numbers involved (50,000 or so), or the violence (sporadic and quite heartening), but the shiny and sterile quality of many of the images of dissent we’ve been offered in today’s papers. This iconic moment of window smashing was a gift to the Daily Mail, but doesn’t exactly justify their description of ‘militants from far-Left groups’ who ‘whipped up a mix of middle-class students and younger college and school pupils into a frenzy’. The phalanx of photographers at the back clearly outnumber any militants or frenzied schoolchildren in the shot.
I live two blocks away from the temporary detention centre that the Integrated Security Unit has set up on the east side of Toronto for the G20 summit. It’s normally a film studio, but is now fortified with an additional security fence and guarded by police officers. You can see it in this video, made by an alternative media group last Thursday, two days before the summit began. The journalists are approached by two plain-clothes police officers who take their details and then refer them to a police spokesman who insists that the detention centre is at an undisclosed location while gesturing towards the film studio.
The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.
The protests spiralled quickly out of control, but the ethnic tensions in the west China region of Xinjiang are not new, and this unrest has been brewing for years. Unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic people – have no global spokesperson capable of bringing their cause to the attention of the West. But like Tibet, Xinjiang once laid claim to being its own nation, and Uighurs have harboured separatist ambitions since the founding of the People’s Republic. As I found during a number of visits to the region over the past decade, Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang have almost no interaction with each other.