Analysis of the March for the Alternative

It’s been just over a week since 200-500 thousand people marched across London. What kind of response have we had, and why? Are these even accurate or viable views to be held in light of what happened?

Media response to the march

From what I’ve seen the general response to it was ‘the march was ok – but look at these broken windows and be horrified’. I personally spoke to Julia Hartley-Brewer, a presenter from LBC 97.3 on Monday, when she was asking about what anarchism means, etc. I’m probably the worst person to ask this kind of thing – I’m not an anarchist and although I know people who are, I don’t really believe myself to be in such a position as to explain their motives to somebody. For the record, I don’t think I can speak for a whole range of people. So I clarified I wasn’t an anarchist; that I merely ended up with the black bloc by accident at the protest – which is true – and then gave my explanation to all of these issues and arguments which is: Ultimately, we are all individuals and are responsible for our own actions – it shouldn’t worry us what Joe Bloggs next door is doing. Whether we choose to do things in groups or not – you can’t legimately say that because they were in the same place at the same time that they automatically must believe in the same things. And in fact this is one of the problems with the black bloc – anyone can turn up dressed in black. Perhaps on Saturday there were people who turned up who weren’t anarchists at all. We don’t know, and it’s something that can’t be controlled.

Another question was – and in hindsight, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever – “You were there – why didn’t you try and stop them? Why didn’t you shout at them to stop throwing things?” – I’m not even sure I answered it because I was totally stunned. I’m 22; a young woman with no weapons, no scarf to protect my identity, and no authority. Firstly, why would I want to tell them to stop? I don’t care what other people do at the protests because as far as I’ve seen it has very little impact on me – and until I see the black bloc actually hitting peaceful protesters then I will continue to think so. The impression people get is that at protests people just start fights and that’s absolutely not the case – the only reason people get hurt is if there is a fight between individuals, or when the police get involved and inflame the situation. Secondly, why should I tell them to stop? I’m not the only person witnessing this. There are dozens of photographers, reporters and other members of the public milling around, who are far bigger, older, and stronger than I am. It is telling that not a single person shouted at them to stop or attempted to intervene, out of a watchful crowd of a hundred. The police didn’t even turn up until it was too late, moving in to protect HSBC when protesters had already started moving on.

I wasn’t really allowed to finish what I was saying, and I kind of understand why. Firstly, they ran out of time and needed to go to the adverts. And secondly, I don’t think anyone listening to LBC actually wants to know about what really went on, from the view of someone who was ‘involved’ (in quotes, as I wasn’t actually involved in any vandalism that day, but happened to be in the area). Their audience doesn’t much care for the ins and outs of anarchism either – not that I was the right person to explain it. Julia was asking for anarchists to ring in and explain what they wanted – but similarly, what anarchist would listen to LBC?! I wouldn’t have thought many true anarchists do. Moreover, who would be willing to bother wasting their time trying to explain themselves – the listeners have already made their minds up; the presenters have made their minds up, and a cut-off explanation of things isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. So I feel a little disappointed (in terms of feeling that I wasn’t really given that much of a chance) but I completely understand why and frankly I don’t blame them. The listeners need someone to shout at on the radio; someone who challenges their long-held beliefs and makes them grumble about ‘the bloody state of this country’ or whatever. And that person was me last Monday. I get it – I understand how the media panders to their audience and treats people who disagree with the same contempt that their audience would, if at all. I don’t hold any grudges either.

The main frustration with the media narrative of good protester/bad protester is that it is so prevalent, and the left can’t even begin to counteract that when pretty much all of the mainstream media is right-wing or right-leaning. How can we get our message out there that the black bloc isn’t mindlessly destructive? That police were the ones hitting protesters with little or no reason, and not holding back? Even a brilliant eyewitness piece in the Independent was derided as fiction by readers.

Police tactics and attitude

Like I said in my write-up of 26th March, there was pretty much one occasion where I thought the way the police (attempted to) handle the situation was laudable. That was outside Fortnum and Mason. The officers there didn’t push back, didn’t hit anyone and only spoke loudly to tell people to move back. Of course, they were too weak to hold it against the crowd that was pushing back – but the point is they didn’t do anything unnecessary. At other times during the day – and the worst example I can think of this is at Trafalgar Square – police acted in an antagonistic way towards protesters, pushing them back and kettling them when there was nothing going on. This kind of treatment is highly inflammatory – is it any wonder that those who were having a nice evening with their friends, stood by a fire, or dancing to music took exception to being moved out of the area in such an aggressive way?

Basically, the police need to stick to one tactic and run with it the entire day. My suggestion would be more hands-off like they were at Fortnum and Mason, ie watch the situation as it unfolds and go in if and when necessary. If they do need to go in and people are getting upset, explain to them exactly why they are being contained. Don’t use words like ‘sterile area’ because that’s nonsense and we all know it. The problem with protests is that everybody gets caught up in the moment – the kid who threw the fire extinguisher, I would propose, would never in a million years just pick up a fire extinguisher and throw it off a roof for kicks. Not saying he was encouraged to, but that people in crowds do immensely irrational things. And the same is true of the police – if only the Met would stop kidding themselves that every single police officer acts in a professional way. It’s understandable. We’re all human. We all get carried away. But in the same way the police, and the public at large, want protesters to condemn each other’s tactics (which I refuse to do), the police should actually condemn some of their colleagues for acting the way they did. Does this seem like a reasonable response to you? Of course protesters get carried away but the differences are: a) protesters are (usually!) not paid to be at protests; they go because they believe in a cause, rightly or wrongly; b) police have a duty to be professional at all times when working with the public – and ‘hitting people with batons’ doesn’t fit into my definition of professionalism; c) police are supposed to neutralise situations, not inflame them by intimidating people.

Regarding condemning of those involved in vandalism, I don’t think infighting is the answer, and I don’t think violence is the answer either. But I do honestly think that if the cuts are going to be affecting people as badly as it is believed they are, then broken windows will not be enough to put them off protesting. When people are pushed too much; when they have nothing left to lose, they will start protesting.

In the aftermath of the TUC march we need to be open and honest with each other – not judgemental; not condeming… For what’s done is done. What we need to do is move on from this and learn some lessons. We could probably start with understanding of what solidarity is, and adopt St Paul principles, or some form of. We can start with the third: “Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.”

As the great saying goes: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Parallels and Perspective

We’re not even a month into the new year, and already we have seen some inspiring action across the world. In Tunisia, the people protested against their government. In Egypt, protests are still going on (for up-to-date news, watch English Al Jazeera, they have been fantastic in covering it) against Mubarak’s rule. As I type, a Vice President has just been sworn in. Protests in London and across the UK have also started up again, now everyone has recovered from the laziness of Christmas and gotten back into the swing of things. In some cases these protests in the UK have led to clear police brutality (video from Leeds).

The most subversive protest of all

Iconic photo of a middle aged woman kissing a policeman - in Egypt this week. Copyright: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP.From MSN's Egypt photoblog

What is interesting is that in all of this we have faced constant snide remarks of “Well, in the US this happens all the time!” “It’s not as bad as in Egypt. You should be grateful you have freedom of speech to say that!” and so on.

I appreciate that comparisons can be helpful. For example, we should be emboldened by those in Tunisia and in Egypt. We should think ourselves lucky that we do not face what they face on a daily basis; that by and large we live in a more democratic country. And we should take heart from their uprising. It’s hope for our own. However, comparisons of “What are we grumbling about? They have it so much worse” are extremely unhelpful and patronising.

The implicit message in that is that we don’t know how good we have it; by being angry at things that are not life-threatening or ‘as bad as’ elsewhere that apparently means we are ignorant and this somehow detracts of diminishes the underlying message of the fight for freedom elsewhere. Which of course, is untrue. I don’t think for one second that people who protested in London today are unaware of the Egyptian peoples’ struggles. The protest evem made its way to the Egyptian Embassy – whether you agree with that or not – and this shows a sense that UK protestors see themselves as belonging to a wider community of protestors. So by no means ignorant of problems elsewhere. In fact, they are now aware, more than ever, that we live in a ‘global village’.

The way I see it, arguments of “why are you protesting when other people have it worse?” are – to go off point for a second – exactly the same arguments used against people who suffer from depression. “Why are you so unhappy, you have legs and arms!” (as someone who suffers from depression, I know this argument all too well!)
I think it’s important to not assess protests, or political unrest, or angry citizens in terms of justifying and comparing to other countries. What is important is that we all feel angry – whether we are in Egypt, Tunisia, elsewhere (I know other countries are going through similar phases) or in the UK. Whether we are being dragged from homes and murdered by the state, or whether our local library is being closed down – we all feel betrayed by our government. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter that people elsewhere ‘have it worse’ – NEVER let anyone tell you that you don’t have a right to feel angry, or betrayed, or upset! You have a right to be angry at anything you please, if it affects your life and you don’t like it.

What’s more, I’m finding myself enraged by Americans who keep somehow coming up on my radar and chiming in with “Call that police brutality?! Look at THIS!” – it’s not a competition to see who treats their citizens worse. In America, police taser people, but this doesn’t mean that it’s ok for protestors to be hit with batons at protests in the UK. I don’t want the police in my country to start using tasers. I don’t want for us to slip into that without a fight, or to turn round in ten years when they do use taser guns on protestors, and say “I didn’t see this coming! Why didn’t anyone say anything?!”

So yes, comparison gives us perspective in a world where things get blown out of proportion all too often and easily. But it also makes us less inclined to progress; to develop ourselves further. What good does it do us to look at people who are worse off, and feel bad that we are angry about things which, in the grand scheme of things, are not as bad? We need to feel angry. We need to progress. We need for things to change. And perspective-givers only hinder this by making us feel like whatever we want to fight for is not legitimate. I say, if you feel it, then it is.

Reporting the protests

In the wake of the student protest earlier this month there have been journalists left and right (quite literally) condemning, agreeing with, or just analysing the student movement.

A post on New Left Project (NLP) about left-wing journalists potentially undermining the movement got me thinking. It is important for people to understand about why the protests are going ahead, and there will clearly be divides in how it is reported (as well as divisions threatening the development of the movement itself – but that’s another issue for another day). The main point of the argument set out in the post above was that in attempting to “add an extra layer of horror” to the actions of the police, left-wing press classifying the protestors as ‘kids’ suggests that they are naive as to what they are protesting about – lending more power to right-wing groups who dismiss protests as juvenile and borne out of boredom, not political awareness.

It’s a point well-made, and one I happen to agree with, although I couldn’t offer a satisfactory solution. What we’re seeing is that reporting of protests is being polarised into two factions. Firstly, to the left, who portray protestors as children – in the sense that it is emboldening and indicative of the times that people so young are now beginning to care – and then the right, who portray protestors as children who have no idea of why they are protesting, are politically illiterate and just out to cause trouble.

More left-wing journalists tended to take the approach of embedding themselves in the protest – most notably New Statesman writer Laurie Penny – whereas other not-so-left journalists chose to stand outside the kettling area and remark on what they could see from the edges. Hardly in-depth and thorough. It’s worth noting here that core members of the movement do not feel helpless or voiceless in the slightest – they are busy writing blog entries, networking on twitter, getting other groups involved. But they lack the audience that mainstream press can automatically count on.

However, in seeking to tell the protestors’ story in a way directly opposed to traditional press who have turned a blind eye or railed against the students, Penny perhaps risks infantalising them (although of course the term ‘children’ or ‘kids’ was used in an observational sense – children are taking part in protests; it’s a surprising and powerful thing to see) as the NLP article argues so articulately.

There are limitations and dangers as a journalist, of assuming that just because you have been there you know the ins and outs of the movement and can accurately pinpoint and describe the feelings behind it. I myself attempted this earlier, as a supporter of the movement and as a journalist – it’s extremely difficult to gauge motives of thousands of people, and speak for them all without pigeon-holing and patronising them by assuming that you understand their motives. Journalists have the greatest freedom of being able to weave in and out of organisations; to try and get to the ‘bottom of things’ and report backĀ  on what they’ve seen – but it’s important to remember that they are ultimately outsiders. Even those who share the same beliefs as core members of movements will likely be left out of some of the proceedings, or treated with suspicion, lest they attempt to discredit the movement or interpret things entirely differently.

Of course, this shouldn’t deter journalists from attempting to discover motives and meanings of these events. After all, the demonstrators cannot do it so effectively to a broad audience themselves – though access to twitter, facebook and collective blogs is gradually changing that. However, activists still rely a large amount on journalists’ interpretations of a movement they are removed from – however close they perceive themselves to be – and whilst it can add authenticity and a credible voice, it has the potential to be the undoing of a movement.

Dayx3: The Protest

I leave home quite early, in time to get to the UCL Occupation (lest they leave without me!) The room is packed, and protestors are being briefed about what they can expect on the day. Everyone writes two numbers on their arm – one is the number of a lawyer, and the other is the number of someone from a handful of people who will be manning HQ at UCL. If we get lost, ring someone at UCL. If we get arrested, ring the lawyer. I’m emboldened by the fact that there is a great support network, though slightly worried I may get entangled in an argument with police and end up being lead off and handcuffed. Being arrested would be somewhat of an inconvenience given that I need to be at a dinner in Bournemouth in the evening!

We leave the UCL quad jubilant and positive about the march ahead. A, who I met on Wednesday, manages to find me amongst the crowd, much to my delight – at least I won’t be alone! We follow the march around the corner to ULU, where the Socialists’ Worker’s are handing out placards with “Bring Down the Government” written on them. I spot a group of students banging plastic milk bottles, Rose tins and anything else they could get their hands on, in an attempt to bring a rhythm to the chanting. It’s a fun, exciting crowd.

Protestors bring objects to hit during the march

Protestors bring objects to use as instruments during the march

We walk further along and settle in the crowd near two older women. They are both studying. One, 63 years old, who studies art at London Metropolitan University says to me: “This whole agenda is about capitalism, and the more we do to get rid of it the better. This is just the beginning.”

Behind us, a 63 year old man stands alone, holding a banner stating: “You KNOW it’s wrong. Vote principles, not party.” He tells me: “I think education should be free, like it was for me when I was younger. I’m here fighting against the cuts and in support of students.” They are not the only non-students there. To my left I can see a young family. The parents are concerned about the future of their child.

We get word that police officers may be attempting to kettle us here. In the confusion, we are not sure what is happening, but we warn a lady in a motorised wheelchair to move out of the crowd and onto the pavement. A man around 60 holds a megaphone and is talking as he walks through the crowd. He turns to the police on the sidewalk: “A word of advice for you. It’s not good to be on the wrong side of a revolution.”

Parliament looks alight due to fires being burnt

Fires burn in front of Parliament

We make our way through the crowd in time to see some speakers on the corner of Malet Street. The speakers make the crowd roar with the end of every sentence. Suddenly, a student grabs the microphone: “Enough talk! Let’s march!” a roar of approval goes up from the audience, but we are told: “We need to wait for more people. We need to have as many people as possible and we will march as one.”

Clare Solomon takes to the microphone. Clare is a well-known supporter of direct action, and as far as I can tell, people in the crowd know and respect her. “We will NOT be contained, detained, or kettled again!” she says, to a delighted crowd:

Finally, we march! It’s all very uneventful, with various chants going up, until we reach Leicester Square. I notice that the police officers are quickly walking through the crowd in one line, and I’m suspicious and eager to get to the front. Eventually, A and I break into a run, causing other protestors to run, and then the police. It’s clear they are intent on breaking up groups, preventing us from getting to Parliament. Thankfully, A and I outrun the police, as does Laurie Penny, who I can see just in front of me. I turn around and find a line of policemen hitting protestors with batons. There’s no logical reason for this that I can figure out.

Eventually the crowd breaks through the line and we go off into a side street. Again, the police start walking quickly up the sides. Twice, I get pushed by a police officer shouting “MOVE!” People notice the police creeping up the sides and as a group, we break into a run. By this time I’m too tired and I give up. Some protestors are still running ahead of me, shouting angrily, as they suspect that the police have contained us in this small side street. Have we been kettled? Nobody is sure. But people are livid and screaming about their right to protest. A chant of “Whose streets?! Our streets!” goes up. Somehow, after the confusion, we are allowed to continue on through the back streets of Covent Garden.

Protestors leave a smouldering placard

Protestors leave smouldering placards and signs

We get to Trafalgar Square and meet another surge of protestors from the main route. There’s a huge crowd here and the march has slowed. We’re not sure why until we reach the edges – there is a line of mounted police blocking off Whitehall. Undeterred, the movement moves around the edges down Pall Mall.

At this point, we see FIT officers, and A turns to me: “I have a spare scarf. You need to use it. FIT are here” I don the scarf, looking like I’m about to mug someone’s gran, but nonetheless hopeful that I am less likely to end up being photographed by police and arrested, simply for being at a protest. Before I read FITwatch I had no idea why protestors covered their faces in scarves unless they were criminals – and now I fully understand. They don’t want to be arrested or incriminated for doing nothing wrong.

We arrive at Parliament and suddenly no one seems to know what to do. A few fires are lit, and placards are burnt, but largely there’s a big sense of “Now what?” We walk towards Whitehall and find 10-15 police holding riot gear helmets. I find the man whose photo I took at the November 10th demonstration. He’s campaigning for his 15-year-old grandson. I check twitter and find that someone has tweeted something about the police being “too quiet”, and they’re right – it’s suspicious, given their behaviour earlier on in the day.

Riot vans line up along Whitehall

Riot vans line up along Whitehall

After quite a while of hanging about, we watch two sets of police running from different directions. We suspect they are moving in to kettle protestors – though there is no clear purpose to us – and we are luckily on the other side.

By this time it was time for me to leave for Bournemouth. As I walk down Whitehall to find a tube station, I spot 13 riot vans along Whitehall, all containing about 6 police officers. Protestors are being encouraged to flow into Whitehall but I’m worried that they will be greeted with heavy-handed police.

Tired, with sore feet and a heavy heart, I leave. I check twitter as often as my phone and the network will allow, and I keep hearing reports of horrendous things going on.

Sadly I had to leave early. Over the last few days, a lot of new information has come out about what happened on Thursday. Serving members of the police have mocked protestors and called for the use of water cannons in future protests. Journalists have been hurt. A protestor required emergency brain surgery. A protestor in a wheelchair was allegedly dragged out of it by the police.

But I don’t think even all this controversy is enough to deter protestors. As many people said to me during the protest, and afterwards – “This is just the beginning.”


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