Fighting oppression via the medium of… Uh, cupcakes

A while ago, I read a piece somewhere online about young feminists not knowing what the Fawcett Society was, and how terrible it was (well, sort of). I hope I can be forgiven this this feminist faux pas – and perhaps even prove that maybe the FS is not the be-all and end-all, nor the definitive line of British feminism.

We have all heard the stats about women basically being ignored by consecutive governments; how cuts and redundancies will hit women hardest and nobody cares or bats an eyelid or does anything about it. Women are being trod on left, right and centre. We can all agree that this is not restricted to Conservatism – Labour were just as bad. But it’s all okay. Because the Fawcett Society are taking a stand! There’s a protest soon. A protest that requires you ‘dress up’ in a 50s theme. Can’t make it? It’s alright – you can host your own tea party!

I could cry.

I get that it’s trying to be ironic. “The government are taking us back to the 50s, we need to show them we won’t take this anymore” etc. But irony doesn’t wash with feminists when it’s being used on terrible, sexist t shirts. It doesn’t wash when men make sexist jokes. Why should it wash with other women that we are allowing ourselves to be portrayed in this way?

Obviously, I am all for the protesting. I am all for sisterhood and displays of it. Playing dress-up and baking cakes for your nearest and dearest is, I’m sad to say, absolutely not civil disobedience, and doesn’t say to anyone: “I’m really angry and I’ve had enough”. What it says to me is: “I have the money to go out and buy an outfit so I can play dress-up for the day, and I have the luxury of time to be able to bake cakes and have a tea party”.

The thing is, it appeals to a particular breed of feminist. It appeals to the ones that don’t particularly want to get their hands grubby, the ones who are most probably not going to be affected by these changes that the government are putting through. I am not saying that people cannot represent others who can’t go. But I find that the very nature of this form of protest really smacks of privilege, and is kind of offensive to those women who are not geographically able to physically protest, who don’t have the money to spend on a new ironic 50s outfit, and who don’t have the time/skills/money to host a tea party.

Those women who are too busy working several jobs and trying to run a house who are actually being affected – does this protest speak to them? Does it speak to me? No. I want a protest with fire in its belly. I want brilliant slogans, fantastic creative banners. We women are just as good at being resourceful, creative, and bloody angry – just the same as our male counterparts. How can you reduce such a group to such a small and conformist idea?

Underneath it all, it says: Well, this is what we’re good at, ladies. We are good at being hostesses, and we’re good at shopping and we’re good at baking – we may as well face up to it and use our inherent biological assets and skills as a tool for protest.

No, no, NO. It’s not subversion, it’s submission.

I am glad that they are doing something (incidentally this is the first thing I’ve seen) but in short, it’s a really, really terrible concept and I honestly think I am damn well vindicated for largely ignoring the Fawcett Society up until now.

The John Snow Pub Kiss-in Protest

A gay couple were kicked out of a pub in Soho for kissing a couple of days ago, and this sparked a ‘gay kiss-in’ protest today. I just caught the Sky News report. Towards the end the reporter says “Although in the heart of Soho, the John Snow ISN’T a gay pub…”

I have an issue with this wording. I totally understand the need for there to be ‘gay’ pubs or ‘gay’ areas, where queer men and women can meet others, away from prejudice in society – but I take issue with the representation of this pub as specifically NOT ‘gay’. It appears to gives credence to the view that I’m sure some people will have – that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Because by not being a ‘gay pub’, it’s implicitly therefore a ‘straight’ one.

I don’t see why it is necessary for the report to state that it was or wasn’t a gay pub. If it was in a gay pub, it would be unacceptable. If it’s in a non-gay pub, it’s unacceptable. I honestly don’t see the difference or the need to clarify whether it is specifically ‘gay’ or not. That treatment shouldn’t be allowed anywhere, regardless of sexuality or gender, and regardless of whether it’s in a ‘gay’ pub, a ‘gay’ area, or one that ISN’T specifically ‘gay’.

I realise some people don’t see the problem with this. I do. If it was a gay pub that they got kicked out of, would it have been stated that it was such? Or is it such an incredibly shocking idea that two gay men should want to go into a ‘non-gay’ pub and kiss? It propagates homophobia but in an incredibly subtle way; creates a divide between ‘gay’ pubs and ‘not-gay’ ones. The truth is there should be no divide whatsoever – on a basic level their treatment is ridiculous, and breaks equality laws. Gay pub or not.

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”

My experience of 26th March

Colourful placards on the TUC march

Some of the colourful placards on the TUC march

I said I’d write about it on Sunday, and every day since, but I’ve been really too busy to. Busy with a social life and busy with trying to catch up with all of the news coverage of the protest and events that happened on Saturday. I still am not satisfied with what I’ve seen, because I still can’t really see exactly how it was portrayed – but I gather it was all in a negative context (we all know that bad news is better than good news!)

My day started very pleasantly, with breakfast near Russell Square with a small group of friends from Twitter. Our plan was to meet people in the education bloc, the parent bloc, then go to UK Uncut, then Trafalgar Square. We joined the march at about 11am, and were all in good spirits, talking about what the day might be like, what we might achieve… As we got to Embankment, the crowd slowed down and ground to a halt. We had lost half of our group, and were standing in the middle of a crowd of people with scarves covering their faces – mainstream media will have these labelled as ‘anarchists’ but this assumption makes me uneasy. FIT officers were on railings filming the crowd. We chatted with various people around us – most of whom were covered up – and we heard someone say that they’d seen one of the FIT officers before and didn’t like him. Conversation turned to frustration at not being able to move, and consensus was reached that stalling marches like this will only make people angry. The crowd eventually started moving off, albeit very slowly, and we were eager to get ahead. Standing around in the street somehow feels futile. So we made our way through the crowd along Embankment.

At Trafalgar Square we headed off towards Soho Square, to meet fellow UK Uncutters to go to a ‘comedy gig’ at 2pm. We found a fair few people in Soho Square, including UK Uncut supporters and comedians Chris Coltrane and Mark Thomas. We were told to go to a certain place, and groups headed off. As we followed people in front and crowds merged, it soon became clear we’d lost UK Uncut and were now with the black bloc. We decided that we should just stay with them – nobody felt unsafe or threatened – until we could figure out what else to do. As we were walking along a couple of people decided to move some huge green wheelie bins, and some of the crowd responded “Fuck the bins!” “The bins are to blame for this mess!” etc. I don’t think anyone really thought it was appropriate or necessary to move the bins.

Smoke canister outside vandalised HSBC

Smoke canister outside vandalised HSBC - note the number of photographers

Outside the Palace Theatre, we saw a HSBC suddenly get spray painted and hit with paint balls (I was splashed with a small amount of paint too), and then people started to hit the windows with whatever they could. As far as I can remember, there were a handful of police around, dozens of photographers and a small amount of people actually doing the damage. After about ten minutes of this, when the black bloc had decided to move on, riot police moved in. This caused interest, and people went back to see what was going on. One man in riot gear not only pushed back people, but ran after one person (over a small distance) to hit him with a baton. This is on video, just about.

Eventually after a few clashes with the police when a couple of riot vans turned up (they were spray-painted and hit with sticks, predictably) – people decided to move on. I don’t quite remember what happened next, but we headed to Oxford Circus to try and take part in the UK Uncut ‘secret location’ sit-in. We waited at Oxford Circus for ‘the signal’ and as there were hundreds of people there who weren’t involved in UK Uncut this was pretty difficult. We got word, somehow, that it was at Fortnum & Mason. So we made our way there. On arrival, police were attempting to block the doors to prevent anyone from getting in (it must be said that this was the one point I could say the police were not being too aggressive – it was clear they were being told to be restrained in their approach), but the crowd kept pushing and pushing, and me and another friend were pretty much pushed in. There were about a dozen police officers inside, and a couple of hundred (maybe? Not good at estimating numbers) protesters. Many were sitting down eating their sandwiches that they’d brought with them. Some of them had put up banners and written ‘Pay your tax’ on price labels. Someone had brought a beachball with them that was thrown across the huge round balcony section, until it fell to the basement floor level – and nobody went to get it. We were in there for 30-45 minutes at a guess, and after we found some other friends, we decided to head out. It had turned particularly nasty outside and police lines were there waiting for protesters to come out – we were shoved out of the way by them even though we were going in the opposite direction.

We left F&M and went up the road to try and find other friends; we ended up on a side street just off the main road which was clearly causing a headache for the police. I don’t know how long we were there but it must have been a while and there were small skirmishes with police as they stood their ground, then formed a line (for very little reason that we could see? But we were on the wrong side anyway – looking in) and then started beating people back. Part of the problem started when police started gathering barricades on the side of the street. I was stood very near them, and what I can only figure (though I don’t know if it was or not) as a petrol bomb came flying past me, almost hit me, landed on the pavement right in front of the police and set one of their boots on fire before spreading up the pavement a little. Luckily no one was hurt, although it seemed extremely close to me particularly (hard to tell because crowd was sparse but from what I remember I was the closest) and it was the one part of the day where I would say I was genuinely scared I might get hurt. But only momentarily. What followed was an attempt by the police at blocking the road off, hitting back anyone who wanted to move through the line to get to their friends. When the line of police turned round as if to begin kettling us, we left as soon as we could.

After a quick dinner, as we hadn’t eaten all day, we headed down to Trafalgar Square and found a noisy, but peaceful, crowd of a couple of hundred people. Some were huddled around fires for warmth, some were dancing, some were chanting, but not one of them was causing any issues that I could see. We stayed for a while but as it got colder went to the pub, and came back later. When we returned, we saw police starting to move in at the steps near the national gallery (ie down into the square) and police forming lines at the bottom. In other words, beginning to set in to squeeze the protesters into a kettle. The protesters at the bottom, facing those police on the stairs, panicked and picked up barriers and threw them at the police. Things were getting nasty, I’m sure, but I couldn’t really see much other than barricades going over peoples’ heads. We moved to the top of the square, near the stairs, and as we realised police were shutting the stair exits off, we shouted at frantic protesters – some may have even been passersby, encouraged by the earlier noise – to climb up the walls where we were. Soon, half a dozen of us were helping people scale the walls to escape being kettled. Some that were inside specifically didn’t want to leave, and just shrugged. The situation turned really nasty and we could tell that fights were going to break out, as they had done earlier, so we left.

That’s my honest and full (perhaps too wordy?) account of what happened on Saturday. I spoke to Julia Hartley-Brewer, a presenter on LBC 97.3 on Monday – and I’ll explain about that in another post, analysing the response to what happened (as in, what people have been arguing with ME about, what the general media narrative was and what I think about it, and policing tactics etc).

Congratulations if you made it this far, and thanks for reading. I know it’s been a long one. There are loads of other, probably better, blogs out there. But I wanted to record my experience.

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.

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.”

Occupied: A Day at the UCL Occupation

RIP Education

RIP Education banner outside the Jeremy Bentham Room

I decided to visit the UCL Occupation during my stay in London. Twitter has been afire with news of this group of students who have occupied the Jeremy Bentham Room in University College London. Observers were amazed and impressed by the way they had conducted themselves during their 2-week stay, and I wanted to see for myself.

I head to Goodge Street to meet someone I had spoken to on Twitter just hours before. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call him A. He’s a student at a college round the corner from UCL and he’s wanted to go since he heard about the occupation starting, but never got the chance.

There are 20-30 people in the occupation, all busy making banners, listening to speeches, blogging, tweeting and facebooking. There’s a group of dedicated ‘tech’ people, the ‘social media’ table… Research. Video Editing. Press. Every department you would expect to see in a big company is here – each with a designated table and a small team to work on it. I ask several people, ‘Who organised the occupation?’ and unanimously and without hesitance, the response is that they all did.

Just outside the Jeremy Bentham Room, is a shrine – ‘RIP Education’. Across the walls along the corridors, and all over the room, messages and images of inspiration and encouragement are pinned up. There’s a huge legal advice banner at the front with lawyers’ contact details. A huge projector screen is at the front – it’s connected to a computer in the ‘tech’ centre, and shows the latest tweets to the UCL Occupation account. A National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts banner proudly sits below the projector screen – there is no sign of any support for the National Union of Students here, not since President Aaron Porter promised help to the occupiers and then refused to deliver.

The Darkest Parts of Hell Are Reserved For Those Who Reserve Their Neutrality

Graffiti scrawled on a wall in the UCL campus

Someone has invited esteemed Independent journalist Johann Hari to give a talk to students. Johann talks about several ‘mission impossibles’ that ordinary people have overcome through the power of protesting. At the first Gay Pride, people were arrested – now look at how it has grown. These are inspiring, says Johann, and students should not feel despondant about the massive challenge ahead.

Immediately after Johann’s speech, someone stands up: “We need some people to go to Camden School for Girls now. They’ve had the police called on them and they’re very worried.” They have organised a 24 hour sit-in and have been threatened with police action. A few minutes later, a group of us leave to go there. There’s more running involved in this than I would like. We arrive to find a crowd of students outside, and security blocking the gate into the school.

Tasha, a 16 year old student at the school, tells me about what inspired the sixth-formers to occupy it for 24 hours: “A lot of us have been to the UCL Occupation quite a lot and we saw how great it was, how co-ordinated it was and we know loads of people there and it was just an inspiration.” After hanging around for about an hour, with UCL Occupation students offering support, they realise there is nothing they can do and their presence may even be undermining the sit-in. We leave the school, and the girls are told that if they come into any trouble to ring again for support.

Two hours later, at about ten to five, a group from the occupation gather together to go to Euston Station for a ‘flash mob’. We’re not quite sure what we are supposed to be doing at this one – famous flash mobs include hundreds of people singing Hey Jude in Trafalgar Square or the freeze-mob at Grand Central.

Protestors at the Flash Mob in Euston Station

Protestors with a banner at Euston Station

We stop just outside Euston Station for a quick briefing: “The place is swarming with police. We can’t go in as one group, so pick a group, stay with them and don’t look like you recognise anyone else.” We split off. I’m with A, and we find ourselves in a group with another journalist, and go inside the station. Police officers are walking around the station in pairs, some with dogs. They’re not sure what to expect. We’re handed a mock newspaper – the Evening Substandard – and we’re told to wave it around during the lectures. After ten minutes of waiting, a cheer goes up from under the departure screens and we run over to see what’s happened.

Hundreds of people sit, kneel, crouch on the floor. More are standing at the back, as speaker after speaker gives a speech in front of banners with ‘Free Education Zone’ and ‘Education is a right’. Members of the public are invited to come up and speak, and a couple do so, giving their wholehearted support to the students and praising them for their actions. The police are bewildered, but I suspect, pleasantly surprised that this is all that was planned.

As the flash mob disperses, a group of 6 drummers emerge and begin drumming, attracting attention from police officers in the station. They direct the drummers and the crowd outside, telling them, “You can drum to your heart’s content, as long as you are beyond the glass doors.” Along the way out, protestors and passersby dance to the beat.

I briefly speak to Jasper, from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He’s been lecturing at the front, and I’m amazed that the flash mob was co-ordinated so successfully. “It’s great isn’t it?” he beams, before joining his friends dancing and chanting along to the beat of the drums. Passersby join in – one gives their child to a student to hold on their shoulders for a while.

Gradually, after the drum beats fade into the hum-drum of a busy London station, everyone leaves, jubilant and positive. It’s been a long day, and they have a lot to plan for tomorrow – the ‘Day X’ protest in London.

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