Lies in London

Lies in London

By Laurie Penny

Demonstrators sit down on Piccadilly during a protest organised by the Trades Union Congress, in central London. Photo: Paul Hackett / Reuters

What went wrong?

As the dust settles and the slogans are scrubbed off the walls of
Fortnum and Mason, that's the question the entire British Left is
asking itself about the events of March the 26th. What went wrong?
Where do we go from here? And most importantly, who do we blame?

That last part is easy: we blame it on the kids. The story currently
being spun by the police, by parties in government, and by most of the
press is that an otherwise successful mass demonstration was ruined by
disgusting little vandals with hate in their hearts. That mindless
acts of violence were perpetrated by a small, hardcore group of
hooligans calling themselves 'the black bloc', who trashed banks and
businesses at random and attacked the police without provocation. That
their behaviour undermined and discredited the half-million citizens
who marched to the rally point in Hyde Park. That it was a major own
goal for the Left in this time of crisis.

That assessment is incorrect on nearly every level. Unfortunately, the
handful of reporters, including myself, who dared to produce accounts
of the day that run counter to the mainstream consensus, have been
savagely attacked. We have been called thugs, liars and terrorists for
having the temerity to put on record the police brutality that some of
us observed and experienced in Trafalgar square. We have faced down
attempts to bully and threaten us into retracting our testimonies.

Ben, 21, was struck on the head during marches in London.

I feel obligated to restate that the accepted public narrative about
the events in London on March the 26th is factually incorrect on
several important counts. In the first instance, there were not a 'few
hundred' dedicated 'criminals' on Oxford Street and in Picadilly on
Saturday, but thousands and thousands of people, mostly under thirty and
unaffiliated, many of whom had come straight from flag-waving and
banner-holding on the main march through Whitehall to join in with the
peaceful actions planned in central London. These actions had been
organised by the campaigning group UKUncut. Some of them, such as the
store occupations, were potentially
unlawful- but they
were peaceful and politically motivated, like all of
UKUncut's previous projects.

Secondly, the 'black bloc' – a phrase that will undoubtedly be used to
terrify wavering tabloid readers for years to come – is not an
organisation, but a tactic. It is a tactic used, rightly or wrongly,
to facilitate the sort of civil disobedience that becomes attractive
to the young and the desperate when every polite model of political
expression has let them down. Although there were a small number of
genuinely violent agitators in attendance on Saturday, most of them
middle aged, drunk and uninterested in the main protest, a great many
of the young people who chose to mask up and wear black in order to
commit acts of civil disobedience had never done anything of the kind

Those young people came from all over the country. They were students,
schoolkids, workers and union members. Nine months ago, many of them
were political interns, members of the Labour party or volunteers for
Liberal Democrats. Nine months ago, many of them still believed,
however naively, that the democratic process might deliver real
change. Now a new spirit of youthful unrest has been born into an ugly
and uncomprehending political reality. A generation has been
radicalised by the betrayal of their modest request for a fair future,
and by repeated experiences of police brutality against those who
chose to resist.

Those young people, with their energy and their idealism, briefly
looked set to capture the hearts and minds of the nation. Following
the events of march the 26th, former sympathisers in the Labour
movement and on the liberal left are now falling over themselves to
disown Britain's disaffected youth.

Facing lazy calls to 'condemn the violence' or be held complicit in
the media backlash, most of the centre-left has condemned, and
condemned, and condemned. They have paused only to blame one another
for ever entertaining these 'kids' and their politics. They have
dismissed the angry young people of this country without actually
asking themselves how it came to this.

That dismissal cannot be allowed to continue without serious
unpacking. Ultimately, it is not these young people who have let down
the Labour movement – it is the Labour movement and the Labour party
in particular that has let down
the young, the poor and the desperate, not once but repeatedly,
failing to stand behind their
demands for change, failing to offer any alternative to the cuts other
than its own re-election on a platform of slightly mitigated
austerity. We should not be surprised that so many thousands couldn't
bothered to listen to Ed Miliband speak, and went to Oxford Street
instead to do some direct action.

An injury suffered by Ben, 21, is treated by a medic during marches in London.

Then there's the third misconception. The 'violence' enacted upon the
defenceless shopfronts of major financial fiefdoms may have looked
terrifying and uncontrolled on camera, but it was far from mindless.
These targets were not chosen at random. British banks and major
tax-avoiding companies were attacked because these companies are seen
by large swathes of the public as being responsible for the banking
crisis and for subsequent ideological decisions on the part of the
current government to mortgage healthcare, welfare and education. In
the rush, Spanish banking giant Santander was also vandalised – and we
need to be asking ourselves just what has made our nation's children
so very upset with world finance that they believe any
bank is fair game.

Nobody's children are at risk from this sort of political 'violence'.
Many children were, in fact, part of the protest, singing and dancing
on Oxford street or carried on the shoulders of their parents to watch
UKUncut's comedy gig in Soho square. There are serious problems with
the way in which the press chooses to discuss 'violence' in relation
to the protests, and chief amongst those problems is the way in which
the violence done to private property is now considered morally
equivalent to physical violence against human beings.

It's the second sort of violence that really does put people's
children at risk, and it's that sort of violence that I saw dispensed
without mercy by police on the bodies of Saturday's young protesters,
the vast majority of whom were engaged in peaceful civil disobedience,
almost a hundred of whom were hospitalised for their trouble, with
broken limbs and streaming head-wounds.

"The police tried to kettle us outside Fortnum and Mason, and fearing
for the safety of the crowd in case of a crush, some of us formed a
line in front of the police," says Ben, 21, whose face is swollen and
covered bloody cuts. "This was passive resistance. Our arms were
interlocked and we were clearly no threat to the police. Without
provocation, an officer punched me six times in the face, hit me three
times on the head with the edge of a riot shield, kicked me ten times
in the shins and three times in the groin.

"I could not move or defend myself, so I bent my head to shield myself
from his blows; it was only when I saw the blood running down my
tshirt that I realised how badly I'd been hurt."

'They were kicking people on the ground and dragging them away to be
arrested. That was after blocking us inside the store 'for our own
safety' and promising we would be allowed to leave peacefully," says
one member of UKUncut who was involved in the quiet sit-in inside
Fortnum and Mason. "We were handcuffed and taken to cells across
London, made to strip to our underwear and given white paper jumpsuits
to wear.

"I was left for eighteen hours without food and woken up repeatedly,
once for DNA swabs and fingerprints. It felt like they were trying to
scare me away from peaceful protest, treating me like a faceless
terrorist when I'm just an ordinary citizen standing up for what I
believe in."

Commentators are not wrong in calling march the 26th a loss for the
Left. It is unfair, however, to blame that loss on the thousands of
young people who chose to demonstrate outside the approved march
route- although undoubtedly mistakes were made by organising parties
in picking targets and anticipating the size and energy of attendance.
The implication that the day would have been a success had everyone
just played by the rules is a vastly disingenuous statement unworthy
of the many respected liberal commentators who have made it.

After the event, Vince Cable released a statement to the effect that the
March for the Alternative is to have no impact whatsoever on the speed
and savagery of public spending cuts. The speed with which the
statement was released
strongly implies that it had been written before the first protestor had got
on the coach. What 'ruined the day' was not young people committing
acts of civil disobedience and spoiling it for everyone else. What
'ruined the day', if the day really was ruined, was the state's
determination to ignore the weight
of public opposition to its savage programme of spending cuts.

This is not to imply that the march was a waste of time, nor that
those who marched were wrong to do so. Not everyone feels able to risk
their job in order to occupy a bank. What the march and its aftermath
reveal, however, is that the model of opposition and public
mobilisation offered by the unions and the Labour party is totally
inadequate to the task at hand, and alienating for a great deal of
workers and families , as well as the many thousands of
people who are already too desperate to protest quietly and obediently.

Marching from A to B to voice vague objections to government spending
plans, marching behind Labour and union leaders who fail entirely to
offer a coherent alternative, is no longer a sufficient response to these
cuts. It is not sufficient because this government, like the previous
government, is not at all worried by the prospect of hundreds of
thousands of people marching from A to B. They are worried about the
prospect of a truly popular people's uprising. They are worried about
losing the ideological argument over the necessity of destroying the
welfare state. They are worried by the prospect
of a run on the banks engineered by digital people power, as just
occurred in Holland, and they are worried about the prospect of a
general strike. It's safe to say that the government has a lot less to
worry about this week than it did last week- and activists, anarchists,
unions and the Labour movement all need to be asking ourselves why.

Police confront demonstrators at a march near Picadilly Circus in London.

This government isn't scared of mass vandalism. The public, however,
is – and that is precisely why fistfuls of images of young people in
masks smashing up the Ritz and throwing smoke bombs have been tossed
at our screens for five days now. The state requires us to be fearful
so that it can acquire our consent
for its spending cuts, and the public fears disorder even more than it
fears mass unemployment and the decimaton of public services. So
perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the
images of officers of
the law assaulting unarmed young people, and the images of riot
cops arresting an entirely peaceful protest group on orders which are
rumoured to have come right from the top, have largely been
been overlooked or dismissed.

Meanwhile, UKUncut – a group whose modus operandi is
inclusive, creative, defiant people power of the type that really does
scare the government – has been brutally suppressed. A hundred and thirty eight
members have been detained, including a fifteen year old girl who was
so frightened in jail that she was made to sign a form excusing the
police from culpability, should she go on to commit suicide.
There has been very little
public outcry. The
next wave in the battle for the hearts and minds of the British public
has truly begun.

This is the follow-up to an earlier article published at the New Statesman.