I joined the March for the Alternative on Saturday 26 March with around half-a-million others. It was an exciting day, and good to see people of all ages, including little children, and all backgrounds dancing and chanting along the Embankment and en route to Hyde Park. I got back to see BBC News coverage of the event, and was angry, albeit not that surprised, to see a very skewed view of what went on. I have had around two-dozen friends say that they wished they had gone on the march, but were concerned about this or that. I have to say that this march was ultra-safe, and the babies and toddlers only cried when they saw Cameron or Clegg’s face on placards! If you stayed home and only know about the march from media reports, let me tell you something you have not yet heard: it was a great day out for all the family.
The main contingent of the march were the unions. There were lots of Unison, Unite and GMB banners there. There were firefighters marching in pristine uniforms. Teachers were marching, as were students. A huge Postman Pat was leading groups of posties. Plenty of Labour Party branches were there with banners, as were a few Green Party branches and the assorted other parties of the Left. Campaign groups were out, like Stop the War and UK Uncut. Many spent hours on coaches from Scotland and Northern England to get there. A group of carers for the elderly marched with placards, each bearing a photo of an older person and their message of support for the march — an old woman grasping her zimmer frame: “I would march if I could”. It took two hours for those at the back of the march to reach the starting point on the Embankment from which the front moved off. If each of us who marched has a handful of friends who stayed at home yet support us, the march represents many millions of Britons who refuse to accept the government’s rhetoric on necessary cuts. This is no minority, this is mainstream.
I didn’t go to Hyde Park for the speeches in the end, as I was more in need of something to eat than rallying. Ed Miliband‘s speech certainly reads better than it sounds on the video recording. However, there was absolutely no chance that he might say anything substantial. More interesting I thought was Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor, marching (seeing as Miliband decided that marching was not quite appropriate for the Leader of the Opposition (!)) . Perhaps naively, I hope his participation represents genuine political openness to an alternative to these destructive cuts.
Members of UK Uncut (if you can call them members when you just turn up and join in) marched with us, and had publicised that they would be doing there now usual protest against tax-avoiding businesses along Oxford Street. Their protests are always good natured — dressing up and playing games — and totally non-violent. They protest to shame businesses who exploit tax rules to avoid paying their way when public services are being cut to ribbons. UK Uncut also planned a ‘top secret’ protest against a tax-avoiding business after the protests along Oxford Street. This turned out to be Fortnum & Mason, an ultra-high end grocer part owned by a tax-avoiding holding company that is owned by a ‘charity’ (in the legal rather moral sense) that has given substantial funds to the Conservative Party (illegally) and a right-wing thinktank. The occupation and protest and Fortnum & Mason was good natured and legal. An insiders account can be read here, and a video can be seen here.
The group that everyone is having problems with is the Black Block, which is a tactic rather than an organisation of those who dress in black, cover their faces and often carry the black and red flag of Left anarchism (specifically that of anarchosyndicalism). They ‘joined’ some of the UK Uncut protests, broke windows and threw paint bombs. When police kettled Fortnum & Mason they arrested UK Uncut organisers, those who had organised peaceful protest, while the vandalising march of Black Block segments were marching around neighbouring roads. The police arrested the wrong people, likely because of the high profile of the shop targeted and their frustration at not being able to do anything to stop peaceful protest. There is plenty of evidence to show that there are no criminal charges to brought against those arrested and cases will be dropped quietly, but the work of intimidation and media placement of the arrest figures is what the police wanted.
UK Uncut, the TUC and the Labour Party have all criticised the actions of the Black Block, although without such specificity. However, I would like to point out that Black Block ‘violence’ consisted of smashing a few shop windows, daubing some graffiti on walls, throwing some paint bombs and not letting the police push them around. Today the graffiti is gone, the windows have been repaired, and all at a fairly minimal cost to the tax-avoiding businesses that were targeted.
Then as the night drew on came Trafalgar Square. A number of groups had suggested that we end up there at the end of the day and turn Trafalgar Square into our Tahrir Square. It was a little naive perhaps, but such naivety is an essential part of the revolutionary spirit. After Fortnum & Mason, the police clearly had had enough and kettled the protest in the square. At this point the square was totally peaceful. The police made a number of ‘snatch squads’ to go among the protesters to make arrests of individuals. One seems to be someone who the police mistakenly thought had been involved in vandalism. Another seems to be of someone climbing on the Olympic Clock, which police reports have fetishised to the extent of describing riot police moving in to defend the sacred object from vandalism. Protesters defended friends from the snatch squads, and the confrontation escalated from there. Arresting the peaceful protesters at Fortnum & Mason was the first police mistake, trying to make arrests on the peaceful protesters in Trafalgar Square was the second. Peaceful protesters have been made scapegoats for violence once more. Laurie Penny’s eyewitness account is certainly worth a read.
One other, secretive group was out in force on the march on Saturday. They did not carry banners, dress in black or cover their faces. They attempted to blend in, but they did not want anyone to know who they really were. I call them the Yellow Block — hundreds, if not thousands, of rank-and-file Liberal Democrats who feel their party leadership are taking the party in a direction totally repugnant to them. I wonder if the Yellow Block might have one of the greatest impacts on our politics in the near future.
- Cuts protest: I’m a political prisoner now | Imogen Perry (guardian.co.uk)
- Defend UK Uncut, even if you don’t agree with their tactics (newstatesman.com)
- Some food for thought from inside Fortnum & Mason (independent.co.uk)
- Our protest against the cuts was peaceful | Alex Pinkerman (guardian.co.uk)
- Cuts protesters claim police tricked them into mass arrest (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘It was my first protest. Now I might lose my job’ (independent.co.uk)