Following on from the winter 2010 student protests against increases in tuition fees, a protest against more general government cuts took place in the spring of 2011 –
More photos & footage from the direct action activities are contained within the article.
Who Organised The Protest?
The (Trade Union Congress – TUC supported) group March for the Alternative, organised a march from Waterloo Bridge at midday through central London to Hyde Park where a rally took place at 1:30pm.
Members of Disabled People Against Cuts also joined this march – the first time since the 1920s that disabled people en bloc have joined a mainstream demonstration called by the TUC. An online campaign also ensured that people who couldn’t take part in the London activities could contribute towards the movement.
Another group – UK Uncut, organised complimentary activities known as direct action. Simultaneous occupations of tax dodgers and banks the length of Oxford Street occurred at 2pm with another gathering at 3:30pm for the mass occupation of a secret target.
Why Is A Protest Needed?
The government collects money from taxes in order to pay for public services such as healthcare, education and policing – but the worldwide recession means that economic activity and unemployment is rising while the collection of taxes is falling.
The organisers suggest that the government is attempting to clear the national deficit in four years (which stood at £163 billion in 2010), by depending on cuts to public services rather than giving economic growth a chance to get the coffers back to black. They suggest such cuts will force the economy into an even deeper recession than already exists.
More details on the proposed cuts can be found here.
What Is The Alternative?
The government could make everyone immortal, give the gift of instant wisdom and banish all evil to reduce the demand on public services. Unfortunately, this cure has proven rather elusive so there are two easy ways in which the government could clear the deficit while injecting cash back into public services to maintain them at their current levels (and maybe even expand them) –
1) Ensure that all companies pay their taxes – it is estimated that an extra £16 billion could be collected every year using this method.
2) Introduce the Robin Hood Taxes – comprising of a Financial Transaction Tax (£250 billion per year globally), a decent and properly enforced Bank Levy Tax (which would raise more than the £2.5 billion per year currently proposed) and a Financial Activities Tax (£4 billion per year).
What Happened On The March For The Alternative?
The government had announced their budget and reminded the public of the proposed cuts to public services on the 23rd March 2011. Three days later, an estimated 500,000 people gathered in London to express their disgust.
With some people setting out at 3am, packed coaches travelled from all over the country and special trains were even chartered for the event. Travel to the event was either free or heavily subsidised – considering the financial strain of many of the participants.
Crowds gathered along the banks of the Thames between the Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges – a fantastic carnival atmosphere prevailed while the protesters – young and old, waited to start moving along the route. There was a minimal Police presence with the majority of organisation being conducted by voluntary Stewards.
Organisers were giving out free lunches to Union members, but anyone could help themselves to placards, vuvuzelas and inflatable banging sticks. There were the obligatory hawkers selling whistles for a £1 should anyone have had the urge to make even more noise.
One of the first ports of call along the route was Downing Street. This seemed to be the point at which the protesters were most vocal – emotionally letting off steam at the occupants. Indeed, a lot of footage collected for the first short film in this article was recorded at that location.
The most extreme event to occur there was the appearance of a Trojan Horse which was dumped outside the gates to Downing Street. A protester surreptitiously used the cover of the giant creature to graffiti the message ‘No Master’ onto the road. There are no reports that the behaviour of the protesters exceeded the level observed there.
The march started to arrive at Hyde Park from 1:30pm – and didn’t stop arriving till 5:30pm giving an indication of exactly how many people had turned up.
What Happened Along Oxford Street?
Direct action refers to a form of political activism which is intended to make an immediate impact or difference. It can be achieved through a variety of violent or non-violent, legal or illegal means such as strikes, occupations, obstructing planned activities or business practices, sabotage, graffiti or property destruction.
There has been much criticism that the media has focussed upon these activities committed by a minority of people the 26th March rather than that of the 500,000 people taking place in the peaceful march. It is unclear whether the damage resulting from the direct action was caused by UK Uncut members or those of the Anarcho-syndicalist organisation, the Solidarity Federation.
By the time I arrived at Oxford Street, many of the shops had already been shut down. Some windows were smashed and paint had been splattered across shop fronts. It looked as if some of the businesses had been caught by surprise as many still had staff and shoppers locked up inside.
After the string of occupations at 2pm, several hundred people had gathered at Oxford Circus awaiting the next direct action at 3:30pm. While the majority of the crowd were probably there out of curiosity – motivated by wild and astonishing Twitter reports, there were a few pockets of masked gangs.
Even though they were wearing masks and protecting their own identity, many of these mysterious figures still objected to being filmed or photographed.
Soon enough rumours were spreading about the next target and hundreds of people started to follow the masked gangs away from Oxford Circus. The procession happened to merge with the main peaceful march.
To the casual observer, it looked like nothing was going to happen and that maybe the peaceful march had become the priority until the gangs suddenly broke away and an occupation was launched against the reportedly tax dodging, Conservative Party donating food store – Fortnum & Mason. Questions have been raised over the validity of this target by a Telegraph reporter.
The store invasion stopped the main peaceful march in its tracks with everyone just staring at what was happening. The reaction from the peaceful protesters to this direct action was mixed.
According to Sarah Morrison of The Times who entered the store with around 400 members of UK Uncut, a peaceful occupation was staged and no damage was caused inside the store.
Unfortunately the atmosphere was completely different outside Fortnum & Mason.
The Police quickly realised that the store had become a target and tried their best to prevent any more people from entering the building. Due to the apparently sporadic nature of the direct action events, the Police were spread quite thinly around the neighbourhood and it took them a while to build up sufficient numbers to protect the store.
Meanwhile, small groups of Police had to defend themselves against hundreds of violent protestors. I was perched on a set of railings outside the main entrance to Fortnum & Mason watching and documenting fights break out between uniformed officers and masked protesters at the doors.
I was also live-tweeting reports and pictures of the scene. A masked protestor objected to this and decided to mug me for my phone. The protester ran off into the crowd, but I chased after him – pulling him down to the ground by the back of his coat. The protester seemed quite terrified by the sudden appearance of his victim, as I was shouting at him for my phone back. He quickly gave me the phone – if only to get away from me!
No one in the crowd decided to intervene or help, but they did cheer and congratulate me once the masked mugger had disappeared.
This slight interruption didn’t stop me from documenting the occupation. There was still plenty of activity occurring around the store. Not content with the blockade of the main doors, the protesters were now scaling the building and entering through upper floor windows. To celebrate this achievement a few items from Fortnum and Masons were thrown to the crowd below.
People also tried to enter the store through other entrances around the building, but again the outnumbered Police did their best to try and protect the property – even with missiles raining down on them.
Eventually enough Police arrived to form a kettle around the store. After a day of being hit in the face by flying placards, jumping off railings onto broken glass bottles & being harassed by SolFed members for my phone, it was at this point I decided it was time to escape and catch my train back to the Midlands.
As no first hand observations were made at any events later in the day – including the reportedly violent clashes in Trafalgar Square over the night, I’m reticent to confidently judge the situation. Although from watching the footage of the rolling news stations (particularly the BBC), it didn’t look like there were that many people there by the time the violence erupted.
Rumours on Twitter suggested that the Police intervened after someone tried to put 3 stickers onto the Olympic Countdown Clock……
It was for the most part, a very peaceful march with a fantastic turnout. The last protests to attract such numbers were the Anti-War protests back in 2003, but despite such a turnout (which some reported to be around two million) – the Gulf War went ahead again anyway.
Does this mean that no matter what the turnout is – the government will still do whatever they like?
Does this mean that there is a need for direct action?
I can’t understand what the extremely organised (to the point of being very dangerous for the Police and public) and very aggressive instigators of the direct action on this protest hope to achieve. I don’t think they aim to alienate the general public – but that seems to be the only thing that is happening.
If the protesters wish to be successful in achieving their aims, then they need to win the hearts and minds of the general public. This will not happen through violent direct action.
Half a million or even two million people might just cause the government to stir – but it won’t make them change their minds. If the protesters can win the hearts and minds of the public – then they might even get 60 million people on their side.
Would the government just stir if it was faced with 60 million protesters?