There are surprisingly few write ups of Saturday, the March 26th TUC [Trade Union Congress] Demo in London. Perhaps many have been feeling the way the ROU has been and is unable to work out quite what happened.
The media portrayal of events has to be expected. Sure, the police seem to have gone on a PR mission to make themselves not look like arseholes. They did a press conference with that lovely, entirely uncritical, ‘civil liberty’ group Liberty. They also embedded a Guardian journalist into the TSG (the riot cops notorious for brutality) in an ‘I’m a real boy’ piece (1). But journalists have difficulty escaping the template narrative when it snows let alone when a load of people storm around London in an attempt to confront a social relationship.
So we should not be surprised that the media did not escape the narrative already laid down for them. One day there may be something different from the opening paragraph ‘It started as a peaceful protest…’, but that day was not today. But whilst we consume these stories afterward, and reject or accept their interpretations according to our own ideologies and experiences, we should be more concerned about the following of pre-existing narratives elsewhere. We must critically examine how WE played out Saturday. Because what really happened on Saturday looked a lot like this:
- The trade union leadership organised a boring march on which they touted their lovely expensive corporate logos attached to flags and balloons
- Trotskyites sold (or at least attempted to sell) a shit load of newspapers
- The Police were arseholes (albeit tweeting arseholes who were thin on numbers and allowed a fair few acts of criminal damage/damage limitation)
- The (media defined) anarchists looked scary and smashed symbols of capitalism in a symbolic manner.
- Some ‘non-violent’ direct action types did a ‘non-violent’ direct action type thing and then got fucked by aforementioned arseholes. [Luxury store, Fortnum and Mason, was occupied by UK Uncut folks]
- Ed Miliband gave an appalling and dishonest speech where he made out the suffragettes, anti-apartheid and civil rights movement didn’t arson, bomb and shoot their way to victory but instead, probably just went on boring marches and then voted for the previous government to come back and fuck them more gently.
This is not to say that Saturday was entirely crap. We may have followed pre-existing narratives but we did it big time. The march was huge, depending on which unreliable source you believe it was probably between 400,000– 500,000 people. This is not to be downplayed – this may have just been a petition with feet, but it was a vast number of people rejecting the current Big Story that ‘these cuts are necessary’ and, likewise, ‘we’re in this together’. A massive turnout from around the country certainly suggests a level of anger and anti-apathy. What is harder to extrapolate is how angry, and how critical the crowd are. Apart from the one line sound bites from the newspapers we still do not really know what these 500,000 people think.
UK Uncut got too large a turnout for their occupation of Fortnum & Mason (who sell picnic hampers for £25,000 which we can only assume is a basket of coke in addition to skipping a shed load of tax) with huge amounts of people having to instead sit outside. Clearly UK Uncut has had some success in allowing people to step slightly outside the realm of officially permitted protest, and more seasoned protestors alongside raging youth spotted some potential here. The mass arrest may come as a shock to many UK Uncut-ers but the release of footage from legal observers showing occupiers been promised safe passage by a chief inspector may at least fuck up the cops PR plan (2).
UKUncut are now in a troublesome situation of attempting to be the bridge between what has been dismissed as the violent minority by not only the media but by the TUC leadership, and the less militant protest element who attended the official demonstration and whom their actions are surely designed to appeal to with their easy rhetoric of ‘tax the rich’ and actions of low level civil disobedience. Again, it is impossible to say how big this gulf really is, if at all, because the conversations have not been had.
As for those ‘hijacking anarchists’, the black bloc did not do too badly either! At times it was huge and actually worked like a black bloc. Moving quickly, breaking up and reforming, it [continuously] outwitted the police and hit high profile targets. It was perhaps the first properly working black bloc in British history. Almost every black bloc-er looked surprised to see so many other people had come dressed in the same costume. Meanwhile UK Uncut looked a bit like Climate Camp in new(ish) clothing.
But the tactics, graffiti and chants were predictable. Whereas at Millbank FE students looked confused when a minority of experienced activists tried to start chants of ‘no justice, no peace…’ preferring to start their own renditions of KRS-One and NWA, on Saturday all the old clichés were what followed. It was a complete nostalgia fest, with old activists greeting each other delightedly on the streets before some more running at or away from the police. The kicked in windows and the sprayed ‘Class War’ seemed more timid than the multiplicity of signs on the previous student demos. Of exceptional cringe worthy note would be shouting at families in Starbucks, and, the somewhat novel but mysterious, kicking in Ann Summers [ed: A statement has now been made by the group (3)]. Planet Organic and Sssh were, dear reader, not subjected to the same greetings.
This is not to say that the perhaps 500 strong ‘black bloc’ were the knuckle trailing thugs that the Daily Mail would like to portray. This was our version of The Royal Wedding and it was a time for celebration and reunion in the form of a ruck. Smashing up the Ritz certainly resonates across the general public in lieu of a Camilla to poke. But seriously lacking was any explanation of why this was appropriate, of why there was this rage. And without an explanatory voice, even when the casual observer FEELS empathetic towards a specific act, this can easily be overridden by the rhetoric of the dominant discourse. The black bloc were running without a soundtrack and over the top was the oppositional narrative. This makes it ‘their story’ and not ours.
The various groups seemed happy to stick to the ground on which they were comfortable each with its own narrative to follow. Whilst at times people physically mixed, each stuck more or less to their own tactics and rhetoric. This made it easy to portray these protestors as not only separate from each other, but actually in opposition to each other. One was not the other. But we were. Wearing a mask can be an insurance against losing your job, just like being in a union, and many of us opted in for both. But we did not explain ourselves, so how can anyone know? Increasing this artificial difference, each group afterward then claims to be the ones doing the real political activity but in reality these things are to no more or less political than each other. WHY, for example, is smashing the Ritz more politicised an act than marching from A to B?
What is needed is a new politics which link these different groups (and events) together as well as with those currently on the outside of resistance to the cuts. We need new tactics which link the pre-existing diversity of tactics, and then some. And alongside those tactics we need to explain ourselves to those we do more than act in solidarity with, but are, indeed, one with.
The day before the march a friend of the ROU over at Shift wrote about the imminent protest:
“Seeking to emulate previous, tired forms of politics (be that isolated direct action or trade union marches) is a certain failure, new forms of doing – those which escape our current understanding or familiarity –might be the key to gaining traction in the here and now. The old doesn’t work and so we shouldn’t be afraid to move towards new forms of politics, however uncertain their effects may be.” (full article: http://reallyopenuniversity.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/increasing-the-uncertainty-beyond-activism-as-usual/)
We had fun on Saturday and the events of the day should not be dismissed as irrelevant. However if we are to succeed in the battle against government attacks and the restructuring of social relations in the interests of capital – both in the university and elsewhere – we must move beyond the pre-existing narratives towards less certain forms of politics.
We cannot forget the present however: 149 will face court, most arrested in F&M, many young, many having never before experienced the brutal arm of the law. Green & Black Cross deserve some bigging up for all their work. Absolute solidarity with all the accused!
[See also, “A letter to UK Uncutters from the ‘violent minority’“]