London’s alternative summit

Fiona Harrington assess the impact of demonstrations in London and direct actions in the City around the G20 and draws some lessons for the future.

The delegates have long gone, the Excel Centre has been returned to its former bleak and sterile condition and mainland Europe has had its chance to be wowed by the Obama charisma. The “other” G20 has also melted away, stashing its banners, flags, bunting and tents until the next opportunity for protesting against global capitalism presents itself.

All the results of the deliberations of the world leaders attending the official G20 have been presented, leading to no particular excitement among the public at large, for whom the summit will have meant little or nothing apart from unwelcome disruption to the lives of local people and no great expectation of improvement in the circumstances of the rest of us.

Economists and the commentators have had a field day dissecting the complicated arrangements put in place for the revival of the world’s economy in the coming year, while the politicians, the prime minister in particular, have been acting as if the world has been pulled back from the brink of catastrophe thanks to their strenuous efforts. The G20 has been proclaimed a great success. So that’s a relief then!

But what about the “other” G20 – has it been a success and what was on its agenda? It is hard to know actually for the coalition of groups, organisations, unions and political parties were a mixed bunch. Starting with the march and rally “to put people first” on the 28th March to the demonstrations on the 1st and 2nd of April the tone was one of, mainly cheerful, incoherence.

That in itself is not necessarily a terrible thing; it means for instance that there hasn’t been any one party, group or individual in overall control, no charismatic personality towering over the proceedings. (Some might point to the flamboyant and somewhat politically chaotic academic, Chris Knight, as an exception to that). Nevertheless, diversity was the name of the game from the beginning. The march and rally on the 28th was certainly diverse, noisy, colourful and inclusive. At Hyde Park we were treated to a succession of speakers from the platform appealing with heartfelt sincerity to the soon-to-arrive delegates, to put the interests of people before the welfare of rich bankers. Hardly something to disagree with. We all applauded.

The real action kicked off the following week, however, when the planned protests outside the Bank of England took place combined with the strange, but pleasant, spectacle of the Climate Camp setting up in the middle of the City.  At the camp, people discussed, held workshops, meditated, smoked some dope, put on colourful costumes, or in the case of one man I saw nothing at all! It was for most of that day a happy place, managing to be simultaneously both bustling and chilled out.

Over at the Bank the atmosphere was entirely different. There was tension in the air, the police looked, and at times were, quite menacing. By the time I got there, the protestors around the Bank were being encircled and hemmed in by phalanxes of tooled-up riot police and more conventionally uniformed Metropolitan police as well as officers from other forces. The tactic of “kettling” resulted in periodic surges of people inside the cordon as they tried to break through the police ranks. There were some ugly scenes, people were hurt, I got shoved around just for being there. I saw a man getting a tooth knocked out.

Police were not shy about using their batons despite the presence of masses of people and journalists filming and taking photos of the events. The outcome was as predicted with the papers and TV channels getting their desired sensational footage of “riots” in the City, even though this amounted to a couple of broken windows at a branch of RBS.  Even the nice fluffy people over at the Climate Camp got a taste of strong police medicine as they were forcefully evicted that night.

A man died. Ian Tomlinson, a worker making his way back to the hostel in which he lived, collapsed and despite the efforts of first aiders and paramedics, tragically passed away. Reports are confused and the verdict of the post-mortem has not yet been made public, but eye-witness statements are suggestive of some kind of police involvement having led at least indirectly to his demise.

Overall then, was the G20 Meltdown, the alternative summit, a success? Was it a constructive element in the opposition to the official summit? I think that depends on where you look and what you read about it. The mainstream press, some reports in the Guardian in particular excepted, were not much help, giving the impression in their condemnation or their condescension that everyone who took to the streets were unwashed hippies or violent thugs and anarchists ruining everyone’s day by trying to bring the business of the City to a halt.

Plenty of business was done nonetheless even if some City workers had to dress down for the day, or thought they should for their own safety. Much of the police activity had to do with preventing people from the Bank area mingling with the Climate Camp folks and vice versa and preventing both groups at all costs from travelling to Grosvenor Square to the Stop the War Coalition protest there. That march was very lightly and politely policed, a measure of what little threat to public order they were seen to be.

I think in terms of what could be achieved in the space of a few days it was successful, people were energised and inspired, even if some of that energy was gained at some cost. Nobody genuinely expected a revolution and most participants whether they were “violent” or not did not think that anything would substantially change as a result of either robust action or earnest discussion. Even the march on the previous Saturday succeeded at least in making the point that people are prepared to come out and take a stand against greed and corruption and in support of jobs and decent standards in public life.

However limited, contradictory and vague some of the “demands” were and however naïve the expectations that capitalist politicians, bankers and economists would actually take any notice at all and act accordingly, people continually feel the need to make themselves heard. It is not their fault that people in high places do not listen. That is why the more direct action oriented events of the week following were important. They accentuated whatever pressure the marchers generated, even though some who took part in the march may not have necessarily agreed with the tactics of the activists.

In the end however, much more than marching from A to B to listen to the usual speakers, or direct action by young militants resulting in a few broken bank windows is needed. A far more grass-roots and larger population-wide challenge to the authorities and government will be vital before any real root and branch changes can be brought about. It is high time too that we stop the endless pleading and demanding and commence some grabbing instead. The young anarchists and climate campers have shown how it can be done – just move in and take over. They can’t do it all themselves, but while they do and while the rest of us see them as just a bunch of harmless hippies or a mob of trouble-makers no useful debate on the real issues facing us can be carried on.

While much newsprint was spilt on the discussions which took place during the G20 summit, who said what, how they said it and to whom, not to speak of what Michelle Obama might be wearing on any given day, virtually all commentary on the G20 Meltdown dealt with how the protestors conducted themselves and whether or not the police acted with disproportionate force or were merely doing their job in difficult circumstances, rather than engaging with the issues the protestors were trying to highlight.

This was a failing on the part of the protestors themselves also as any glance at the relevant message boards and websites demonstrates. We need some unity of purpose here even if we don’t share all the same concerns, or give different weight to some more than others. We are in an “us” and “them” situation now more than we have been for a long time; it will do nobody any good to not engage, or not to try and listen at least to those who are more up front in their actions or intemperate in their language.

The old chant of “workers united will never be defeated”, however loudly and frequently it is shouted, has in recent times meant nothing at all,  though there are hopeful signs that that is beginning to change. But in the long run, unless we all unite to a greater degree and try and bring ourselves to understand that different strategies and tactics are necessary, our current struggles will come to nothing as too often before.

Of course unity of strategy, or sympathy with different ways of taking hold of what is rightfully ours, not to mention bringing an end to wars and imperialist occupation, will not be enough if the original culprit is not recognised. Capitalism, a word which was not used that often in the last week strangely enough, needs to be seen in and of itself as the reason for all the trouble we are in. Some who call themselves anti-capitalists do not seem to really understand that, placing the blame instead on failings within capitalism and on those who operate the system. Nothing short of coming to that understanding and agreement on how to get rid of capitalism is going to be sufficient.

7 April 2009

Phil says:

Fiona, this is a very well-written article, but if you could point to an achievement of the demos in London, what would it be?

Fiona says:

To be honest Phil I don't think there was much achieved in a concrete sense at all, either on the march on the 28th where the turnout was disappointing, or during the actions the following week. The figure of 35,000 which I have given for the above article was a police estimate and for once the police exaggerated! Presumably for their own reasons. Still people came out on the streets on the Saturday to take a stand and make their feelings known. These days I don't think people are under any illusions about what a march from here to there and 'making demands' can actually achieve but they still feel the need to make their voices heard, as I said. And I think that's good, but not good enough.

As to the actions in the City there again the numbers were not large, five thousand or so maybe. For what reasons I don't know perhaps because there was no strong central goal. Unlike for instance in Genoa in 2001, where the call was simply to 'shut them (the G20)down.' While the discussions were not shut down the event was disrupted quite a bit, but it took 300,000 on the streets to do it. A death occurred there too as we know, owing to police violence.

There hasn't so far been, that I can find anyway, any debate or analysis on the demos, presumably because people are concerned with finding out the truth about Mr. Tomlinson's death. With a bit of time and distance I think the lesson that will be learned, or at least ought to be learned, is that a whole other set of tactics will be vital. Perhaps that another one million person march should be aimed for, but that this time the marchers should refuse to disperse and go home! In parallel there could be ongoing demos and occupations of public space - in the manner of the courageous Tamils currently occupying Parliament Square. Alongside political activity of the sort we are engaged in.

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