Anticapitalism in the capital: Rioting rocks London

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As the economic crisis deepens and unemployment continues to rise, James Foley reports from the recent anticapitalist demonstrations in London

On April 2nd, the leaders of twenty leading industrial nations met for the Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy. In preceding weeks, Gordon Brown had already come under fire. Mervyn King’s muttered criticisms on Brown’s plans for further financial stimulus sparked a media frenzy.

Divisions also appeared in the G20: Nicolas Sarkozy, anxious to prove his ‘Gallic’ temperament, threatened to leave an ‘empty chair’ at the summit if no agreement could be reached on regulating financial markets, and organised a separate press conference with Angela Merckel to argue against Brown and Obama’s lavish socialist free for all … well, all the rich.

If times are tough for the Masters of the Universe, they aren’t much better for their subjects. In Britain, the official number of unemployed has rocketed to 2.3 million people. For youths aged 16-24 it is much worse: the rate of joblessness stands at 15 percent. By the end of the year, analysts predict the dole queue will stretch to 3 million, but some go further. David Blanchflower of the Monetary Policy Committee argues that without drastic action 4 million people will be on the dole in 2010.

Four weeks before the G20 I visited the Prisme packaging plant in Dundee. On March 4th, the 12 employees at the plant had filed in for work at 8am as usual. An hour later, the managing director resigned and they were told to await instructions from the company secretary. Several frantic phone calls later they discovered that the secretary was on holiday.

Later that day a man they had never met came to the factory and claimed to be the owner. He issued redundancy letters which said that although the workers were entitled to redundancy pay, the company would not pay it. They were told to contact Citizens Advice Bureau for assistance.

More problems soon emerged. Every time Citizens Advice tried to identify the owners of the plant, they hit a brick wall. The same people who had claimed to own the plant hours earlier now denied any knowledge of its existence.

The workers were left with a choice: leave quietly or take action. By 5pm, they had decided to occupy the factory.

I spoke to Matthew Duffield, 25, who had worked at the plant for two years since leaving Abertay University. He told me that the occupation was a principled stand: “Some of us have been working here for 12 years or even longer. This plant is part of the community. But we aren’t doing this because we expect anything. It is a matter of principle.”

The mood at the occupation was simultaneously militant and apolitical. Militant because it was a principled stand against employers who use the economic crisis as a way to lay off workers without compensation, and because they refused to be cowed by threats from the owners and the authorities. More than a month on, they are still occupying the plant.

Apolitical because although the occupation was the first of its kind in Britain, nobody at the plant thought of themselves as leaders. When I arrived, they had not even issued a press release. When I asked why, I was told: “Aye, well, The Courier was down earlier, and that’s fine for us.”

These confused, spontaneous outbursts of anger at unemployment and cuts are emerging everywhere. Prior to the demonstrations at G20, workers at the Visteon car plants in Belfast, Essex, and Enfield, North London, staged sit-ins and picketed their factories over layoffs. After the G20 demos were over, I received a phone call from Glasgow to say that two local schools had been occupied after a 12-week campaign against closures.

A ruling class weakened, lacking in ideas, unable to piece together any semblance of unity; young workers and students mobilising enormous collective energy and anger, but in the most sporadic and confused forms. These forces lined up against each other at G20, with antagonisms so irreconcilable that even the razzle dazzle of Barack Obama’s first appearance in Britain could not lighten the mood.

There were two mobilisations around the G20. On March 28th, the Put People First Coalition of NGOs, trade unions, and environmental groups organised a peaceful March for Jobs, Justice, and Climate, attended by about 35,000 people. This passed off without violent confrontations, and has been subsequently forgotten by the media. A day before the conference on April 1st, there was a more militant demonstration at the Bank of England organised by G20 Meltdown, a coalition of anarchists and other activists from London. There was also rioting in the city of Strasbourg in opposition to the 60th anniversary celebrations of NATO.

Around 30 students from Glasgow travelled to London and Strasbourg for this week of protest. Benjamin Wray, 20, a History student from Strathclyde University who is leading a campaign against department cuts and layoffs, told Guardian that the mood on both demos was heated. Speaking about the Put People First demo, he said, “Not such a broad layer of people has been seen on a demo since Gleneagles and Make Poverty History in 2005. NGOs, trade unions, activists like myself, all marching to say that the government should be putting the interests of the vast majority of the people first. The student section that I was in was extremely lively, extremely militant.”

According to Wray, the effervescent fury of the protest’s student section stems from the problem of graduate unemployment: “Students are going to leave university now and they’re not going to be able to find a job. In Scotland there’s going to be 300,000 graduates this year fighting it out for 80,000 jobs. So people are going to end up flipping burgers instead of doing what they’ve spent years, and got into lots of debt, to get a degree for.”

Wray attended both demonstrations in London. Describing the later demo, which converged memorably on the Bank of England, he said, “There was more media than I’ve ever seen on a demonstration, and the same could be said for the police presence.”

The Bank of England demo marched from four underground stations to represent “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. From Moorgate, the red horse against war. From Liverpool Street, the green horse against “climate chaos”. From London Bridge, the silver horse against “financial crimes”. And from Cannon Street, the “black horse against land enclosures and borders” to honour 360 years of the revolutionary Diggers of the English Civil War.

As they converged on the Bank of England, thousands of protestors were cordoned into an area and enclosed by lines of riot police as part of Operation Glencoe, the codename of the G20 security operations. Protestors were left without food, water, and shelter for up to seven hours. This crowd-control tactic, nicknamed “kettling”, has been particularly controversial since footage emerged of a policeman pushing and hitting Ian Tomlinson, a local newspaper vendor who was walking home past the demo and had no involvement in it. He died five minutes after the assault.

Initially the media greeted the protest with predictable contempt. The Sun was scathing in its assessment. Under the title “Rabble are the real circus clowns”, they reported that “up close” the protestors are “a rabble of lost ex-public school kids and university drop-outs, hollering meaningless slogans without direction”.

When Tomlinson’s death was discovered, the media was quick to blame protestors. The Irish Independent was among many outlets to report, without criticism, that “as police tried to give the casualty urgent treatment, they had to carry him away from the area after bottles were thrown at them by protesters.” The Telegraph reported that “a man who died during the G20 protests was not a demonstrator and collapsed after getting ‘caught up among the mob’”. The phrase “caught among the mob”, quoted in various reports, was apparently taken from an “unnamed newspaper vendor who said he had known Mr Tomlinson for 25 years”. The unnamed vendor had not seen the incident.

Due to misinformation, the true circumstances of his death have only gradually become apparent. Tomlinson was not a protestor, although, as a homeless alcoholic working as an Evening Standard newspaper vendor, he had certainly experienced the humiliations of the capitalist system more than most. As he casually walked home from work, hands in pockets, he was set upon by a police officer, pushed, and beaten with a baton. Five minutes later, Tomlinson collapsed. As news reporters and protestors came to his aid, police officers surrounded him. When 999 was called and the ambulance operators asked to speak to the police, they refused. Tomlinson was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. An early autopsy attributed this to heart failure, but subsequent autopsies suggest internal bleeding was the cause of death, raising further suspicions about the role of the police.

Although the BBC refused to cover the story until days afterwards, the Metropolitan Police’s bungled cover-up has ensured that Tomlinson will go down in history as an unlikely martyr to the economic crisis.

Protestors like Wray feel that the death of Tomlinson and the police violence at the G20 will prompt members of the public to think twice about the role of the police in British society. “The violence of the state had been clear to me for some time,” said Wray, “but it’s growing in society, the police who are supposed to protect people, supposed to look after the ordinary person, are doing no such thing. They are looking out for the interests of the rich and powerful.”

Tomlinson’s death is currently under review by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). IPCC chairman Nick Hardwick has expressed “serious concerns” about the supervision of officers on major demonstrations.

Sir Ken Jones of the Association of Chief Police Officers responded that, “I can’t think of any other country that doesn’t use water cannons, CS gas, rubber bullets. Our approach is proportionate and has delivered on a number of occasions.”

Underlying the question of police brutality is a deeper problem. The notion peddled by The Sun that protestors are merely “a rabble of lost ex-public school kids and university drop-outs” is increasingly nonsensical. The protestors who travelled from Glasgow told me that not one among them attended a public school. Most were seeing people from their schools and hometowns driven to long-term unemployment; several protestors felt that they were being forced out of university for financial reasons; others faced the grim possibility of joining other graduates on the dole queue.

The likes of Sir Ken Jones and Gordon Brown are terrified that the young unemployed and students in precarious employment might unite around these questions. As unemployment ticks up and up, the legions of young people armed with ideas and paving stones are becoming the number one threat to “order” in Britain, and they could easily face the sort of draconian measures meted out against the Muslim community after 9/11. Many protestors have told me that they have been personally harassed and followed by police officers while trying to organise protests in Glasgow.

If Gordon Brown hoped April’s G20 summit in London could calm the turmoil of swelling dole queues and financial meltdown, he was quickly disabused. Weeks of protests, police violence, factory sit-ins, and the mysterious martyrdom of Ian Tomlinson might make March-April 2009 the most explosive month of protest since May 1968. Like ‘68, last month’s events emerged from a population derided as passive, immature, and unfit for democracy. Unlike ‘68, the genie cannot go back in the bottle, because these protests come on the back of the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s.

Inevitably, these are turbulent times. The G20 protests have exposed the lines of battle. Lined up on one side are those who argue that living standards must be cut across the board to save the system from meltdown. On the other side are those who, like Benjamin Wray, insist “that we shouldn’t have to pay for this crisis and this is the start of the fightback.”