Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Battle of Trafalgar

The right-wing media are right on at least one point. A vibrant and peaceful demonstration was overshadowed by the actions of a minority of thugs. They came armed and dangerous, with their faces covered, intent on starting trouble. They struck people who were sitting down peacefully, overturned heavy fences on to people, trapped, intimidated, bullied and assaulted them. They even battered a young woman in the face with a weapon. Fortunately, they are easily identifiable by their wearing of the same colours, and the word ‘POLICE’ written on their backs.
I am not pretending that no violence occurred on the protestors’ side. The ammonia attacks were indeed despicable and unwarranted. Yet the majority of even anarchist violence was directed against property; the property of a billionaire elite being propped up at the expense of a compassionate society. All police violence was directed against people. They appear incapable of determining what a ‘peaceful protest’ is; the definition grows ever more narrow and Orwellian until it becomes acceptable to brutalise a few hundred people sitting down in a public place for the crime of being there, the crime of daring to speak out against the state outside the confines of a planned, ordered and organised ‘accepted’ demonstration. To justify the response, the media have characterised the peaceful occupiers of Trafalgar Square as ‘drunken, violent anarchists.’
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Trafalgar Square occupation was in fact largely inhabited by those protestors who didn’t want to engage in the street battles taking place around Piccadilly. We had campfires, dancing, songs, and tents. We had solidarity, comradeship, and a common cause- one of social and economic justice. The convenient narrative of violent thuggery belies what in fact took place. In response to one man’s crime of placing a protest sticker on the 2012 Olympic clock, a dozen or more officers in full riot gear stormed down the steps of Trafalgar Square in a mass snatch squad, set upon him and dragged him away. Suddenly, the mood changed, and where thus far protestors’ chants had been relaxed, lively, and anti-government not anti-police, the more confrontational undertone of ‘No justice, no peace, fuck the police’ began to emerge.
Before we knew it, there was a standoff. A platoon of them stood there in the square, slowly forming a kettle. The open ground couldn’t be held, and fearful of a baton charge over tents and unsuspecting people down at Nelson’s Column, people began to form barriers with the loose metal fencing- a defensive tactic. The police moved in, grabbed the barriers, and in cases threw them over onto the people defending them- I had to drag back one man to prevent him from being crushed by the falling fence. That was when it became incendiary- bottles that had been used for drinking became missiles, fireworks that had been used for releasing into the sky became assault weapons. It was not planned, it was not deliberate- it was the reaction of the cornered animal who bares its teeth at the predator. In the language of Martin Luther King, a riot is ‘the voice of the unheard.’
The police’s casus belli was there, and now the actions of a violent minority had conferred upon them the power to treat the entire crowd as subhuman. The kettle closed, tightened, and we grabbed the tents, throwing them up onto the first level of Nelson’s Column by the lions. We had brought one of the barriers up and were hunkered behind it. I started helping people to get up onto the column. We were under siege, corralled together like a herd of animals after attempting a peaceful protest camp. Sporadic violence continued from the police lines. Someone is dragged out of the crowd for no apparent reason. I see a few people visibly terrified, and someone tells me it is her first demonstration.
The only way to keep morale up is in true Blitz Spirit style, to sing and laugh one’s way through adversity. We began chanting again, even with some pro-police couplets – ‘Police cuts, no way, make the greedy bankers pay’ et al. I shared water, and a few crisps and oranges- as per usual, no attempts to provide water or toilets to the innocent incarcerated were made by the police. I asked one why I was being held; he turned it into a personal attack and claimed I’d been shouting abuse for half an hour- a complete fabrication. There was an exit point, but it seemed everyone who used it would be arrested or photographed- the legal position on this being very unclear. A core elected to stay together, and we sat down, silhouetted against Trafalgar, that shining beacon of British imperialism. We sat between the lions, where protestors through the centuries have gathered, where mounted police battered three socialists to death in 1887, where anger at the Tory poll tax burst into flames in 1991. ‘We shall not be moved’, and ‘whose square? Our square’ was roared multiple times.
It's dark, chilly, and the air is fresh with fear. On the National Gallery, the foreboding shadows of more of Her Majesty's Finest are reflected. The media buzz around. At gone midnight, the police move in again. ‘You promised you wouldn’t do this!’ screams a woman as they raise their shields gladiatorially again. Another is whacked in the face and falls back, stunned. ‘Scum’ shouts someone as two more people are shoved from column onto the ground where broken glass is. I am attempting to film this brutal endgame, when one officer barks at me to get down and another shoves at me. The fact that I’m peacefully protesting on public property doesn’t seem to matter. When my friend attempts to check our rights on the phone, our group are ordered to the back of the leaving queue. There’s officers and vans everywhere, a veritable army of them. As soon as I exit, after being given smarmy comments by a few of them, I’m handcuffed, ordered to drop the tent I’m carrying in, arrested for a so-called ‘breach of the peace’ and shoved in the back of a van. They drive me down Whitehall, still littered in protest banners, the roads now quiet and devoid of traffic. I’m unceremoniously dumped at Westminster Bridge and ‘unarrested’ – surely a cynical ploy to get peoples’ details on a database where there’s insufficient evidence for charges. I’m informed I’ll spend the night in a cell if I return to Trafalgar Square, the people I’m with have been dumped about twenty minutes walk away in Elephant and Castle. It’s around one thirty in the morning now, and I’m bruised, battered, and shattered. How many of the 214 arrests that the news media are lauding were actually followed by prompt unarrests? How many were just?
Already, the government have stated the march itself will have no impact on their cuts strategy. Up to half a million people taking to the streets, travelling all over Britain, and highlighting the horrific social impact of savage cuts has not moved them an inch. They remain intransigent, stubborn, uncaring. The media has gone into overdrive to highlight the crimes of rioters- there is little about the violence of the police, nothing about the sponsored criminality of the shops and outlets that were targeted, and certainly nothing about the lives that will be ruined by Cameron’s cuts. So this is not the end of the line; the protest movement will not rest. We may well see dark times ahead- Britain seems driven hellbent towards the bad old days of the 1980s. Even an 1819 poem springs to mind over the events of yesterday, when Shelley in the ‘Mask of Anarchy’ lamented the choice the country faced between anarchic chaos and oppressive, brutal government. The third way, that of peaceful popularist dissent, was attempted in Trafalgar Square, and lasted all of three hours. It was attempted by the marchers, but the march was valueless in terms of changing the minds of the elite. Its only power came in the confidence it inspired, the social solidarity and strength it created. If the state and the police wish for the anti-cuts movement to become a domestic war, they are going exactly the right way about it.


  1. Brilliant piece Nathan! Great to see the first-hand account - sad that it confirms my worst thoughts.

    Good luck to you,


  2. Hi Nathan

    I emigrated to New Zealand a few years ago and it makes me so sad to watch from afar the devastation that the coalition has created. Know that fighting against them is right. Know that the struggle is always worth the sacrifice!

    Good on you ( as they say in NZ) cheers jan

  3. i read your post, as requested. there is simple solution to your problems realy. dont throw rocks at stuff, unless you want rocks thrown back at you...

  4. what point did we throw rocks? The point is, the police went after a peaceful occupation and behaved irresponsibly and brutally- if they'd been attacking the rioters in Piccadilly, it'd have been a fair fight.

    I don't see why the police are so confrontational- they are, after all, facing the same cuts as everyone else.

  5. I think at the end of the day the police have to retain order Nathan.

    That's how society functions, through order.

    And before you call be a 'Tory' I was on the march my self and to be honest it was as much the idiots who smashed up the Ritz ect as it was the police.

    On Oxford St, Boots was shut down perfectly peacefully and the police did not touch anyone as far as I could see.

    That's not to say the police always get it right, the student demo where they kettle'd us and then charged us with horses was ridiculous.