Yesterday we watched everything change. We have never seen the level of militancy that we saw yesterday on the streets of London before. By all accounts the last time the police lost such complete control of the streets was almost ten years ago at J18.
The following is a collection of eyewitness accounts, and analysis of the events.
Frozen tundra underfoot, burning rage in the heart
Demonstrators in Hyde Park
Crowds streamed into Hyde Park, the temperature nudging below freezing, to be confronted by an hour and a half of largely pointless speeches. Clearly the Stop the War coalition has decided the only way to get anyone to listen to their pointless messages is to have the speeches before the march. The exception to the rule was Lowkey, a London-based rap artist, who spoke last and with such passion and eloquence that we were left wondering how he had been let on the stage.
Those that rioted yesterday were part of the generation that were betrayed by the failure to effectively organise against the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. They witnessed two million march through London to no effect because of the Stop the War Coaition’s pathetic strategy. A strategy that seemed to revolve around ever diminishing numbers marching from A to B, going home, and perhaps writing to an MP. Not only that the Coalition actively tried to undermine other anti-militarist campaigns. Hence why when it was announced that the Saturday after the invasion of Iraq had started people would invade Fairford (to stop the B54 bombers) the Stop the War Coalition called a march for London.
At anti-war demonstrations any dissent from the prescribed A to B marching was pounced on; be it people sitting in the road or a samba band marching too slowly. Coalition stewards did the police’s job for them and each march saw fewer people attending. It has always been recognised in the anti-authoritarian community that this strategy was doomed to failure. Yesterday, for the first, it seemed that the majority of the march felt the same way, and even if they didn’t engage in militant action there was a palpable sense of support for those who were actively engaged in resisting the police.
Kensington Palace Garden fireworks
The crowd finally started moving from Hyde Park at 2pm. As the crowd weaved out of the park it became clear that the demonstration was larger than expected – police cones and tape to divide the road lied pathetically on the floor as people filled the whole road – but also that it was on a scale not seen since 2003. Those of us reporting for Last Hours there consider that the estimate of 100,000 demonstrators is perhaps a little conservative.
< One of the police constables after paint was thrown
About an hour into the march we all heard an explosion. In the distance a plume of smoke rose, and to my right a line of police started running towards it. We followed with cameras. When we arrived a fire had been started, and smoke bombs launched. People had made an attempt to get down Kensington Palace Garden to the back of the embassy. According to other reports online (http:// thecommune. wordpress .com/ 2009/01/11/mobilisation- and-militancy-in-the-anti-war-movement -photos-and-report-of-10th- january-palestine-demo/) a heavy, ten foot, wrought-iron gate, had also been ripped off in the process. When we arrived there was a stand-off between police and people on the march. Sticks, shoes and bottles littered the floor and flew through the air. Young Muslims screamed at the police, with white kids joining in.
As the riot police arrived more smoke bombs were set off, and red paint was sprayed onto a number of the police. An unusual dance followed. Normally in this dance the police would surge forward and everyone would run away. Not today. Firstly the police appeared to be acting without any instruction. Individual police would suddenly charge followed by the rest in a staccato wave. Secondly the crowd didn’t appear to care, they just shouted more and threw more bottles and sticks. Despite the militancy though it was clear there was a stalemate; even if the police couldn’t move the crowd away there was no way for the crowd to get down Kensington Palace Garden.
Riot cops at Kensington Palace Garden
Which was when stewards from the Stop the War Coalition arrived. Unfortunately for them they appeared to be as unpopular (and generally as slow on the uptake) as the police. People shouted at them to leave, others tried to talk to them one on one. The message went in one ear and out the other. They recklessly stood between the crowd and the police, causing needless injuries (one of us still have a bruised hand because one stopped him from moving out of the way of a police baton whilst taking photographs). The stewards once again showed themselves to be a liability to the movement.
The stalemate was broken as waves of people left Kensington Palace Garden. Snakes of excited, mostly Asian, young people made their way through the crowd. Moving quickly and with purpose towards the embassy. They appeared to have revived the tactics of the black bloc without even realising it. The messages of what were ahead were clear to read as we passed a smashed Starbucks window, due to it’s CEO’s – Howard Schultz – support of Israel.
Free smoothies and a kettle
By the time we arrived on High Street Ken it was starting to get dark, and thousands of people had been crammed into the small space outside the embassy. Reports were that once again paint had been thrown over the police. Barriers had clearly been ripped up and space had been made for more people to join the protest. Ahead a continual battle in front of the Israeli embassy was underway. There was a palpable sense of disorder: the police were not in control.
Despite this lack of control the police, and the stewards, had managed to create a remarkably unsafe situation. The police were blocking the east end of High Street, whilst the stewards, largely clueless students, continued to encourage people on from the west end. In the middle it resulted in the weight of people turning over barriers, resulting in, according to other accounts, trapped limbs and a number of injuries.
Another Starbucks had it’s windows smashed out, with people apparently distributing juice and smoothies from inside. Nearby American Top Gun was also targeted. The general weight of the crowd made it almost impossible to see what was happening from one side to another, and at this point we made our escape.
A generation gap?
The crush caused by police on High Street Kensington
Across Europe it appears that a new generation of protesters has arrived. Not only on the streets of London on Saturday, but on Friday Oslo saw it’s largest riot for generations not to mention events from France to Greece. All show a break with, as one blogger puts it, the “march-and-hope policy of the Stop The War Coalition, SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign).” The tidal of wave of grief and anger has finally exploded into view.
There can be nothing but respect for the bravery that was shown by many yesterday. Still, it has to be recognised there are risks that the movement could be split along religious and ethnic lines. Arguably most of the participants confronting the police were young Muslims, with many chanting religious rhetoric throughout the demonstration. But there were also a large number of anarchists and radical socialists who were willing to take control of the streets too. It is essential firstly that these two groups are not be left in isolation to confront the police, but it is also seems that for any movement to succeed – and integrate other non-Muslims – it has to be on a platform of non-sectarian internationalism.
The bravery and audacity of women on the march also appears to have been belittled and undermined. At the first confrontation above Kensington Palace Garden large numbers of women held their ground and many physically confronted the police. Despite this a number of men continued to shout at the cops, “Shame on you there’s women here”. The sexist overtones were continued by the Stop the War coalition stewards throughout the day who repeatedly infantalised women by declaring that there should be no confrontation because, “There are women and children present”. It is worrying that these people consider women incapable of making their own decisions at demonstrations. It is a deeply regressive attitude that needs to be challenged.
The stewards being used as soft police was another thing that was challenged on the demonstration – though not demolished. As a more eloquent blogger put it, “Stewards should reject the role of movement police. They can let people make up their own minds about what level to engage on (some people wish to protest peacefully, this is a legitimate choice). [They should] facilitate, spread information and record police violence. They should be accountable to the movement, or not in it at all.”
Struggles aren’t won in one day
Yesterday was the first page on a new chapter. It was by no means an ending. During the course of writing this article we have watched with horror as Israel has entered it’s “third stage” of war in Gaza; according to the BBC another 29 Palestinians have been killed. But it appears at least that the passive, pacifist movement is on shaky foundations. The police have been shown to be vulnerable, badly organised and unable to react to large numbers of people taking decisions for themselves. Still, victory on the streets – as history has unfortunately shown – does not always assure a wider victory, especially in the case of international issues, where the protest is only indirectly aiming at the target.
The destruction of Gaza though is not an isolated event; crisis is the default setting for global capitalism. The social struggles rising against the economic situation are aimed at the same leaders, and against the same state that has allowed the whole scale destruction of Gaza. The situation though is difficult. On one level those rioting on Saturday have much in common with one another, most are under 25, in unfulfilling and insecure jobs (if they have been able to find a job at all). Religion though, has the potential to be a large divide. Clearly an attempt has to be made to find solidarity and understanding with one another enough to be able to build a movement that can look beyond the streets, into the workplace and our day to day lives.
We will remember tomorrow for ever though. We finally dared to hope again that we might win.