Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day X 2

I was just walking down to Aldwych to get the bus, thinking I might drop in on the protest in Trafalgar square and see how it was going, when suddenly I heard a loud roar and saw a stream of protesters coming down from Kingsway. That's Britain for you these days. You can't go anywhere without walking into a protest. Police were forming a line to try to gently guide the protesters back down the Strand and toward Trafalgar Square, but they were having none of it. They pushed through the cordon and suddenly thousands of protesters were dashing toward Fleet Street, laughing and cheering. I caught up with some of them and asked what was happening.

They told me that marches from a number of different universities had congregated near Oxford Street, proceeded toward Trafalgar Square and parliament, then - noticing the vast numbers of police vans and riot squad gathered in anticipation like a big neon spider's web - had decided to go off on an ad hoc tour across the city to escape being kettled. So I joined them. We first made our way to the City, marching and dashing, blocking roads and roundabouts, up to St Paul's cathedral, then to the Barbican, and beyond. Police were stretched thin, and only a small number kept up with us to keep an eye on the situation. Cries went up, formless hollering, cheering, whistling, slogans: "Students and workers, unite and fight!", "Tory scum!", "Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue!" And so on. Bus drivers tooted, and office workers cheered. A lot of them were amazed to see us dashing helter skelter around their office buildings, as we deliberately took the march through some of the more obscure back streets as well as the main roads. We got a few taxi drivers cheering us on, and a few others driving a bit too aggressively into the rear end of the protest. As a rule, the more expensive the car, the more eager they were to be getting a bloody move on, and the more frustrated they were that they couldn't simply drive over this proletarian scum.

We marched back toward Bank with the intention of going to Trafalgar Square. I had received a few messages warning of the pre-emptive 'kettle' set up at Trafalgar Square, as I'm sure others had. Some of the protesters discussed what to do about this. I think the decision was to see what was happening, so we marched back in that direction anyway, not completely sure of our intentions. There was the possibility of dropping in on the occupation at KCL. On the way to Trafalgar Square, though, City police blocked the road suddenly with armoured vehicles. Christ knows what they were doing. Anxious to retain our liberty, we took evasive measures, running down a side-street toward Embankment. Police were rather put out by this simple tactic, having failed to anticipate that protesters could move in three dimensions. More tooting horns and yells of support came our way as we surged onto the Victoria Embankment and charged back toward the Strand. A cabbie with a wealthy couple sitting uncomfortably in the back applauded enthusiastically and pounded his fist in the air. There's a surprising number of people who like nothing more than the site of a good protest.

The set up as we got to Trafalgar Square was glaringly apparent. Police vans blocked off Whitehall, Pall Mall, and Charing Cross road, and a fleet of vehicles - including the aforementioned armoured vans - started to move in behind us. Row upon row of riot cops stood with a curious mixture of boredom and tension etched on their faces, expectantly fingering their riot helmets. They were waiting for something to happen, to justify the kettle, to start . But they had missed the point. The protesters had been marching across the capital for hours - cheerfully blocking roads, touring byways, bringing the message to workplaces and shops, and basically avoiding all attempts to shut down, kettle and freeze the protest into frightened timidity. There was nothing more for the police to do, as they had already been completely out-witted, out-paced and out-manouevred. And yet... well, wouldn't you know it? Hundreds of students are being kettled in Trafalgar Square even now in freezing temperatures. There's no reason for this. They haven't done anything illegal, hurt anyone or damaged anything. They certainly didn't 'riot'. But the police are exacting revenge, punishing the protesters. This is what kettling is for.

Across the country, though, the same combination of militancy and spontaneity has prevailed. In Cardiff, protesters occupied Lloyds TSB, then Vodafone, then staged a sit-down at a main junction. Thousands have marched through Brighton and Bristol, and school students occupied Oxford County hall. In Aberdeen, protesters took over the Conservative Association's headquarters. In Birmingham, they turned up at the council chamber and a number of students got in and occupied. In Belfast, Queen's University went into occupation. In Cambridge, school pupils and sixth formers staged a sit-down in the shopping centre. In Leeds, hundreds of students occupied again, although police have turned up to evict them again. In York, hundreds of protesters tried to storm the council chamber but, blocked by police, blockaded the main bridge instead. And so on, and on. More protests, more occupations, and the momentum behind this anti-cuts movement refuses to die down, even in the freezing cold and the miserable snow and sleet. And no one who has anything to do with these cuts can relax and think the movement won't bother them. If you're a town hall, a Vodafone outlet, a bank, a Tory HQ, a Lib Dem HQ, anywhere in the country, there's a protest, a sit-down strike, or an occupation with your name on it.