I recently learned that there is a man, a perennial protester, so devoted to his cause that he took it upon himself to get ‘ACAB’ tattooed across his forehead. This translates in its full form to ‘all cops are bastards’. The individual in question is affectionately known in certain circles for this very reason, and he epitomises everything that is ludicrous about political protest. His absence from the Climate Camp was conspicuous. One can only conclude that this personification of ludicrousness stayed away because of the wholly non-ludicrous nature of the G20 protests. At least I shall choose to assume this is why; it makes for a beautiful metaphor.
The way that the mainstream media covered the protests of April 1st was, of course, fairly poor. At first it seemed to relish in the bloodlust of the violent minority, and the surreal exchanges between the bankers in office blocks (waving ten pound notes at the protesters below) and the assembled crowds (shouting “jump!”). After having resolutely failed to engage substantively with the issue of the protests’ message, or the small matter of police brutality, it proceeded around a week later to make a U-turn. Once the full story surrounding Ian Tomlinson transpired, and camera phone footage was festooned all over Youtube, the police suddenly became the baddies.
Thus, as a Climate Camp participant myself – and now having given up on the mainstream media as a piteous windsock – I feel it is important to flex my Boar credentials and elaborate on my experiences from the day. I was in Bishopsgate – as opposed to the ‘G20 Meltdown’ at the Bank of England – with a group of around thirty Warwick students. My commentary relates mostly to this area as a result.
Firstly, to the matter of the protest itself. There must have been around two or three thousand protesters in Bishopsgate. It is only a stretch of road about 150 metres long. Within the boundaries – demarcated at first by a staggered, though porous, police line, and banners tied to bicycles and traffic lights – there were rudimentary toilet facilities, free food, and a meditation area. There was also a pedal-powered sound system to facilitate workshops and rave music. The atmosphere was one akin to Glastonbury, though more highly politicised. It was almost entirely peaceful though, and as the police were not impeding people’s free movement in and out of the camp, animosity did not manifest itself beyond the occasional chalked slogan berating ‘the pigs’. As the sun withdrew, however, the police – already by far the largest contingent, and reaching at their peak deployment a ratio of 1:1 with the number of protesters – donned more and more riot gear, and began their game of standing square shouldered, chins up, and gazing stony-eyed into the middle distance: the eye of the storm.
This brings us secondly to the ‘kettle’. For the uninitiated, the act of ‘kettling’ is where the police form a solid line and don’t let anyone in or out. It is also known as unlawful detainment, and, as the name suggests, is – or at least was, until a few years ago – an illegal practice. No arrests are made or even intended. The Bishopsgate kettle began between the hours of five and six and was left to boil, proverbially at least, until nearly midnight, at which point protesters were allowed to leave through one exit. In leaving, you proceeded along a gangway formed by a stone wall on one side, forty police vans on the other, and ceilinged by ubiquitous helicopters. At this point, it should be emphasised that, in the same way that you can’t make blanket statements about the protesters, so too can you not generalise all police. Their overall behaviour was poor, though with pockets of genuine exception.
In the police’s initial shove forwards at the north end of the street, our group, which was sat in a circle sharing music and food, became the first significant obstacle. One officer directed us to dismantle our tents immediately, or they would “smash them up”. By resisting passively, and remaining seated, we managed to prevent any further advance, and the boiling over of steadily mounting tensions. Paramount to our success was some frankly genius climate renditions of pop songs and musical numbers. Whilst I will never again be able to listen to the Beatles’ Money Can’t Buy Me Love without bursting a blood vessel or weeping uncontrollably, I must concede that the humorously rejigged climate lyrics diffused an otherwise volatile situation. One person tried to make a bid for freedom through a manhole, though when someone mooted the idea of charging the police in order to regain our freedom, it was swiftly suppressed.
Unfortunately the south end of the camp was subject to a more aggressive approach. Without any tents at the perimeter to anchor them in, the line of people against the wall of shields and batons was blown away like so much topsoil in the dustbowl. One climate camp organiser stood with his megaphone, fighting against the wall of noise emanating from helicopters, and sought for consensus on the decision to begin a slow march backwards, conceding more ground to the police. The walls moved in tighter, pace by pace. It served to satisfy the police for a little while, though eventually the dog squads and batons were unleashed without thought or discrimination. Bones were broken and bodies bruised for the sake of a metre gained. All to the soundtrack of “This is not a riot! This is not a riot!” and arms held high in a passive bid for safety. Substitute the Vietnam setting of Apocalypse Now for the financial district of London, and you get some impression of the madness we all felt in the air.
As I began this article on the theme of ludicrousness, so I shall end it. Yes, there were perhaps more dreadlocks and hippies per capita in that stretch of road than I have ever seen all assembled in my life; and yes, one or two protesters were just there to get drunk and have a fight, but making such statements amounts to little more than aphorisms about the type of people drawn to such events, and largely misses the point.
It is high time the media stopped just trying to sell itself by way of novel and sensationalist stories. Instead it ought to examine the sincere rage that underpinned April 1st. If it looked hard enough, it might just see how the issues of climate change, economic meltdown, and even their own selective reporting are all part and parcel of the same problem: the capitalist system offers no solutions, only crisis and repression. If we think about it hard enough, this truth becomes as manifest as the tattoos scrawled across one protester’s forehead.