Happy Campers, Headless Horsemen: The G20 Rolls into London

April 2, 2009

Protesters attacking a strangely unprotected RBS branch in Threadneedle Street, April 1 2009

Protesters attacking a strangely unprotected RBS branch in Threadneedle Street, April 1 2009

The G20 rolling into town during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with unemployment soaring and bankers still making off with millions in remuneration, was always going to provoke a response. After all, Britain is nominally a democracy, and still retains a fiction of citizenship. Active citizens might still wish to exercise their right to express their discontent at the extraordinary venality and incompetence of their leaders outside of the confines of the ballot box.

Yesterday, around 6,000 of us did precisely that. Three protest actions took place across London as the opening of the G20 approached. In the mid afternoon, Stop the War Coalition supporters marched from the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square to Trafalgar Square. Earlier, at around 12.30, over a thousand Climate Camp activists set up tents and an impromptu kitchen on Bishopsgate, just south of Liverpool Street station. Around about the same time, four feeder protest marches converged on Bank junction, gathering thousands of anarchists, pensioners, socialists, students – all manner of people actually – within what became a police pen.

Every single march passed off peacefully, all media sources agree. Personally, I was at a far smaller action at the actual conference site until after 1.30 so I witnessed neither the Climate Camp taking the streets outside the European Carbon Exchange or the protest marches into Bank. I only arrived to see a thick line of police vans, horses and well padded cops blocking every exit or entrance to the junction. The Climate Camp, when I arrived, was far more open, although almost immediately, a line of riot police arrived at both ends of the site, and remained all afternoon.

As it turned out, there was very little property damage. At Bank, the windows of one branch of Royal Bank of Scotland were kicked in, with a gaggle of salivating photographers in attendance, goading on a young hooded protester. This apparently happened during, or soon after, protesters attempted to breach police lines in an effort to escape.

The view from inside RBS, courtesy of Terence Bunch

The view from inside RBS, courtesy of Terence Bunch

Other reports suggest that it occured soon after staff at the Bank of England (or RBS), appeared at windows and on the roof brandishing bank notes and shouting provocatively. Either way, a mass surge broke police lines, sending them tumbling backwards and allowing many to leave the pen. The escapees included Guardian journalists Rowenna Davis and Sunny Hundal, who have also written an indispensible account of the protests.

As Davis and Hundal report, the marches into Bank had been absolutely peaceful, a point backed up by the BBC’s Dominic Casciani and by the Times as well, which deemed this “remarkable.” As Davis and Hundal put it, “The protests were, in the morning, very light-hearted and friendly. There were brass bands, lots of singing, chanting and dancing. There were people handing out fake bank notes, flyers to the “alternative G20 summit” and expounding their own theories on what went wrong with the world.”

But by 12.30, things had changed. The journalists sought to leave Bank to visit the Climate Camp nearby yet “no one was allowed to leave the protest, and no explanation was given…We said we were journalists trying to cover the protests, but it made no difference. We were stuck.” What follows is worth quoting extensively, as it is not being reported well in the press:

“We were at the front line of the police cordon because we wanted to leave, but there was no way to get out. The crowd pushed us forward, the police pushed us back – sometimes quite brutally by using batons against people and hitting some. The police were rattled by the crowd and seemed to have little idea of what their plan or position was – other than to contain us.

…With so much anger, other protesters started gathering to see what the fuss was about. When they felt they couldn’t leave, they started pushing. The four horses from the protests gathered at the lines ready to charge. They had found a focus point for their anger and started surging forward in waves. When they still couldn’t get through, more bottles began to get hurled, gas was released and individuals pushed through more heavily…Any resentment to do with the financial crisis was now being added to by a sense of injustice towards the police – at one point, it felt the reason we were there had been swallowed altogether. The police, in short, were making things worse.”

Thousands of protesters had been “kettled” by police – held without food or water for up to eight hours. As Davis and Hundal rightly explain, “the police decision to form a cordon and not allow people free movement started becoming a focus point for their annoyance.” By the evening, when I visited the Bank site, small demonstrations had gathered outside the cordon to support those inside. At one stage, around 6.30, the combination of around 100 people outside the cordon, and pressure from within almost broke the police line, leading to the police bringing fifty or more heavily armed riot police round from their reserves, along with a line of horses. We left as these police were heading to suppress the break-out, which they presumably succeeded in doing.

Tragically, soon after, one protester was found unconscious nearby, and may have been in the crowd outside the cordon. After treatment, he was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Reports suggest that he was 30, and we have little more information than that [EDIT: The BBC is reporting that he was in his 40s and, strikingly, that “Police said the man, thought to be in his 40s, died on Wednesday evening after bottles were thrown at him and he collapsed. ” This is not suggested in earlier reports]. Police accounts maintain that he was tended to by police medics when they were alerted to his condition, yet the medics were forced to move him inside the cordon for treatment because of bottles being thrown by protesters. Bottles were apparently being thrown at the police cordon in Lombard Street, but the man was found just off Cornhill. In any case, the police had the ability to clear the area around the medics, yet failed to do so. A complaint has been lodged with the Police Complaints Commission, and it will be interesting to find out how that progresses.

In general, the Bank demonstration was a miserable failure on both sides. The police have emerged as the villains of many press photographs, if not necessarily their textual accounts. The march organizers – a vague collective working under the G20 Meltdown brand – led thousands of vibrant protesters into an obvious police trap, where they were inevitably penned in.

It’s hard to overstate how idiotic that crew appear to the vast majority of the Left, let alone the general public. Before the day, we were treated to anthropology professor Chris Knight telling BBC radio that he supported the public execution of bankers, a clear incitement to violence (and the only one of its kind that the press widely touted, allowing police to spread their vile scare stories in its train).Today, Knight has outdone himself, telling the Guardian that “I’m feeling good. I said the revolution would happen at noon and it did. I’m sorry that the RBS got smashed, but it is only property.”

People like Knight need to be marginalized as thoroughly as possible if the Left is to mount a popular challenge to political and economic orthodoxy, and to help prevent enormous hardships during the ongoing recession. If not entirely deranged, he seems to espouse an arid situationism – believing almost religiously in the power of spectacle to rouse mass enthusiasm (and anger). Or, perhaps he just seeks to use the growing anger amongst the young as an anthropological side project. Or maybe he just digs the Svengali role. In any case, fuck him.

The notion of converging on the Bank of England was doomed. The RBS branch in the square was left unboarded up and virtually undefended because the authorities knew that Knight’s ridiculous plan would incite violence, thereby leading to property damage, which would allow repression to intensify. This was all horribly predictable. The “four horsemen” puppets and the absurd rhetoric of Knight simply make the whole action seem more farcical.

And it makes the bleating of Marina Pepper, a co-organizer, all the more pathetic. Pepper had been quoted in the press before the march as complaining about the lack of police interest in her plans. Well, why would the police care? They had precise knowledge of where thousands of protesters would be and when, and knew exactly what to do when they got there.

By contrast, the Climate Camp was a resounding success. The police sought an audience with its organizers because they feared it. Because they did not know how many people would turn up, with what kind of commitment, or about any side protests for which Climate Camp is justly famous. Anyhow, grousing aside, the Climate Camp gathered around 12.30 in Bishopsgate, where hundreds of protesters pitched tents, set up a “farmers market,” played music, participated in workshops, used a stand up urinal in a tent, and heard speeches and poetry.

The target of the protest was not accidental. Campers pitched up outside the offices of the European Carbon Exchange, a body which trades permits to emit greenhouse gases across the European Union. According to campers, this is a massive scam (it has already resulted in the distribution of billions of pounds gratis to corporations after the first round of permits were misallocated) and it is also a huge diversion from actual solutions to the earth’s climate crisis. Given carbon trading’s prominence in past United Nations negotiations, it looks likely to play a major role in a second Kyoto agreement, but is faith in the free market a substitute for public investment in clean technology? Can the market discipline corporations where governments or social pressure cannot?

Given the the financial crisis has massively shaken “faith” in the virtues of markets around the world, the time is right for a movement to counter carbon trading, and yesterday’s camp will hopefully provide a fillip to the fight.

The Camp itself was peaceful – again testified by all media accounts. Yet the Camp was subject to a level of police violence comparable to that of the Bank protest. This is not being well reported, and needs stressing. I was present pretty much all evening, and saw it unfold, although of course I couldn’t see everything. But from what I saw, riot police had cordoned the camp by early afternoon. The camp was left unmolested until the evening when, at around 7.30, police began to invade the space, liberally beating protesters on the fringes of the camp. In one alley we saw riot police chasing a crowd of people away from the camp, beating them from behind before they then entrenched themselves in the narrow entrance-way.

We saw numerous people being bloodied and taken away via ambulance, and still more with minor injuries. This is backed up by testimony in the media, which gives a flavor of how brutal the police were. As one passerby on Bishopsgate put it, “It was a completely pointless show of violence. I was just walking along here when they decided to form these lines to contain the protesters. I came down just to see what was happening and I was swept up in it and was hit in the face. The people at the front were shouting ‘peace not violence’ and ‘this is not a riot’ but they were brandishing the batons anyway.”

Activists from the student group People and Planet, met with similar violence. As one put it, ” tried to text but I’m shaking too much… they cut us off from the camp so we sat here peacefully at the North end. All of a sudden they moved on to us” while another reports that “We were sitting on the ground as we had been for hours. Unprovoked and giving no warning they forced their way forward swiping at us with batons. I’ve been hit over round my mouth.” I heard reports of police lines trampling over sit-down protests, leading to potentially serious injuries.

So the evening became a tense stand-off with police, who used extreme force to create an atmosphere of terror. Their tactics throughout can objectively be defined as riotous, and the campers certainly cannot. Again, as with the Bank protests, a kettle was created, preventing large numbers of people from leaving and finally, the Camp was uprooted. Indymedia reports that at around 2 in the morning, activists were allowed to leave, after massive pressure. Many of them left “with light injuries” but as the day went, the Climate Camp was a massive success.

Wednesday 1 April 2009 won’t go down in the history books as a great expression of revolutionary desire, or even a particularly effective mobilization against the powers that be. Chris Knight’s fatuous posturing ensured that it would be framed as a battle between police and thugs, even if this was certainly not the case. Thousands gathered. One window was smashed. One police officer was hospitalized, and tens of protesters as well. One man died.

The Bank of England, yesterday, and as it ever has been (Terence Bunch)

The Bank of England, yesterday, and as it ever has been (Terence Bunch)

The summit continues.


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