May 12 saw a global day of action in over 380 cities. Occupy London started the day with a teach-out on the steps of St Paul’s. A buzz was in the air, spirits were high, and the sunshine bright, as James Meadway from the New Economics Foundation, NHS activist Dr. Jackie Turner, Ragnhild Freng Dale from Occupy London, Lisa Egan from Disabled People Against Cuts, John Cooper QC (Counsel for Occupy London v. Corporation of London), Sirio Canos Donnay (15M Indignados and Occupy London), and Costas Douzinas from Birkbeck University, gave talks organised by Tent City University. The crowd was 500-700 people strong, and included both old and new faces, who sat down to listen to what was said. John Cooper QC remarked that “if the sun is shining in London, it means that God is on your side”, an apt remark considering Occupy London’s complex history with the Church of England.
The topics covered ranged from the economy to democracy, assemblies and how to use the law to change politics, but all focused on one underlying theme: the need to speak up, and to speak out, against injustice, and the strength of movements and other groupings when they come together on national and international levels. Many highlighted that events in Spain, Greece and elsewhere are connected to London, and that ‘standing in solidarity’ is not enough. London is the charred and corrupt heart of the European financial crisis and we need to actively fight back here just as much the fights are undertaken abroad. With an international presence at the London assembly, these statements received roaring cheers.
The crowd then assembled to march off on a “tour of the 1%”, following a map with 46 locations all within the City’s Square Mile. Followed by a heavy police presence, the mass of protesters filled the streets and stopped all traffic down Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street. A teach out given by Clive Menzies stopped the mobile crowd in front of Goldman Sachs’ London headquarters, much to the amusement of tourists on open-top buses, passing drivers and pedestrians. Many waved, smiled and some joined in on the ‘anti, anti-capitalista’ protest chant, as it was a familiar sentiment from their struggles back home.
When the route turned a corner, however, things were different. The march turned down New Fetter Lane, where the police attempted to kettle protesters a number of times. With activists gathering in solidarity on either side of the police, the lines were broken at least three times, while police attempted to forcefully retaliate and prevent the continuation of the march. There were several families in the crowd, as well as elderly activists, disabled people and journalists, and many were distressed by the unnecessary display of force. Once the final police line was broken at Holborn Circus, the protesters sprinted east and the police scrambled to keep up. There were foolish attempts to create further police lines which resulted in numerous accounts of protesters being shoved to ground, only to easily pass through moments after.
Next stop was the Bank of England with a second teach out and open mic. A peaceful protest, with young, old and families present. In blazing sunshine, many sat down and listened, some supporters who had been unable to come earlier in the day arriving to show their support. Others had trickled off during the march due to the high police numbers, but the protesters were still several hundred strong.
Police hovered around the perimeter of the small square outside the Royal Exchange, parallel to the Bank of England itself. With little warning the 300-400 protesters assembled were told via a police tannoy system that they would be put under a Section 14 and that if they did not leave the area before 5.45pm, they would be arrested.
The tannoy system was almost completely inaudible due to the sounds of dubstep booming from protesters’ sound systems and helicopters circling overhead; individual officers began making their way through the crowds warning people in small groups. One protester who was there with her young children announced on the microphone that a police officer had said that her children would be put into care if she didn’t leave the square, an announcement that was met with universal cries of “Shame” directed towards police. Some people used the (still) open mic to discuss what strategy would be best to adopt but it was generally agreed that any decision about whether or not to get arrested can only ever be down to the individual protester.
Around 50-100 stayed around the steps of the Royal Exchange while others danced around the mobile sound system. The remaining two hundred or so of their fellow protesters stood outside the square offering support as did others who came down upon hearing about what was taking place. Police in regular high-vis uniforms formed a loose kettle around those on the steps, continually warning that they would be arrested but that they were still free to leave. Then, as if to complete the full set of police on display, TSG (Territorial Support Group) and “snatch squads” emerged to add to regular Met & City of London police and Forward Intelligence Teams. As those who remained on the steps sat huddled together, tightly linking limbs, the snatch teams began to barrel in like a Roman Phalanx and dragged protesters from the edges of the group one by one. Protesters remained peaceful at all times; the only resistance was in trying to hold on to each other. This peaceful resistance was met with punches, pulled hair, grabbing and jabbing at the throat and the manhandling of a woman in a wheelchair. All of this was captured on camera and by legal observers whilst protesters inside and outside of the kettle chanted “Shame on you!” and “No justice, no peace, for people on the streets.”
Once the snatch teams had dragged a protester away, the officers at the front would yell “retreat” and they scurried off around the corner to where the police vans were parked, evoking a scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. This happened several more times as protesters were being picked off one at a time in the same brutal military fashion. But the intervals by which the snatch squads returned began to get longer, the only new arrivals being regular police in the form of shift changes. Once the remaining protesters had stayed put for several hours it appeared as though the snatch squads and TSG were no longer being deployed. Rumours surfaced that in fact there weren’t enough unoccupied cells in London police stations on what was, of course, Saturday night and also that those who had been arrested earlier in the protest had already been released. The protesters who’d been kettled outside of the square had by this time made their way back in and far outnumbered those still facing arrest on the steps. This made a mockery of the Section 14 being upheld on one area of the steps but not on others and the police appeared to lose all appetite for endeavouring away at their own contradictory approach. The police vans that formed part of the kettle eventually drove away and the crowds were reunited, with just a small police detail remaining to “protect the integrity” of the Royal Exchange building.
Several interesting discussions took place within the kettle in a group that came from a variety of different backgrounds. People felt strongly that the law had been incorrectly applied in this case. Section 14 states that the public assembly in question must, in the mind of the senior officer on the scene, be in danger of “result[ing] in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.” Protesters were confident that they had given no reason for anyone to believe that they were engaged in public disorder, property destruction or disrupting the life of the community. Moreover, the kettled group were most confident that there was no community to disrupt, as they were in the City of London which is effectively a city-state tax haven with next to no residents and where foreign investment banks have the right to vote. A few people talking politics in a square would constitute the closest thing resembling a community in the City of London since the eviction of the St Paul’s occupation.
To the protesters left in the standoff on the steps, this was not a great victory against the real criminals that legally “disrupt” the global community, the rights of people and planet to exist and prosper unmolested by the destructive greed of a tiny few, nor a police system oriented towards the protection of wealth and capital. Rather, the consensus seemed to be that those present felt that the moment, on a day of global action and in front of the Bank of England – an institution that must bear significant responsibility for what has become of us – was the right time for civil disobedience. Many felt that being arrested at the Bank of England for trumped up charges would be more meaningful than hanging on at St Paul’s. The Bank of England does not only deserve opprobrium for its active role in causing the financial crisis, bearing in mind that it’s an old boy’s club with the same social make-up it would have had when it was founded in 1694. No, the Bank of England has been an active instrument of imperialism since its inception: it was instrumental in establishing this country’s exploitative network of tax havens in the 1950s and 60s and is an institution that is overtly biased towards deregulation and “free markets.” Nicholas Shaxson writes in Treasure Islands:
“In 1991 the bank’s directors decided to work out more explicitly what the bank is for, and they came up with three main aims. Two were the usual central banker’s goals: to protect the currency and to keep the financial system stable. The third is, as governor Eddie George put it, to ‘ensure the effectiveness of the UK’s financial services’ and advance a system ‘which enhances the international competitive position of the City of London and the other UK financial centres.’ In other words, to protect and promote the City as an offshore centre.”
This is where the reality of the police and modern policing is brought to the fore. They are used as shock troops to protect the “integrity” of inanimate property and the perpetuation of a failed system that harms the majority of people in this country and on this planet. As such, this masculinist regime transformed the steps of The Bank of England into a gallery of archaic ideas. From behind a scarf-covered face, a woman from Occupy London poignantly told a woman riot officer “you should be ashamed of yourself”. The increasing militarisation of the police makes them resemble more a paramilitary force or a gang, who lack the ability to explain and apply the laws they purport to uphold. They often appear to decide they want to arrest a group and then go about finding which law will allow them to do it, knowing they always have assaulting a police officer or “terrorism” as a fail-safe. It seemed like the police were looking for an excuse to target specific individuals who have been involved in planning the May events. This amounts to nothing short of political policing where peaceful protest movements are treated like “domestic extremists”. This brutality is only set to be stepped up with the Olympics fast-approaching. Yesterday was further evidence that citizens of this country, from all backgrounds and political movements, will not cowed by wanton police violence, will not be diverted from engaging in the politics of the streets and will never sit in apathy as a corrupt establishment shafts the people of this country.
Occupied Times (repost)