London Indymedia

DSEI Reclaim The Streets: Protest Tactics Deja Vu

YearZero | 11.09.2003 15:24 | DSEi 2003 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | London

When will we learn? March, stop, kettle, wait, search, film, disperse in dribs and drabs. Not the most uplifting protest tactic in the world, yet once again it's all the majority of yesterday afternoon's DSEI arms fair protesters in East London felt up to ...

Having a street party is a laudable idea. Unfortunately it's one that's been done before, numerous times, and the cops (especially the Met) have had plenty of practice at containing it, shutting it down, and preventing anything else from happening afterwards.
Are the protesters suffering from recurring amnesia? When you've been kettled once, there's no excuse for failing to notice police lines forming around you the next time you're on a demo - and moving before they're in place. This is Protesting 101 - and yet several hundred people at the anti-DSEI Reclaim The Streets 'party' obviously still haven't grasped it.
That's a bit harsh, you might think? At least they tried, you could say? Well, yes that's true - doing something is better than nothing. But if each and every protester was just a little bit more aware of what was blatantly going to happen to any pre-announced mass gathering of people in the vicinity of a controversial arms fair, the protests could have been so much more effective. Several people accurately predicted exactly what the outcome of yesterday's 'action' would be - and were condemned by the pro-RTS group for 'negativity'. I'd like to think those who pooh-poohed the predictions will now admit they should have listened.

There are two ways forward for protest tactics in the UK (and particularly London) - the first is to carry on with mass gatherings (parties, demos, marches) but develop our tactics and awareness so that WE are the ones in control; the second is to move away from mass gatherings, working instead on actions involving small groups of people who are easily mobile.
Let's take the mass gatherings option first. It has many plus points - it's easier to attract people when they feel something has been planned 'for them' rather than asking them to do it all themselves. It shouldn't be, but it is. Large gatherings also tend to get more media attention, and can cause a good amount of noise and disruption.
So how to retain these benefits without letting the police shut the protest down? The answer is obvious - don't let them form lines around us. If they can't do that, their control is severely weakened. If they do start forming lines, protesters should break through them while they are still weak, before the police have got reinforcements in place. Why don't we do this already? Because in any charge against police lines, someone will be grabbed, and possibly nicked. Nobody wants it to be them. So even though they know that a charge is the best way to collectively challenge a kettle, individuals' will simply isn't in it. They'd rather sit on the tarmac for a couple of hours, moan about needing a pee, then get filmed and perhaps searched on the way out.

Keeping moving is also vital. It's much harder to cordon people if they keep moving - especially if the police don't know where they're going. For this reason, no 'pre-agreed route' should be publicly announced, and any standing-still should only be done for extremely good tactical reasons. For example, yesterday the DSEI delegates couldn't use the Docklands Light Railway station because the whole line was shut down thanks to a small number of clued-up activists. Delegates were forced to walk the ten minutes to Canning Town station. This was a perfect opportunity to block their route - they'd have no way of getting home. If you're going to get kettled, at least make it count for something. Have the street party outside the tube and bus station. The vast numbers of police, plus their vans and horses, will do much of the job of blocking and disrupting for you. Getting kettled on a road well away from both the conference centre and the transport links is invisible and pointless.

The police would find it much harder to cope if, instead of facing one large group of protesters, they had to run around after several smaller groups. Their established tactics simply aren't developed with this in mind. The anti-war protests in San Francisco earlier this year showed how effective it can be - hundreds of groups of people marched along city centre roads, blocking the traffic and keeping moving. The US police were caught on the hop - and the protesters caused gridlock.
Why hasn't this type of tactic been taken up by UK protesters? Because it's much harder to organise centrally. Each demonstrator has to be pro-active about planning what to do beforehand, developing their own action rather than simply turning up to someone else's. Small affinity groups are needed - a lot of people don’t have enough interested friends to form an affinity group and it's hard to get strangers to work together on something like this. It's a different type of action altogether to a street part or march, and it will take a huge shift in the protest mindset to get it off the ground.

The RTS 'party' was just one of many anti-DSEI demos taking place this week. Many (such as the DLR stoppages, and the people who infiltrated the fair to unfurl a banner) have been far more successful in making it clear to the arms dealers that they aren't welcome in our city. It would be wrong to paint the whole week of actions as a let-down. Why am I focussing to such a degree on just one event? Because to me it had the potential to be the biggest and the best. Several hundred people turned up - including many who couldn't attend other protests because of their jobs. It had local support - I experienced this first-hand. It could have been a rallying point, boosting morale and celebrating the other actions that have taken place so far. It would have been so easy to have a very different protest yesterday - an empowering one, one that sent a clear message to the DSEI delegates. In fact, it was a damp squib. Who among the kettled protesters felt their views were heard? Who felt they did the best they could to show their contempt and disgust for the arms dealers? In fact, who felt the arms dealers even noticed their presence, several streets away from both the tube station and the exhibition hall?

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Hide the following 9 comments

am mostly in agreement

11.09.2003 15:58

Apart from claiming that yesterdays actions where a damp squib, i think there are some good points raised here, and i hope it creates some debate.

I myself was on the A13 with the RTS party, and was lucky enough to get out seconds before we where surrounded, the few of us who did escape whistled, cried and waved for the rest to follow, but confusion in the pack reigned and too many where too slow to take action.

My feeling is, that most people, being the good natured friendly types they are, did not wish to leave there comrades behind, or the sound system.

Later I was a the round about with the samba band, and again, was lucky enough to escape, though this time I was in fact INSIDE the police ring. How I did this I still don`t exactly know, but as is mentioned in the above post, the kettle was only just forming, and although we where entirely surrounded, they had only just caught us, and only 1 line thick. Simply by refusing to be held there, insesantly pushing myself against against the copper infront of me and screaming `I don`t want to be here, I want to be over there`, I suddenly found myeslf `Over There`.

I thouroughly enjoyed myself, and felt we did cause a lot of disruption, though when we got stuck on the A13, it was very sad, as we had only just set off!!

Half way there we met another large group, and as nice as it was joining forces with them, I think we would have been better off splitting up again quite quickly, as we lost a lot of good comrades on the A13.


yes but...

11.09.2003 16:26

I agree that we need to prevent from being bottled up by the cops, but having blocked the A13 and was stuck there myself - I was happy to think that quite a major road was being blocked by us. The police actions that hurriedly and violently at times moved us off the road proved how effective the blockade was for the short period (half an hour-an hour) that it took place.


Dress smart

11.09.2003 16:54

Me and a friend arrived when they started to pen people in. As part of out 'protest' we dressed smartly (me in business suit, my lady friend also) I was holding a placard, so I would have been spotted. However, when the formed a line, I jumped through, my friend was stuck. Without any kind of indication of her being a protester, and actually more looking like a delegate they let her out! So in future, dress smart, or atleast bring a spare works!


I agree

12.09.2003 09:09

I've had some disagreements with you before Adam, but your thoughts above put into words very eloquently my feelings on the day - people wanting someone to tell them what to do when each and every one of us should be taking control of ourselves and for ourselves. Walking into situations and allowing the cops to close you in and basically stop you exercising your right to protest is inexcusable now, IMO, we all know what goes on and we all should have some idea of how to make sure it doesn't occur. If I hear one more person say "Well at least we stopped the traffic", then I think my head will explode - I wasn't there to stop Joe Public getting home from work, I was there to try to stop an arms fair - the paucity of people's ambitions is a sad reflection on the state of protest in this country.

Let's get organised, let's take some responsibility for ourselves, for each other, for everyone;

Paulie T

Yes you are being negative

12.09.2003 09:39

First off this is a false dichotomy. We either do small actions or develop mass actions. Well the the third is we do both as happened this week.

Second I a disagree with your analysis of last night. IMO the cops were looking for a fight. We were few in number. Those who bothered to check the surrounding area would have seen loads and loads of TSG black clad and very aggressive.

A fight would have been exactly what they wanted. They would have been in control and won because they outnumbered us substanially. The next day the headlines would have screamed out thus justifying their 2 million quid police bill.

As it is they now look pretty silly and their massively over the top policing has been exposed.

In addition last nights protest did cause massive chaos and disruption to that area. I imagine the Royal Lancaster Hotel will have to think hard before it decides to host a similar dinner for the next DSEi.

You say the protest should have kept moving but where to? The bikes kept moving until the police were forced into closing the road to stop them encircling the hotel. Other roads went a fair way from the area and the cops do know how to deal with moving groups. They would have simply surrounded them, pissed everyone off and we would have been no where near the hotel, split up and fragmented.

I think the points you make would have more validity if there had been a much larger number of people around - several thousand instead of a couple of hundred.

They did continue moving from there for a while but eventually dwindled due to lack of numbers and perhaps the fact that the only place to go was out of the area.

All in all I reckon last night was very successful. The mood was joyous and defiant despite the efforts of police to scare and intimidate. And it was surely a great embarrassment for the hotel to all its posh neighbours. The cops didn't get the fight they wanted and only one person was hurt as far as I know.

Finally, for accuracy sake people weren't penned in for most of the evening at all. They were pushed into the designated protest area but were free to leave and go to other parts except for maybe a 15 minute period around 11pm.

The biggest problem I see with last night was lack of numbers. Perhaps if people weren't so negative about possible outcomes before the event even started there could have been a lot more.

on the ground

couple of points

12.09.2003 10:39

Agree with quite a bit of what you say, but just a few reservations:

Getting people on a "mass action" of yesterday's sort to embrace the same tactics is always going to be easier said than done, for the reason that such things are an almost freak convergence of so many different groups and individuals with diverse aims, ideas and perspectives. Many people want different things from the event, react differently to police provocation, disagree on the likelyhood of various foreseen outcomes, on the efficacy of different approaches, etc. Just because we converge on an issue does not mean that all else will follow. In situations where the police outnumber us, and are not "hampered" by any such diversity, we have to mostly ad lib, and unless we start drilling ourselves on our tactics and all singing off the same songsheet like the cops do (impossible and undesirable) we can always realistically expect a bit of a shambles. Keeping moving is, I agree, a good way to keep the sponteneity alive and make it harder for the cops, but only up to a point.
Ultimately, I would argue, (citing my experience of DSEI with the Wombles 2 years ago) we can talk tactics till the cows come home, and I agree with you on most of the ones you've pointed out, but the major overriding factor is NUMBERS. Whether 50 people turn up, or 500, or 5000 will generally determine, greater than any predictions or rehearsals or tactics or innovations, how things will go from the point of view of impact. What we ended up with on DSEI 2 years ago was a surprisingly efficient, solid white overalls group in good communication with one another, extremely mutually supportive in de-arresting each other and, I think I can say, quite courageous in confronting the cops. But there were less than 50 of us, and maybe 400 others up against every pig in London and his dog.
Either you get loads of people turning up or you don't, and that's outside of anyone's control. As an aside, one thing that I think this year's DSEI has shown is that an overkill of prop beforehand won't necessarily boost crowd size on the day.
Smaller affinity group actions can often be more effective, but I disagree with the comparison you make to mass actions as though one is definitively better than another. It's a matter of tailoring your approach to the local context, and the larger the group, the more unwieldy it will be.
I think it's important to pool idea's and share info and tactics like you're doing; but don't be overly critical of a thing that ultimately has no true centre; that's the way a lot of us want it, after all.


almost worked!

12.09.2003 12:44

the RTS meet up point was flooded by cops but when people started moving it caught them by surprise and i remember being amazed at how quickly the crowd grew as people streamed out of side roads. the mistake on the A13 was a silly one because people followed the bike sound system around a long fence that bordered the central reservation building site, instead of going through the gap in the fences (which obviously the bike system could not) - which meant the cops which were at the back of the procession were suddenly at the front as the crowd switched lanes and directions along the A13.

if the crowd had gotten to the party point then it may have been different - you expect a street party to be surrounded! :-)

all in all it was a pretty close run thing, the street party tactic is still a valid one, but it does of course depend on the goal of the action.


Great action

13.09.2003 09:42

I thought the RTS action (maybe it's stretching it a bit to call it a party) was fab. It was great seeing peeps ripping down the fence and using it to blockade the roundabout.

A lot of people did avoid being hemmed in and escaped the pig pens so many are already aware that that is what the cops will do.

I returned to the scene about an hour later and it was absolute chaos. Rush hour traffic here was gridlocked to fuck. Two cop helicopters were buzzing about and there were sounds of distant sirens. Compared to what else I'd seen this week this was pretty exciting stuff.

There were 39 cop vans at Canning Town tube area and another 44 down the road at the other pig pens. That's 73 vans. If we say 10 cops per van that's 730 cops in the immediate area plus cop cars, bikes, horses and helicopters. Added to that there were huge police compounds around the DSEi plus more hundreds of cops inside and around Excel.

In short we were outnumbered massively. The cops are far more willing to use violence than we are plus they're heavily trained and armed with batons, and shields when they need 'em. In that context I reckon we did an amazingly good job.

I'm sure it's an absolute bummer to be caught in one of them pens but a surely few hours there is not that big a deal. Much better than being arrested. People have spent tons of time organising for DSEi - a year in planning - many, many hours. So don't get disheartened if you were penned in - coz that's just how they want you to feel.

Onward and upward!!!


future tactics

13.09.2003 11:25

Good idea about small groups and some more progressive thinking instead of banging heads against inevitable brick walls of police,I'd like to hear more. tadpole

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