Waltzing in the Streets of London


Legal Observer with Police Officers

A legal observer takes down police numbers

The last week of January saw a number of protests and direct actions back-to-back. On the Saturday were two student demos, one in central London, one in Manchester. The London action was also my first as a legal observer –for the uninitiated, a legal observer’s job is to document and hopefully deter unlawful police action. They are identifiable by their orange bibs.

The following afternoon, whilst I slept off my exhaustion from the previous day’s march-cum-wild goose chase around the city streets, a UK Uncut direct action was underway. During this, the police attempted to arrest a young woman for pushing a flyer through the closed door of a Boots branch on Oxford Street, on the spurious pretext of ‘criminal damage’. (Had she grievously damaged the rubber around the doorframe perhaps?) When the crowd tried to de-arrest her by pulling her out of the reach of the police, an officer shot CS gas into the faces of ten UK Uncut activists, hospitalising three of them.

The Saturday 29th anti-fees/anti-cuts mobilisation in London was nowhere near as great in size and scale as the November and December dates in 2010. I would estimate upwards of 5,000 people were present. Mostly young people, with the usual contingent of Socialist Worker touting party members trying to flog their Trotskyite wares; the group seemed to be comprised of a significant number of teenagers in masks and their finest black bloc attire. There was perhaps some degree of gender disparity, though less than one might expect.

Horizontal or Vertical?

If the debate can be said to have ‘raged’ regarding the efficacy and desirability of ‘horizontal’ as opposed to ‘vertical’ methods of organisation and group structuring, then I would definitely fall into the ‘horizontal’ camp.  The non-hierarchical, largely spontaneous networks of activists that have emerged around the periphery of the rejuvenated student movement have been hugely encouraging. Their advantages lie in their spontaneity: police attempts to determine “who is in charge” betray the classic hierarchical mindset that has long been a hallmark of British governmental blundering.

Knowing a leadership with whom you can negotiate, schmooze, and if necessary, coerce into adopting predictable and legalistic approaches to protest is chief in the State’s playbook. The disinheritance of NUS President, Aaron Porter by a large section of the student movement has left the police flummoxed. Anarchist groups have no official leaders, and the barrage of “no comment” and “I am Spartacus” that meets the police’s fishing keeps them one step behind, both figuratively and literally.

The London demonstration marked some of the better and worse elements of horizontality.

A case in point would be the latter part of the day, when a large splinter group had left the Egyptian embassy, and began aimlessly wondering through the city centre.

In one respect it was a remarkable feat of achievement that the majority of protesters made it that far. The organisers, a term that should be used loosely, had only planned it to go as far as Milbank –the epicentre of November’s rage. If the narrative could be summarised, I would think 1,000 angry chickens coming home to roost might best illuminate the thinking of the action’s architects.

In the event there was a single arrest at Milbank –one person managed to run faster than the hoard of police, who then formed an impenetrable line, trapping him inside, and everyone else out. Athleticism, it seems, is neither virtue nor friend in the arena of civil disobedience.

Incendiary protest

Once the splinter group left the Egyptian embassy, the vanguard began to run down Tottenham Court Road. One or two of them had acquired dynamite size firecrackers, which they unleashed with troubling alacrity: a bus full of waving supporters… Bang! A huddle of police officers –a more understandable target, even if problematic… BANG!

This particular incidence continues to resonate. The explosive went off about a metre away from my legal team partner and I, causing in a second an uncomfortable level of deafness known to club fiends and metal heads the world over.

Whilst this is hardly indicative of the wider movement -and neither, for that matter, is this type of behaviour typical of horizontal networks, or precluded by the existence of hierarchy- it does betray an unthinking anger that is common to many of the previously apolitical young people currently taking to the streets. Still, this anger needs to find expression in a direction other than throwing firecrackers in a public place.

But while this spontaneity proved damaging in the above sense, it was to our advantage in another respect. Without having planned for the post-embassy march through central London, there was no way the Police could effect any sort of containment. There is nothing more disruptive to people’s unthinking, everyday patterns of wake-work-eat-sleep than the gradual approach of sonic tumult: voices shouting in unison; a mass of people denying the hegemony of traffic in the middle of the street. Thousands of people saw the march, still more will have heard it. The seeds of active dissent are often sown in the knowledge that other people are raising their voices and taking action.

Beyond the march

These marches will hopefully act as the proverbial gateway drug for a lot of disaffected people. Smaller direct actions, such as those perpetrated by UK Uncut, are usually a lot more fun, and a lot more empowering. It is also in these types of action where the real benefits of horizontal organisation and networking come to the fore.

In the context of a huge demonstration like the ones this winter, you are awash in a sea of other people, and either disempowered by virtue of being stuck in a police kettle, or because, amidst the crush of bodies, it becomes almost impossible to fight against the tide -the direction of which has been pre-determined by an organising committee somewhere, with stewards to facilitate the movement from point A to point B. They do offer flashes of spontaneous collective decision-making –as with the somehow unforeseen decision to break off from the main route in November, and occupy Tory HQ in Milbank. Nonetheless, the whole dynamic of marches precludes any serious exploration of alternative organising and decision-making praxis.

Marches, in order to gain significant national press coverage and thereby spark public discussion of the issues in question, generally need to have a huge number of people attending. Success hinges on the centralisation of far-flung groups, descending on a single location, usually London. Even if the demonstration were anarchistic in essence, it would still require a philosophical contradiction: the privileging of one geographical location over all others, recreating a core-periphery dichotomy.

You could argue that the seat of power, both governmental and commercial, lies in London, and therefore it makes sense to focus our energy on this location. This, however, merely serves to reinforce the notion that ‘they’ hold the power, and we must react to it, and make demands of it. In fact, if anything, we should try and build our own concepts of power, and do our utmost to ignore their hierarchies.

Whenever possible, our organising should be community based and locally orientated. Not only is this better environmentally, but it allows opportunities for more constructive endeavours: creating a co-operative vegetable garden in an abandoned lot; occupying your library, college, or university and holding a teach-in, where the curriculum is determined by the participants; running a community centre with cheap veggie food and a crèche so parents in need of a break can take one…

The TUC has organised a big anti-cuts demonstration on 26th March. Of course, people should go to this, unless there’s something a little closer to home at the same time, but we must make sure we don’t start thinking of our resistance as existing only in these sporadic moments. They should serve instead to give us focus and the psychological support of knowing that tens of thousands of other people are acting together in harmony, all around the country.


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