1. Policing the April 1st 2009 G20 Protests:
Getting All Medieval On Their Ass?
Holding ‘anti-capitalist’ protests on 1st April was irresistible: how could you not? Equally, that date just had to be avoided for the G20 Summit itself.
On April Fool’s Day we are licensed to pass off whopping lies as if they are true. In response to the ‘toxic’ foolishness of finance, and anticipating the arrival of world leaders for the G20 Summit in East London next day, this year’s ‘Financial Fools Day’ protest could hark back to the origins of the truth/lies masquerade in the medieval Feast of Fools, where the world was turned upside down and those in power took orders from their underlings. But in times of yore, because all involved knew this was for one day only and power would soon snap back into its rightful place, the festival reflected underlying order and stability: it was a tradition that brought out the mutual reliance between ‘lord and protector’ and servant 1 .
The pre-modern Feast of Fools was the culmination of Carnival – a fixed period in which people could wear masks, do outrageous things, and, above all, laugh at the world. In postmodern times, Chris Knight, Professor of Anthropology at the University of East London and a key organiser of the 1st April protest, had something similar in mind:
‘Having Carnival, having music, having dance, insisting only that people have a sense of humour, removes any excuse to be violent.’ 2
It was to be a mix of controlled hi-jinx and collective Reggie Perrin fantasy, lived out in an April Fool’s Day media spectacle.
Though the ‘anarchist’ professor was presented in the media as suitably ‘nutty’, nonetheless Knight cannily attempted a practical experiment in anthropology played out on the streets of London in the full glare of world publicity; he even took part himself, as a top-hatted banker chewing on human flesh.
Whistling For Want Of A Tune
Of course this is not the Middle Ages, but protests have taken a carnival-style form for some years now, especially when more organised, purposeful protest is lacking. It is not that protesters have all taken Knight’s classes, but that music, dancing, and whistling have filled the silence vacated by political slogans and transitional demands. In the UK this was first apparent at the demonstrations/riots in 1990 over the Poll Tax, and again in 1994 in response to the Criminal Justice Bill, supported by the ‘rave community’ in its desire to ‘Chill The Bill’.
Made angry by the ‘no fun’ policies of Tory men in grey suits, and brought to the brink of violence by heavyhanded policing, these protestors eschewed mainstream or even left-wing political tradition.
Fifteen years ago, making dance-parties into protests and vice versa, was to reject both the official sobriety of the Nearly New Right (for whom cricket and warm beer were the only permissible stimulants) and the perceived puritanism of the Left (nothing louder than Billy Bragg or a trad jazz band).
Fast forward 15 years. In the protests outside the Bank of England on April Fool’s Day 2009, once again lack of political clarity went together with the party-dance-dress-up approach to protest. News reports referred to a combination of anti-capitalists, anarchists and environmentalists. Terry Christian, former presenter of Channel 4’s The Word, complained that: ‘protests need some clarity in terms of what they are against and what they want instead. This lot seem a bit of a mish-mash, encompassing, as far as I can see, anti-greed, anti-bankers, pro-environment, anti-USA, anti-Israel, anarchists, even a smattering of CND. It must be murder sorting out the chanting: “What do we want? Er, tighter banking controls, people before profits, freedom for Gaza, stop the war, composting toilets for all, falafel on organic pitas”.’ (Sun, 3rd April 2009)
But the Sun’s ‘protest veteran’ was wide of the mark. When it came to working out what they might chant, the real protesters resolved the difficulty…by saying nothing. Of course there was continuous chatter; but the chatter of the crowd changed only briefly to whooping and screaming when marchers first approached the Bank of England via narrow streets, or later when confronted by lines of police. The concerted chanting of slogans occurred even later still, and only on a couple of specific occasions: protesters pushing at police shouted ‘Whose streets? Our streets’; and again when confronted by police, they cried ‘Shame on you’.
It took the physical experience of pushing together against police before any common voice was found; and when it did emerge, it seemed impossibly naïve, as if the forces of law and order were likely to feel shame for protecting the Bank of England!
For the rest of their time together, the five thousand protesters could accurately be described as five thousand individuals. Instead of leaving their private lives behind in order to intervene in the public domain, they were dressing up and taking their domestic selves out for a walk.
During the protests, there was little or no organisational affiliation on display. Among the Liverpool Street contingent, the biggest banner turned out to be sneaky publicity for a dotcom, social networking start-up. There were no printed placards, only t-shirts with scrawled, marker pen slogans, or home-made placards each with a different message attempting humour, ridicule, hatred, moral condemnation or warnings of doom: ‘capitalism is not the only c word’; ‘banks are evil’; ‘invest in the planet’; ‘mouths to feed, not rampant greed’. Among the five thousand demonstrators there must have been five thousand variations on what was wrong, what should be done instead, and who should do it. Yes, they all agreed that the financial system was wrong; but that is hardly the big deal with which to break the bank.
Ridicule was the preferred form of expression, as in the writing on the wall of the Bank of England: ‘beat inflation, eat the rich.’ But there is a distinction between ridicule as an appendage of organised popular movements which fully expect to bring about political change, and, times when ridicule is all there is – as in the Middle Ages. In 2009, with change off the agenda and even the question of what to change hard to make out, the ridicule on hand was harking back to the medieval.
The four marches ostensibly representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (re-imagined as Against War, Against Climate Change, Against Financial Crimes, Against Land Enclosures and Borders) were more representative of the fabled herd of cats: people vacillated between slowing to show off their t-shirts, costumes and cardboard witticisms, and speeding up to get to the front. Veteran protesters, perhaps lightly dipped in nostalgia, may well have reminisced about rows of people, placards held aloft, voices united telling the world why they were there, what they wanted and appealing for others to join them.
On arrival, however, the Carnival spirit largely failed to materialise. There was only a small sound system, with a handful of committed ravers and a group of freeform street dancers. As Professor Knight’s Carnival atmosphere began to evaporate, the Cannibal Banker decided to address the crowd – except that he could barely be heard on a megaphone (not at all ‘mega’) which lost out to the din of an overhead police helicopter. The same goes for the woman in a rabbit suit who followed him. However, it eventually became clear that they wanted protesters in the middle of the City of London to follow them and a VW minibus to an Alternative G20 Summit miles away at UEL. The long march undertaken by a herd of cats – now that really was Alice in Wonderland.
Lots of people were left milling around, looking for noise and activity, not knowing what to do. So they looked at each other instead. The protest had already attracted the world’s media in droves, but it was being closely observed from the inside as well as out. There were so many people using their phones to capture material for YouTube, citizen journalists came close to outnumbering real citizens. More Looking Glass than Wonderland.
This sort of self-presentation was in keeping with the rest of the day; and it might have made an appropriately inconclusive conclusion to the event. The whole point of being there was to take part in something, and to see yourself doing it. There was not much conviction, and little capacity to convince others. It was what Zygmunt Bauman would call a cloakroom or Carnival community 3 , coming together in a parody of the five-minute hatred protest in George Orwell’s 1984. Left to its own devices, this kind of Carnival would soon merge back into the ordinary pedestrian traffic of everyday London.
Out of Proportion
Financial Fools Day might have effaced itself in this way, except that the police behaved as if determined to make something more of it. Yet even when it became evident that demonstrators would be contained – ‘kettled’ – for some hours, the predominant mood was a mixture of resignation and boredom. Out of that boredom came a pushing competition with police on the part of some young protesters.
The police seemed unable to get the measure of this – or of any of the events which came before or after. They were the cliché of an army out fighting the previous war. Perhaps they were still smarting from May Days in the past. Perhaps they were under orders to expect and contain a substantial outbreak of riotous anger. Perhaps some officers had been wound up by older colleagues’ war stories. Perhaps they had been over-trained in their anti-riot training centres. In any case, they over-estimated the scale of events, and then acted in proportion only to their over-estimation.
Responding to the playground/internet taunts of a few crusties, the police had declared they were ‘up for it’.
They worked overtime to establish ‘Fortress London’, and in the process worked themselves up into a tizzy.
Somehow sensing that their commanders lacked an accurate reading of the situation, on the day individual police officers seem to have become nervous, and with their nerves came over-reaction in the form of the cowardly violence captured on D-I-Y video: knocking an inebriated man to the ground from behind; hitting a spindly young man in the face as he looked away; a giant policeman smacking a tiny woman hard on the leg for coming too close and becoming hysterical; or beating protesters who were sitting on the floor because they wanted the nastiness to stop.
Overall there was little aggression from demonstrators and probably not all that much from police. The scale of violence was no more, and possibly even less, than what goes on in any provincial city centre on a Saturday night. Jeremy Clarkson noted in his Sun column: ‘Frankly, I’m amazed that burly policeman managed to find a protester to whack with his stick in last week’s G20 riots. Because if you look carefully at all the photographs taken on that day, you’ll note they weren’t really riots at all. It was mostly a collection of photographers jostling with one another to get pictures of things that weren’t happening.’ (18th April 2009)
It is hard not to conclude that the police must have been happy to have the hour-long push which culminated in a few protesters reaching Royal Bank of Scotland offices and smashing a few windows, since the incident did much to justify the hype of this being the start of a ‘summer of discontent’. But the iconic image even of this violence was perhaps that of the shirtless man egged on by a phalanx of cameras: he broke an RBS window and explained that ‘my medication made me do it.’
Accidental Death of A Non-Anarchist
Quite possibly, the entire tale would have ended there; but for the sad death of Ian Tomlinson, an Evening Standard newspaper seller who was trying to go round police cordons to get home.
Initial press reports took the early Hillsborough line: brave policemen trying to help the injured in the face of the mob. This was the ingrained reaction of old Fleet Street, but was quickly replaced as it became clear that various Bobbies had been caught behaving very badly. Ironically, it was an investment fund manager from New York – one of the despised bankers, whose pictures via the Guardian brought out a different story of an innocent man, the late Mr Tomlinson, floored from behind by an officer in riot gear.
This revelation gave the green light for the news agenda to change. No doubt journalists were angry that they too had been kettled with the oi polloi for four hours. They scoured YouTube, rescuing clips of police indiscretion from hours of online video. Even social networking served to undermine the police: first it came to light that one officer had been looking forward to living the cliché, i.e. bashing some long-haired hippies; and then another revealed inner thoughts along the lines of: we’ve killed somebody – so what?
By now the police were facing the ‘drip, drip of bad publicity’, where almost every day brings a new revelation of misconduct. As we write (on 30th April, nearly a month after the protests), in just one day’s news there are the following negative stories about the police: G20 officer resigns over online comments; Report blames individual officers; Boris Johnson threatens to halt G20 policing meeting as protesters heckle officers; Fourth complaint to be investigated by IPCC; The Mayor of London establishes a civil liberties panel whose first task will be to look into the policing of the G20 protests.
In these circumstances, Jon Gaunt’s exhortation to ‘back our cops, not mob yobs’ (Sun, 24th April 2009), sounded like a lone voice in the wilderness. How times have changed since the miners’ strike 25 years ago, when mainstream media customarily absolved police involved in picket-line violence, even if it meant manipulating the tapes to make striking miners look guilty.
Today, because the lonely crowd of protesters was not affiliated to any established organisations, the media themselves have become the means for expressing reaction. Throughout the month of April, this reaction was facilitated by images from the hordes of (professional) cameras and (amateur) camera phones. Apart from overestimating the threat of violence, police managers grossly under-estimated the frenzy of mediation and selfpresentation. Their operatives had frolicked in what was for a day the most heavily surveiled spot on the face of the planet, eclipsing the networked cameras of the G20 Summit itself.
Currently there are over 250 individual complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), four of which it is specifically investigating. As pointed out in a letter to The Times, on previous occasions the Stop the War coalition has complained to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and to the IPCC, without even receiving a reply. (21st April 2009)
Paradoxically it was because the demonstrators were powerless that criticisms of police have become so widespread. On the day there was little physical threat to law and order, nor anything radical that might have threatened the status quo politically. In the infamous picture of man-with-bleeding-head facing off police, there is a man in a bunny hat standing next to him. The juxtaposition speaks volumes.
Criticisms of police action have taken the form of consumers complaining about the poor quality of the police service: failure to display identifying numbers; individual officers not acting in accordance with codes of behaviour. Meanwhile police chiefs took the opportunity to avoid any accountability for how they ran the operation. A Metropolitan Police report blamed individual officers and the media for causing the situation 4 .
Conclusion: Continuing Foolishness
Instead of a substantial debate about the G20 Summit and the ongoing economic crisis, informed by radical critique of the powers-that-be, we have long-running criticisms of police tactics on 1st April, prompted by a tragic (but accidental) death, and police violence on a par with just about every demonstration ever to have occurred in London (perhaps excepting pensioners lobbying Parliament).
It seems that there is still plenty of mileage in the Feast of Fools, when the underdogs have the whip hand for a short time but nothing changes and it’s business as usual soon after.
High Noon in Hell
It was little before noon at the Bank of England. I was in Hell. Thick, blood-riddled phlegm had already erupted from my lungs and I’d had enough. Too many lung-rippers and not enough sleep made it seem like a war-zone. ‘JT, I have to get out of this godforsaken place’. JT was reveling in Hell, screaming, shouting, wholeheartedly enjoying the grotesque spirit of the occasion. His face dropped. ‘What?’, he gasped “Leaving? Now? But it’s just about to get good’.
What JT meant by ‘get good’ was presumably a chance to hit some pigs in the face or destroy something, anything. ‘Come on, we’ll smash up some coppers in the face, storm the banks, it’ll be amazing’. I was Correct.
JT thinks himself a consummate Anarchist. Really into this schtick. Today’s protest was the chance for him and his Dalston Anarchist cohort to recklessly wage socioeconomic war.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for bucking the system. It would seem we’re all pretty angry about a world which chews up its inhabitants and spits us out in a penniless, pitiless heap. I just knew for sure that with a hangover raging through my vital organs, a truncheon-wielding, banner-waving battleground is the last place I wanted to be.
‘So are you going to stay?’, JT mumbled whilst masking up. ‘No’. As a fledging reporter I should have been getting this story; but I was adamant: ‘I’m going to get as far away from here as possible, preferably somewhere with cold beer.’ JT and his comrades were visibly distressed. I’d spent weeks hanging out with their group, and now here I was turning my back on utopian liberation for bed and a beer. I felt a tinge of guilt; but if bed was good enough for Lennon, it’s damn well good enough for me. I’m a lover not a fighter......man.
‘What a flake, off runs the maverick’, said Jim. At 23 years old he was the youngest recruit amongst the Whitechapel Anarchist group. He was keen and could certainly pack a punch. As more demonstrators began to move into the fray, Jim felt his heart-rate quicken. It was his first experience of a protest of this scale, and he was looking for some action. He began to feel people squeeze against him. ‘They’re kettling us, I’m sure of it’, Jim cried to the group. Standing on tip toes he saw policemen cordoning off the street 30 metres away, blocking pathways, forcing protesters ever closer together. ‘Let’s get down there’, said a newcomer to the group, ‘otherwise it’ll never kick off’. Moving through the crowd, Jim thought, ‘Thomas would’ve loved this. He’ll regret missing out.’
Vomited Through The Cordon
I’d barely walked 15 metres from JT when the walls began to close in. Drop outs of every faction, creed and philosophy began to surge around me like a constrictor hungry for a meal. Could they smell my cowardice? Were they out for blood? I quickened my pace, fighting through swathes of pot-drenched denim and tie-dye headbands. I needed to return to civilization, or at least what was left of it. No avail. I was trapped. My watch belched 12 digital pips. Noon was here and with it an almighty roar burst forth. Four Zombie Horsemen staggered ominously through the crush. These cadavers were drunk on fumes of revolution. Their scythes sliced through the blue sky overhead, whipping the crowd into mouth-foaming fervour. What was this wild, subhallucinogenic madness?
Perhaps it was the end of time, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. If so, the timing was perfect for me. ‘Come on JC, beam me up’, I thought to myself. ‘It’s taken 21 years but I’m ready to believe. No, I want to believe’...I paused in anticipation... ‘Beam me out of here, god damn you.’ Our Lord clearly wasn’t listening. What a callous, heartless bastard. Nonetheless it seems an angry mob and a heap of papier mache and paint amount to a powerful tool for belief. Remind me to tell the Pope.
Jim had reached the front line; opposite him stood a sea of police, truncheons and shields raised – the only obstacle between him and the bank. He was not disoriented by this menacing sight; instead he goaded his foe. Son of an alcoholic, he hated the police. He recalled them appearing repeatedly at the door, searching for his dad. One day, without warning, they locked him up, and he didn’t see his father again for years, save the prison visiting room. It was their smugness he hated, their willingness to intrude on happy, if dysfunctional, lives. Now he jumped at any chance to repay the favour: he wanted to make their lives a misery, as they had made his life miserable. ‘Who are ya?’, he chanted. He was waiting for his time to strike, waiting till those around him were equally riled. Meanwhile the police kept heaving back the demonstrators, edging them away with nasty blows to the shins. A smoke bomb flared overhead, the tension in the crowd rapidly mounting. ‘Storm the Banks!’, the war-cry filled the air, reverberating through Jim’s ears. His blood was boiling, a huge heave from the back of the crowd sent him hurtling through the line. Jim could see the whites of their eyes, for a second he felt nothing but pure bliss.
My brain seized up. A dull wave of pain rushed down my body kicking my stomach like a mule on steroids. I heaved, and a wave of green-brown vomit sprayed up from my gut. ‘Look you’ve gotta let me out, I’m a journalist,’ I pleaded. Blank eyes stared back at me from behind a visor. After slogging through the throng of lunatics I’d been greeted by a police blockade. A gaggle of like-minded innocents had latched on behind me. In my current state I was their salvation, their key through the pearly gates. But these Peelers, trussed up, ready for combat, were unforgiving. They were determined to let us rot with the mob behind.
It hit again. Thick sludge pulsed from my stomach for round two, landing inches from black, steel-toed boots. They let up. ‘Okay, let just let him through.’ I was learning a lot today: if you’re gonna fight a war, fight it with vomit. The sea of shields and armour parted. I waltzed right through into the Holy Land, leaving the poor bastard Israelites behind. Almost as soon as I was through, my heart sank. The city was chaos. Lockdown. Everywhere I looked cameras flashed, bystanders gawped, bankers scurried through backstreets in fear of lynching. The whole scene a perverse tableau for grey, unexciting lives...
Then, Hell started to move. The Howling was upon us.
The sound was deafening. Bottles rained overhead. I scrambled to a vantage point. The hordes had mutated. They were monsters. Eyes straining, I could just about make out the other side of the Bank of England. There were horses and hell riders 9ft tall, this time real flesh and blood, towering over demonstrators, but they did nothing. Protesters were smashing the Royal Bank of Scotland’s glass carapace. Poles ripped through windows, wire entrails lay strewn on the pavement. The bastards had done it.
This might be okay for JT, but I didn’t have to think twice. I knew my luck, I was gone.
Analysis by Mark Beachill and Eryn Beynon. Depictiion by Thomas Sadler. UEL Rising East Essays. Vol 1, Series 1, No 5 May 6th 2009
1 See introduction to Cambridge School Shakespeare series Twelfth Night, 2005 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); and Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, 1984 (Bloomington : Indiana University Press).
2 G20 Summit - Academic Protest.
3 Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity Polity: Cambridge p200.
4 G20 police 'told to remain calm', 30 April 2009.
2. Chris Knight: the Politics of Laughter