Meet the Big Society:
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The March for the Alternative, as viewed from the Royal Festival Hall as it set off around midday. Move mouse over image to pan.
So yesterday I went to protest the Government's agenda of public sector and welfare cuts. About 400,000 of us marched slowly and peacefully through London to Hyde Park, although from reading the papers today you'd think that we all took part in some kind of riot. Here's what it looked like if you were actually in the crowd.
That's the march passing under Waterloo bridge at about 12.10pm. It had been moving for some time, but there were so many people that it would take us at least 90 minutes to get to that point ourselves. As you can see, lots of union groups, Labour party groups and so on, but also thousands of individuals and smaller non-aligned groups: I was marching with, if I can remember this correctly: two local government employees, a handful of teachers, a musician and another writer. Behold the terrifying face of British political extremism.
There were many families, many kids and, because this is a British protest march, lots of jokey signs ("Down with this sort of thing", "Careful now", "I'm not best pleased", jokes about kettles and tea, and so on). Believe it or not, none of us felt compelled to start a fight with the police, smash a window or two or throw any paint about. We didn't have any paint, of course, only coffee and chocolate buttons.
So, we joined the march. And marched. And stopped. And started. And marched some more. There were bands, and a bike playing terrible music very loud (cue derisive comments from the crowd when Linkin Park came on). At one point it rained a bit. We made some placards with biro, lipstick and abandoned card. A few hours later we passed Westminster, where approximately one million police were standing around waiting for trouble that didn't occur. As we passed Downing Street, the whole crowd did some pantomime-style boo-ing. We passed the Cenotaph, which was of course untouched, and Trafalgar square.
The Occupation of Fortnum and Mason
As we came up towards Fortnum and Mason it became apparent that something was happening – a squad of riot police ran past the march, sirens sounded and some smoke went up in the distance. The march ambled on, passing at this point some banks that had been Jackson-Pollocked by some paint-throwing types earlier (coloured splotches, a smashed glass door, police outside). As we were passing F&M, UK Uncut protest signs appeared in the windows:
.. and then a flag waved from another just to the right. We stood and stared up, and you could see that there wasn't exactly a riot going on inside: the protesters just stood by the windows. Police blocked the doors below.
Videos and photos taken inside the store make it clear that those inside were peaceful and did not cause any damage to the shop or its goods – they stood or sat aound on the floor, mostly. The whole stunt has seen a so far largely negative reaction, though, with many citing the charitable work done by F&M's owners as making it an unsuitable target.
I can't say I agree with that – giving to charities you like isn't an acceptable alternative to paying taxes to help the country as a whole – but I do think this one backfired. UK Uncut has done well at drawing media attention to companies participating in tax avoidance, but in this case all it managed to do was attract attention away from a larger – and, in my opinion, more important – demonstration. The reaction from some parts of the press to the "occupation" has been ludicrous, but I nonetheless wish they'd protested another day. But that's my 2p worth.
Anyhow, we – and the rest of the march – bumbled on. We waved at the tourists. Some took photos of my "CATS NOT CUTS" placard. There was some jokey chanting. Eventually, about four hours after starting, we arrived at Hyde Park. The speeches had long passed, but the march stretched on behind us.
After a while I dragged myself back across town and home. At this point, it looked like things had gone off relatively well – a huge turnout to demonstrate the vast number of people who don't buy the coalition's lie that its cuts are the only way forward – with few distractions for the right-wing press to focus on.
Didn't quite work out that way, of course.
I wasn't in Trafalgar Square yesterday evening, and have yet to read an account that I find entirely convincing. Whatever did all take place there to kick it off, though, transpired around a protest entirely separate to that of the 400,000 people marching earlier in the day.
It's normal to see a couple of angry-smashy-fuckwits appear at any left-wing march, and they showed up as per usual earlier in the day, but the events in the square, like the UK Uncut action earlier, seem to have been quite different to that – this was a bunch of young protesters sitting about in a square until it all went sideways. Instead yesterday's big problems seem to be a case of well-intentioned protesters not realising the damage they could cause the the overall message of the day if their secondary actions ended up going awry.
And, for whatever reason, awry they went. Meanwhile, many millions of people will be reading about a half-hour of scuffles in a square rather than the 400,000 people – this gentleman included – whose voices were drowned out by more noisy and photogenic events elsewhere.