It’s 5:30pm, and I am sitting on the steps of Trafalgar Square, smoking a cigarette and taking off my somewhat oversized boots for the first time in hours. Opposite me are 100 hundred? 200 hundred? people around Nelson’s Column doing much the same as I am – having lunch, talking to friends, putting their feet up. There’s some noise from drums and instruments and the odd chant, but it’s peaceful. Take away the banners, placards and beer bottles, and it could almost seem like a school trip.
Eight hours ago, this square was a lot like, well, Trafalgar Square – people going about their business and tourists taking pictures before heading into the National Gallery. Maybe these people were a little bemused by the police and people in Doc Martens, but its something like normal.
In two hours time this square will be alive. Music is hammering it’s way out of makeshift speakers, fiery placards are waved in the air and a mass of dancing people yell slogans until happily out of breath. These people are angry, yes, but together and ebullient.
In five hours time some of these people will be running, screaming and crying. The thin blue line is encircling and invading at the same time. I try to leave the square. An officer helpfully gives me directions to somewhere called “Fuck Off”, pointing back towards the crowd. I see people with hoods and masks dragging security barriers towards the front line. The police charge again.
Hmm, let’s reel this in and go back to the start before I go completely Dr Manhattan, shall we?
Last Saturday, about 150 students from the University of Edinburgh took three buses down to London, stopping briefly at a service station for the kind of balanced, nutritious meal needed for a day of marching:
Saturday was a day of many, many demonstrations. You couldn’t walk down a street in central London without meeting a march coming the other way. At one point a small group of us attracted quite a few protesters Pied Piper style, just by walking in one direction with the look of vague purpose.
There were three kinds of protest happening on Saturday. First, there were ones like this:
This is the side of student activist “extremism” that never gets represented. The passion, creativity and unity brought about by a common cause. People were banging drums, trading jokes over megaphones and laughing. The atmosphere here was fantastic – a mix of anger and exuberance that has re-ignited student activism in the last few months.
The second kind of protest was like this, taken on the main march:
This doesn’t really come across in the video (mainly thanks to my slightly crap camera) but after being part of the crowd above, it was shocking how quiet it was. Some parts of the demo seemed like a funeral procession. Not that there’s anything wrong with this or the people who were part of it. The vast majority of people here were not lefties or radicalist anarcho-vegan students, they were ordinary workers and families, there to express solidarity with fellow trade union members. And just showing up is enough to do that.
The third, and final kind of protest is the one that has inevitably garnered all the attention:
This was outside Fortnum and Mason’s, as protesters took part in a completely peaceful occupation by UK Uncut. The portrayal of UK Uncut in some sections of the media as “violent anarchists” is horribly unfair (for a start, the most ardent pacifists I know are anarchists). They are the kind of direct action group that gets support from Grans, in the best possible way. I passed the “Royal grocers” after it had all died down, and looking inside it was completely spotless. The fact that most of the arrests made on Saturday were of people who had damaged exactly nothing does not sit well with me.
The scenes at Trafalgar Square will be replayed and debated ad nauseum, so I will direct you to Laurie Pennie’s excellent, if slightly romantic account, and tell you that it correlates very well with what I saw happening. The police line is that protesters were attacking the Olympic clock. I saw nothing remotely like that happen (and if it did I would fully support it, on the grounds that its really bloody ugly).
But what can this protest really achieve? Official Bringer of Bad News/Human Shield for George Osborne, Vince Cable has said Saturday will not affect the coalition’s plans. Walking through Picadilly afterwards, you could barely notice that there had been a protest earlier. But as someone said to me “By turning up today, you show 499,999 other people that they’re not alone.”