Austerity and Abundance Special:
London's ‘‘G20 Meltdown’’ protestors didn't know what they were for or against
It’s being billed as the beginning of the “Summer of Rage” and City workers have been warned to dress down to avoid being targeted by the mob. At the centre of a day of many protests around London is the “G20 Meltdown”, a protest by everyone – hippies, anarchists, socialists, environmentalists, conspiracy-theorists, anti-capitalists and anti-war campaigners – against everything, but especially against bankers, economic mismanagement and the world leaders who have gathered in the city to try to correct it. Some people think that it’s not just a protest but a revolution, but there’s no consensus as to what kind of revolution it will be. All that’s certain is that four separate marches, the “Four Horsefolk of the Apocalypse”, are to converge on the Bank of England from different directions.
I link up with the section approaching from the south over London Bridge. There are people dressed as blood-sucking capitalists, effigies of grim reapers and noosed bankers, and signs saying “G20 – More like Evil 20”, “Make love not leverage” and “Democracy is an illusion”. Accompanied by a brass band and a legion of press photographers, the 1,000-strong crowd shuffles across the bridge, releasing great spontaneous cries that are part anguish, part exaltation. At the procession’s head, an old wizard in a home-made dreamcoat, his staff topped with a glass orb, repeatedly pauses to be photographed underneath a large horse’s skull made from wire and sheets. Asked why he’s here, he scoffs, “We’re going to reclaim the city!”
We gain the opposite bank and find that some of the other horsefolk have already arrived. It’s a beautiful day and even though many people are wearing scarves across their faces, suited city workers can be seen mingling freely with the crowd. People set about trying to establish the “carnival atmosphere” that they’ve promised themselves: some drama students writhe on the floor in an interpretive dance as another stalks around them, reading in pantomime tones from The Poetry of the Romantics. Two hippie-godmothers and three guys in sportswear working away at a plastic bag full of beer cans smile down on the performance. There are more signs here: one is a picture of Vladimir Putin with the slogan “Go Putin!” On closer inspection, I see that the owner has penned a swastika on Putin’s forehead. Daniel Obachike, author of The 4th Bomb, who claims to have seen MI5 agents plant one of the 7/7 bombs, is here with a sign to that effect. Someone else has “Swindlers List: City of London, Wall Street, Germans, EU”. The Bank’s wall is being graffitied in chalk, with slogans like “Fcuk the system” (why incorporate the logo of a global fashion brand into that statement?), “Peace and Love”, and “Obama – different colour, same shit”. A middle-aged man manages, through catastrophic physical exertion, to haul himself up the wall of a building and reach a window ledge. A huge cheer goes up and, for a brief moment, he is the hero. But he has no further ambition and the crowd turns its attention to a teenager who has scaled a bus stop sign and ripped off the congestion charge icon on the top. The first climber is forgotten, lonely and bored on his perch. Underneath a banner belonging to the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth campaign, a Rasta is addressing the crowd over a microphone: “We are here to show the politicians that we have no fear and no evil in us, that they are the ones with fear and evil in them. And don’t forget, whenever you go out to entertain, look for King Tubby’s Soundsystem. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, pink or Chinese.” I see more signs: “Greed is
good bad”, “Don’t be stupid”, and, incredibly, “No to bad things”. I wonder if any of this stuff is ironic, self-satirising.
It’s a complete fantasy to think that any of the causes on parade here today are at this point pressing enough to compel people to hurl themselves at riot police. But there are simply too many causes and the legitimate grievances have been lost in a confused and directionless general tantrum against the establishment. It is becoming clear that the only way this protest can get any satisfaction is through a kind of farcical simulation of a rage that isn’t really there, and although only a tiny minority are intent on taking part in this, almost everyone is interested in witnessing it. This includes the press photographers and, I must admit, myself. Unfortunately, for the participants, for the press, and indeed for the readers of the press, that is the only real story on offer here. No one yet knows how far this will go – that it will result in many injuries and that Ian Tomlinson will die after being pushed to the floor by a policeman. But only a handful of people are dancing to the reggae music that has started up under the aegis of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. The police are already the main attraction and most of the crowd is at the edges of the cordon, facing out.
At that point, I saw something shocking and only later did I realise why. On the Bank’s wall, off to one side, someone had written in chalk: “I wish I could write beautiful words, but I can’t.” Thousands of people had gathered in the city with no real purpose other than to emote and this was the sole trace of introspection I saw all day. The banners, if they were honest, would have read “No to introspection”, or “Introspection is
good bad”. But here was not only honesty and introspection but a testament to the terrible impotence lying beneath the outward spirit of the protest. This was the great attraction for those who came without a firm political goal. If outsiders-bankers, leaders, the police, the media-can be blamed for all “bad things”, then that allows for the lovely illusion that everyone on the inside possesses a Midas touch in all the arts of man. But in all the attempts at wit, courage, creativity and understanding, only here, in those few lines of chalk that saw through the illusion, was there anything golden. To that gentle scribe: if your irony was inadvertent, I beg to differ with your statement.
Around the corner at the “Climate Camp” outside the European Climate Exchange on Bishopsgate, the atmosphere is altogether more appealing. A large banner on the wall reads “End Capitalism – why not?” This protest will have no effect on capitalism and its only effect on climate change will be to remind politicians, as if they needed reminding, that climate change is our era’s number one popular cause. But this is good, old-fashioned, hippyish fun – and why not? People are giving away home-made cakes and vegetarian snacks, singing and playing tambourines and maracas, and sitting on the floor in groups among the dozens of tents pitched in the middle of the street. Over by the relaxed police presence, a man whose T-shirt reads “God is too big to fit into one religion” is trying to charm a pretty blonde policewoman: “No matter what you project out to me, I see you as a beautiful, divine human being.” His aim is a hug from her and all the kudos that would come with it, but he has no chance: “Trust me, you’ll get bored of this long before I will.” There’s a silent consensus in the body language of the crowd that this man may not be a philosopher-king after all and it is this – a marginally more realistic sense of how wonderful they all are – that will keep the climate campers almost completely peaceful all night, even after they are unfairly subjected to the same uncompromising police blockade as the area around the Bank.
I head for the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, where the Stop the War Coalition is holding its own grim demonstration. This is a very different phenomenon: there is no fancy-dress and only one or two home-made signs among the hundreds mass-produced and handed out by StW and its partners. A large proportion of these placards bear the logo of one of these partners, the British Muslim Initiative, whose president, Mohammed Sawalha, was exposed by BBC’s Panorama in 2006 as a major Hamas activist and fundraiser in the early nineties. In February, Sawalha was one of 90 signatories to the Istanbul Statement, a jihadist edict that had nothing to do with peace and everything to do with the dire dream of a total Hamas victory.
Although Daud Abdullah, another British signatory to the Istanbul Statement, will later take to the stage in Trafalgar Square to address this crowd, there’s no one quite like that at the embassy – the useful idiots are handling everything all by themselves. This is no great task, because apart from a couple of people selling Marxist literature, there’s only one thing happening: a pair of adolescent boys are bouncing up and down, ginger hair in disarray, and taking turns on a megaphone. Four bars of “Occupation is a crime, free Iraq and Palestine”, followed by four bars of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, followed by four bars of “Israel you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide”, repeated for an hour with the crowd chanting along. On the grass away from the main crowd, near where four octogenarian members of “Quakers for Justice” are collapsed on a quilt beneath their banner, a woman mutters these axioms solemnly to herself, as if for her own personal consolation.
Back at the G20 Meltdown protest, the windows of the branch of the already nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland have been smashed and graffitied. Prominent among the slogans there, “Peado” [sic] best captures the haywire motivation for this attack. The tone for the rest of the day has now been set and the police are in full riot gear. A man taunts them over a megaphone: “Bankers are wankers. Smoke weed everyday. Gordon Brown and the Illuminati puppets are puppets. 9/11 and 7/7 were inside jobs. Gordon Brown planned 9/11.” The ragged look in his eyes tells me that he has no idea whether he is joking or being serious.
Of the people who came for trouble, some are self-styled anarchists who have clearly done this before, but others seem to be trying on the garb for the first time – and it’s not hard to imagine the thrill of hiding behind that face scarf. They are joined by a nice cross-section of London’s everyday thugs: some football hooligan types, some street kids with their flat-peaked caps. It’s still a very small minority, but for the next few hours there will be some trouble whenever enough of them gather at the same point on the police line. Of course, what makes this possible is the fact that almost everyone is gathered somewhere at the police line – that’s where the action is – and any big concentration attracts curiosity and grows exponentially. Now there are taunts and plastic bottles thrown from the back, jostling at the front and a young man turns to take a grinning picture of himself in front of the riot police. Then a small surge, a few police batons rise and fall, and the crowd retreats. A moment later, a cheer: a dingy anarchist’s flag – it’s been lying in someone’s reeking bedroom for months, waiting for this moment – has been run up the flagpole outside the Temple Court building on Queen Victoria Street.
The most serious violence that I witness occurs when the anarchists get their hands on some of the metal gate barriers that have been regrettably left inside the cordon. It takes only one or two guys to move one of these barriers and so only a handful of people are
responsible for fortifying the frontline of an essentially inert crowd against the riot gear of the police. For half an hour or so, a medieval battle is acted out, with the anarchists moving the barriers around to use them as battering-rams at different points on the police line, while bottles, some glass now, rain in from the back. This provokes baton charges from the police, who sweep forward, dealing painful blows to everyone in their path. I cower in a doorway during one of these and am left stranded behind police lines, where a tiny WPC pounces on some floored protestors one by one, swearing and savaging them with her baton.
At one point, the anarchists move the barriers 20 yards back to invite a charge. Amazingly, everyone acquiesces to this. The non-violent protestors move, like bewildered zombies, back behind the barriers, leaving a no-man’s land that is immediately filled by press photographers getting their money-shots. It looks like a staged
photo-op or a film set and when the photographers withdraw, the police dutifully rush forward to fill the gap, and more people are hurt. Eventually, all the metal barriers are confiscated, the protesters get bored and, after a soothing interlude in which a mannequin dressed as a banker is set on fire, a new dance begins: for the last couple of hours at least 100 people rave madly to drum and bass music. Others are sitting around ranting about false imprisonment and a tall, straggly-haired youth emerges from the dancing throng and exhorts them to join him. No one listens, so he returns immediately, springing up and down on the spot, hands in the air, his fingers tracing vague, mystical runes against the night sky that are as meaningful and as necessary as anything I have seen today.