On a day when thousands took to the street and hundreds took up arms against capitalism, one woman marched, chanted and ran alongside them.
I recorded my journey through the streets of London, where humour, indignation, anger and fear ran riot on the 26th of March 2011.
9.15am: I’m sitting on the top deck of the 26 bus heading towards Embankment. My placard, which reads ‘Rage Against The CUTS Machine’, is tucked by my knees. I made it with graphic paper, garden bamboo and an M&S wine carrier. Lovely and middle class.
I decided to leave quite early so that I don’t hit traffic and diversions later. This has a surprising result. As the 26 goes through Liverpool Street I see a large group on police officers waiting at the bus stop. What’s the term for that? A herd? A gaggle? Whatever it may be, they get on my bus, empty apart from me and my make-shift placard. I think about raising it proudly, until I realise they haven’t noticed me and are speaking very casually. I get my notebook out and begin some espionage.
Firstly, a police woman says in a whiney voice that :
This bus is being diverted to Brighton. I want to go to Brighton!
Thankfully the bus begins to move in the right direction and they turn their joking to crowd control practice, jovially trying out ways of saying “Get Back”. One puts on a funny, squeaky voice and another does a Cornish farmer impression. The rest seem to be saying they weren’t sure what to expect during the march:
…haven’t heard much about this one…
I think some may sit in banks…
…probably not use force with this one
I continue to listen until they get off at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They seemed nice and calm, giving me some reassurance as to the day ahead.
9.40am: I arrive at Embankment and walk towards Cleopatra’s Needle. I’m meant to marching with the Women’s Block, however there are many groups to choose from I decide to shop around. I walk up and down, talking with different groups. Not being affiliated with a union or a specific cause seems to be initially problematic, like being an atheist at the Vatican. Communists and Socialists, nurses and teachers, all clambering to be heard seem to deafen my independent voice.
9.45am: I wander toward a small gathering of women, who are playing calypso music from a sound system in a trolley. Their signs read ‘Mothers March’ and ‘Global Women’s Strike’ and at first I approach them because of their energy. They seem determined to get all the unionists and socialists to not only listen to their cause but to dance alongside it. I spoke to one of the women to find out whether they were part of the Women’s Block I was trying to find:
Kim: “Nah, they are a bit too feminist for me. They are always blaming men… we represent the Global Women’s Strike, made up of unpaid women who are carers…”
Me: “Such as mothers? Do you not have feminist aims then?”
Kim: “We are about the government cutting welfare in order to get mothers or carers to work. Our aims are slightly feminist, in that we believe people should be allowed to choose to work instead of being carers, not forced. But they (Women’s’ Block) are extremists. Some of the members of our group are considered unfeminist because we choose to be carers.”
The members of the Global Women’s Strike (GWS) represent small organisations and protest groups such as: gay parents; disabled mothers; women and mothers against rape; WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) and a few others. They were all demanding investment in caring since, as Kim put it:
“every body’s work should be counted”.
9.55am: I spot the Teacher’s Union heading to the back of the march. I can’t help but make a joke in my head, ‘got to the back of the class’. Most seem to be well prepared, with many signs referring to the Teacher’s Strike earlier in the week.
10.15am: I talk with Lucy, a member of WinVisible, who also tells me of how the GWS is really 7 groups that joined to make 1. Their main argument is that cuts made during benefit reform will affect those who care for people with disabilities. Moreover, women with invisible disabilities (as well as men) will be forced to work more, as they and their families may not be entitled to benefit. I also meet Claire, another representative of WinVisible and a prominent activist against cuts.
10.25am: The GMB Block arrives (Britain’s general trade union with over 600,000 members). They begin assembling near our position. They have drummers and dancers, enticing people to join in from the pavement as well as many from the GWS. The atmosphere is electric, as people mark their place in the march and try to make as much noise as possible.
10.30am: More members of the GWS arrive, a mix of men, women and children. Even though they are relatively a small group in comparison to the likes of GMB, they make up for it with vigour and loud signage. I learn more about the group through conversations with more of their members. They actually represent quite a few minority groups, which overlap due to them being women and the majority being carers. Plus they are arguing for the same issues, aiming to prevent their security, their support and their rights being taken away from them. These women are from all walks of life, including sex workers, asylum seekers, homosexuals, disabled and rape survivors. I can’t help but admire the bravery of these women.
10.45am: Swayed by their arguments and their passion, I decide to start give out flyers. Vuvuzelas trumpet all around me. People ask to take pictures of my placard, which delights me no end. I dance along to GMB’s drumming as I hand out the little green pieces of paper.
10.55am: Battle of the sounds. People are getting ready to move whilst others trumpet louder and louder, each time more people join in. I am given a whistle by a Unison representative and I start tooting myself. GWS makes its last placard checks and we move into position. I am certain that our section is the noisiest, with drums, whistles and the GWS speakers on full.
11.05am: The GWS begin complex chants which they have printed on a sheet, using two mikes and the sound system trolley to project into the crowd. The chants involve call and response, so we hand out the printed lyrics to the nearby protesters.
11.10am: People are getting restless and the numbers are incredible. I’m surrounded by a steady stream of people. There’s a lot of selling going on, of badges, bags, whistles and stickers. I pay for a bag to hang around my neck as my hands seem to be constantly full. Then I realise I don’t know where the money is going, or who to. Hopefully it’s going to one of the organisation band wagons I have shamelessly jumped upon. However I am not sure, so decide not to pay for anything else unless I’ve been fully informed. Spotting an obvious scammer selling vuvuzelas, I know I’ve made the right decision.
11.20am: I can see that there are people as far back as Waterloo Bridge now. The numbers are still increasing. More people like me join GWS, those with no strong affiliations but wish to protest.
11.40am: One of the lead representatives of GWS uses the mike to shout off Harriet Harman, who is apparently marching today. The GWS member yells into the mike:
“Get off the march, you don’t f***ing belong here. You have blood on your hands”.
A nearby protester argues with the GWS member, calling her a ‘splitter’ for saying who should and should not be marching. She is unfazed however and leads us all into a chant of:
“Harriet Harmon you’ve got blood on your hands, get off the march, you’ve got blood on your hands”.
12.00pm:The march begins. The GWS block sneaks in behind GMB so we can stay close to the drums. I am now carrying one of the banners, one used for the Mothers March on the 12th of March.
We struggle to keep the banner groups together, as they aren’t in a uniform colour or design, all being separate organisations. However we eventually surround the sound system trolley, marching alongside a ‘Resist Racism’ block.
Since I am carrying a banner, I decide to take fewer notes. The vibrant pulse of the crowd makes me chant loudly with the other GWS members, getting surrounding protesters calling out with us:
We’ve Had Enough, Call off the Cuts
We’ve Had Enough, Call off the Cuts, Where is The Love?
12.30pm: We near Big Ben, the approach is slow as we merge with protesters coming from Westminster Bridge. The banner I’m holding with another woman is now bringing up the rear of the GWS block. I hear from the front yells and profanities directed at the “Houses of Corruption”.
1.15pm: We have reached Parliament Square and there is a sense of entitlement and triumph in the air. We are reclaiming it. GWS block and the Royal College of Nursing group start chanting together:
No Ifs, No Buts, We Don’t Want Your F***ing Cuts
We aren’t allowed in the square though, being turned instead down Whitehall. The number of police officers in the square is astounding. Even though I feel more secure knowing that if things kick off they are prepared, I have a sense of resentment as well. How much of a protest is it when it has been orchestrated so well by those we are protesting against? An old question to an even older argument.
1.20pm: We walked down towards Downing Street. Things are becoming a little like queues in a theme park. After the initial meandering pace past Parliament, we now rush down to this famous terraced house. Here we congregated for a long while, shouting:
Blood On Your Hands” and “How do you sleep at night?
Another aim is to get the organisations in the press and there are so many cameras pointing our way. We juggle banners so that each one gets a turn. This takes a while and a shower of rain begins.
2.00pm: The next major monument we approach is Nelson’s Column. I was given a flyer at the beginning of the march announcing an occupation of Trafalgar Square for tonight. I’m thinking of joining, the excitement is so infectious. Plus GWS are planning on having an area there, attempting to turn this into a 24 hour protest.
There are bands and musicians littering the memorials and statues, they play us past and the rain ceases.
2.20pm: We are at Trafalgar Square now and more people are joining the procession from all directions. Whitehall is a bit like a wind tunnel and the large banner I am holding is continuously being dragged back by the force. We are also trying to keep up with the front of our block, who in the revelry have rushed ahead to play with a marching band from Oxford. Amongst our group are several disabled women and a wheelchair user, the WinVisible member Claire. Using our banner we are attempting a type of crowd control, keeping our group together even though it seems to stretch and snap in size during the march. We eventually catch up to the others and I start sashaying to the marching band’s music.
3.00pm: Turning into Piccadilly Circus and murmurings are passing down along the route. Apparently Fortnum and Mason’s has been occupied by protesters from UK Uncut. I remember reading about the preparation for this protest on the internet. I am pleased for them and hope it went down peacefully. To be truly honest I am a little jealous, it sounds so wonderfully proactive compared to my very British queuing style march.
3.20pm: We are walking down Piccadilly now and I start to see some carnage. Nothing major, a Santander has been absolutely trashed though. I see the Anarchy symbols sprayed on the windows, smashed in with stools. Or were they coffee tables? I actually find it a little silly at first, as I am desperately trying to work out where they got such minimalist coffee tables to throw at the windows. Maybe it’s the exhaustion talking or I don’t want to think too hard about what else has been going on while I’ve yelled “Being a Mother, Full Time Job”. Not to discredit the GWS but something inside me feels like it’s stirring, the need to do… something.
3.50pm: The Ritz Hotel is also totalled. I admire the juxtaposition of pastel paint against the stone work. Why choose pastels? Interesting anarchist aesthetics.
Moving further down Piccadilly, I can see the end is in sight. To our right are some riot police, I hope due to the previous outbreaks of vandalism and not because of our motley crew of antagonistic carers. A few yards from them I see the true reason, a group of young men and women (barely adults) wearing all black and covering their faces. All except two who are receiving treatment from the paramedics, their masks down and faces averted to have saline poured in their eyes. Two possibilities occur to me, the use of mace against them by the riot police or the backfiring of a smoke bomb thrown by their comrades (or themselves). It’s most likely the latter as I’m sure the police would be ‘all up their grill’ if they had need to be maced.
Stewards are trying to merge the marchers into one lane, but they have asked our block too late and a traffic island prevents Claire moving into the right lane. Against their wishes we continue till we find a gap, they are unhappy but at least we listened to them at all. I can already feel the antagonism between authority and proletariat building.
4.15pm: We have arrived at Hyde Park Corner and our troupe walk towards the stage for the speeches, most of which we have missed. Our group is still by far the loudest, and is a beacon for some of my friends who are meeting me here. I give my details to the GWS and promise to find them at Trafalgar Square later. I rush with my friends to the immense toilet queues and do a little collapsing on the ground. I listen to the speeches but with only half an ear. I feel the hard work has been done by us, not these speakers. Also I am feeling a little defeatist. I can’t imagine what difference we have actually made.
5.00pm: After leaving my friends I decide to wander down Oxford Street to see what damage had been done there. The majority of it is pedestrianised, with fences and concrete blocks separating the pavements and the road. Many police officers are guarding Vodafone and Boots, probably since they are a target for anti-capitalist vandalism. That said Selfridges is open for business and unprotected. Indeed, I see protesters and tourists alike going in to do some shopping. I think that paying VAT on a day that protests the budget is a bit of a contradiction in action. Who am I to judge though, I bought a coffee from Starbucks this morning. Walking down Oxford Street with more shopping bags being seen than placards, the march seems to have been more like a tourist outing than political outrage.
I decide to walk to Trafalgar Square to see if there is a difference between their style of protest and this one.
5.15pm: I don’t get very far. As I’m walking through this fenced Oxford Street, I see a group walking the other way. Loud hip hop and garage music is playing. This protest splinter group is marching the other way to me, back towards Hyde Park. I have nowhere to go as I am corralled into the road by the fences and bollards. I see others trapped with me, families with small children who didn’t get out in time, shoppers jumping the bollards to separate themselves from the horde. Caught up with the crowd of a hundred or more, I flow with them back to Marble Arch, taking pictures and keeping pace. They are walking brusquely, making a nice change to the earlier march. However I am deeply uneasy, surrounded by people whose faces are hidden and eyes glinting with adrenaline.
The core of this group is a beat box speaker system being driven by a man on a bike. He is surrounded by a few MCs, lead by one tiny firecracker of a woman who is instigating a rebelliousness that I can’t help but echo.
5.25pm: Ignoring all road safety laws, the group pour out to Marble Arch. Surrounding cars and blocking traffic, all the while singing:
Down with the government, down. Down with the government down.
Just before Speakers Corner we stop, the crowd still stretching onto the main road. Taxis try to pass and they are blocked by these feisty protesters. A fire is lit in a small pile of rubbish. The glee at such an act spreads and a few of the abandoned placards are brought into the centre of the group and set alight. One placard which is aflame is raised into the sky.
This instigates more placards to be brought forth, the flames rising as is the laughter. The music is still pumping loudly, other MCs giving it their all. Nearly everyone around me is drinking. Even though I am sober, the heady mix of burning plastic and thumping bass lines, amongst the dangerous creatures which surround me, I feel a bit drunk myself. A steward spots the fire and bustles in to try and calm the crowd down. To no avail.
Eventually another steward arrives with a fire extinguisher. As the steam and smoke clear, we spot a line of policemen converging on our group. The bicycle riding beat box owner drives us back toward Oxford Street. Three riot policemen follow us, obtaining evidence by taking photos of us. None have been violent or too destructive so far, but the animosity is palpable. The MCs refer to them frequently in their raps and tell the crowd not to worry about them:
We aren’t doing nothing illegal, We bring the love and they bring the lethal.
5.40pm: We go at a fast pace back to Oxford Circus, where I see the carnage of the previous protest. A fire was obviously made at the centre of the circus. People want to stop and light another one but we are urged on by the leaders and the female MC. They tell us to keep moving before we’re separated.
6.00pm: Turning down to Piccadilly, more and more bystanders join our rave come protest. Bombarded with cameras flashes, I raise my placard high as I race along with the gathering crowd. I can’t believe I still have it with me. As we turn into Piccadilly Circus it became clear that the police are doing something. We come to a wall of police vans. We try and go around them, all the while raving and singing. However a line of riot police surround the entrance to Piccadilly Circus and we here shouts and yells from the other side.
Our cyclist and MC leaders turn us around. Almost too late. Behind us are suddenly more police vans appear and riot police are exiting en masse. I’m being squashed and pushed by the protesters. I look up into masked faces hoping that they won’t kick off, knowing none are there to keep the peace. Suddenly we surge through an opening by the riot vans and run back towards Oxford Circus, following the beat box noise. Despite my growing trepidation, adrenaline is burning my veins and I jog along with the crowd. Beside us, a line of riot police follow us along. I attempt to take photos, but we’re moving so fast now.
6.20pm: I feel a mob mentality brewing. We veer pass Top Shop which is surrounded by riot police, they look at us expectantly, waiting for us to damage it some more. It has smashed windows and is covered in that same pastel paint. Our group keeps moving however as another riot van is pulling towards us from Regent Street.
The line of riot police stay to our right as we pretty much run towards Tottenham Court Road. However this is what they want though, they are directing where they want us to go. Channelling us away from Trafalgar Square. Seeing more sirens and neon yellow in the distance, our leaders decide to disappoint them. We slow down and the riot police walk a bit ahead of us. Then we suddenly veer down a side street into Soho.
Navigating the back streets, our group feels victorious. We cry out into the evening sky as more than a hundred of us run past bars and restaurants.
The female MC sings “Freedom” and we sing “Fighter” right back.
A woman stubbornly tries to block the beat box bikes path. The female MC and I try and promote peace and love to the followers as they hurl abuse at her and try to push her aside. The bike goes around her and she is lost in the crowd of the faceless.
6.35pm: Going through China Town we turn them into Leicester square. Going past All Bar One, we shout out to the worker’s inside as customers applaud us. The excitement has truly gone to my head as I watch some of my group swipe glasses and overturn signs with a grin on my face.
We head down an alley towards the National Gallery in order to sweep into Trafalgar Square. However a police van is waiting for us, so we steer down behind the National Gallery through some scaffolding. There are some more riot vans, full of police and even though our leaders drive past, some throw bottles and hit the vans with sticks. Most of us begin to run to Trafalgar Square, helping manoeuvre the beat box bike to the other side. Past riot police and followed by more, we hit the main road in order to turn into the square.
7.00pm: There are people all over the square, with banners and tents surrounding Nelson’s Column. We join them, our female MC taking pride of place by one of the lions, a fire burning steadily at her feet. People climb the column and others throw placards on the fire. I am surrounded again, smoke in my eyes while a tent is pissed on behind me. I am invigorated but deeply unsettled. As the raving gets bigger and bolder, I dance with some of the faceless protesters. I ask some of them why this way and not the march past Parliament?
That won’t work… maybe none of this will. We just want to have a good time
They made us do this… by saying no all the time and taking money that we will never have… I’m always angry because they won’t ever change anything.
I hear a bottle smash near me, another goes by my head. Men and women are downing bottles of vodka and smashing them into the fire. The fire is kicked and sparks hit the stone base of Nelson’s Column. A burning placard is held aloft. Shouts, yells and commotion are all coming from within the crowd of masked ravers. I decide to go find the GWS block, sensing that I’m out of my depth.
I struggle to leave the crowd, both bodily and mentally. I want to stay. I want to rave. I want to fight and yell and scream and laugh. A small part of me wants the police I foresee coming to rain down upon us. I want to be in the thick of it, to revel in the injustice, the unfairness and the pointless violence. Bring on anarchy.
7.15pm: I find the GWS by one of the fountains, they are stationed firmly by the barricades. Still crying out their chants I thank them for today. They ask me where I’ve been and I simply point. They don’t seem pleased with me, like a disappointing pupil. The adrenaline must be heavy on my face. I don’t know what I look like, my coat has long been forgotten and my face is sweaty from running.
Despite the small voice that wills me to go back to be part of the faceless numbers, raving and urging forth chaos, another voice over shadows it. That voice filled with caution, self preservation, meekness and exhaustion. The night is settling in and I see the police growing in number. I hear the crowd smash and cheer. I hear the music of drums, guitars and voices. I see flares lit and smoke gets in my eyes. I feel weary and afraid. So despite that small, anarchic voice, I leave the square. Still clutching my placard, I turn to walk down the Strand. Through parties of protest gathering for one last shout at the world, I meander to Charing Cross.
7.30pm: As I walk down the Strand, I begin to shake. The adrenaline wearing off and fatigue sharp and strong settles into my bones. I have to walk to Holborn, making myself move inch by inch further from the square. The anarchic voice gets quieter.
10.00pm: A glimpse through a bar window as I was on the bus shows me I left just in time. I go online as soon as I am home, watching various news channels and reading twitter feeds. Those who I ran with, those who I escaped with, those who I yelled with. They were now surrounded by police. Further surfing shows me that my close calls were frequent, just missing other instances of kettling and protester violence. I stay up for hours to watch the footage and the voice gets a little louder once again.
The press deemed these violent anarchists as separate to the political system and for the most part I agree. However there is a danger here of writing off their actions, making them nonsensical and random. These were not all random acts of violence. Even though there were many other splinter groups form the main protest march and these performed occasionally ridiculous and selfish acts of violence, it should not mean that we ignore it as pure criminality.
The UK Uncut protest in Fortnum and Mason was a great practice in peaceful civil unrest. Yet they were treated with indignity and deceived with regards to their treatment, as the Green and Black Cross legal observers footage shows-
Overall I think the police acted well all things considered, but generally seemed to have under misapprehensions as to what was going to happen. I had known for days that people were planning on camping out and partying in Trafalgar Square, as well as occupying Fortnum and Mason’s. The police acted like this was deeply surprising and against all expectations. An example of this being the conversations I overheard on the bus at 9.15am. It was as if, even though the schedule was out there, they ignored it till last minute, did a double and take and collectively went "How rude! How very dare they!"
The police tactics to the actual violence were swift and efficient, without too much antagonism. Their tactics to mild civil unrest and peaceful protest, including the occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s were unnecessary. Because they couldn't handle the proper insurgents they take those who were peaceful and co-operative. It only fuelled the anger felt in the more violent crowds (BBC Footage).
I’m not advocating the actions of the violent individuals or the attacks on police. But seeing the intensity of the violence and the reactions to it, I can’t help but think that most of these people had given up. They no longer believed that our democratic methods would or could work, nor their violent ones. In accepting this, they behave in a way that shows that achieving results means nothing to them. The cause is total disenfranchisement with the system, a much worse feeling than indignation.
Anger at a corrupt system still means you can hope to change it, you can fuel that change and argue against the corruption. This is what the Global Women’s Strike is trying to achieve, believing in and hoping for change. Lack of genuine hope means nothing you can do can change your world, even destroying it. And if you have to go out, go out swinging. As some of my masked protester MCs said;
Let London Burn