Mayday protests

The mayday demos seem a continuing tradition, in London and worldwide. Under the "anti-capitalism" umbrella a varied spectre of groups gather to protest. Some of them have in the process aquired a reputation for violent direct action. Here are some impressions from the Mayday Monopoly protests in London on May 1st 2001.

Oxford Street is like a ghost town, most of the shops have covered their windows with wooden boards and even the characteristic tower-shaped red mail boxes are closed, with small stickers excusing the inconvenience. Deprived of the usual window glitz, the Midgard of london shopping sees its grittyness exposed, the lack of maintenance of some buildings, the decay behind the shopping facades. A constant noise of police helicopters completes the gloomy, tense ambience.

In the surrounding streets a large number of white rental vans were parked, all displaying a 3 digits one letter identification paper and some still filled with members of the 5000 strong police force brought in from all over London and South-East England. Wonder how much the Kenning car rental company charged for the risk of their cars being involved in the troubles? Another noticeable presence was the glazing company cars, clear signs of what kinds of marketplace demands the anti-capitalists were expected to create..

Several streets were blocked: Regent and Gt Portland St were filled with demonstrators denied access to those in Oxford Circus by triple lines of helmet-wearing police. Along Oxford St the demonstrations were sliced by double lines of police in several places, to prevent them from joining up and break through to Oxford Circus. To the north-west the no-go zone sometimes extended to Cavendish Square, depending on police tactics.

Odd how strangers in big, unorganised groups interact: how everyone suddenly starts walking in the same direction for no apparent reason, or suddenly panic and run for ten pulse-raising seconds because the police advanced a metre. There is something scary about this display of mass instincts and reaction, and I realise as usual that I don't like demonstrating. I can't stand walking in the same direction and shouting the same thing as everyone else. I can't tell whether this is a sign of my individualism or simply the effect of always having been excluded from crowds - I feel that I'm only pretending to be one of them, and anytime soon they will all take offence and confront me.

Yet, what a diversity this crowd is - from parents with children, old women handing out leaflets against violence, drummers and street theatre actors to masked anonymouses with sinister plans - absolutely a more varied crowd than the usual shoppers. The one single thing that has not changed from everyday Oxford St scenes is the number of cameras: police photographing and videoing protesters who are photographing and videoing the police, all under constant scrutiny of journalist cameras.

Not that those wide-angled eyes of the media scrutinise everything. They take an obvious interest in the more militant members of the protests, as the mood grows tenser, as the Holles St crowds almost bypass the police and are only held back by horses, as boards are torn off a shop front and pieces of wood thrown at the police. While daylight disappears, the thousands enclosed by police in Oxford Circus grow colder, wetter and more claustrophobic and feed the cameras more dramatic confrontations. Outside the idealists leave, disgusted by the trouble-seekers.

Rightly so. However twisted towards reporting the violence media is, it remains a real problem for the alternative movement. By focusing on violence media has definitely encouraged its momentum, the unorganised multitude of alternative thoughts that constitutes today's protest does not have the power or discipline to exorcise its demons and the violence now taints any views the various mayday organisers wanted to express and alienates the general public. What a demise for once-fresh ideas like the carnivalesque anti-car street parties of Reclaim The Streets!

Although the police strategy of closing off Oxford Circus with thousands of protesters trapped there for hours hardly seems a good way of calming down a crowd, to me and other peaceful demonstrators it was fairly obvious who among us were there for political reasons and who were looking for trouble. The moment in Gt Marlborough St where 14-15 year old boys were encouraged to break the windows of an unwisely placed police car is the best illustration: too young for political conscience and excited by the opportunity to vent frustrations and show off in front of the crowds and the media, they came for the announced trouble, not to express anything in particular.

Are then the days of non-violent direct action on first of May over? Of course not. Most of the events arranged in London on May 1st, 2001 _were_ non-violent. Ideas like handing out vegetarian burgers outside McDonalds have an obvious charm that win the public over and even attract media. But among the preconditions necessary for a de-escalation of the violence is a change of attitude in the press, from reporting the violence to reporting the views of protesters. Considering the symbiotic relationship of the thugs and the media, we are not likely to see this kind of self-censorship in the near future.


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