On Saturday I saw and filmed two demonstrations: the official march called by the TUC, culminating with a rally in Hyde Park, and the unofficial alternative, which spread out across the West End, comprising multiple autonomous groups and blocs.
This is what I saw on the streets, and then in the rushes (there were three of us filming: Philippa Daniel on the Embankment, Kaveh Abbasian in the West End, and myself, starting with the rally, thence to Oxford Street and down to Picadilly. This visible evidence is what has determined the shape of my editing. What emerges is not at all the picture seen in the mainstream media, which highlighted what they called violence (of which there was very little) and failed to report the positions taken by the speakers at the rally.
The difference between the two demonstrations as our cameras captured them is both cultural and political. The vast majority – what Ed Miliband at the rally dubbed the “mainstream majority of Britain” – are trade unionists who retain allegiance to parliamentary democracy. The alternative protestors, a very sizeable minority, are unorganised, disorganised, or self-organised, depending on your point of view, whose politics are a mixture of green, anti-capitalist and anarchist. On the fringes of the former are the old-style Marxists calling for a general strike. Among the latter are the practitioners of direct action, and what they call “creative civil disobedience”.
The numbers were impressively huge — a figure of half a million has been talked of — and Philippa’s Embankment scenes are colourful and vibrant. Hyde Park was thronging. So was the West End, but here the ambience was different. The rally was noisy but relaxed, the streets were noisy and carnivalesque. The common factor was mass noise-making as a form of taking over the space. This video is noisy – but it has to be.
Leaving the rally and walking down Oxford Street, I met a couple of young clowns who unbidden, told my camera why they were there. I missed the Artspace outside BHS, but Kaveh had been there. For my part, I saw a police snatch squad in action, and the big “Trojan horse” in Oxford Circus (which Kaveh also filmed a little later).
I am still trying to work out the symbolism of a Trojan horse carrying the legend ‘TUC Armed Wing’ being put to the flame, but this isn’t violence, it’s performance — a form of street theatre that reclaims public space from the police and the surveillance cameras. If the official event was also of course a reclamation of the public commons, then what we see in the contrast between the two demonstrations, in their different ways of using space, is the state under pressure from different directions at the same time. Wedged in between are the police, who are now also a target for the cuts. What are they to think when a snatch squad provokes chants of “Protect Police Jobs”?
Marching down Regent Street alongside a well-drilled troupe of drummers, their beat echoing off the shopfronts on either side, made me momentarily think that Buenos Aires had come to London (except for the weather). In Piccadilly Circus, single lines of police were surrounded on both sides and didn’t know which way to turn. (There’s a video on YouTube which shows a bunch of them being kettled in a side street by protestors.) Walking down Picadilly, I reached Fortnum & Mason’s just as it was being taken. It was shortly after this that the day turned nasty, as police in riot gear went into action.
What I saw raises a crucial question, and points to a political problem. First, the question of who makes up Miliband’s “mainstream” — does it include the potential voters not in the park but on the streets? In other words, those mainly young people who are not in trade unions and owe no allegiance to parliamentary politics, for whom insouciance and civil disobedience are a cultural as much as a political predilection. But they also have the vote.
Second, the problem of where the Labour Party stands in relation to the TUC, and the positions now being argued within the latter. Brendan Barber spoke of a Robin Hood tax on the banks, Ed Miliband of a bonus tax — there’s a difference. Len McCluskey asked for Labour MPs to join the trade unionists “on the barricades”. Mark Serwotka called for “no cuts whatsoever” — because the cuts are divisive, forcing us to choose between young and old, public sector and private sector, those on welfare and those in work. And he concluded with a call: “Imagine if we didn’t only march together, we took strike action together across all of our public services.”
This is what I saw and heard and this video tries to reflect, without prejudging the answers that will emerge over the coming weeks. Richard Leacock, the great documentarist and pioneer of direct cinema, who died last week, spoke of documentary as gathering data to try to figure out what the hell was going on. This is what I’ve tried to do here. I dedicate this little film to his memory.