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16 April 2001

High noon at the vegan cafe

Wombles may sound harmless to you, but the police don't see it that way, reports Alexander Barley

By Alexander Barley

On 30 March, 200 police officers from the City, British Transport and Metropolitan Police, together with two bailiffs, stormed the Button Factory, a squatted community centre in south London. The police used mechanical diggers partially to demolish the building so that it couldn’t be reoccupied. To this day, the Factory remains under police surveillance.

The target of the raid? A vegan cafe that provided free meals for the homeless. The police justified their drastic action by pointing out that intelligence had informed them that the squat was used by a dozen Wombles as well as for benefit nights for the Zapatistas and raves. Without wishing to downplay the courageous effort made by the good officers, it should be pointed out that a) the squatters had already vacated the premises, and b) the Wombles are a strictly non-violent political group, best known for the white padded overalls and face masks they sport during protests.

The group had taken part in only two London actions before the raid. Early in March, they briefly occupied Nike Town in protest against that company’s well-documented use of sweatshop labour. Back in January, they took part in a small protest in Parliament Square against Iraqi sanctions. This was a peaceful, or “fluffy”, demonstration; there were no more than a dozen Wombles. In their white outfits and crash helmets, they looked like extras in a KLF music video as they walked forward slowly with arms linked, at the head of a few hundred demonstrators. It was all peaceful enough, but the police decided to take precautions and forced the protesters to take off their masks so that their faces could be filmed and identified.

The Wombles deconstruct protest: they will not respond to police provocation or throw projectiles. Sometimes they try to change the route of a protest; at other times they form a line or solid block between police and other demonstrators. Their intention is to move the protest dynamic away from being centred around lines of riot police penning in demonstrators and then charging on them.

The Wombles clearly take their inspiration from Italy’s YaBasta movement, which pioneered the use of an organised block of resistance, wearing white overalls and equipped with foam padding and rubber rings. It was YaBasta, rather than the black-block rioters, whose tactics were most successful in last year’s Prague demonstrations. Like YaBasta, the Wombles are a mixture of socialists, environmentalists, feminists and, yes, a few self-proclaimed anarchists.

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This may seem uncontroversial enough – yet the demolition of the Button Factory was hailed as a victory against terrorism, not only by the police, but also by the press. The Financial Times equated anti-capitalist activists with the Real IRA; the Daily Telegraph said the squat was to be used by 500 violent anarchists to prepare their attacks on police – not only were they planning mayhem, they wanted “violence, Continental-style”.

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So if you are thinking of wombling free, the police will want to know about it.