Cereal offenders: who are the anti-gentrification protesters and are they justified?

The Cereal Killer café has been attacked in a protest that turned violent. The activists have overshadowed their cause in more ways than one.

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Over the weekend, a group of around 200 protesters campaigning against gentrification arrived at the Cereal Killer café. Its pricey cutesy bowls of cereal became a symbol of gentrification-gone-mad when it opened on Brick Lane, east London in December last year.

The protest turned violent.

Some of the group carried burning torches and pigs’ heads. The word “scum” was daubed on the shop window, and an effigy of a policeman was burned outside. Protesters threw paintbombs, tried to throw a smokebomb inside the shop, and chucked cereal at the café, as customers and staff sheltered inside. A police officer was injured by a bottle that hit his face.

The Met highlighted that not all the crowd were violent, stating there was a “criminal element within a group of several hundred people”. Only one person was arrested for criminal damage.

The police were aware of the pre-planned event, which was organised by an activist group called Class War, in an event known as Fuck Parade. Their tagline for this particular protest was “HIPSTERS BEWARE”. The group released a statement calling on London to:

"Stand up to gentrification!

"Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs. Local authorities are coining it in, in a short sighted race for cash by “regenerating” social housing.

"We don’t want luxury flats that no one can afford, we want genuinely affordable housing. We don’t want pop-up gin bars or brioche buns – we want community.

"Soon this City will be an unrecognisable, bland, yuppie infested wasteland with no room for normal (and not so normal) people like us.

"London is our home and worth defending against this onslaught of dog-eat-dog economics. Working class people are being forced out of our homes but we won’t go out without a fight."

One protester, who claims he was wearing a pig mask at the protest, gives his top reason for taking part: “Opening a shop that sells children's cereals for £4 a bowl in a borough in which 49 per cent of the kids are living in poverty is an insult to the thousands of Tower Hamlets residents who have to eat on less than £4 a day”.

Another protester, William Harvey, has written that the vandalism that occurred has distracted from what the protesters claim they were trying to highlight: “inequality and social cleansing”.

But who are these protesters? And are they normal or “not so normal”?

Those against the protest have been claiming the majority of them are rent-an-anarchist serial activists, who find any vaguely anti-establishment cause as an excuse for a riotous street party.

Indeed, the event page for Fuck Parade’s Shoreditch protest boasts of past events being “fun and furious with music, pyrotechnics and cheeky banner drops”. And the anarchist site Freedom describes the organising group Class War as “naughty anarchist troublemakers”.

The protesters claim this wasn’t just a hipster-on-hipster affair. Harvey, who attended the event, claims he saw a “diverse mix” of people protesting – working-class locals among anarchist activists from further afield:

“People have speculated about who the protesters are, and where they live themselves, and I would describe those I saw as a diverse mix of working-class Londoners, from toddlers to pensioners, some residents of local social housing, while others travelled in from less expensive areas of the capital; many were victims of the gentrification and evictions I’ve mentioned.

“Class War anarchists, activists, squatters and social housing tenants were joined along the way by local youths and the usual revellers of Shoreditch angry about rising prices or simply looking to join the party.”

Another source claims that the pig masks are a sign that “SWP [Socialist Workers Party] people were probably there”. I have called the SWP but they have not yet confirmed they had a presence at the protest.

I hear that people in the crowd were linked to black bloc – the collection of anarchists accused of violence in tuition fees protests, and those held responsible for attacking the Ritz and high street shops during the 2011 anti-cuts protest in London.

I have repeatedly tried contacting both Fuck Parade and Class War, but haven’t heard back, so it’s difficult to confirm this. But the traits are there – covered faces, black clothing, young people, organised anarchy.

A former associate of the black bloc anarchists tells me a number of them were students at Oxford:

“They’re a lot of Highgate socialists whose children ended up joining a leftwing cult. The irony of students attacking places their parents visited was lost on them, for the most part. Precisely what they hoped to gain by attacking shops during student protests I could never work out . . .

“They hated gentrification, ironically, given how genteel they were. For some reason, it was okay to be born to rich parents if you resented them. But not to move into an expensive area. Or to, you know, get a job.

“They aren't all posh. But the ringleaders are well-connected privately-educated London types . . . The hipster cereal vendor is just another lumpenprole pimping himself out to capitalism to them.”

One of Class War’s high-profile activists, Dr Lisa McKenzie, is an academic at the LSE. She famously ran against Iain Duncan Smith in the general election. Again, I have tried to speak to her for this piece but have yet to hear from her.

Along with the admittedly low-level violence and vandalism, the character of the groups involved in the cereal café protest – whatever their class and background – is another distraction from their cause. By having a “loud obnoxious political street party that offended the sensibilities of the mainstream liberal left”, according to Freedom, the organisers may have “got what they wanted”. But did the potential victims of “social cleansing” on whose behalf they were partying get the opposite?

UPDATE 29/9/15

I've heard back from a Fuck Parade spokesperson, who tells me:

"We didn't decide to target the cafe. People who were very angry with gentrification in this area spontaneously highlighted the gross inequality selling a bowl of cereal for £5 to 'man-children' when real children are going hungry in the area. The aim of the protest was to bring people together who oppose gentrification. We loathe The Left's pacifying A to B marches. We want to protest but we want to party too . . . 

"We all had a great time, a wide range of great music was played over the many systems that came. And the protest was reported from Canada to Australia. It was highly successful . . . The real violence is the poverty and social cleansing happening in the East End and elsewhere."

The group maintains that Cereal Killer is "part of the drive to bring the rich in and drive the poor out", and that simply being a small business "does not equal good . . . [it] does not mean you have carte blanche to do what you like".

On the demographic of the protesters, Fuck Parade says: "Everyone I knew there live locally. We are all suffering from the insane cost of housing. This problem is not going away nor are we."

And a source close to the Class War (but not a member) gives me their perspective on the make-up of the protesters:

"The claim that they are Oxford types or wealthy in some way is complete laughable bullshit. I don't speak for Class War, but I can tell you that there is no planned riot by the group. They create the space, some may decide to use the opportunity for their own actions. A couple of daubs of paint on a window is nothing compared to the violence meted out by the establishment against working class people on a daily basis - violence that is urged on by the media . . .

"I know those behind the Fuck Parade. They are very nice people who live in Tower Hamlets. They are fucking angry. Lots of people are angry and fearful in the East End due to gentrification, although maybe not everyone shares the same level of fury about peculiar men with beards selling over-priced breakfast cereal . . . It's laughable that anyone would suggest they are posh. The establishment can't make up their minds about Class War. Are they scrounging unwashed parasites who love living in the gutter or are they posh boys playing weekend revolutionary? In my experience, they are neither."

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.