As I write, the media is filling up with stories about the events of the 26th March “March for the Alternative”, each with its own spin, each emphasising this or that part of the day’s activities. Much of the press space has, inevitably, been given over to discussing the more controversial aspects of the protests – specifically the actions in the West End, and what the Mail has already dubbed the “Battle of Trafalgar Square” . Shops and banks vandalised, roads blocked, fires set; Fortnum and Masons occupied; and Trafalgar Square, one of London’s most recogniseable landmarks, turned again into the site of mass confrontation. Already, figures from Ed Miliband and the TUC to Policing Minister Nick Herbert and the Sunday Telegraph are doing everything possible to resoundingly condemn those involved, with the last putting the troubles down to “a ragtag army of anarchists, squatters, student militants, environmental activists and radical academics” . Meanwhile, comparisons to the 80s unrest under Thatcher seem to multiply with every article published.
At present the significance of the 26th remains difficult to judge. It may be simply a demonstration which involved disruption, as happens from time to time with little consequence. It may split elements of the movement against one another due to diverging views on appropriate tactics – not only the use of violence and property damage, but also the relationship between popular movements and institutions such as the Labour Party and the TUC (or for that matter the NUS, as seen during the student movement.) It may frighten people. It may provide a spark to force anti-cuts campaigns to up the ante. It may result in all or none of these.
In a sense, the 26th acted as a mass meeting point for the various movements which have been born from or grown as a consequence of the fight against austerity. UK Uncut, enraged sixth formers, disability rights activists, the student movement, the anarchists – and, of course, the socialist parties, the unions and other elements of the established left. An event on this scale brings to light the contradictions and tensions involved in a “movement” made up of such different, and often conflicting, strands – be that liberal news outlets forcefully condemning the actions of the “black bloc”  or protestors criticising the presence on stage of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband .
Much of the reaction – both inside and outside the anti-cuts movement – to the day’s disorder from within the movement has been, and will be, wholly condemnatory for a range of reasons – a moral rejection of violence and property damage, concern over public image, the welfare of bystanders, guilt by association. This is, of course, to be expected.
Confrontation and disruption such as seen on the 26th serves a number of purposes: to raise the profile of not only the cuts but resistance to them; to trigger broader discussion and debate (compare with the avalanche of news coverage caused by a relatively brief disrupion to a council meeting here in York); to raise the stakes in a wider sense, as shown by the wave of student occupations following the incident at Millbank; to escalate the situation, make it more dramatic; and, on perhaps a more emotional level, to make the expression of our outrage reflect its intensity.
We are not simply dismayed, upset, disappointed, appalled or betrayed. We are very, very angry.
This is not, of course, to advocate broken windows and occupied shops as some sort of blueprint for mass social change. While much may be gained from the more confrontational approach shown by both the “smashers” and the “occupiers”, much may be lost in terms of raised tension between different campaigns and groups, the costs and personal stress of legal work, reactions from public, hysteria from the press, and so on.
Further, while protests – small or large, local or national, peaceful or violent – form part of any social movement, they do not and cannot form the whole. Demonstrations raise the profile of a movement, allow a point of common action, provide something capable of mass participation and a show of strength, numbers and determination. The deeper struggle takes place elsewhere, in our workplaces, universities and communities, and in the ongoing work carried out by those – such as disability activists and welfare claimants – often excluded from politics on both the formal and “street” levels.
While far from perfect, recent strikes by the UCU and rumours of action by other unions such as Unite  show potential for workplace activityagainst the cuts, while wildcat campaigns of recent years  point to the possibility of broader, more radical and grassroots struggle. Similarly, groups such as the Hackney Housing Group (part of the London Coalition Against Poverty), employing direct action and protest against attacks on housing and welfare, provide a practical example of opposition to the cuts without the need for politicians or other self-appointed leaders .
On a more mundane level, the week to week work of distributing information, holding stalls and meetings, carrying out research, maintaining an internet presence, contacting other groups – all of these things are a vital part of the broader movement locally and nationally, as much as or more than the more dramatic “big” events such as those seen in London.
In this context, then, the events of the 26th – the size of the demonstration, the confrontations involved, the interest gained, the range of people participating – are only as significant as our ability to take advantage of them, to channel that energy into something more sustainable and effective.
I, like many, became “politicised” during the runup to the invasion of Iraq. Being new to politics, everything seemed new and exciting; this, however, gradually gave way to frustration, a frustration born in part of the nature of the protests themselves. The pattern became routine – two “biggies” a year (October and March if memory serves) plus occasional emergency demonstrations in response to this or that crisis. Mass mobilisations to London and smaller mobilisations at home, yet seemingly little else, and – more significantly – little desire to move beyond a set range of protest tactics. This is not to dismiss or attack the anti-war movement; far from it. Yet I feel that – beyond certain flashpoints such as the Glasgow train drivers  – the movement struggled to become more widespread, to become a matter of broad resistance rather than activist protest. However different that movement may be to the fight against the cuts, the concern – of a social movement being an “activist project” organised by “activists” using tried and tested methods, rather than a grassroots movement offering flexibility and participation – remains a valid one in my view.
Positive or negative, the outcome of the demonstration on the 26th and the interest flowing from it provide an opportunity which it would be a mistake either to ignore or to bring back to “business as usual”. The methods used so far – marches, rallies and demonstrations, petitions, public meetings and the other events we have held over the past months – are valuable and positive. The question, then, is how to build on them.
It is likely that the day will prompt a number of internal discussions among different anti-cuts groups – on the role of the TUC and the police, the place of political parties, the future of UK Uncut, the position of anarchists, concerns over violence, and more. These debates are necessary and positive, but cannot and should not be allowed to hamstring us – the anti-cuts movement both locally and nationally – from moving forward.
While repeated to the point of being a cliche, it is also true: we presently face some of the biggest cuts to jobs, welfare and services in a generation, which will leave – is leaving – people around the country out of work, out of education, and struggling just to get by. The anger against this is real and palpable, and that it would be expressed in displays of violence and disorder is, in some senses, inevitable.
One trope repeated endlessly by commentators from Ed Miliband and the TUC to the Mail and the Express is the distinction between “protestors” and “rioters” (the latter used synonymously with “anarchist”), with the latter assumed to have little to no motivation or political interest other than the desire to cause havoc. A brief glimpse at the aftermath of the 26th indicates otherwise. In the West End, banks, tax dodgers and certain “icons” (McDonalds, Starbucks) were targetted with paint, sticks, stones and smoke bombs, while those surrounding them were left untouched. Those targets were chosen deliberately, and for a reason – the same reason those same stores have been picketed,leafletted and occupied in recent months by campaigners against tax evasion. Other targets, such as the Ritz and Fortnum and Masons, were targetted for their obvious links to wealth, fortune and privilege. Violent? Perhaps. But mindless it was not.
Another argument – often invoked in defence of the protestors involved – is to portray all violence as initiated and engaged in by the police alone, with any act of resistance from demonstrators merely an isolated expression of frustration. In a sense, this is the exact opposite of the route taken by the tabloids; while the press begins from the assumption of violent hooligans versus responsible police officers, certain activists and commentators take the opposing view, of innocent, peaceful demonstrators versus TSG thugs. While my experience backs up the latter more than the former, both analyses miss the point to some extent.
It is, of course, true that police frequently take violent action against non-violent protestors – be it through baton charges, kettling, horses or simple intimidation. What is also true, however, is that on occasion – as happened on the 26th – demonstrators can and do successfully resist police aggression, breaking kettles, chasing off vans, defending themselves and one another.
We should not ignore these incidents, nor downplay or apologise for them. If, as is often claimed, these tactics – kettling in particular – represent repression and violations of human rights, the next logical step is to question what methods are either justified or effective in defending one’s human rights from being violated. Legal action, whether domestic or through the EU, is one option; public pressure is another, while political pressure through lobbying is a third. There are others. In the immediate situation on the street, however, the options are more limited: to resist, or not.
The coming weeks and months are likely to see a flurry of legal activity, with court cases for those charged (100+ so far), inevitable complaints about and IPCC “investigations” of police misconduct, and perhaps a return of the press and the Met’s public list of “mugshots” used after student protests last year. The last has already started to take effect, with three individuals listed as “leaders” in a recent article from the Telegraph .
As ever, solidarity is key. Solidarity compels us to support one another in struggle; not an uncritical support, nor a blanket one, but a recognition that for the time being we fight the same fight. Despite media caricatures to the contrary, those involved in the clashes and occupations on the 26th are the same people who take part in activity week on week, attend metings, write articles, manage stalls, maintain websites. They are as much a part of the broad anti-cuts movement as any leftist, trade unionist, service user or other concerned party. And just as deserving of support, however critical it may be.
Already on the horizon there is a day of action against benefit cuts on 14th April , growing activity against attacks on healthcare, rumours of future industrial action, ongoing disputes within education (from students and staff both), not to mention support for struggles in other countries. Another “big one” may be months in the making. In the meantime, some groups will naturally put their efforts into the upcoming local elections in May – either in support for one party or another, or to stand explicitly anti-cuts candidates as a protest vote. However, while some attention on the elections is inevitable, to allow them to become main or sole focus of activity would be a mistake. The anti-cuts struggle is wider than which party happens to be at the helm, particularly given that Labour’s alternative to the cuts is simply a slightly different form of the same.
For now, we must attend to dealing with the fallout of the 26th on the one hand, and come together both locally and nationally to discuss the way ahead – in tactics, strategy, outlook and analysis – on the other, while all the time staying active and keeping moving. Not an easy task. But a necessary one.
Love and rage,
A York Anarchist