You’d be hard pushed to find a more genial bunch of people than those who gathered outside London’s Liverpool Street yesterday as they prepared to march on the City – the capital’s financial heart.
I’d joined the Green ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ - one of the four groups of protesters which was to converge on the Bank of England for a ‘party’ in the Square Mile.
And ‘party’ was not a bad word – with carnival costumes, drums and smiles, the mood was energetic, robust and festive. As I handed out copies of the central section of this month’s New Internationalist (Put People First – Clean Start) I got chatting with some of them. Many were young, student-types. Some were even long-haired anarchists – that group so feared by the mainstream media which had bombarded Londoners with dire warnings of the day’s events. But many were just very ordinary people impelled to take action. One conventional-looking, middle-aged, former Labour party supporter told me:
‘I thought that as you got older you got less radical. But the opposite is happening with me,’ she said. ‘I’m so angry about what banks and governments have been doing. You feel so powerless. All you can do is protest.’
In fact, she told me, she had been doing her own spontaneous bit of ‘direct action’ by going into her local banks and removing all literature promoting credit cards and loans.
As the march neared the Bank of England, office workers - some waving - looked out from their windows. I was a little ahead of the march, taking photos, and so was able to get behind a line of police that rapidly formed to trap the marchers before they could get into the Bank of England area. It was frustrating, but the Green Horseman protesters kept their cool, throwing colourful balls up in the air, back and forth above the crowd. The Bank area was by now a riot of banners, flags, fancy dress and home-made placards and slogans (‘I am not an ATM’, ‘The Revolution is now Zeitgeist’, ‘Greed is Dead’, for example) as well as the more traditional red-and-black Che and Marx iconography.
It’s a scene I don’t think I’ll forget. It really felt as if - for a few hours at least - the people had taken over the City, that potent symbol of deregulated casino capitalism which has dominated the world, breeding inequality and ultimately chaos. Successive governments have enslaved us to privatized finance, have not ‘put people first’ – so now the people have to do it for themselves. And those people are as diverse as society itself – one of the first groups to establish themselves outside the Bank consisted of grey-haired pensioners.
After a while I left the area and headed for the Climate Camp which environmental activists had quickly and ingeniously established in Bishopsgate, near the European Climate Exchange. Here too, the protest was peaceful and almost joyous, in spite of the inevitable, heavy police presence. Ribbons and banners festooned buildings; even a police van was decorated.
By the time I returned to the Bank of England area, it was sealed off by double lines of police, some in riot gear, with thousands of protesters penned inside. The atmosphere had changed. Police dogs and horses appeared. No one was being allowed into the square or out of it. Scuffles were breaking out along the lines. A woman who had been close to the police line, told me the police were not only trapping people but pushing them, provoking them. There were scuffles and injuries being inflicted on both sides. She said she had seen someone being dragged into a police van and beaten.
At that time the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) building was still quite heavily guarded by police. That soon changed. The images soon to be beamed around the world showed a single incident that will probably define the protest in the minds of anyone who was not there. They show a handful of protesters smashing an RBS window, climbing in through the hole and coming out with computer equipment.
Was this theft? Hard to say. They had paid for it. All British citizens have. This is one of the banks that has been massively bailed out with public money, but not nationalized. I don’t know what the retrieved computer equipment was worth but I doubt it compares with the £700,000 extra pension that disgraced RBS ex-boss Fred Goodwin recently cleared off with - beneath the careful gaze of government officials, of course.
The amazing thing about Wednesday’s protest is that there was not more violence. The police tactic of trapping protesters for several hours is highly provocative, fuels frustration and is of doubtful legality. They are asking for trouble in an atmosphere that is fizzing with justified public anger.