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A tale of two protests

Tom Mendelsohn

134291190 300x207 A tale of two protestsIt was not an auspicious start to my day of trades union militancy; the first picket I saw as I hurtled up South London’s Walworth Road was manned by a grand total of two somewhat forlon GMB strikers. An upward fist of solidarity from the saddle fetched only a puzzled look.

Fears that this augured a Cameroonian-style ‘damp squib’ for the main protest were swiftly quashed when I did reach central London.

The actual march, you see, was massive. I’ve no idea how many people attended, but I do know that a slow-moving column of strikers covered the length of The Strand – with plenty more at either end – for longer than I could stand to watch it. A 10-minute pit-stop in Pret, featuring a vegan-friendly avocado and pine-nut wrap in honour of the occasion, did not see any let-up in people. There must have been six figures’ worth of protestors, for whatever my entirely unscientific estimate is worth.

The thing is, though, that this march was so good-natured, so well-behaved that there is practically nothing to write about it. Things proceeded without any kind of hitch. The atmosphere was great. Spirits were high. Everyone dispersed when the rally was over. Not a baton charge in sight.

I’d fallen in with the Occupy London feeder march, in the hope of seeing any kind of disobedience, but they too were noble to a fault. They did bring that bike-drawn soundsystem of theirs, which was surrounded by an honour guard of skanking hippies, including one girl absolutely going for it in bare feet, on tarmac, in November. They’re a hardy lot.

It was this of all things that day that was of least use in convincing the impassive rows of lawyerly faces gazing down as we cruised past the Inns of Court. It must have confirmed every stereotype of protestors they had, to see such a collection of windmilling dreadlocks.

All this good behaviour, while wonderful for the cause, was useless for the slavering sensationalists of the British press. I’d just about given it up as a bad job when rumblings of a direct action by UK Uncut and Occupy London surfaced on the Twitters.

We were to meet in Piccadilly Circus and await further instruction.

Few knew what was happening – least of all the police – who had nevertheless ringed the Statue of Eros  in anticipation of some mischief, to a rousing chorus of Greek football chants from a bunch of excitable PAOK Salonika fans apparently lost en route to Tottenham.

Once the crowd of 300 or so protestors set off in a blare of whistles and samba drums – and a notable lack of police escort – things happened very quickly. Someone let off a red flare; we broke into a run; we turned down Panton Street, and suddenly people are storming an office building for reasons unannounced. Immediately after, a highlighter-yellow wedge of grim-faced cops sliced through the crowd to block the entrance. Before I knew it, a kettle had descended on all sides, practically from thin air.

Well, not according to the police, who were adamant that they didn’t use kettles. They don’t; they just vigorously prevent crowds from going anywhere. It was an eminently courteous not-kettle – the shoulder-to-shoulder officers were as chatty and non-confrontational as a wall of armoured muscle can be. But we still couldn’t get out.

A (not-)kettle is a strange thing. It’s exciting at first, full of defiant, energised activists tripping on direct action endorphins, but as darkness falls and the cold begins to bite, energised activists become slumped activists while fresh lines of police intersperse themselves and partition the group to kill the atmosphere further.

Brief flares of excitement burst out every time a suspected undercover cop was unmasked and hounded from the group. I counted five of these alleged agents provocateurs, which seemed excessive for the 100-or-so protestors who remained. They’re insultingly easy to spot – burly men in hoodies who love the strikes but can’t name their own unions, and who melt through suddenly porous police lines as soon as they get any heat.

From there, though, a kettle is a long slow spiral into shivering despondence. As press, I was able to leave when I wanted, but everyone else was tagged and bagged as they were let out in slow ones and twos – names, addresses and mugshots taken before being sent home.

Afterwards, a friend of mine in the Met, who’d sat for nine hours in reserve at Heathrow collecting your tax money in overtime payments, told me that the people kettling me were ‘only City of London’. I ‘could have had them’, apparently. Wish I’d known.

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