There have already been a large number of reports on the Trafalgar Square incident after the half a million strong anti-cuts demonstration on March 26. But after a number of posts (such as the one by Penny Red) about the night which do not give the full picture, I want to say what I saw.
The day itself was of course incredible. Completely peaceful, the march continued for hours before winding up some time in the early afternoon. We had heard about the Occupy for the Alternative event that UK Uncut was planning and so headed down for that at around 2pm. When we got there, many shops were already shut by the police, with dozens standing outside Vodafone, Topshop, BHS etc. I saw very little smashed glass and very little damage – a bit of paint on some buildings was all that marred most of their exteriors. The smaller Boots on Oxford Street had been shut down and turned into a singing hospital. I joined in and the atmosphere was positive. Up the road, a guitarist was playing anti-cuts tunes with a huge crowd in a circle around him. Even the police were laughing.
Despite rumours of violent anarchism, some of which I’m sure were true, we only saw people standing around enjoying the Uk Uncut actions. Many walking past applauded, while international media spoke to people dressed up as doctors staging direct action.
Hyde Park at Night
As darkness fell we walked to Hyde Park, where a Stay for One Day event was taking place. Around 200 people were there drinking, playing drums and sitting around fires. We got chatting to a few people there who wanted to see what Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly were like as we heard helicopters overhead. The crowd at Hyde Park were largely of the ‘Lawful Rebellion’ sort, mostly hippies and generally peaceful anarchists (by that I mean those who don’t believe in the legitimacy of the state, not people randomly smashing things). This group had planned to camp there overnight, and although myself and my girlfriend had sleeping bags we decided to check out Trafalgar after hearing 2000 were there partying.
Trafalgar Square – From Rave to Rampage
So we arrived at Trafalgar Square at around 8 or 9pm – and at that point the mood was incredibly. Very few police, very little disorder, several fires and a samba band filled the square alongside the 2000 others there. A bit of drunkenness but no aggression at this point. Then not long after 9 we heard a clinking sound around the clock. The sound of metal against metal. It had no chance of destroying the clock itself.
But then the police came in and formed a line around the clock. To the demonstrators delight, these were chased off, but came back stronger. Sticks started to be thrown (pulled from the bonfires, frighteningly), and I heard breaking glass. Not long after we saw a man stumbling around covering his bleeding head. Riot police then reinforced the officers around the Olympic Clock. This battle lasted for quite a while, and we watched with bemusement and not a little fear, as broken bottles landed beside us.
Just before 10pm (I think), hundreds started running off the square. We lost the person we had met that night and didn’t realise a kettle was being formed. It was too late at this point. Police had blocked all the exit point, and they started coming towards the main column. Before long they had surrounded the metal ‘fence’ around the monument and forced us inside. I saw people lash out in frustration and in return being rammed in with shields. One women repeatedly ran into the police to be knocked over again. Another man was shouting at them. All understandable. There were over a hundred on the actual column, chanting and occasionally throwing something. Unfortunately, because we were kettled, these objects far too often nearly hit the peaceful demonstrators not up there.
I asked an officer where the necessary toilets were in the kettle – they had to provide water, toilets and medical help. None of these things were provided. We were freezing cold, needed sleep and had been standing all day. I was told as the kettle formed that it was only ‘temporary’ and we would be allowed out shortly. This was not the case. Instead the sent in reinforcements. It was intimidating. And most in there were obviously innocent. So it was fundamentally frustrating. No legal support. And we were of course demonised in the press. Meanwhile the rabble on the monument continued chanting, shouting and doing what they could to annoy the police.
This continued for over 2 hours. Just before 12 a sympathetic officer told us to go to the right where people would be let out, until at 12:05 we were released. Around a hundred police surrounded the kettle, forming a rectangular border on the exit. We were released 3 at a time, our photos were all taken and we exited dazed, knackered, irritated and angry with both sides, unlike at the December 9th demonstration where the police were in fact largely to blame. Kettling is disgusting. But it was not unprovoked.
I later met the young man who had started the attempted demolition of the Olympic Clock, and he said he felt ‘responsible’ for the following chaos. Why he was telling us this I don’t know. But contrary to what some have been saying, I was told by him that he was arrested and then ‘de-arrested’ after the incident, not before. It is important not to romanticise about the night. It was fairly brutal, and there was a lot of justified anger out there. The people I saw who were wearing black with their faces covered however, were largely just there for a riot. The only thing that isn’t being said is that these characters were in a minority in Trafalgar Square, at least at the start when it was merely a large street party.
For socialists, it is the mass movement that is key. And that’s what the 500,000 strong march was all about. Direct action, too, has a role to play, and the peaceful but radical nature of UK Uncut is a vital tool against tax-dodging and the cuts. But there must be balance, and the Trafalgar Square occupation should not have ended how it did. To blame it all on one group would be disingenuous.
Turnout will be much reduced at further demos if people think it is going to end in havoc. Saturday was my second time in London for a demo, and, excuse the pun, travelling 300 miles to be kettled isn’t many people’s cup of tea.