An anarchist reflection on the last few years in London, written at the request of comrades overseas.
For a few months in recent history, between November 2010 and August 2011, London was an exciting place. Then, with a thousand imprisoned and ‘total policing’ on the streets, we went back to business as usual. Life in Britain 2014: working, shopping, CCTV, austerity cuts, rent rises, wage cuts, ‘war on terror’, social cleansing, corruption scandals, token protests of a soggy handful of lefties. Just a handful of fires in Bristol still alight in the dark nights. When comrades far away asked for some news, we did warn them – it’s sad. But maybe it could be a good time to reflect on what’s happened in the last few years, the ups and downs, what it all means.
On 10 November 2010 was Millbank. The tame National Union of Students had called a demonstration against university tuition fees, and about 50,000 came out. A big part of the demo went wild, attacked and smashed up the governing Conservative Party’s HQ at ‘Millbank Towers’ .
There had been a steady little movement of student protests, sit-ins, demos, against university tuition fees and education cuts. But so far these had never been more than pacifist press stunts. The student leaders used similar tactics to ‘fluffy’ activist groups like environmentalists Climate Camp, or UK Uncut who politely demanded that corporations pay their taxes. This was the acceptable face of protest, praised by the liberal media for its ‘colour’, creativity – and complete lack of danger.
So Millbank came ‘out of the blue’. No one expected this level of rage and daring on a student march in central London. It gave an energy injection to many rebellious spirits. Not just university students by any means, but everyone from teenagers who’d never been near a political demo before, to tired old anarchists who’d lost hope.
So, suddenly, shit was happening. Through the winter, Millbank was almost – but never quite – replayed in a rolling programme of anti-cuts demos. It’s interesting now to reflect on how the shape of these demos were dictated by police tactics. The Metropolitan Police were taking a soft approach at the time, after being condemned in the media for killing bystander Ian Tomlinson in a G20 demonstration in summer 2009. This meant that the police relied on the less violent tactic of kettling – trying to surround and immobilise crowds for hours in the cold, rather than attacking and dispersing with clubs and horses. This gave us an easy time of it: you just had to learn to spot when the kettles were forming, and outrun the cops. But it also meant that there was little real confrontation. In the end, these demos started to look like a children’s chase game around central London more than a serious threat to public order.
The big demos played a role: they kept the ‘movement’ in the spotlight, brought thousands together on the streets, and gave people events to plan and think for. But the other stuff happening in between was maybe more important. Universities were occupied and turned into radical meeting places, schools were walked-out of, offices smashed, petrol stations shut down, town halls and shops ‘invaded’, mayors and politicians harrassed, members of the royal family poked with sticks through car windows, squatted social centres and ‘really free schools’ opened, evictions resisted … And there was all the ‘production’ of an active culture – of newspapers, blogs, websites, manifestos, solidarity statements, leaflets, stickers, posters, graffiti, films, gigs, talks, discussions, ideas, … Probably a lot more talk and plans than action, in the end, but let’s not complain. And all the encounters, new friendships and affinities, personal discoveries, that come when people get together and get excited and active.
We should also mention: just as shit was happening in London, we felt like part of something much bigger. We were watching the Arab spring. We were looking to Athens. Our hearts were with the anarchist comrades arrested in Chile.
The student movement finished on March 26 2011, the last of the active anti-cuts demos. A black bloc around 1000 strong – the biggest militant bloc seen in London in generations – broke off from the main trade union march for an afternoon window-smashing rampage in the West End central shopping district. It was a beautiful sight, a beautiful day. But the wildness failed to spread beyond the black bloc and infect the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators following the trade unions’ official route. And, the day before and that same morning, the students gave up the last three occupations of London universities. Instead of the new beginning we had hoped for, it was the end.
Looking back, it feels a bit like those months, for all the excitement and sense of possibility, were never quite real. Why did the student occupations, on the biggest day of all, just give up and walk away? Some – in the case of the UCL occupation – were frightened off by the universities threatening the named leaders with legal cases implying potentially big financial costs. Others, perhaps, just didn’t feel strongly enough to carry on through Easter holidays and exams. It’s hard not to feel like the students were only playing at rebellion, up for a bit of insurrectionary fun, so long as there were no real consequences. And it’s hard, sadly, not to feel much the same about the rest of us – squatters, anarchos, activists, weekend rebels – who tagged along with them for a few months. When things got real, where were we?
August 2011 Riots
They got real in August 2011. London, and much of England, burnt for four days and nights. The riots started in Tottenham, north London, after the police shooting of Mark Duggan. But Mark Duggan could have been any one of the young working class, and particularly black, people stopped, questioned, harassed, raided, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, killed by the state every day.
There were clearly some links between the student protests and the August riots. The most active people on the anti-cuts demos were not university students but working class teenagers from the estates, who were there in force. And for all the ultimate failure of those demos, they left a strong image: we can outrun and outfight the cops, and take the streets of London. That is inspiring, empowering, and it spreads. August took it many levels higher. The police completely lost control for several days. The streets really were ours.
And that’s not ‘political’? Of course, there was no real attempt to attack more obvious centres of elite power (and the state certainly had central London well defended, even as they let the suburbs burn), or to bring down the state for good and create some kind of London Commune. We’re very far from even dreaming of that, and those kinds of dreams don’t materialise from nowhere in four days. So anarchists took part in a popular rebellion, or didn’t, as individuals or affinity groups, alongside all the other rebels.
Should we have tried to ‘lead’ the rebellion in some particular direction? In any case we had no means or influence to do so. Could we have done more to mobilise and resist the massive state and media repression – e.g., with prisoner solidarity, legal support, safe houses and other support networks, and strong messages of rebellion? Yes, absolutely. Our failure to do this exposed the total weakness of our movements, a complete lack of infrastructure, of ability to mobilise quickly and effectively. What’s worse, we even had the spectacle of some groups claiming to speak for ‘anarchists’ publicly disavowing the riots.
Then the repression. Well over 1000 people in prison. Many held on ‘remand’ (prison before trial) for long periods, on the flimsiest of evidence. Emergency courts, automatic bail refusal, sentences of years for stealing a bottle of water or sending a joke message on facebook. Media witch hunts, the usual CCTV mugshot parades, films of police gangs raiding council estates, tabloid newspaper smear stories on the ‘evil’ rioting scum. All ‘public opinion’ lined up, from right to left – and even some of our supposed ‘comrades’ – to present a nation united in horror and condemnation. Police now owning the empty streets with complete impunity to stop, search, arrest anyone.
A new London police chief was brought in with a mission for ‘total policing’. We saw what that meant on the first big anti-cuts demo after the riots on 9 November. About 10,000 demonstrators were surrounded in a walking kettle by 4,000 cops, with 3 helicopters over head, horses and dogs in front and behind, with side-streets blocked off in advance by mobile steel walls.* Since then, not one demo in London has looked like it could slip out of control. Of course they can’t keep up that level of policing for every event, but our numbers have got smaller and smaller too, and our will has gone.
For the last few summers, there have been those amongst us whose hearts started to flutter a little again, dreaming that wild life might return to the streets of the capital. In 2012, would the corporate scandals and security lockdown of the Olympics strike some sparks? No. We had one tame demo of a few thousand, well controlled for the police by its Socialist stewards. In 2013, could people make anything happen with a week of action in central London at the time of the G8 summit? No. The police pre-emptive clampdown was more than match for the few hundred die-hards who bothered to turn up this time.
Some say that demos and big ‘street actions’ are pointless spectacles. These views become particularly strong in times like this, when we’re so obviously outmatched on the streets. Some say that the ‘real’ revolutionary activity is down ‘in the grassroots’, in everyday struggles in our workplaces, neighbourhoods, so-called communities. Others recommend we just carry out individual acts of attack alone or with close affinity groups.
Experience suggests that these different forms of action are not competitors. Quite the opposite, they go together. Big events on the street inspire us to act with daring and commitment individually, in small groups, and in our local areas. On the other hand, affinity groups and local networks are the basic structures that support and maintain big mobilisations. In the days of Millbank, we were more active in every way. We were doing night time raids and making local solidarity networks and reading and writing and discussing and living ideas at the same time as planning for demos. Our revolutionary energy is not a fixed resource, it grows and feeds in spirals, virtuous or vicious. Now, we’ve gone all quiet on pretty much every front.
So, what happened to our ‘movement’?
First, let’s not forget, there are those who fight. Recent months have seen some bold acts of sabotage in the west of England, such as the burning of a multi-million pound police firearms training centre. Other individuals and groups fight in other less spectacular ways. There is an ‘undergrowth’ of resistance even in the darkest times, with a thousand links and a thousand everyday acts of solidarity.
There are those who move away. There are plenty of places that are more exciting to live in than London, not to mention cheaper and with better weather.
And then there are those who’ve just gone quiet. Or, like many of us, just not quite as lively as we used to be.
The big question here is: what motivates us to fight? Sometimes, for some of us, rage is enough. Or just the very great desire not to take their shit any more, to hit them where it hurts for once. We have so much to be angry about, so much to fight against.
But it’s not always enough. Not for a lot of us. We don’t need just need something to fight against, we need something to fight for. Something to believe in.
Millbank gave us something to fight for, for a while. Not some grand plan for the revolution, but an experience of the joy and power of being alive and free, out of their control, on the streets and on the attack again. To make that feeling of freedom live and grow, at the time, was worth fighting and taking risks for.
But it didn’t last. The students went back to their degrees, their careers, their futures within the system. Others went back to our scenes, our lives, to business as usual. The temporary buzz of a few days taking the streets, beautiful as it was, was not enough. It didn’t build, it didn’t grow.
So this is where we are. What we need is a living, fighting culture. The belief that we can make a new world beyond this shit of the global capitalist city, create something new. And at the moment we don’t have that. We lost it. They stole it from us, over the last decades, the state socialists, the Thatcherites, and all the other crooks. Along with everything else, they even stole our dreams. So it’s like now we need to start from nothing. So let’s start.