Eyewitness: On the frontline with anarchist demonstrators

An HSBC branch comes under attack from anarchists
An HSBC branch comes under attack from anarchists

Anarchists used an intrinsically chaotic system to stay one step ahead of the police. But they picked a poor day to do it.

By Ian Dunt

Maybe I'm getting old.

I used to enjoy a good riot. Once upon a time the police used to pick on peaceful demonstrators and the media's response was always fawning and uncritical. It was easy to take an indignant approach to these things. The reality and the media narrative were so far apart, and the actions of the police so needlessly mean-spirited, that it was easy to know where you stood. The G20 riots, when Ian Tomlinson was killed, marked a turning point. We've seen genuine improvements in police behaviour since then.

Miraculously, I type this from a cafe just off Piccadilly which has stayed open. They're plainly suicidal. Outside the window, police and protestors are having pitched battles in the streets. I was out there a moment ago, and in a moment I'll be there again. It's tremendously unappetising.

Try as I might I can't really fault what police have done today. They invited Liberty to watch over their command and street-level operation. They have used, from what I've seen, a minimum of force. They've protected property, but not lashed out. They did, however, kettle protestors. I'm a priori opposed to kettling. I'm opposed to it regardless of circumstance. It exacerbates rather than calms, it infringes human rights and it's one of those tools you can't trust the police to use responsibly. But today of all days its use was most justified. Not to say I agree with it - just that this was not knee-jerk use, in my opinion.

When I eventually found the black bloc in Oxford Street it was probably the biggest mass of them I've seen since the big anti-globalisation protests in the late 90s. September 11th somewhat took the wind from the sails of that movement, but the new politics of austerity has injected it with a renewed focus. Black bloc is a tactic, not an organisation. It is the loosely-knit groups of black-clad men and women with bandanas and ski masks over their face. They work according to operational anarchist principles, splitting off from other groups at the drop of a hat and reforming elsewhere. Their red and black anarcho-communist flags act in the same manner as a tour guide's stick, signalling to other groups to follow them.

The police were completely unable to deal with them today. For two hours, they ruled Soho and its beautiful, decrepit alleyways. Any corporate shop was ruined - even, absurdly, Ann Summers. Police would stand helpless, outnumbered, as they smashed windows and billboards. They nearly had them outside the HSBC in Cambridge Circus, as they threw rocks through its windows. But before the police could get reinforcements in, they had already split into three groups: one trashing a police van and setting off smoke bombs, another heading off back towards Tottenham Court Road and a third pushing down towards Piccadilly. On the pavement, a group of Chinese tourists gazed in amazement while a gaggle of young girls with 'hen night' written on their shirts in lipstick looked appalled.

As I followed one gang around the West End - constantly worried that they'd mistake me for an undercover policeman and set on me - one phrase came from them more than any other: 'black bloc keep moving'. The way they spoke to the group as an individual reminded me of the hive mind, and Hegel, and the way that belonging can provide its own momentum.

The anarchy of a leaderless movement is simply impossible for the police to control. Grip one area and it all comes squeezing out in another. But the drawback, of course, is that you rarely have enough people for each action. So they were reduced to doing minimal damage and moving on.

It wasn't until the occupation of Fortnum and Masons in the late afternoon that enough people congregated to turn it into something approaching a traditional riot. A steady stream of nimble protestors had managed to climb its (horrible gaudy) lamplights and onto the roof. Others broke through the front and soon enough it was under anarchist control. A few of the people on the roof, lost in the moment, were foolish enough to prance around without masks. They'll regret that when police start reviewing the CCTV footage next week. Fortnums is a big enough prize that it became the centre of gravity, with hundreds, probably thousands, congregating outside. Eventually they started pushing against the police line.

As the fighting broke out, there was scattered debate among the protestors. One girl shouted at another for throwing beer at the police, who were by now being pelted with anything that was to hand. "They're just like us, they have families and they're being screwed by the government too." Most of her fellow demonstrators sneered at her. "They're the class enemy," said one man, who looked like he'd been at way too many protests for too many decades.

I can honestly say I felt about as sorry for the police as I ever have. They didn't look happy about being reduced to defending a posh and overpriced sandwich shop. They remained startling good-humoured, even while waves of people crammed against them and there was comparatively little violence. It's easy to be nice when you're outnumbered and scared of course, but this was still significantly better behaviour from the police than we ever saw before the Tomlinson nightmare. There was something in the way that many protestors talked about them - that angry, group-mentality abuse - that showed how the distance between 'protest' and 'mob' grows smaller.

There are people who believe that once a window is smashed no genuine political point can emerge from its remains. I don't agree with that. But today's action was problematic, to say the least. The campaign against spending cuts needed to symbolise its mass support. It needed images of families marching together. This was the day for that. The effect of the violence will be to discourage others from protesting, if they think anything like this can happen near their kids.

The media debate over cuts is at the point where broadcasters and broadsheets were prepared to give today over to the TUC rally. Previously, they would have ignored the march unless there was violence. My hunch is that today's march would have got solid coverage because of the numbers and the state of the narrative. Smashed windows just ruined that.

People are angry because they understand the fundamental injustice of the coalition's programme. They understand that the private sector is not the panacea, either economically or politically, that the government pretends it is. Nothing that happened today makes that case any stronger.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.