May Day UK: media-staged, police-controlled, damp squib

The only thing missing was the protest.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Despite their opprobrium, I imagine many in the media felt a sense of relief about the ‘minor skirmishes’ that ended May Day in London; they gave an edge of drama to a day that was basically a non-event.

The media spent the whole day watching protesters; 6000 police spent the whole day policing protesters – and the protesters didn’t have a clue what they were doing there.

The day was epitomised by the 30 teenagers who took Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. They stood there, on their stage, bashfully looking at each other; and a crowd of 200 stood below, waiting for something. The teenagers carried a sign saying ‘Abolish capitalism, before it kills the planet’. It reminded me of a performance of John Cage’s 4.33; silence when everybody expected music. The braver teenagers shouted ‘Come on’, urging others to join them – when they did, everybody cheered. One girl rushed down off the plinth to join her non-exhibitionist friends – ‘It’s so embarrassing!’.

It was, in the words of one photographer, a ‘damp squib. The revolution’s been called off’. As he flicked through the day’s photos, there was one of double yellow lines, a symbol of his boredom. What kind of photos do you want? ‘Anything, anything. Nothing is happening – everybody is just standing around, saying “waddya wanna do?”‘. Another photographer recounted an early morning gathering in Parliament Square: ‘There were 50 journalists, and three protesters. We could have had ’em, never mind the Met.’

When nobody has any ideas, idiots move centre-stage, just because they are prepared to do something eye-catching. In Trafalgar Square a man dressed up as Father Christmas carried a faded sign about making peace. He was obviously a Christian loon who normally harasses Saturday afternoon shoppers. Yet in the vacuum of May Day, everybody took him very seriously. A reporter asked him for a quote. But why, when he’s clearly mad? ‘Because he is staging a peaceful protest in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if he’s mad.’ Unfortunately, the reporter had left by the time the Christian loon began waving a half-full bag of Tesco value bread around his head.

In the gathering outside Oxford Circus, the two centres of attention were a girl with pink hair and wings on stilts, carrying a sign saying ‘love, respect and share the world’, and a guy with a huge peroxide mohican, and the word ‘scumbag’ scrawled on his ripped t-shirt. The girl was, she explained, Venus, the goddess of love: she called out to the police – ‘Can’t you feel love, reach into your hearts and feel love, then, whatever you do, do it with love’. The cops faced her, stony-faced. ‘It’ll be okay now’, she reassured us, ‘there won’t be any violence’. But surely, if the police are given orders to charge, they will charge. ‘Yes, but they could charge nicely.’ With love, presumably.

The guy with the mohican bounced up and down on the fence, shouting ‘Go on, son!’ at the crowd. He and Venus had a brief fluffy-spikey reunion, holding hands and swaying through their sing-song.

This was pure spectacle. Anything eye-catching or theatrical drew people towards it, and caused the clicks of a hundred cameras. Everybody seemed to have cameras. The police filmed the protesters, the protesters filmed the police, and the media filmed the protesters and the police.

But protesters with ideas tended to be even worse than these harmless exhibitionists. At the ‘Feed the Pigeons’ demonstration in Trafalgar Square, protesters defended with passion the rights of vermin. ‘People say pigeons shit, but humans shit more…they say pigeons spread disease, but humans spread more disease.’ This is no basis to bring people together in protest: Unite! Humans are shitter than pigeons. The ‘I feed pigeons’ – ‘so do I…’ exchanges were hardly inspirational, and soon ran out of steam.

Despite the feebleness of protesters, the 6000 police officers were determined to get and keep control, and they seemed confident that, unimpeded by the obstructions of civil rights, they could do exactly what they wanted. The awkward youths on Nelson’s column were replaced by groups of yellow-jacketed policemen at each of the four corners. Why? The young people weren’t doing much. ‘Public Order Act. If a demonstration represents a threat we can close it down.’ But it wasn’t a threat. ‘If we decide it is a threat, it is.’

When police at Leicester Square tube station saw my printed itinerary, which I had unprofessionally dropped, a big boot came down on top of it. ‘It’s illegal to have those.’ Yes – it is illegal to have leaflets, if they decide it is.

By most accounts, there were far more police than protesters. When a group of protesters moved on to Oxford Circus for the ‘finale’, police moved in in their hundreds. Lines of riot police, vans and horses, separated groups of protesters from each other, and kept them ‘corralled and contained’ for hours. To the cheers of many of the papers the next morning, the police won the day.

In Oxford Street, crowds were treated to the strange sight of a man in a black linen cloth (and nothing else) who struggled painfully up a lamp post. He straddled it, and looked down on the crowds. ‘Human’ was scrawled across his chest in black ink. He addressed us – ‘I am a human being’. He looked around at all the other human beings surrounding him, human beings divided by 10 riot vans and hundreds of police. ‘Ladies and gentlemen – look at all this fucking power. If we just stick together.…’

People walked past, not seeming to notice the poignancy of this one-man protest. They took photos – ‘good photo-op’; ‘he’ll be in all the papers tomorrow’; ‘get his 15 minutes of fame’.

But this strange naked figure clinging to a lamp post brought something to light. Here we were, thousands of people, protesting, yet there was nothing that joined me, my desires, my aims, with the next person’s.

We were all individuals, but when we came together it was not as a powerful force, organising around our aims and desires, so that together we could achieve more than each could on his own. We came together awkwardly – looking around, not knowing what to do, almost embarrassed by each other’s presence. We become more stupid than we would be on our own – we got drawn by anybody wearing a costume or anybody who shouted something, no matter how idiotic. People listened to a mad old man they would normally walk past without a second thought.

And we quite plainly did not have the power. The day was controlled, from beginning to end, by those 6000 boys from the Met. For hours they guarded Nelson’s plinth from 18-year olds, who, after seizing this public space, had not the faintest clue what to do with it.

What was May Day 2001 about? A confused group of people being marshalled around London by the state, watched by thousands of cameras. In the end it was depressing, and the rain just made it worse. People looked miserable – their face paint ran, their costumes got bedraggled. They just wanted to go home. The main violent episodes were people trying to break police lines and get out of the protest.

If we are going to protest, and have it mean something, we had better get some ideas. And not degraded ideas – like protecting the right of pigeons to shit in Trafalgar Square – but human-centred, forward-looking ideas, that are worth fighting for.


Read on:


Direct action and dire ideas, by Mick Hume


May Day in cyberspace, by Josie Appleton


spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

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