WOMBLES wandering free

...but what were they doing there? Josie Appleton reports from the hotbed of inactivity at London's May Day protests.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The most important thing about May Day is the anticipation.

We have been warned for weeks of the huge crowds that would descend upon London; the ‘hard core’ of protesters who would be ‘intent on violence’. More than 5000 police were on the streets to try to control this showdown; shops throughout London were boarded up; City professionals went to work in casual clothes so as not to stand out.

May Day itself never quite happened. Crowds gathered somewhere around Mayfair – the most expensive square on the Monopoly board – and wandered around in circles. Demonstrators carried cameras, many wore homemade costumes and carried flags about anything from love to fair trade. Others wore padding and facemasks, looking suspiciously like the ‘hard core’ of protesters that the police have warned us about.

The crowd was composed of professional protesters and their spectators – all of whom were there just to be there. Groups like the anti-globalisation organisation, White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles (WOMBLES), have made protesting into a science: they construct body armour out of padding, wear helmets and trademark white suits bearing trademark symbols. Many of them are trained in techniques for demonstrating and resisting arrest. If it weren’t for demonstrations like May Day groups like the WOMBLES would cease to exist – they live to protest.

Their main goal on May Day 2002 was to avoid getting corralled by the police in the humiliating manner of last year (when many protesters were trapped in the rain in Oxford Street until they begged to be allowed home). May Day websites called on protesters to split up and carry on moving around as much as possible.

So we all walked around Mayfair in circles. ‘There’re trying to wear us down’, moaned a policeman, as the group of about a thousand people walked this way, then that (‘now they are turning around again!’, one onlooker cried).

‘We’re just wandering’, a wanderer told me. ‘Just find your own group, go off on your own.’ There were clumps of people in threes and fours, picking out their own meandering route through streets with boarded-up shopfronts. I kept trying to head for the helicopter, because if you were under the helicopter that felt like the epicentre of things – but there didn’t seem to be much more happening there, either.

There are other professional protesters with more personal, idiosyncratic ways of doing things. One pair of students had filled two Safeway shopping trolleys with boxes wrapped in paper and scrawled with the invitations of consumption: ‘consume’, ‘you need more things’, ‘genetically modified…cancer-causing…tasteless shit!’.

Venus, the goddess of love who I met at last year’s May Day protest, was there again this year – with her bright pink wig and her heart-shaped banners calling for us to love one another. She has become a real protesting personality: anti-globalisation figurehead Noreena Hertz mentioned her in a speech at the London School of Economics about the cause of anti-globalisation; I heard Venus give a speech at an anti-war demo outside Downing Street (mainly about making love not war). And now she has followers – the ‘love posse’, who were cycling around Trafalgar Square in identical bright pink wigs.

Most of the protesters couldn’t really say what they were protesting against. Sure, they know the terms (anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation), but they don’t know what they mean. A young New Zealander shrugged: ‘Oh, just anti-capitalism, stuff like that.’ Another student, wrapped in her homemade banner, chirped cheerily: ‘We just don’t agree with the way the world is being run – we think the war is bad, globalisation is bad.’ Others were defensive. ‘Do I have to have a reason?’, one young man in fake dreadlocks and on rollerblades demanded.

Along with the professional protesters come the protester-spectators. Some people couldn’t say for certain if they were on the demo or not. ‘I’m half here, half not’, said one. ‘I’m here to take photos – and to make up the numbers’, a community development worker told me. These spectator-protesters are the walk-on parts in the vast political theatre that has become May Day – the ones who are unable to believe fully in their acting parts, and so they are half in, half out of the play.

Then there are the true spectators. Along Park Lane rows of builders peered over the boards in front of windows, bemused and incredulous at the gaggle of people walking past. Shop workers stared out through the glass – I’m not sure whether it was them or us who was in the zoo. A couple of Spanish tourists had only managed one stop on their sightseeing bus before they got booted out at Hyde Park (and most of that was spent trailing a convoy of police vans). ‘I don’t like them’, said the Spanish woman, gesturing at the protesters and rolling her eyes.

Compared to this confusion and theatre, the May Day march that began in Clerkenwell Green, base of radical leaders of the past, looked a lot more focused and political. For a start, they marched in a pretty much straight line to Trafalgar Square, where a rally had been organised. And people carried custom-made banners about the war in Afghanistan, privatisation, Palestine, and smashing capitalism. But the two groups of demonstrators were not so dissimilar.

These Clerkenwell Green demonstrators were mainly composed of trade unions and the Socialist Workers’ Party (with its satellite organisations like Globalise Resistance, the Anti-Nazi League and the Campaign for Palestinian Rights). According to one Socialist Worker, they were protesting against ‘Fascism in France, the war in Afghanistan, privatisation, the Israeli occupation…all of those’. ‘Whatever you want, we’ve got it on this demonstration’, he added, as if he was advertising a range of consumer goods.

What do all these campaigns have in common? ‘They are all part of the same thing – against capitalism’, one demonstrator told me. ‘There is a recognition that the system creates the oppression that leads to Le Pen, Jenin and Afghanistan’, said another. Anything from the war on terrorism to Israeli attacks on Palestinians, from the election success of France’s National Front to the privatisation of the National Health Service, are being laid at the door of corporate capitalism.

‘The existence of Israel is for oil’, said Wael Fateen, an Egyptian who sheepishly admitted to being a financial journalist. ‘The war in Afghanistan is about oil, too – militarism was what they wanted, now [after 11 September] they have an excuse.’ Whatever issue you look at, said Wael, you have to keep asking ‘why?’, and eventually you end up with only one answer: ‘you have to face capitalism.’

This is a kind of join-up-the-dots view of the world, where every issue is seen as the workings out of some absolute power – a corporate/capitalist/military monolith. But you can’t build much of a positive political movement on the basis of opposing a conspiracy of dark, evil men-in-suits. After all, if the world and everything in it is controlled by hidden, all-powerful forces, with governments, armies and company directors in their pay, there isn’t much chance of standing up to them and changing things for the better.

That’s why the May Day protests look like an expression of powerlessness – a collective complaint of being bullied by big bad corporate interests, rather than a movement that stands for something.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

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

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today