London has seen more protests on its streets in the past six months than in the more than six years I have been living in the city.
Students marched in November 2010 over news that Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister, had U-turned on his pre-election pledge to scrap university tuition fees, and was now supporting (as part of his place in the coalition government) the move to raise fees from around £3000 per year up to £9000.
Protesters flooded the city centre, placards in hand, calling on the government to give them what they’d been promised. Unfortunately, it was the clashes, rather than the popular discontent, that made the headlines – windows of government buildings were smashed, a celebrity’s child swung from a union jack flag and a youth was sentenced to jail for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of a building and narrowly missing police below.
But the police came under fire too. They were criticised for their tactics in dealing with the protesters, which included kettling – holding large numbers of people in confined spaces and not allowing them to leave – and liberal baton use. In one incident police were filmed violently pulling a cerebral palsy sufferer from his wheelchair and dragging him across the pavement, while another student protester ended up in hospital fighting for his life with serious head injuries allegedly inflicted by police.
In December student anger segued into protests against UK businesses that don’t pay corporation tax in the UK because their ‘headquarters’ are based overseas. Stores including Topshop and Vodafone in the city’s main shopping strip, Oxford Street, were forced to close when they were overwhelmed by protesters.
The royals were even caught in the fray when the Rolls Royce in which they were travelling to the theatre turned down a street occupied by anti-cuts/anti-tax dodge protesters – the car was kicked, egged and Prince Charles’ wife Camilla even allegedly received a poke in the ribs with a stick through an open window.
Throughout the early months of 2011 people in the UK continued to express anger at their government, as did citizens around the world. Many, with much more serious issues than our own – such as dictatorial leaders – rose up, and in one case, toppled a regime.
In January, the people of Syria began protesting the 40-year-strong ‘emergency law’ government of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad. Simultaneously Egyptian citizens began a campaign of civil resistance against their leader and on February 11th President Hosni Mubarak resigned. Next came Bahrain, whose people began staging demonstrations aimed at achieving greater political freedom by ousting the ruling monarchy. At the same time Libyan anti-government protests called for the resignation of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; Gaddafi has so far refused to yield, and currently UN forces are attacking Gaddafi military posts to prevent the dictator killing the countrymen that oppose him.
The power of, and results possible through, peaceful protest reported from around the world seemed to galvanise the UK public in such a way that an all-encompassing demonstration which took place this past weekend (March 26th) in London attracted half a million people.
The ‘March for the Alternative’, organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), aimed to show the country’s solidarity against coalition government public sector cuts and the risk therein to jobs, growth and justice, to student fee increases and governmental blind-eye-turning on the paying of UK corporation tax, and anything else that plagued the hearts and minds of the ordinary wo/man.
It was billed as the biggest union-organised event for a generation and pitched to attract people from all walks of life – from pensioners to families, doctors, nurses and students, those wishing to show solidarity with North African and Middle Eastern freedom fighters, from first-timers to anarchists – and all parts of the country (buses and trains were chartered especially).
In an effort to keep things peaceful and professional, organisers drafted in stewards to show protesters where to go and how to go about it, and police were briefed in advance on best, safest and most protester-friendly practice.
An estimated 500,000 people turned out, and while a minority faction did cause damage and clash with police (some windows were broken, graffiti was daubed, about 200 arrests were made, about 85 injuries reported), the general consensus from organisers, the (rational) media, and those who attended, was that it was a peaceful, positive and successful event.
Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC said: “Together we are sending a clear message to the government: that we are strong and united, that we will fight their savage cuts and that we will not let them destroy people’s services, people’s jobs and people’s lives.
“Young and old, black and white, men and women, we come from every walk of life and every part of Britain.
“Let our message go out loud and clear. This is just the beginning of our campaign – and we will fight the government’s brutal cuts in our workplaces and our communities. We are speaking for the people of Britain. David Cameron, if you want to meet the Big Society, we’re here.”
As Patti Smith once sang, and recent examples around the world have shown, people have the power. What remains to be seen is whether the British government – elected by the people to serve the people – will acknowledge that.
Pictures by Alex Sterling and the TUC