About 48 hours before writing this, I was being dragged away from a line of peaceful protesters, having been torn from their ranks by riot[ing] police. Totally anonymous under their helmets, about half of them in balaclavas, all with their numbers covered up. And yet they dare to question why so many anarchists would want to hide their faces! You’ll probably have already seen several news reports about all of this already, and maybe even read a few personal accounts. This is mine.
At 12:30 pm on Wednesday, Climate Camp in the City was set up peacefully and surprisingly easily (that is to say, with little if any resistance from police) when a few thousand people ’swooped’ in from various directions onto Bishopsgate in London, in front of the European Climate Exchange. We were trying to make the link between economic systems and environmental destruction — that the same people and structures that caused the financial collapse had also caused the catastrophic increase in the average global temperature. The idea was to give a glimpse of an alternative sort of world, so between our banners and barricades we set up a small tent city and had a street party in it, complete with bicycle-powered sound system and composting toilets.
While other protests — specifically those at the Bank of England — were deliberately aggressive affairs, the Climate Camp was entirely peaceful. (Though, on a sidenote: no matter what the papers are saying, “violent” masked anarchists did not infiltrate the Bank of England demonstration or the Climate Camp — they organised them. You can’t ‘infiltrate’ your own demonstration!) Yet the police reaction to the wholly peaceful Climate Camp was the same as to the more destructive demonstrations at the banks.
At around 7 pm, police in riot gear showed up to try to clear away the camp. I didn’t see their initial approach, as I’d been reading in my tent at the time (hippie or not, there’s only so much of samba drum circles I can tolerate at once), but I heard the call for reinforcement and went running for the southern blockade. The cops were shoving into the crowd with their riot shields; in response, we held our ground as best we could while holding our hands in the air, shouting “peaceful protest!” and “this is not a riot!” They continued to shove. I moved forward and forward, filling the gaps, until I was right up against the line of cops. One or two of the protesters around me punched into the riot shields (the shields, not the police themselves), after which the police started punching into the crowd. One punched a man beside me in the face, knocking his head back into my own face and giving me a black eye. Apparently in other parts of the camp at this time, they were batoning people in the stomach, but I didn’t see that where I was. What I did see was a frightening-looking metal battering ram, glinting behind the wall of shields. Then someone behind me caught my eye, and with a little relief I let him take my place against the wall of shields, falling back out of immediate danger. Seconds later, we sat down, and the police stopped beating on us. For the next five hours there was an increasingly tense standoff.
It wasn’t too bad at first. We maintained a human barricade at either end of the camp, sitting down in front of the police lines to protect the space. At my end, at least, it was almost jovial. We recited poetry and sang songs — pop songs, showtunes, disney songs — and maintained a visual sort of banter with some of our comerades who’d climed onto a rooftop just outside of the police barricade. They’d set up a plywood wall that made their setup look like a stage, so when the police spotlight was on them they did comical dances to the strip-tease music, and when the police showed up on the roof we shouted “They’re behind you!” as though at a pantomime. I never found out what happened to the roof-sitters, though, since before they were cleared away the police had moved our line back out of sight of them.
This happened at two intervals, both supposedly to condense the camp into a more defensible space, since police numbers seemed to be continually mounting and those in the centre were getting more and more scared. I didn’t quite understand the rationale at the time, and in hindsight I still don’t, but that was what was given and, although gestures were made at making it a ‘consensus’ from the whole camp, in the end I suspect it was simply that (tactically incompetant) decisions were being made by frightened people in the centre. But twice decisions were made, and twice we on the southern blockade agreed to stand up and move back.
With each move, tensions between the protesters and the police mounted, and the police became increasingly impatient and violent. They prodded the backs of our heads with their knees and riot shields, shouting at us to get up and move from the moment each retreat decision was made. The first retreat was carried out fairly calmly, but in the second, police shoved protesters hard with their riot shields, shouting and forcing us to move faster and ignoring us when we said that doing so would cause us to trip on the debris being hurriedly gathered by litter-picking protesters behind us. Ignoring, too, our pleas that they not shove us forward when to do so would cause us to trample someone who was already lying on the ground below us; that particular stand-off ended with a whole clump of protesters, held together by our linked arms, being pushed down on top of her. Still, we sat down again, but this time the police would not allow another period of tense stalemate. They shouted that they were armed; they punched some of those seated until they bled; they held their gloved hands over the faces of others and shouted “what would it take to get you to move!” Then they started ripping people away, pulling individuals until they broke the chain of linked arms, then dragging us off one by one.
I was one of the first ones dragged away from the line, so I didn’t see much of the carnage that followed. (I wasn’t arrested; I was manhandled over to a side street and told that I would be arrested if I dared to return.) I understand that it was pretty brutal. When we met up afterwards, H. showed me where his clothes had been cut open — he’d been knocked out by a riot shield, totally unprovoked, and had to be revived by police medics. Another friend, I’m told, was actually pinned to the ground by riot shields and then kicked by police officers.
Still, the thing that sticks in my mind the most, and most sickeningly, was not actually their violence towards the protesters. Rather, it was the totally wanton, riotous destruction of property by those supposedly there to “keep order” and protect [rich bankers’] private property. Specifically, at one point when the cops broke our line, I saw them surge towards the stereo-bike. Four or five of them leapt onto it, arms flailing, tearing into it like crazed animals. Tearing it limb from limb.
It was the sheer hysteria of it that bothers, me, I suppose, and the wantonness; but also the hypocrisy. This sort of rabid destruction from those who had so violently opposed the more-or-less premeditated destruction of bank property earlier in the day. These are the attack dogs of the state, a neoliberal state which values private property above all else. But when it came to the possessions of the protesters, this seemed to be of no concern. Those who were kettled out from the beginning, or who were dragged away, like me, were not allowed to return to collect our belongings. Fortunately for me (and for L. and M., who got locked out), we had friends who’d been nearer the centre who could gather up most of our stuff for us, towards the end when the police stopped dragging people away and most of those remaining had fled. Everyone else’s tents, bags, sleeping bags, etc., were apparently simply cleared away and skipped.
All this was allegedly to prevent ‘obstruction of the highway’. More plausibly, to intimidate us — the marches the next day were noticably less well-attended than predicted, probably because so many people were at home nursing their wounds. But they were still attended – they still took place. Then today (or, by now, yesterday), there were simultaneous protests against RBS at their headquarters in London and at their AGM in Edinburgh. They can intimidate us all they like, but they can’t stop us.