London protest against the cuts: a momentous time for mobilization

by Andrea Gibbons

It’s a momentous time to live in the UK, is it not? We face an all-out war against the welfare state and the poor, but hundreds of thousands of people marched on Saturday to stop the government cuts. It was massive and brilliant and beautiful, and just the beginning of what is to come.

We also had the world’s best, most anatomically correct Trojan horse, labelled hilariously as the ‘TUC armed wing’; 26 March 2011 London protests against the cuts.

We also had the world’s best, most anatomically correct Trojan horse, labelled hilariously as the ‘TUC armed wing’; 26 March 2011 London protests against the cuts.

After moving to London to do my PhD, I hadn’t realized just how much I missed being anchored in community struggle the way I always was when I was an organizer and researcher at SAJE. It was like finding family when I found Lambeth Save Our Services: an umbrella organization of unions, community groups and residents working against the cuts. There are more theories, opinions and ideas in that meeting room than any classroom, and it always spills out in radical fervour afterwards; little else could hold me in a pub until 3 am quite so regularly. It is the fact that we are all working together that keeps these brilliant, though often fractious conversations and relationships going. The fact that we are all working together also makes possible the dialectic of theory and practice.

Working together isn’t always easy of course. We called for a South London feeder march together with Southwark SOS, and Lewisham Anticuts Alliance; it was supported by BARAC, Colacor, South London union branches, pensioners, teachers, No Cuts for Kids and more, who I apologise to for not listing because there were too many for me track. The TUC disowned the feeder marches of course, and there was some last minute wrangling over route. Some democratic process questions definitely need to be addressed in the next meeting or two, but none of that mattered in the end because the march itself was stunning. It shut down the street and took Westminster Bridge. The police estimated we had over 5,000 people so you know there were more.

Some brilliant and gifted people had changed the billboards en route; this is one that they transformed into a giant bust card:

Crossing the bridge we could see the hundreds of thousands of people already on route to Hyde Park:

I found myself with COLACOR (Latin American Colation Against the Cuts) for much of the way. At the other end of my banner was a compañero from the Latin American Workers’ Association, and originator of my favourite chant of the day: Esto no es marcha, esto es protesta, carajo! (roughly “this is not a march, it is a protest damn it”). My friend Paris took this shot from a low wall just as we merged into the main march after crossing the bridge:

And we happily merged alongside a full brass band:

There was in fact too much life and colour and brilliance to photograph really, especially given the press of people and the need to keep moving. I remember the fire brigade from the Isle of Wight with their big drum standing on a traffic island and waving, and a handful of massive guys wearing Robin Hood hats. I saw banner after banner from all over the UK, each more beautifully decorated than the last and I confess, we’ve got nothing to touch them in the States. This is one of my favourite shots of the day:

I know the official estimates on numbers but don’t really believe them; this is what Picadilly looked like around maybe 3:30 pm (the march started at 12):

After a short rest in Hyde Park (where we succeeded in not hearing a single Labour speech) we continued on to meet up with the Bakerloo branch of the RMT in the pub (what better way to end a march than pints with the RMT?). We passed the marchers continuing to pour in, among them, somewhere, my colleagues from LSE, UCL and UCU. The march was so big we never managed to meet up with the Education Bloc as I’d hoped. It must have been around 5pm when I took this picture, and people are still arriving:

I made it up to Oxford Street as well of course, getting there just too late for UK Uncut‘s action against Topshop sadly, though I enjoyed the aftermath:

I found all of Central London an amazing and very surreal place, almost empty but for a handful of confused shoppers, protesters, and riot police. Given tens of thousands of job cuts, with more being announced every day, it was good to see that it was not business as usual.

I left too early for the occupation of Fortnum and Masons. There’s been a lot of rubbish written about that already I’m afraid, but here is the footage that shows the police telling protesters they’d be peacefully allowed to leave before arresting them, and more from inside the protest. For (ironic) laughs and perspective here’s a great off-the-cuff pie chart from David Vannen showing the reality behind the press claims about the arrests of ‘violent offenders’:

An even better perspective is the quote from Boris Johnson’s autobiography on his Bullingdon Club days: “We got drunk, trashed the Ritz & then went down Piccadilly to loot a few items from Fortnums”. Or so says twitter.

I did see the Starbucks get completely smashed up on Picadilly, heard about the banks and the hotels. The reactions to ‘The Violence’ have been varied, and horribly played up and channeled into the absurd binary of ‘for or against’ by the media. I hesitate in mentioning it at all as I can’t quite decide whether it deserves much more attention (of the thoughtful kind), or no attention at all.

…the violence really at issue here is that of the government against the people.

I personally think the violence really at issue here is that of the government against the people. It’s in every job cut and every service lost, and the job cuts run into the tens of thousands. For those of us with personal experience of the immense pain that comes from lay offs and the destruction they can cause to people’s sense of self, their families, and their communities… there is no way to stand by and do nothing. And the loss of community and the quality of our everyday lives represented by the closing of libraries, day centres for the elderly, playgrounds, after-school clubs? Dismantling the welfare state is nothing if not intensely violent.

I don’t rate marches much in the big scheme of actual and concrete change, not until they get to the size we have been seeing in Tahrir Square. London didn’t quite pull that off, but the local anticuts groups in London and around the country had been doing amazing work, and definitely played a part in Saturday’s success.

In Lambeth, of course, we occupied our town hall in February, and it was brilliant. Ruth was elected to preside over the voting in the People’s Assembly that we convened after our Labour council had fled the chamber, and we voted down a budget that will destroy everything we have fought to build since World War II.

My report written the next day was one of my absolute favourite pieces and entirely joyful, especially since we ran into half of the council out getting drunk in the Brixton Bar and Grill much much later that same evening. It’s on the Lambeth Save Our Services website.

The Haringey Alliance for Public Services occupied their town hall within the next few days, and it was attempted in other places. In fact there has been a rash of occupations both in the Universities and in the community, though the crack down has begun (find out more about what you can do to support the UCL 13 currently in proceedings here). The London borough groups have started meeting en masse to plan larger actions, and Lambeth SOS? We will be there fighting every cut as it happens, every community struggle as it unfolds (the Justice for Smiley Culture campaign is an incredibly important one), and supporting each and every one of the industrial actions that will be coming thick and fast. This march was a show of strength and a source of inspiration, and we are ready to take it forward.

Will it be enough to win? I don’t know. I don’t really run on hope, and certainly believe in collectively creating as clear and as informed an assessment as possible of what we face and our options in overcoming it. That’s definitely not a hopeful picture in the current political and environmental climate. I find though, that in the midst of struggle you can’t help but set cynicism aside, as it gets you nowhere. In putting theory into action I don’t think you find hope exactly, rather you find the will to fight, and you find strength in fighting together.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next few months.

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