RTS, Festival of Resistance, April 97
The TWO DAY FESTIVAL OF RESISTANCE had been called by ‘Reclaim the Streets’ to coincide with the ‘March for Social Justice’, which in turn had been called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers along with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers.
Friday 11th April 1997
20,000 copies of a newspaper called ‘Evading Standards’ (a spoof of the ‘Evening Standard’) were to be handed out free at tube stations across London during the evening rush hour. With the headline “General Election Cancelled”, the paper contained alternative views on the party political system and the vested interests and influence of big business. It also contained information on DIY politics and the weekend’s coming events. However, all 20,000 copies were confiscated by the police before being distributed and three people ludicrously arrested for ‘incitement to affray’ and ‘incitement to obstruct the public highway’. These people were released about five hours later but bailed to reappear on Saturday at 12:30pm. [interestingly the exact start time of the march & rally]
When they attended the police station the following day, they were held until 6pm (when the march and the street party had all but finished) and additional charges were made. The new charges were for copyright theft of the ‘Evening Standard’ logo (a drawing of the statue of Eros) and the logo of the Metropolitan Police. Despite the papers being confiscated, there are a [very] few copies in circulation and the full paper is available on the Internet, see: http://www.mcspotlight.org/beyond/evading/
It is hoped that there will be a new print run but funds are required.
Saturday 12th April 1997
Approx 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. There was a wonderful, joyous atmosphere throughout the march – which brought together a wide range of trade unionists, ravers, left-wing parties, reclaim the streets people, anarchists and thousands of others. There were hundreds of colourful and imaginative protest banners and flags, and much drumming, whistles and chants. The march started at Kennington Park, and wound its way in bright sunshine over Lambeth Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall to Trafalgar Square where there was a rally. All through the march people handed out many different leaflets on upcoming events and protests, and alternative views (especially about the irrelevance of parliamentary politics, and about real change being made by people getting organised and trying to reclaim our lives, our streets and environment from those in power).
There must have been several thousand police officers on duty in the area. The riot cops were generally kept out of view of the general public and march itself. Even the Houses of Parliament were guarded by ordinary uniformed police only. However, there were riot police hidden in the building and backstreets and they were to be seen in force by the party-goers later.
The route was well covered by cameras, especially Downing Street (where the Prime Minister resides) which had a camera on a crane overlooking the gates. Downing Street had riot cops and mounted police opposite. There was the predictable anger at the gates and after most of the march had passed the police reacted, giving the media just what they wanted – violence and riot.
Apparently, someone managed to get into the Foreign Office and was seen throwing papers out of an open window. Further up the road a crowd gathered outside a McDonald’s store to protest against the company. The management locked the doors and a window was broken.
The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big (maybe 20,000 at peak) but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square. In the process of getting through the police lines, the van apparently knocked over a police motorbike. People flocked round the van which parked outside of the National Gallery (Britain’s most prestigious public art gallery). The tarpaulins on the side of the van were lifted to reveal the soundsystem behind. The music and the huge street party then began. The McSpotlight banner was quickly attached to the van, treating the entire 10,000 strong crowd to the McSpotlight URL. The dancing went on for hours.
Many other banners were erected around the square, including one in front of the National Gallery which read “Never mind the ballots…Reclaim the Streets” and one on the top of Canada House saying “Reclaim your Environment”. Also, the Canadian flag on the embassy was replaced by a colourful RTS flag. Climbers took a ‘Support The Dockers’ banner up Nelson’s Column itself and it was still there on Sunday evening.
A painted slogan across the road read “END THE CARNAGE”. The ‘N’ of ‘CARNAGE’ was not completely painted in, so it also read: “END THE CAR AGE”.
A second sound system was stopped around the corner and never made it into the square. Many people who didn’t attend the march and turned up for the party were also prevented from entering. As soon as the march had reached the square, the police blockaded the roads leading into the square and closed the underground station, letting people out, but not in (after lying to many people that they could get back in).
Having a street party in Trafalgar Square was not the first plan of Reclaim the Streets. The intended target of Plan A had been the [partially empty] offices of the Department of the Environment. The plan had been for a section of the march to make a diversion and occupy the offices for the entire weekend. But the DoE offices (and the road leading to it) were protected by armed police!
Plan B – Trafalgar Square – was a great venue. Lovely sunshine, good vibe. The police were obviously powerless to prevent the 6-hour long occupation of the square and surrounding streets – but tried to spoil the atmosphere. As the numbers reduced the police lines advanced slowly throughout the day. There were some minor physical confrontations over this. The ITN and BBC film crews hardly bothered to remove their equipment from their bags until the police riot at the end of the day. Hardly any footage was taken of the street party, even though it was an unusually powerful show of what demonstrations can become.
When the sound system left the square the main mass of the party followed the RTS flags to the squatted venue for the all night party. However, when the numbers had reduced enough, the riot police rioted. Mounted charges panicked those trying to leave the square and many people were injured. These scenes were taken by the mass media and predictably used to taint reporting of the entire day and try to alienate the public from the strong, radical message of the event.
Fortunately perhaps, the police pre-occupation with being violent towards the remaining crowds meant that the rest of the demonstrators made their way almost unhindered (and doing a great job of reclaiming the streets) to the venues for the subsequent parties.
The driver and passenger of the sound system were not so lucky. They were arrested for attempted murder (based on the incident with the police motorbike)! This was reported in the traditional media as a murder plot against the police. To my knowledge, only the Guardian bothered to follow up the story a little by reporting the following day that the charges had been dropped. If you think there was anything of substance to the so-called ‘attempted murder’ arrests, ask yourself why the only charge to come from the arrests was suspicion of possesion of drugs in relation to one of the van’s passengers.
This event was one of the most annoying for me. It seems a clear indication of a deliberate attempt to feed the media with juicy, negative, fabricated stories. Another was the arrest of a man with a three foot broad sword. The truth (well known by the media) was that this man was the eccentric ‘King Arthur’ and his ceremonial sword ‘Excalibur’.
Anyway… I can’t report on the events at both squat parties – I only attended one. The one I attended was at an empty office block with 500 people. The riot police came and went, apparently powerless. I departed a couple of hours later to get some sleep and prepare for Sunday’s conference and workshops.
Sunday 14th April 1997
A conference and workshops took place in the same venue as the party, a squatted empty office block. The building was looking slightly worse for wear after the party. Somehow the [RTS] phone line that was to inform people about the venue had been [suspiciously] shut down so many groups failed to attend. The mass media were told to leave (everyone was very unhappy with the reports of Saturday’s events and didn’t fancy allowing the press to make up more rubbish). The conference was small but very positive as were the workshops- on how to stand up to multinationls, on reclaiming the streets etc.
More than ever before, I realise that whenever I witness events first hand, what is reported in the mainstream media bears little or no resemblence to what I saw. This means that I obviously can’t trust anything that I see in the mainstream media (what a surprise!). The attempted censorship of the ‘Evading Standards’ (due to be updated and reprinted) is a clear indication that efforts to redress the balance and provide alternative views will be opposed by the State. For this reason, I am certain that we should collectively look for ways to combat this censorship and the vested interests in the mainstream media. The message from the weekend is just how much potential there is when people get together, organise themselves, unite with others from many groups and campaigns, take to the streets, protest and party, and aim for things worth fighting for – a world run by people ourselves, with respect for each other and for the environment.