A shocking (or possibly not) revelation: I’ve never actually been on any kind of march or demonstration. This was despite my formative student years which were spent surrounded by agitated wannabe trots of all shapes and sizes who began the early 90s staging sit-ins of the university offices over campus rents (the Great Lancaster Occupation of 1991 which resulted in the Union paying for a nice new secure revolving door for said building as compensation) and ended it by arranging coach trips down to London for interested parties to wave placards over whatever government initiative had outraged them that week. I quickly twigged it was more about the social aspect of it all than anything else, with plenty of friends to be made along the way, but given that I had all the friends I wanted and none of them seemed to have anything to protest about, the whole scene passed me by.
Since then I’ve discovered that most of the things that get me agitated (banks treating potential customers with contempt, estate agents being full of shit and extortionate pricing of UK residence visas) are not particularly populist and unlikely to provoke mass agitation. Hence marches or sit-ins are kind of out the window.
This week however, I think I broke the habit of a lifetime. Well, it seemed rude not to. As you may have read elsewhere, the marvellous decision was taken to hold the huge G20 summit involving most of the leaders of the free world (and China) in the glamorous surroundings of the Excel centre at the Royal Victoria Dock in London. Much was made by sniggering feature writers in the press about the notion of inviting important people like Barak Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy to a giant warehouse in the middle of nowhere, but this was to overlook the fact that as well as being (apparently) the middle of nowhere it was also where people like myself live. The management of the Excel centre doesn’t have the greatest track record in minimising the impact of their events on the local neighbourhood and have had to resort to sending every household free tickets to some of their biggest consumer occasions to minimise the complaints, but the G20 was a whole new level altogether.
The required level of security lockdown meant that there was almost no way to avoid impacting on the lives of those of us local to the event. Advance notifications of road closures and bridge closures went up, busses were diverted, entire segments of the Docklands Light Railway were rendered off-limits and those unfortunate enough to own flats within the security cordon (thankfully not including us) were incredulous at the instructions for them to carry photographic ID with them on the day to ensure they could come and go from their homes.
So with the G20 summit coinciding with my day off, and one of my colleagues informing me that he was being dispatched to report live on any protests that would result, it seemed appropriate to wander along and catch some of the atmosphere. From the moment I set foot outside the house, it was clear this was no ordinary day in the neighbourhood. Earlier in the week, a complete security sweep had taken place of the surrounding streets, with police looking inside just about everything that could conceal something untoward. Hence every manhole cover, every lamppost had a red SECURITY SEAL sticker on it, to indicate if anyone had been inside since the start of the week.
Plans for a pre-show cup of coffee were halted by the mysterious presence of locked gates at the Thames Barrier Park (“open every day from 7am, including Public Holidays” proclaim the signs). I wasn’t the only bemused soul walking up to the fence and peering over hopefully as there were no signs, no apologies and no warnings given as to the closure of the facilities. Even the nearby policemen were puzzled and told us that they had no idea the park would be shut. The only conclusion was that the management had panicked that they would be overrun by rioters and had closed for the day — a decision that made them look a bit stupid given that there was barely a soul around and the area would remain deserted for most of the day. If I ran the Thames Barrier Park, I’d be feeling a bit stupid right now.
Instead, I proceeded up the road and at West Silvertown station ran into my colleague Mike who was in search of a) a coffee and b) a place to stand and watch. It was here that we had the first indication of not only an influx of visitors but also the wonderfully diverse nature of it. From the people wandering around with national flags and banners in every language, it was clear that this wasn’t going to just be a gathering of the great white unwashed. One group that caught our eye were the ones carrying placards that read “END THIS REPRESSIVE REGIME”. We concluded they were British.
Aside from that, the crowds were having a whale of a time. Remember what I said about it being a diverse occasion? It was almost as if every regional pressure group going had taken the opportunity to stand and make a noise in the presence of their own local leaders. Thus the usual hard left and the not-in-my-name mob were joined by people protesting about corrupt politicians, political prisoners and freedom and rights for just about everyone who they believed did not have freedom and rights.
In truth, it was hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of it all and I understood just why for many people it is an important part of their lifestyle. There was a buzz and energy to the crowd and a spirit of enthusiasm which was quite intoxicating. Yes, people were there to be angry and to protest, but the crucial point was that none of them was angry at each other. Instead, it was several hundred souls all with the hopeful but ultimately misguided belief that they were there to change things for the better. Then it struck me than in actual fact I was probably something of a disgrace given that I wasn’t there to care about any of the issues involved, and more to the point was walking around struggling to find something I did want to care about.
Hence my more cynical side kicked in and the sheer ludicrousness of it all became apparent the more you looked around. The question of where the people on these marches get their professional looking banners and placards from was finally answered, thanks to a bloke wandering around with his arms full and dishing them out to anyone who looked like they wanted something to hold. At any of these events, the notion that one might be already preaching to the converted seems to be wasted on the men with rucksacks who always turn up with freshly pressed copies of their left-wing newspapers. Back at university, I always took great delight in saying rude things to sellers of Socialist Worker, but today contented myself with just telling one hopeful that whilst I was a worker I didn’t consider myself particularly socialist and asked if I could have 50% off as a result.
My search for an issue to care about drew me to one merry band requesting “Full Rights For All Immigrants” which would have saved me £2000 over the past five years had they had their way. Their banners suggested they were from the International Bolshevik Tendency which made me wonder just what a Tendency actually was. Were they saying that they had vague notions in that particular direction of belief but weren’t quite prepared to commit themselves yet? It seemed such a waste.
My colleague Mike suggested I ask them if their approach to the issue meant they weren’t more Menshevik than Bolshevik, particularly since there were only two of them. I decided this was going to get me punched and opted instead to ask him to pose for a cheesy “I’m going to broadcast on the radio in a moment” picture next to the satellite gear, which he cheerfully did.
We’ll gloss over the whole new level of wrongness created by the man walking around trying to sell copies of the Communist Manifesto (assuming, of course, he had a profit margin in there) and note that the one thing above all else that was likely to make tempers fray was the sheer amount of noise that was being created. If the noise from people banging on tubs and indeed empty bottles from water coolers (aren’t you supposed to recycle them?), the people walking around selling whistles for a pound a throw were only adding to the bedlam. “Yes, blow a whistle” I thought to myself, “that will change the world!”
On top of this were the people with megaphones, and it was here that the “everyone in together” nature of the demonstration hit its most serious flaw. Moving around the crowd there were about three different core groups, each with a cheerleader chanting slogans and exhorting their followers to do the same. Over and over again, for what must have been the best part of several hours. Camaraderie be damned, stuck next to one of those for any length of time I would have been on the verge of converting away from their cause. Leading the way at the very edge of the cordon were the Stop The War mob, and I fought my way through to get a glimpse of just who it was who was leading the charge for the endless “jobs not bombs” mantras being recited with glee by their followers. To tell you the truth I was quite disappointed. Wielding the megaphone was your generic spotty student, surrounded not by the people from all walks of life whom we are led to believe participates in these things, but groups of mates of a similar age who I’m sure all genuinely thought they were trying to change the world one step at a time but who almost certainly would gain a new perspective on things the moment they got their first Council Tax bill.
“Can they hear us in the Excel?” bellowed Tarquin in an attempt to raise the enthusiasm of the crowd. “No!” shouted my inner comedian, “they are half a mile away inside a soundproof conference room you fool”. That is the problem with initial euphoria. After a while it fades and reality sets in. Maybe I needed a whistle. Indeed the only people being distracted and influenced by the crowd were the poor souls in the apartments just inside the cordon, many of whom peered down from their balconies having clearly abandoned any hopes of a nice relaxing day. Or maybe they just didn’t have any photo ID to guarantee they could get back in if they popped to the shops.
Although more people drifted down as the morning wore on, the crowd still numbered no more than a few hundred, clearly a long way short of the vast masses the police presence was geared up to deal with. Indeed the most amusing thing was that there were probably as many journalists present as there were actual protestors, mingling with microphones and cameras poised and ready to talk to anyone who looked like they might have something to say. Even outlets you never knew existed were hovering around. If ever there was a time to learn that there was a BBC Brazil and they had a spare reporter and camera crew, I guess this was the time to do it.
This was where I learned possibly why people came in interesting looking costumes. It meant you got canvassed for your views by people looking for character. Why else would the sour-faced girl in the pink suit and orange peace symbol earrings be having her point of view so intently scrutinised?
Nonetheless, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Sadly I failed to get a picture of the chap dressed in a giant billboard containing what amounted to an extended essay on the problems that the G20 summiteers should be dealing with (a manifesto so large it extended to a supplementary board suspended above his head). “Can you tell us why you are here…” asked the bright-eyed reporter from some student television service. “I’m an exchange student from Ohio, and I’m deeply concerned about the plight of the planet” he began in a monotone which had me rushing from the scene lest I spoiled the take with too great a hoot of laughter.
Job done, I walked back up the hill and over the railway lines into town to grab some sustenance, pausing only to grab a snapshot of the roadblocks preventing people from even driving down the road alongside the estate.
It was while taking the picture that for the only time that day I incurred the wrath of a riot suited policeman who implored me not to linger on the bridge and “just keep moving sir”. For fear of spoiling the atmosphere, I suppressed an urge to point out that as a local resident I generally pay my council tax for the privilege of being able to stand on the bridge when I want. In truth he was probably as bored as the five men who left the area at the same time as me, muttering that they were off to the Bank Of England again as there was more chance of some action.
Oh yes, and in case you were wondering the biggest issue of the day was indeed resolved to the satisfaction of all. My thanks to the staff of the local Costcutter on the dockside who were open that morning and happily served up an instant Cappucino. I don’t know how we and the police would have survived without it.