Notice: Demonstrate against police brutality in solidarity with yesterday’s arrestees. This evening (Sunday 11th) at 5pm outside Kensington Police Station, 72 Earl’s Court Road. Directions: Come out of High Street Kensington tube and turn left. Left again at the next big cross roads.
On Tuesday, the Israeli army shelled a school designated as a refuge from the assault, killing 42 and injuring scores more. Two days later, thirty more civilians were killed as a second refuge was shelled. By Saturday, the number of dead from the past fortnight stood at over 800, with a little under a quarter children. Later that day in West London, cold as it was, and with frost on the ground, around 70,000 people marched against the massacre in Gaza.
Clashes between police and protesters erupted on a scale not seen for a decade in this country. This is a report by eye-witnesses associated with The Commune, who have also been at many of the demonstrations outside the Embassy over the past fortnight. We also reflect on the significance of the days’ events.
March, hope and pacify
The generation that rioted last night is the generation that witnessed the abject failure of the strategy adopted by the Stop the War Coalition leadership – i.e. the Socialist Workers Party. That strategy is the same one proposed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In a nutshell, hold peaceful A to B marches, do as you’re told by the police, go home and write to your MP. A few public meetings aside, that is the limit and extent of their vision. Direct action was condemned as ‘elitist’ by SWP grandee Lindsey German, and when a mass invasion of the Fairford airforce base was announced, Stop the War rapidly called a march in London on the same day. The same approach was taken around the country, with local SWP groups distancing themselves from direct action and militant activity.
This approach has been seen to be inadequate by a whole generation. Interestingly, some leadership figures such as George Galloway have recognised this, saying “I think we’re reaching the stage where this form is no longer sufficient … we’re going to have to discover new ways of protesting”, though this recognition is purely formal: they still run an organisation which discourages any sort of independent or militant action.
Young British Asians and young Muslims have found this failure especially bitter. Amongst this group there is a very sincere identification with the sufferings of other Muslims around the world. This spirit of international solidarity, structured by religion though it is, is nonetheless stronger than that held by any other component of British society. Their rejection of compromise with imperial war is more complete; and their willingness to take risks in action is consequently greater. They are used to police harassment as a matter of every day life.
Perhaps recognising this, the march organisers prepared steadfastly to keep control. A group of anti-capitalist activists organising around the Gaza demonstrations sent a ‘delegate’ to the official stewards’ meeting. They reported that stewards were being organised to isolate any attempts to stage a sit down. A ‘crack team’ of stewards, which was closed to new volunteers, was to move marchers on near the embassy.
From demonstration to resistance
We started out from Hyde Park corner, West along Bayswater Road. If anything, the crowd was remarkably placid and quiet, and our contingent was therefore surprised to come across several demonstrators on top of a gate which lead to Kensington Palace Gardens and the embassy. A large crowd had gathered round, and began to burn flags. A small number of police in ordinary uniforms attempted to enter to restore order, but were pushed out in a ruck. The crowd preceded to knock down one of the gates (heavy wrought iron, and about ten feet high). Just before people could decide whether to make their way through and confront the vast numbers of riot police in Kensington Palace Gardens, a squad of armoured police charged in from one side, and proceeded to baton charge the crowd several times. This stand off lasted for some time. Our contingent decided to continue to the embassy.
On our way, there were indications, of what was to come. The window of a Starbucks was cracked (the company is held to be supportive of Israel), with police inexplicably guarding a Pizza Hut a few doors down. Files of five to ten young, mostly Asian, men wearing masks filed through the crowd quietly, and with determination. They knew what was going on ahead.
By the time we got to the embassy, the fearsome physical defences which we had seen that morning were gone. Rows of metal barriers had been torn up, and were being thrown at police, along with sticks and other projectiles. A very small number of police were in front of the gates to Kensington Palace Gardens, skirmishing with the crowd. Paint bombs had been thrown, and two police had lost their long riot shields. They were not in control. One protester was seen being carried, unconscious, back from police lines. He was later seen being carried unconscious, back from police lines again – having returned to the fight. So much for the ‘crack team’ of stewards. One of us heard one of this team talk about how they tried to stand in between police and rioters. To little effect.
The police response was predictably reckless. Police baton charged from two sides (the gates, and the road from the West), crushing the crowd against barriers on the south side of Kensington Road. Police and some stewards initially tried to keep the crowd in, before the crowd turned the barrier over and spilled onto the pavement, many people falling and trapping limbs. According to a report on Indymedia, at least two people left in neck braces.
The crowds thoroughly trashed another Starbucks, and distributed smoothies and sandwiches to the crowd, continuing to fight the police with projectiles and hand to hand. The police strategy from here on in was to push the crowd East along Kensington Palace Road, continually bringing reinforcements from the East to draw lines across the road and surround groups of demonstrators. The first contingent of police to attempt this was very hard pressed, and at least one fully armoured riot cop was carried away by colleagues, completely prone.
The second contingent arrived in three vans. The crowd reacted quickly, surrounding the vans with barriers. The drivers clearly panicked and attempted to reverse and leave while more barriers were heaved at the van windows, but found it impossible. No one was prepared to get out to remove the barriers until a squad of riot cops charged to their rescue.
By this time the official rally (which was apparently predictably boring and pointless) was well over, and those of us who were able to get away did so, just as another large squad of riot police charged up from the East, and began to charge West. It should be said that a relative minority of demonstrators participated in the riot, with many being completely oblivious that it was taking place at all.
The presence of young Muslim women, and their physical bravery, will probably be downplayed. In fact, along with many non-Muslim women, most resisted the calls of men to move to the back. “We’re the same as the boys”, shouted one. Another group were seen preparing to re-enter the fray, despite at least one having been seriously hurt, and denouncing a group of boys retreating as “cowards”. Sexism manifested itself in other ways. Unfortunately, some men were unwilling to link arms with women in the crowd; dismissing their willingness to fight. The most blatant however, was the cynical chant of the stewards: “please move on, women and children are being crushed”. Clearly this reflects an assumption that women are essentially vulnerable, and incapable of making the choice to confront the police physically.
Stewards should reject the role of movement police. They can let people make up their own minds about what level to engage on (some people wish to protest peacefully, this is a legitimate choice), facilitate, spread information and record police violence. They should be accountable to the movement, or not in it at all.
What just happened?
Yesterday shows that many anti-war activists, radical young Muslims in particular, are dissatisfied with the march-and-hope policy of the STWC, SWP and PSC. This generation, angry and sad beyond belief about the murders of imperial war, has exploded onto the streets of Europe in the past week. Oslo has seen its biggest riots in decades, and the following report, from a correspondent in Paris on the demonstration of a week ago, suggests points of similarity between the composition and message of the mobilisations.
“The demo yesterday was startling. police have revised their original claim of 6,000 to 21,000, but i swear there must’ve been twice that. surprising lack of police presence throughout was explained when we reached place Saint-Augustin, where a quick left would’ve taken us to the Israeli embassy…police fucking everywhere, they’d cut off every road and blocked the entire protest into the place – a ludicrous idea considering the size of the cortege. so now you have around 3,000 disaffected youth already there with at least another 20,000 arriving behind them and police in riot gear everywhere…it kicked off. cars were burned, they smashed up the shops (this is the most affluent, bourgeois part of Paris – Les Galleries Lafayette and all that) and lots of burning of Israeli flags from the top of bus shelters. police moved in … some sort of gas was fired…none of this has made the papers really, just claims that 20 people were arrested after vandalising some cars. I was about the only white person in this parade … [one chant was] “Regarde Francaises, comprennent la verite”…”look Frenchies, understand the truth”.”
As well as opportunities in the form of militancy, there are also risks in the form of religious and ethnic sectarianism. We need to make sure that the young (largely Muslim) people confronting the police are not left to do so alone, and that the movement is built as far as is possible on an internationalist secular basis. We can only do that if we are part of it.
Secondly, the events of yesterday show that the British police’s ‘containment’ model (as opposed to the ‘dispersal’ model of European police), is not invincible if enough people are prepared to be militant enough. The Metropolitan police has limited resources, and is generally very cautious in making deployments that may put officers at risk.
What is the significance of militant street mobilisations in social movements? It is primarily this: that they are the expression and the birthplace of a defiant, collective spirit; that they constitute a movement on a whole different set of terms to those laid down by the movement bureaucracy. They are the incubator of a spirit that can grow, and spread. In the next weeks, the official movement – PSC, STWC, etc. – will redouble their efforts to achieve a passive, pacifist movement. This will be reflected in the timing and routes of demonstrations called, and intensified stewarding. Similarly, the police will be looking for an opportunity to re-establish their myth of invulnerability, probably through the traditional means of knocking a few heads together, and making arrests.
Sometimes, riots themselves are beneficial. For example, the 1981 Brixton riots led to the Scarman report, and researchers of the depression era in the US found that increase in the locally-set rates of income support were greater when there had been riots in the town in question (c.f. Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements, p274).
Street mobilisations are nonetheless limited and insufficient – particularly in dealing with international issues. We need to make the argument that Israel’s murders in Gaza implicate directly the social relations of global capitalism, and expose the limits of the state as a solution to that. In consequence, we should say, the movement needs to aspire to mass action, such as strikes at school and work, and occupations of university and public buildings. We do not say these things for ritual effect, or because we expect a ‘call’ on our part to have any great resonance. We say them because they are an accurate reflection of the real dynamics of the world; and we want those social processes to be as widely understood as possible.
(In order to avoid abstraction, it should be noted that the most militant demonstrators are probably less likely than most people to have access to opportunities for significant institutional disruption: steady jobs, university places, nationally significant institutions that rely on them. As Piven and Cloward put it (p25), referring to a different group, they participate so little that the main “’contribution’ they can withhold is that of quiescence in civil life: they can riot”. The position is not therefore hopeless, but it is difficult.)
Our immediate task is solidarity with those arrested already; and the many more who will no doubt be arrested over the coming months, as police trawl through hours of footage and acres of still photographs. See the notice of the demonstration above. Even aside from that, we must continue to mobilise outside the embassy on a daily basis.
The movement continues. The militant demonstrators yesterday drew a line in the gravel, as well in their own hearts. We know which side of that line we are on.