Ellie Schling is a member of the Hackney Housing Group. Hackney residents self-organise in Hackney Housing Group to give and receive support on housing problems and campaign for better housing. The group is part of London Coalition Against Poverty, a coalition of groups which are based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives.
I was marching with London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) on the March for the Alternative on Saturday 26th March when the black bloc came down Piccadilly. I, along with the people I was marching with supported the actions taken against the banks and the Ritz. I wanted to write down my experiences to express what it was like to be on the other side of the block. I am not writing to condemn violence or property damage, but I hope that this could help those involved reflect on how the black bloc related to the other marchers that day.
London Coalition Against Poverty is an umbrella for various self help, mutual aid groups who campaign around benefits and housing issues and against poverty. We had a contingent of around thirty members who marched together. I really enjoyed being part of such a large march. I think it helped all of us to feel we are not isolated, while we can feel that way sometimes in our every day activities. It was good to see such a diverse crowd of people, all affected by the cuts in one way or another.
As we walked down Piccadilly hundreds of people wearing masks and black clothes entered the march. Loud bangs from fireworks and bangers came from our right, making us jump and banks were splattered with paint. I was worried about the children in our group. I stuck close to a double buggy with two babies in it, wondering what would happen if the police charged. Their mother was less concerned then me. There was some smoke in the air from the bangers and one of our group, an asthmatic, started having difficulties breathing. Luckily we were able to go down a side street to get some space because the police were not kettling us or trying to surround us. I’ve been on many demonstrations where that wouldn’t have been possible. After a while the person who had had the asthma attack was able to continue on the demonstration.
By this point the TUC stewards had blocked off the march saying ‘there is a bottle neck down there, we need to create some space’. We realized that they wanted to separate the march from the black bloc, possibly so the police could move in, and we refused to allow this. We continued to march and called on the rest of the people to join us. The march joined up and we marched behind the black bloc into Hyde Park.
We talked afterwards in the park about what had happened. We had different opinions but many of us felt that it was good that some people had taken a risk to make sure the government wouldn’t easily ignore the demonstration. However, the experience left me feeling uncomfortable. Some suggestions for the future could be to use medics on a black bloc to look out for people who might be panicked or unwell, because not everyone is lucky enough to march with a supportive group of people. I couldn’t see what the point was of the bangers and fireworks; they made the atmosphere more tense. Even though I knew what the black bloc tactic means; being on the other side of it was very disempowering.
The way the action was organised made it feel like it was very separate from most people on the march, rather than encouraging people to think about ways they could participate in more disruptive action. Actions against the cuts must escalate if they are going to work and of course there will be different things happening in different ways. However, we will be stronger the more people can get involved and feel ownership of what they are doing. One example of an alternative tactic could be to encourage the crowd take part in an occupation, giving the other marchers the option of whether they get involved or not. I think we need to spread disruptive action to fight the cuts; whether that’s on a mass demonstration or day by day in our local areas. To get to the point where that is possible we need to build and strengthen our connections with each other. I don’t think the black bloc helped us move towards that on 26th March. While it was inspiring there was little thought for the people around the bloc and the actions taken were self contained and frightening for many. I hope that we will move forward towards ways of struggling that include more people, increase the level of confidence we have in ourselves and each other and succeed in stopping the cuts.