Saturday, 11 December 2010

Standard Hoodlum Issue 2010 (Reflex action like a snake)

Can we get a consensus on that?

This question has calmly exploded - like Erik Satie played through Notting Hill Carnival sound systems, or rather N.W.A. on a harp - through the halls of at least 34 universities these last few weeks. Thursday will require some more discussion before we can even bring it to a temperature check. I can't tell if we're standing at the beginning of The Revolution or at the end of an Autonomist LARP.

Like many students around the country I have been in occupation. Across the country we have learned how to clap silently and facility a democratic meeting. We have learned how to communicate with the media and how to get favorable coverage. We have learned how to form and break blockades, how to avoid arrest and what to do if arrested. In a matter of weeks some have gone from apolitical to articulate class warriors, for others of us stale debates of anarchism vs. socialism, consensus discussion making vs. democratic centralism, revolution vs. reform left the pages of unread journals and unvisited websites and became living and lived-in discussions which reached into reality.

For me it felt like a completely new movement. It starts with Milbank, where we showed what we were fighting against, which directly lead into the occupation movement, where we showed what we were fighting for. Then one realises that the hand signals have been used in anarchist circles since the dawn of time, that many of the more experienced occupods cut their teeth at Climate Camp, and that sit ins have been going on for generations. But if it's not a wholly new movement it is at least a brand new moment. It is the voice of our generation that bellows out of the same megaphones. When I am optimistic it is because the signs saying "Down with this sort of thing!" and "Fine then, I'll just become a prostitute" tell us the ironic and detached Generation Y has got the message on Facebook, 'liked' Revolution and then got the bus down to actually do something. When I am ecstatic it is because I hear dubstep and drum'n'bass (even if our 6th form comrades' taste in both is overly bate) soundtracking kettle-breaking and see that AT LONG FUCKING LAST the hardcore continuum is fusing with radical destructive/emancipatory politics. The reason the media is finding it so difficult to characterize this movement is because it contains all the contradictions and aesthetics of our generation as a whole. It is anarchy for gleeks and grime-heads. Despite either not being alive, or being too concerned with watching the Power Rangers and not eating broccoli to have noticed the last Tory administration, whether passed down through folklore, or simply existing in the collective unconscious, we all know what dangerous reactionaries they are. We just express it mostly using the word 'dickhead'. Roots'n'future innit. I digress, this text won't be kettled.

The occupation is the best week of my life. Cambridge under snowfall and Solidari-tree on stand, it's also the most Christmassy I've felt since before Christmas stopped being OHMYFUCKINGGODITSCHRISTMASINONLYONEMONTHAAAAAAAH and started being like, oh yeah cool, presents and food are nice. The occupation ends but I've still got a bit of that trouser-pissingly excited vibe about Thursday. Everyone else in the country would have been in occupation, doing the same training, having the same conversations and pulling the same stunts. We've built bridges with the Trade Union movement, with teachers and charity workers, absolutely everyone will be there supporting us. And last time they said there would be 20 thousand and there were 52, this time there should be 100 thousand of us on the streets of London. At least. The movement had learned it's lessons and was going to avoid being kettled by conducting hundreds of autonomous actions all around the capital. The vote wouldn't go through, because no Tory MP would be able to make it to Parliament. Be realistic - demand the impossible! And I did.

What's the difference between a highly prominent and vocal set of non-leaders, and a set of elected leaders with limited powers? The whole world. And the presence of the latter at THE OTHER OCCUPATION we stayed the night in (we'll occupy anything) was the first sign of trouble. With the NUS calling for a national day of pillow fights (Note: Health and Safety legislation forbids the use of actual pillows) against cardboard cut-outs of nasty mean-faced Lib-Demmy-wemmies and a scheduled cry-in after the vote had passed, it was up to ULU, one of the most militant (read: cool) student unions in the country to actually organize a protest which involved protesting. The Cambridge plan, in as much as EFF ESS YOO EFF ESS YOO counts as a plan, was to cause some trouble with a small group (50-100?) in the morning (popping Tory tires, shutting down major London arteries etc) in the morning, before joining the big ULU march in the afternoon. The Facebook event had after all, called on us to 'shut down London'. There were not 50-100 people willing to wake up before 8 in order to plan an attack on some politically or economically significant target. There were not 300 odd autonomous affiliation groups able to target every Tory MP in London and stop them getting to Parliament. There was the main ULU march on Parliament, then the diverted LSE march on Parliament. Parliament square is a kettle fest. It's a square, and it's right outside Parliament. *sigh*

So we joined the ULU march, because that's where we said we'd meet people. And we shouted and we marched. And we marched right past the police when they were blocking roads they didn't want us to march down. It's not an occupation when you rent the room, and it's not a protest if you go where they tell you. Listen guys, pass it on, when the police say turn left, we go straight forwards, on to Buckingham Palace, past the police line. This protest won't be kettled. Moment of truth, moment of truth, wedge-formation CHARGE! A small scuffle, 30 of us get pushed around a bit by the police, thousands behind us march gormlessly leftwards. People have been talking a lot about disappointment. Disappointment at police brutality. Disappointment at student violence. For me the real disappointment was at the passivity of the majority. It's not an occupation if you rent the room, and it's not a protest if you go where they tell you. A demonstration or political march is affective because it's a break in the all-encompassing narrative of capitalism. The public space of Oxford street is only public if you want to shop. If you started selling things you'd be breaking licensing laws. If you started leafleting you'd be told to move on out the way to the designated charity recruitment zone outside the computer shops at Tottenham Court Road and book a saturday afternoon. When you stand alone and start wailing into a loudspeaker on Oxford Street, you are breaking the narrative that PUBLIC SPACES ARE FOR SHOPPING. You are making a statement that they are for wailing too. When you march you are saying that this is not just a commercial space, but it is a political space too (or in other words, it is not just a space for capitalist politics, but for revolutionary politics too). But marches are now normal. You can book yourself a slot in the marching time-table. You may march on this day between these times and on these streets provided you fill in the forms and get them in promptly. This was the failure of 1968, that capitalism absorbed protest and now we talk about A REVOLUTION IN THE WAY WE DO DISH WASHING. 1,000,000 marched peacefully against the Iraq War and the total affect was to allow Bush to say to Blair that they were invading in order to give the Iraqi people the same rights to protest as we enjoy in the West. FACEPALM. 52 thousand students marched on the 24th of November this year, smashed a building owned by a man worth £5 billion, and suddenly the very foundations of parliamentary democracy seem shook. It's not a protest if you go where you're told, it's not a protest if THE DAILY MAIL likes it.

We scuffle with police here and there, they're offish and thugish. They're on their high horses already. We're unable to get into the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, we're unable to get into the Lid Dem HQ. Should we join the Parliament Square kettle? Apparently it's jokes. Except it's not a kettle yet, apparently. As we walk in each and every one of us is told that we can exit at Whitehall if we want to. I now don't know if this was true, and I don't know if this makes a difference. But at the time it meant we had joined the mass of people, it was indeed jokes, we could leave at any time, so we might as well eat our kettle-snacks now. Digestives digested. Funny isn't it, one minute ago we were breaking through police lines, now we're having lunch. Oh shit, oh shit, stand up, stand up. The students started it. The police had been offish and thuggish all day, there had been isolated incidents here and there but at 14:00 in the north-west corner of Parliament Square, the students started it. They charged with pre-made kettle breakers, and threw paint bombs and flares. Having been lied to later in the day about being allowed out of one corner of the Square when this wasn't the case, perhaps the exit at Whitehall was non-existant too, but from where I stood I saw a group of students trying to break out of a kettle that was not a kettle.

Within the activist community direct action is often planned using affiliation groups. When one is going on a protest and there is any chance of confrontation or disorder, it is simply common sense to find a 'buddy' who will watch your back and have you watch theirs. Pairs of buddies form larger blocs of affiliation groups, connected by a shared level of militancy. A pair of buddies who don't mind taking a horse hoof to the face for the cause would not affiliate with a pair who are more comfortable writing polite letters to their MP. It's a good system which gets things done. Yet activism entails on-the-job political morality and self-character judgement. I look at friends I know better in the context of cups of tea together and film nights. And I wonder how far will they go, and how far will I go, and they don't know, and neither do I. I'd rather not take a battontotheface thankyouverymuch if it could be avoided, but perhaps I could muster that courage if surrounded by people I trust absolutely and knew that by doing so I was helping the protest, that in doing so I was facilitating the storming of Parliament of Buckingham Palace. That day, when from where I stood I saw a group of students trying to break out of a kettle that was not a kettle, I could not muster that courage. One should chose one's battles, and I felt that battle stupidly chosen.

In stark terms, at 14:00 in the north-west corner of Parliament Square, there was no need to charge the police. But the police were charged, by 15-20 year olds who's physical standing might be best understood by the sign saying "I'm only here to get out of P.E!" And the police, in their Storm Trooper armor, with their bone-breaking batons charged back. They smacked teenagers in the face. They pulled their horses back only to gallop them forwards onto and into the crowd. A friend of a friend got her collarbone trampled. What is this shit, medieval? People standing 3 meters in front of me have already told in far more harrowing detail than I could relate the depths of police brutality, more blow-by-blows, each of which telling the story of how the state exists to protect the status-quo and private property and not it's citizens. But I was paralyzed between bewilderment at our charging, and disgust at the police's.

From that point on this was a kettle that was a kettle. Sweet thinking by the way, locking all of those people you feel to be so dangerous in a square housing a bunch of buildings of immense national importance. From that point on it was also a kettle that was an occupation. For those cold hours, we owned Parliament Square, and with graffiti stating 'education is right' and 'make the bankers pay', more political wisdom was told outside the seat of government in a day than had been spoken inside it for a generation. We build bonfires to stay warm, and set of fireworks to keep ourselves entertained, and the merry spirit, not so much of May 1968, but more of November 1605, filled the winter air. Soon we gathered to hear the result of the vote. There was no big announcement, there was no collective booing or tears. Despite what the media say, the news of 21 individuals betraying their voters and dooming future generations to a deeper social divides, less art, less historical conscience, more debt, worse education, less education, this news dispersed slowly "did you hear", "apparently", and there was no reaction. What should have followed was a banshee scream of rage, and then a round of "THIS FIGHT - GOES ON" while a group formed a wedge to push through the police line surrounding Parliament while the rest of the crowd backed them up. 30,000 people marched on Parliament, and only 30 of us thought to get it. We turned around and the crowd was gone, more than half was orderly queuing up to leave.

A day's march, a shrug then a pub and a pint and a pat on the back does not a mass movement make.

Many of the more militant elements had already charged through police lines out of kettle and were off generating THE BEST DAILY MAIL HEADLINES EVER elsewhere. A huge queue formed in the north-west corner. People lined up one by one, one head per five minutes. I think had the attack on the treasury not occurred I, perhaps some of my comrades too might have gone home crying that night. The attack on the treasury reaffirmed my faith in the movement. People still cared, people are still angry, people are not done yet. The rhetoric goes "this is only the beginning", the people attacking the treasury affirmed this. The treasury was sacked, police vans stood on, and the actors in these dramas bowed and left the stage. It is nearly 21:00 and the only people left are those who chose to passively wait in the queue and those who were sticking around to see what would happen. The police have not been voluntarily letting anyone out at all for an hour now, many in the queue don't believe this when they are told. The police then tell people that they have to leave on the other side of the Square. There is no way out on the other side of the Square. When we return to see why they won't let us leave, they have assmebled into a line and have begun marching across the Square, sweeping away the riff-raff. Westminster Bridge is now open to leave, or rather you must rush towards Westminster Bridge of face the police baton. Over 7 hours after they first kettled us into Parliament Square we are told we are finally free to leave. We march, we sing. We have to, because it's so, so cold. But of course the police have no intention of letting us off that bridge. Around 2 thousand of us are re-kettled on a wind-swept bridge for over two December hours.

Over those two hours, the police created 2 thousand radicals. We started with chants of "NO IFS NO BUTS NO EDUCATION CUTS" and ended up with "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, FUCK THE POLICE". Kettling is an anti-democratic tactic designed to break your spirit and make you regret ever opposing the government. It is a collective punishment designed to make you feel guilty for being near people engaged in direct action. And as an aside, property damage is direct action and it is not violence - windows don't bleed. It is brutal, I think of the pensioners with lung conditions who joined us in solidarity, the school-children who didn't know how to get home at that late hour and had school the next day. Sure enough, despite our singing and dancing, our trying to keep spirits high, by the time they tauntingly started letting people leave one by one by one, drip drip drip, I was frigid and dejected, not revolutionary. As we left one evil fucker made snide remarks to each of of such as "thanks for coming", "hope you enjoyed your stay", "come back any time". Seeing now the depth and breadth of fury at the police, the widespread loss of belief and respect in this countries Parliamentary institutions, and the fear and anger brewing at all the spending cuts, I will stay optimistic that this movement can overcome its timidity and say "we'll take you up on your offer, dickhead"

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