Sonntag, 3. April 2011

London: Legitimacy in question?

28 March 2011. A World to Win News Service. On 26 March London was the scene of another struggle against the UK coalition government. Hundreds of thousands of people – between a quarter and a half a million, according to various media reports – protested against the budgets cuts and other austerity policies imposed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats and the misery that awaits the lower sections of the people. This was the biggest demonstration in London since the Iraq invasion in 2003 when millions marched. On Saturday it took several hours of marching before those at the back of the demonstration got to the starting point of the march. At Hyde Park, where the march ended, people kept arriving for several hours.

The participation in this march by far exceeded the expectations of the organisers, the Trades Union Congress. But the size and cruelty of the planned cutbacks drew a very large and varied group of workers, teachers, lawyers, nurses, pensioners, unemployed, students, doctors, elderly, youth, teenagers, women and men.

Many banners also called for the UK to "Leave Libya Alone". Some people wore T-shirts updating the title of a popular song, "Walk like an Egyptian – Fight Like an Egyptian!"

However the protest was not limited to the planned march along the path set by the police and organisers. Despite threats by various forces including the police, angry youth were determined to send a clear message to the ruling class that they are not going to let themselves be squeezed by the government to solve a financial crisis that is not their fault and pay for what they perceive as the interests of the rich.

The angry youth gave their message by invading stores and attacking banks and other symbols of capitalism, in dozens of central London locations.

Just before 2 pm a bloc of youth slipped away from the main march and went into Regents Street. Later the Topshop (billed as the world's biggest fashion store, whose owners are notorious for paying no taxes) in Oxford Street became a target of some demonstrators. At the same time a group carrying a home-made "Trojan Horse" occupied Oxford Circus, where Regents Street meets Oxford Street. Clashes between police and protesters in Oxford Street itself were also reported. Since a big section of Oxford Street, the biggest shopping centre of Central London, had been closed to vehicular traffic, demonstrators considered it a good path to continue their march.

Then the HSBC bank at Cambridge Circus near Piccadilly Circus was attacked. At nearly 3 pm the luxury Ritz hotel 500 yards on the west side of Piccadilly Circus became the target of the protesters.

An hour later, hundreds of protesters occupied Fortnum & Mason, a luxury foods shop in Piccadilly. Although they were totally non-violent and non-disruptive to those busy shopping, according to legal observers, and soon left voluntarily, they were "kettled" on their way out and all were arrested.

Meanwhile the Trojan Horse in Oxford Circus was set ablaze, while bonfires were also lit and fireworks set off to attract attention. Some groups occupied several shops on Oxford Street. More banks such as Lloyd's TSB and Satander, and a Porsche dealership, were attacked. Demonstrators reportedly picked up police barricades and used them to smash windows.

Police attempted to contain the protesters in several locations in Central London's West End. Many protesters refused to let themselves be hemmed in and clashed with police to break out.

Around 7 pm clashes broke out in Jermyn Street off Piccadilly Circus. Flames rose high from waste bins.

Later on in the evening the protest shifted to Trafalgar Square. There several thousand protesters gathered to dance and listen to music around the fire. A few tents were set up, showing that some people intended to stay overnight. Following the example of the anti-Mubarak movement, they intended to turn this monument to the British Empire that once ruled Egypt into a new version of Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square. The police seemed to find this intolerable and they started to provoke the protesters, wielding their batons to push and beat them.

Finally, with the excuse the demonstrators might unleash "blind violence", the authorities deployed their infamous kettling tactic. Massive numbers of police surrounded the protesters and kept them trapped in the cold open air until they were released in the early hours of the morning.

The police tried to imply that they had avoided using kettling during the day. Some observers commented that the police seem to have been instructed to be less violent than usual to avoid being compared to the Gaddafi regime currently being bombarded by the UK and others in the name of democracy.

However it seems more likely that the protesters successfully avoided being trapped by using new tactics such as demonstrating in different forms at different locations. It was not until people converged on Trafalgar Square and darkness fell that layers of police officers were able to surround and contain them. The idea that thousands of people might hold a demonstration in that location and draw many others into their protest was more than the authorities were willing to stand for.

In addition to the several hundred arrested that day, the police announced that they would go through the photos of demonstrators (the authorities try to take a picture of every single person, especially when they are kettle) and make further arrests.

Almost immediately a chorus of condemnation of the protest arose from government figures, leaders of the opposition Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress and the mainstream media. In a way similar to the propaganda aimed at the youth now shaking reactionary regimes in the Middle East, these brave London protesters were labelled hooligans and criminals.

These youth did not generally attack buildings randomly. They intended to give a clear message by carefully selecting symbols of what they see as wrong in the UK – that the government is serving the big companies and the "rich".

Who are the real hooligans and criminals in society? Those who are cutting public services, destroying the education system and health service while shoring up the profits of the gangsters who own the banks and big business? Or those who protest against that? Quite a few people are asking themselves these questions.

A reader of London's Independent newspaper, using the name Kubelik posted her comments on the readers' blog. She said that as she left the march with a few other teachers, feeling satisfied with the day's activities, she found herself in Piccadilly witnessing a bit of the radical protests going on there:

"At first I wanted to be indignant and disassociate the violence from the main event, thinking that it would detract from the homogeneity of the main march and be represented as the actions of criminals and violent extremists. However, after a few conversations with the rioters, my view started to change.

"So here is what they said: We live in a very corrupt society with huge levels of inequality not just in this country but across the world. Our politicians can no longer be trusted and are seen as having their snouts in the trough (no problem). Young people are being disproportionately targeted by government policy (working in a university I have no argument here). The poor, disabled and old are being disproportionately affected (yep). Capitalism is a social construct that benefits the few and marginalizes the many, it divides to conquer and fosters material enmities that fragment society, and encourages selfishness. It works in a cycle that inevitably means those least able to cope with any downturn are the ones most heinously discriminated to as a result of this barbarity (this seems to be consistent with my experiences).

"They are angry and frustrated and feel betrayed by the generations that precede them. They see a cabinet of millionaires, a patrician elite protecting their benefactors and friends in the city... So, given this, isn't it a legitimate response to target those who profit by and uphold a system that victimises so many? Isn't it completely legitimate, in the absence of the law, to take matters into their own hands and fight for a better world?

"This morning I was left wondering whether we should demonise them as criminals or herald them as heroes."

There are indications that this speaks for many middle-class people today.

Speaking to the rally at Hyde Park that ended the day's official activities, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband joined the rest of the establishment in demonising the protesters. The pro-Labour organizers of the march called it "March for the Alternative". But what alternative did he put forward? He did not even condemn the cuts but criticised the government for going "too far and too fast" in carrying out what he described as necessary cuts. He was roundly booed. Later the healthy objections to his speech were attributed to "fascist agitators".

People in all three major parties, at the top and even many at lower levels in the Labour Party, all agree that these cutbacks are unavoidable.

It may be that the government's current deficits, amounting to ten percent of the GNP, are unsustainable. Part of the money went to pay for the cost of UK participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the years of the occupation of these two countries, and building up the British military. Another part went to save British banks and big business from bankruptcy. And then there are big tax breaks for business. It may be that these kinds of measures are essential to boost the global interests of the British imperialists.

But many Britons consider the national health service, accessible higher education, public housing and other programmes set up over the last half century, not to mention jobs, as their right. The idea that the UK can no longer even have a decent public library system, let alone social benefits for people who will be in big trouble without them, goes against what many people think British life and "values" are all about, or at least should be.

The militancy of the student struggle against fee increases, the broad character and massive numbers of people who turned out for the march and the anger of the youth indicate a deep and sharp dissatisfaction with the way things are and an unwillingness to accept what they consider wrong no matter how much politicians tell them that there is no alternative. No matter how serious the financial crisis is, why should the ordinary people who didn't cause it be made to pay for it, and why should the people at the bottom bear the biggest burden? The whole cutback agenda violates many people's sense of justice.

But what if what all the politicians say is true, that "the British economy", the capitalist system whose "success" in the UK has been based on hundreds of years of exploitation and the oppression of a large part of of the world, can no longer function without harsh measures for millions of ordinary Britons? At the same time, if more people understood that such a system does not have to exist, wouldn't their resistance be even stronger?

Many believe that this is only the beginning. Another reader of the Independent commented, "this is the rage of a nation that is saying enough is enough!! and its absolutely legal... and they better start paying attention before it's too late. The social and political tsunami is coming!!”

Whether or not these words turn out to be prophecy, wishful thinking or something in between, it is likely that the discomfort so many people find in the current political situation and the anger at injustice that is rising will encourage a growing number of people not only to resist but also to ponder and debate the question of whether or not things really have to be this way.

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