Thursday, April 02, 2009

Protests fail to rattle G20 leaders

It was billed as a potential riot in the making, but for the most part the protests against the G20 did not bring the chaos that had been much hyped in the media. The so called anti-capitalist protests brought some disruption to London’s financial centre yesterday but heavy policing kept violence to a minimum. However, what started out as a carnival ended in tragedy with several injuries and one protester dead.

Four effigies led separate processions to the financial heart of London at around midday. Amongst the crowds were protesters dressed as bankers, others as the devil and the grim reaper. A large effigy of a dead canary, representing Canary Wharf, was carried to the steps of the Bank of England as a band blasted out some music on trumpets and trombones. The voice of dissatisfaction with the government and the banking system was clear. Banners and placards spoke volumes. Amongst them were calls to “Eat the Bankers”, “Smash Capitalism” and a declaration claiming that “Capitalism Isn’t Working”.

As the numbers swelled to an estimated 4,000 people police began to create cordons, blocking several roads and trying to split off one part of the crowd from others. These became the focus fore anarchists and the more militant demonstrators who began to taunt the police. The inevitable clashes soon occurred an one police officer was struck on the head by one protester holding a large pole. Crowds eventually gathered outside a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the bank which has been the subject of much criticism following the departure of Sir Fred and his £700,000 a year pension.

It wasn’t long before windows were smashed and several protesters entered the building. As the half a dozen of so members of the crowd attacked the bank surrounding them were dozens of others recording the event with cameras. There were camera phones, compact digital cameras and video cameras held aloft all trying to capture the action. This wasn’t so much a riot than a piece of street theatre. The BBC’s Ben Brown broadcasting Live pictures from a nearby vantage point said that it seemed those perpetrating the attack were a small minority and that around a third seemed to be only interested in taking pictures which another third were merely gathering to watch the spectacle.

Indeed this is what the much talked about ‘riot had become. There was nor riot to speak of. Any attempt of revolution had dissolved into a few sporadic incidents filmed by a thousand cameras.

French Marxist theorist and Situationist once wrote that modern life had become an event that was merely observed rather than experienced. In his book Society of the Spectacle he claimed that life had become “an immense accumulation of spectacles” and that “everything that was directly lived” had “moved away into representation”. Nothing was more true than the scenes that could be seen unfolding in the streets of London yesterday. Direct action had been replaced by so-called ‘Blackberry revolutionaries’ who were spending much of their time Twittering and blogging. It was perhaps epitomised by the arrival of celebrity comedian Russell Brand who told a throng of photographers and news media that he had come to “see what was going on”. It was a far cry from the protests seen in 1984 when more than 2,000 anarchists descended on the financial heart of London to Stop the City or the so called Poll Tax Riot in the early 1990s.
Having made their point the majority of demonstrators drifted away from the city by late afternoon. But some remained, hemmed in by cordons of police. Many complained that they weren’t being allowed to leave. Tired and frustrated several hundred protestors remained outside the Bank of England as hundreds more police gathered around them.

There had throughout the day been several reports of injuries with both police and demonstrators being hospitalised. But at around 10 pm it emerged that one demonstrator had died. The circumstances where unclear, but it is reported that the man has collapsed and fallen unconscious in St Michael’s Alley, close to the Bank of England. Police paramedics, who say they were pelted with missiles while they treated the individual, placed him in the hands of Ambulance personnel who conveyed him to hospital. However the man was pronounced dead upon arrival.

A Climate Change camp outside Liverpool Street station was relatively peaceful throughout the day. But as darkness fell it became a gathering point for demonstrators who had left the city. There were tense stand-offs between protesters and police which continued until the early hours.

There had been intense media coverage throughout the day with almost constant live broadcasting from the city protests and the climate change camp. But there was minimal coverage of the anti-war coalition march which trailed through the streets from the US Embassy to London’s Trafalgar Square. There were speeches from former mining trade union leader Arthur Scargill, CND’s Bruce Kent and veteran politician Tony Benn. But there were no voices heard on television. During a morning interview Tony Benn had called on Sky News to air the views of protesters and speakers. But other than a sound bites from a few demonstrators on the ground, the only message conveyed was one of a large crowd determined to cause disruption.
Despite the protest and the damage to RBS, the effect on the markets was minimal. Although some city workers had ‘dressed down’ and others inconvenienced as they were unable to exit their building for a cigarette or a lunchtime sandwich, the markets actually rose and it was pretty much business as usual. CNN’s business correspondent said that the protestors had affected the smaller businesses who were “just trying to eek out a living”, the types of people whom they claimed to be representing. “This is a side show” Todd Benjamin said.

The sideshow has today moved to London’s Docklands. But the protest today is far smaller than that seen in London yesterday. Only around 200 protesters were present by lunchtime. “Well anarchists don’t wake up early do they?” one police officer told reporters. Many may stay at home given that the protest area is being kept more than half a kilometre away from where the G20 leaders are gathering to “save the world”.

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