May Day protest against capitalism

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Capitalism lost £20m on May Day before the first protesters had even set foot in the city. One in five shops in Oxford Street had shut for the day, and the rest closed early to avoid being targeted by ‘violent anarchists’ during the predicted May Day ‘riots’. May Day 2001 saw the continuation of the strategy developed by the corporate capitalist class through its political representatives in the Labour government, its media, police and judiciary to destroy the coalition of forces in this country that see themselves as part of the growing international anti-capitalist movement. Helen Burnes reports.

May Day revived
‘10 years after the end of the cold war and the supposed global triumph of liberal capitalist ideas, the international workers’ day has again become a focus of international protest…: rejection of neo-liberal globalisation, opposition to the eclipse of democracy by corporate power and demand for international action to tackle the ecological crisis. Even by making the slogan of anti-capitalism common currency, the movement has raised the possibility of a systemic alternative, derided as a nonsense for most of the past decade.’ (Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 2 May)

In London the turnout of 5,000 was down on last year partly because of the police and press hysteria and partly because unlike last year May Day was not a Bank Holiday.

May Day Monopoly
The idea behind May Day Monopoly was to have a decentralised protest with ‘numerous autonomous actions centred on locations around the Monopoly board. Whilst each action may be small, the cumulative effect should be huge.’ The May Day Monopoly game guide booklet provided information about the multinational companies, government offices and financial institutions on streets from the Monopoly board and people were urged to organise their own protests.

‘The game of monopoly is one of accumulation, making it perfect for our times. The aim being for each player to make a profit through the sale of a single commodity – land – and to expand their empire. In real life one single commodity generates all profit – our labour power. Since labour power cannot be separated from people, we are literally bought and sold in the market. To prevent stagnation, capitalism must constantly expand. Thus we must consume as well as produce.’ (May Day Monopoly guide book)

Early in the morning on May Day a convergence centre that had been squatted to shelter protesters and prepare for the action was raided, to set the zero tolerance tone for the day.

At 8am a ‘Critical Mass’ bike ride set off in two groups, one from Liverpool Street station, the other from Marylebone. Riding slowly through the city, the groups converged in Kings Cross in a celebratory mood, before being trapped into a police ring and held for several hours.

The plan was for everyone to meet in Oxford Street at 4pm, where information would be handed out about a final united action. Oxford Street was chosen as a symbol of capitalism, home to seven Gap stores and Nike Town. ‘Gap employs children as young as 12 in its Cambodian factories. Uses child and adult sweat shop labour in the Third World Free Trade Zones to produce its clothing. Nike pays children 20 cents per hour in China and gets them jailed when they form a trade union.’

Heavy policing and the lack of groups able to organise strong autonomous actions meant that many of the planned protests did not take place, so people began drifting past vans of riot police up to Oxford Street. By 2pm, the SWP and Workers’ Power, followed by the CPGB, had marched from a more traditional left demonstration opposite the World Bank ‘up a virtually deserted and unpoliced Regent Street and into their well-planned trap at Oxford Circus’. (Weekly Worker 3 May)

They spent the rest of the chilly wet afternoon penned inside a police ring, with occasional efforts by protesters on all sides to break police lines. More riot police used horse and foot charges to disperse or entrap the 2-3,000 people gathering in the area. The WOMBLES (White Overall Movement Building Liberation through Effective Struggles) marched up Oxford Street in their padded white overalls inspired by the Italian anarchist/socialist anti-capitalist group Ya Basta, breaking through a police line and marching on with over 1,000 followers.

Finally, by around 8pm police began letting protesters go, one by one to break the sense of solidarity, after being searched and filmed by police cameras.

Preparing the ground
In the lead-up to May Day, the press, politicians and the police kept referring to the May Day riots the previous year, with repeated TV footage of McDonald’s being trashed, but what the state really feared was a repeat of the 18 June 1999 anti-capitalist demonstration. J18 led to physical fighting between anti-capitalist protesters and stockbrokers, sent dozens of police to hospital and caused £2 million worth of damage to property. By disrupting London’s shopping and business centre, May Day Monopoly 2001 had the potential to cause even greater chaos.

Low intensity operations
To combat the threat of May Day chaos, the corporate state used a strategy based on British army colonial experience against national liberation struggles, developed further in the north of Ireland and explained in General Frank Kitson’s book, Low Intensity Operations. This strategy was introduced in Britain by Kenneth Newman, ex-chief constable of the RUC, in the aftermath of the 1980-81 uprisings of black and white youth, when he was made head of the Metropolitan police in 1982. ‘Its aim is to turn effective political opposition to the British state into a criminal act. Only ineffectual political activity limited to establishment bodies and parliamentary debate will be regarded as legitimate. Anything else is outside the bounds of legitimate "democratic" opposition and must be dealt with as "a threat to public order".’ (May Day 2000 report, FRFI June/July 2000, also see FRFI 31, August 1983.)

Criminalising the protest
To stamp out ‘subversion’, in other words effective opposition, the state must alienate the protesters from the rest of the people. This is done using ‘psychological operations’, including use of the media for propaganda against the opposition, government schemes to win ‘moderate’ opinion and support for ‘dirty tricks’ such as fake leaflets and agents provocateurs who masquerade as demonstrators to discredit the cause. The aim in Kitson’s words is to ‘discover and neutralise the genuine subversive element.’

As part of this process the Corporation of London sent out 10,000 alarmist letters warning shops and offices that violent anarchists might target them; even schools in Camden were warned! Police advised shops to hire extra security and office workers were told to ‘dress down’ to avoid being targeted. Newspapers were fed photos and information about ’wanted’ activists and there was mention of the Real IRA, Samurai swords and rubber bullets in connection with the demonstration.

’Blair reads the Riot Act — May Day demo "not idealism, it is a crime pure and simple"’ the Evening Standard raged, quoting Tony Blair the afternoon before May Day.

Section 60 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, known as the ’riot act’, was imposed on May Day as the pretext for police to indiscriminately detain and search protestors. It also banned protesters from obscuring their identities, with hoods or facemasks, or face a month in gaol or fines of up to £2,500.

The police enjoyed their annual riot practice on May Day, beginning with a £20,000 breakfast (courtesy of the taxpayer) at 5am and a pep talk by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens. Police leave was cancelled for the day and 6,000 police were on the streets with 3,000 more on call. Home Secretary Jack Straw joined Scotland Yard’s special operations room, equipped with banks of CCTV screens and manned by 70 officers. Straw said: ‘There are some pretty evil people involved in this kind of protest, who are intent on violence against individuals and property.’ (Evening Standard, 1 May)

The ‘moderates’ condemn the protest
The other aim of the state strategy is ‘to associate the many prominent members of the population, especially those who may have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government.’ (From Kitson’s book)

Repeating the role he played last year, London Mayor Ken Livingstone predicted violence and endorsed heavy-handed police tactics: ‘Anyone whose intention is to engage in criminal activities should be arrested and charged without prevarication or unnecessary delay.’ (Financial Times 19 April)

This was a pre-emptive attack on civil liberties – to make arrests before any so-called crime is committed. A letter to The Guardian on 1 May from Lee Jasper, the race relations advisor in the Greater London Assembly said: ‘The Mayor’s message is simple and straightforward: do not attend this demonstration. The Metropolitan police has huge experience of handling sensitive demonstrations…we are depending on that experience to inform their professionalism today.’ Jasper’s confidence in the Met police is at complete variance with the experiences of black and working class people who face police harassment on a daily basis.

Jack Straw praised Livingstone’s stance and The Financial Times was reassured that Livingstone’s statements ’unambiguously showed him to be sensitive to business concerns about the potential threat’ (19 April). Having paved the way for re-entry into the Labour Party, Livingstone then paraded around with Special Branch bodyguards for several days in fear of attack from the ’anarchists’.

George Monbiot, once the mouthpiece of the environmental direct action movement, also repeated his scathing attack of last year’s violence, urging protesters to ’remove the sticks and stones from the hands of the masked-up class warriors and to stand between them and the police.’ (The Guardian, 1 May) With radicals like these, whose needs reactionaries?!

The traditional British left is an ally of the prominent moderates who attack the radical forces in the movement. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for example, celebrated Livingstone’s mayoral victory, despite his condemnation of the May Day protests last year.

Over the last year the SWP has had George Monbiot as the key speaker on their Globalise Resistance platform. Having disassociated himself from the radical direct action movement, Monbiot needed a new forum for his brand of radical analysis coupled with inaction. Likewise the SWP recognises the beginnings of an authentic anti-capitalist movement and is using the likes of Monbiot and the Globalise Resistance forum in an attempt to take it over and prevent it from confronting the Labour government.

However, ‘the vitality of the anti-capitalist movement lies precisely in its opposition to those traditional left and "respectable" forms of struggle that are associated with compromise and collaboration with the brutal enemy — global capitalism.’ (FRFI 157 October/November 2000, report from Prague) Over four years ago the direct action movement moved away from the sham of parliamentary politics in Britain with their slogan — ’don’t be a cog in the machine, be a spanner in the works.’ The SWP, however, is attempting to drag the movement backwards from the streets to the polling stations with a vote for the Socialist Alliance.

After the event
After so much money and airtime had been invested in the May Day ’riots’ (a BBC helicopter joined the two police helicopters circulating above London), the event was a let down. A minor rampage with a few broken shop windows was all there was to feed hungry TV cameras.

The national newspapers praised the excessive police operation for preventing a rampage. The Daily Mail informed its readers that ’the bitter irony, of course, is that capitalism provides the prosperity and freedom which the protesters attack in the name of "justice"’, a statement echoed by The Times. The Guardian concluded that ’the police conducted the operation diplomatically’. The Mirror agreed: ’The police operation against the anarchists, troublemakers and protesters was a model of brilliant policing. They maintained their calmness and strength in action.’ The Sun chirped: ’Whatever you might think of the demo by the great unwashed, there is no denying this: our police men and women are a superb bunch.’

There was no mention of the official trade union May Day demonstration, which had marched from Highbury Fields to Clerkenwell Green to avoid meeting the May Day Monopoly action. As usual, the British trade union movement had refused to mobilise for the demonstration, and the majority of the 500 demonstrators were from Turkish communist and trade union organisations, which have kept the May Day tradition alive in this country for years.

What next?
The criminalisation policy backfired slightly with the public alarm about the level of police brutality so evident on their TV screens, against what was a small and essentially peaceful demonstration. ‘And frankly a riot would have been cheaper’, complained David Aaronovitch in The Independent. A debate followed about the right to protest within a democracy and the limits of electoral politics and it was accepted that most people are opposed to the corporate take-over, against schools sponsored by McDonald’s and the privatisation of the railways.

This growing popular sentiment is a threat to the government because the corporate take-over will inevitably increase in the current stage of capitalist expansion. The power of corporations cannot be rationalised nor compromised, it cannot be reined in and therefore the popular reaction against the corporate take-over will also increase. Greater conflict is inevitable.

The challenge for the anti-capitalist movement is to expand from a handful of relatively small autonomous direct action campaigns into a mass movement involving the poorest sections of society, the unemployed, black and Asian people and immigrants, who are at the sharp end of capitalist exploitation and state repression.

The movement will have to assess the effectiveness of the May Day Monopoly tactic with its reliance on autonomous groups to organise in a decentralised way with little co-ordination. Individuals who wanted to take part in the May Day Monopoly demonstration were told to get together with ‘an affinity group, a gang, a posse’ of like-minded people. In a highly politicised society with tens of thousands of committed activists, organising simultaneous but separate actions spread throughout the capital would be highly successful.

However, May Day Monopoly revealed that there are not yet enough activists with the experience and confidence to organise autonomous protests. Many people did not have information about where events were taking place, and this excluded their participation. The police were not notified about the actions, even though they could not have prevented the protests if they had been. This allowed the police more easily to stop them, and people on the outside of the movement were scared off from joining in. The most successful protests were the larger ‘public’ ones that kept on the move, like the Critical Mass and the WOMBLES march up Oxford Street. People are more likely to be drawn into the movement if they can join a simple united action where they can feel safety in numbers, the power of the collective, and pick up the experience and skills necessary to take a more active role in the future.

The anti-capitalist movement is still young and its present highly decentralised structure has two advantages. It largely prevents the state from targeting individuals as the ‘organisers’ and making them legally responsible for any confrontation. It also allows the movement to grow and develop without confronting some of the ideological debates in an abstract way that might fragment it. The debates involve the use of violence versus non-violence, the balance between democracy and security, the aversion to hierarchy verses the need for organisation, how to create a mass movement, and the vital question of, if not capitalism, then what? Only those who participate in the real struggle can answer these questions, not those who distance themselves from it.
We have reclaimed May Day, now we have a world to win!

Quebec summit
Over the weekend of 20/22 April, leaders of 34 nations gathered in Quebec, Canada for the so-called ‘Summit of the Americas’ to put the finishing touches on the ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas’ (FTAA) agreement. This aims to establish what the imperialists describe as a ‘free trade’ zone which includes impoverished Latin American nations. Only one country was not invited: Cuba, something Fidel Castro described as ‘an honour and a privilege’.

Thousands of protesters were faced with the largest and most expensive police operation in Canadian history. The paramilitary police force used water cannon, plastic bullets, tear gas and smoke rounds. On the Friday evening as President Bush and his cronies arrived, thousands of activists tore down the ten-foot-high chain-link fence which was draped in hundreds of Cuban flags. Supporters of the Cuban Revolution chanted ‘Viva Fidel!’ and ‘Viva Cuba!’ as they approached the fortified compound. In conveying the support of the Cuban people to the Quebec protesters Fidel Castro said;

‘This is how governments, trying to fool the world by calling themselves human rights defenders, treat their own citizens. This is how they try to unburden their consciences of the millions of children, women, adults and elderly people who die unnecessarily each year from hunger or illness. But they will not be able to maintain this unjust order they have imposed on humanity. We convey to you our fullest solidarity. Cuba supports you, embraces you, and greets you as brothers and sisters.’
Paul Mallon

FRFI 161 June / July 2001

 

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