MAY DAY - A parting of ways / FRFI 155 Jun / Jul 2000

FRFI 155 June / July 2000

The anti-capitalist festival throughout the May Day 2000 long weekend has a political significance far beyond both the actual events themselves and the immediate knee-jerk reactions of the media, politicians and the police to the 'violence' of the May Day protest in London. It demonstrated a determination of 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 a growing, global anti-capitalist movement. It also led to certain high profile figures within the 'green' movement, such as George Monbiot and John Vidal, breaking with this growing anti-capitalist coalition by siding with its reactionary critics in a manner which barely distinguished them from the 'gutter' press. DAVID YAFFE reports.

Low intensity operations

What we experienced over the May Day weekend was part of a continuing police strategy put in place soon after the 1980-81 city uprisings of black and white youth. It is based on British army colonial experience against national liberation struggles and was systematically laid out in General Frank Kitson's book Low Intensity Operations (1971), developed further in the North of Ireland and put into place by Kenneth Newman, an ex-Chief Constable of the RUC, when he was made head of the Metropolitan Police in 1982.* Its aim is to turn any 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'.

In his book Kitson argues that it is necessary to ruthlessly stamp out 'subversion' – that is, effective political (revolutionary) opposition – whilst simultaneously strengthening 'moderate' elements who support the state. Intelligence-gathering operations are an essential feature of this process to target those capable of organising serious opposition. The method of gathering intelligence relies heavily on a 'large number of low grade sources' – small pieces of information acquired by the police – fed into computers to build up a total picture of the opposition. At the same time, 'psychological operations' are used in an attempt to isolate the opposition from the people. These include propaganda against the opposition cause, use of the press and media to put over the government side, government schemes to win 'moderate' opinion and support, 'dirty tricks' such as fake leaflets and eventually provocateurs and agents who masquerade as oppositionists to discredit the cause, and finally, if necessary, the assassination of leading oppositionists. The aim, in Kitson's words, is 'to discover and neutralise the genuine subversive element' and 'to associate the many prominent members of the population, especially those who may have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government.' (our emphasis)

'Intelligence gathering' and 'psychological operations', Kitson emphasised, had to take place before the emergence of subversion or an offensive phase of conflict had begun. The May Day weekend saw elements of this strategy put into practice.

Preparing the ground – psychological operations

The background to the May Day events was the drubbing the police received last summer when anti-capitalist protests in the City of London led to 28 police officers and 14 others being injured, 102 arrests and £2m worth of damage. The state was also aware of the political impact of the anti-capitalist campaigners' victories on the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in November/ December last year.

So, well before the May Day events, the police, through the corporate press and media, were preparing the ground for a massive police presence on the streets of London to take on the demonstrators. They also needed to justify an intense and unprecedented surveillance and intelligence-gathering operation, filming everyone participating in any of the events over the May Day weekend. This was done by using the press to associate the activities with 'rioting and anarchy' and even 'terrorism'.

The Express (20 April) was typical. Concentrating, like most of the press, on the main May Day event, it reported that three police forces, the Metropolitan Police, the City of London Police, and British Transport Police would unite in preparation for 'widespread rioting led by anarchists. The ringleaders are thought to be planning hit-and-run raids on targets in the City and elsewhere in the capital, using mobile phones and pagers to co-ordinate rioting'. The Independent (28 April) stated that police had warned that 'anti-capitalist protesters from the riots in Seattle and Washington are planning to take part in the demonstrations'. 200 to 300 'troublemakers' would attempt to cause disruption. Commenting on the way the protesters had used the internet and mobile phones to organise the rally, a senior police source said: 'They are not far away from the way terrorists work in cells'. Police told the Big Issue (24-30 April) that behind the 'fluffy literature' a hardcore will 'cynically manipulate' the majority of people coming to the event.

Some journalists took pride in acting as spies. Justin Rigby of The Sunday Times (30 April) tells us how he infiltrated the movement, went to its secret meetings and found out that the official plans for the Reclaim the Streets' (RTS) 'media-friendly publicity stunt called guerrilla gardening – planting thousands of plants and vegetable seeds across London – was a feint'. The real action would be taken elsewhere by small groups, who wanted to see the violence which occurred in the City of London in June last year happen again. The Sunday Telegraph (16 April) also claimed to have infiltrated an anarchist meeting and reported that protesters were to occupy a roundabout outside Buckingham Palace.

Jack Straw, Labour's Home Secretary, made it clear that there would no repeat of last summer's City of London riots. This year the police would be prepared. Ken Livingstone, soon to be elected Mayor of London in opposition to the government, got in on the act and warned of a 'small core who will try and cause violence and people will get hurt in that'. He told his supporters to keep away. Some 15,000 officers would be on duty in Britain's 'biggest ever anti-riot operation' (The Express), with others in reserve. In this fashion the police, the press and prominent politicians were preparing the ground for criminalising anti-capitalist protest.

Police lay a trap

After their defeat last summer, the police were determined to demonstrate they could win this time and put into practice their tactics for containing the demonstrators in a restricted area on May Day. Throughout the day they were gathering intelligence and photographing those involved. 100 officers were scrutinising CCTV pictures and passing on information from a packed operations control room. Snatch squads were to be sent in to remove those on the front line once the riot police were deployed. In effect, they laid a trap.

The press scare stories and the warnings from politicians ensured that the numbers were smaller than expected, fewer than 8,000. In spite of being told that the police had sealed off Parliament Square the night before, a large procession of people, setting off from Hyde Park, marched straight into Parliament Square and joined the 'guerrilla gardening', planting seeds, flowers and saplings and digging up turf to lay on the surrounding roads. The police did not intervene to prevent these actions, but, as part of their strategy, photographed everyone involved. Interestingly enough the police did remove a Boycott Bacardi banner strung between two traffic lights, but did nothing when it was rehoisted between two statues in an even better place in the Square, except presumably photograph those responsible. Neither did they prevent the decorating and daubing of statues like that of the imperialist and racist bigot Winston Churchill.

Sometime in the afternoon, a traditional May Day march of around 3,000, including large numbers of Turkish and Kurdish workers and communists, organisations representing asylum-seekers, Longbridge workers and left-wing organisations, was stopped by lines of riot police from entering the agreed destination in Trafalgar Square. Later, commentators were to claim that the rioters had prevented the march from reaching Trafalgar Square. This was not true. The main concern of the police was to stop the two sets of demonstrators meeting together.

In Whitehall McDonald's, surprisingly, had been left unboarded and unguarded. It was an open invitation and, after it was smashed up, riot police appeared from the side streets and battle commenced. The police systematically charged the demonstration, splitting it up and herding people either back to Parliament Square or into Trafalgar Square.

At Parliament Square, where large numbers of 'guerrilla gardeners' had remained enjoying the sunshine,
all exits were sealed off without warning, trapping everyone. People were photographed and their names
and addresses were recorded before some were allowed to leave. At about 6.30pm a large section of the crowd, marching to the rhythm of the samba band, forced its way out of Parliament Square through Millbank. Throughout the evening, skirmishes with the police took place, concentrated mainly in Kennington Park where many of the demonstrators had regrouped.

There was no collective effort to push out of Trafalgar Square. There, demonstrators were held until after 8.00pm and only allowed to leave one by one, many after being searched, photographed and having their details recorded. The police had got what they wanted. The 'violence' was, in the main, limited and restricted to a small area. An enormous amount of intelligence had been gained, nearly 100 had been arrested and the press, the media and assorted politicians were now more than ready to attack the anti-capitalist demonstrators.

A reactionary chorus

The Times was typical. In a leader 'Mayday Mayhem' (2 May), it spoke of a day of action which 'has proved to be, as expected, a descent into anarchy' with 'violent gangs' and 'rampaging anarchists' hurling bricks at police officers. More sinisterly it said that 'a raggle-taggle mob, loosely grouped under an anarchist banner, cannot be trusted with the organisation of a legal, peaceful demonstration...They make a mockery of a serious environmentalist's cause'. Much was made of the daubing of Winston Churchill's statue and the Cenotaph. Typical was the Daily Mail (2 May) – 'mob desecrates the national memorial to those who gave their lives to the cause of freedom'. This, of course, is gross hypocrisy coming from a newspaper which supported appeasement with Hitler. The Sun (2 May) called upon readers to turn in people they recognised from newspaper photographs. Evening Standard journalist Nigel Rosser (5 May) fingered Turkish communist organisations as being at the 'heart of much of the May Day rioting and vandalism'. Appealing to the racist prejudices of many of his readers, he told us that: 'it is believed many are either illegal immigrants or seeking political asylum in this country'.

Politicians took up this theme. Blair condemned the 'mindless thuggery' and told relatives and friends of those photographed committing acts of violence to name and shame them. 'If they can't demonstrate properly, they should not be allowed to demonstrate at all.' Home Secretary Jack Straw told the Commons there were provisions within the law for processions to be banned at a chief police officer's request. After all this propaganda, it is certainly possible, as SchNEWS (5 May) reckons, that 'the public is ripe to accept that no more anti-capitalist protests will be allowed to happen again'.

Reactionary views coming from the police, the corporate press and politicians are not unexpected. But to do real damage, as Kitson argued, 'prominent' people associated with radical politics have to be called upon to take the side of the police and government. Ken Livingstone was signed up before the events took place (see above). After them, he was quick to echo Blair, when he said: 'I utterly condemn the violence and destruction of property by mindless thugs. These people injured police officers, destroyed property and disrupted peaceful union demonstrations' – repeating the lie, promoted on the night by the BBC, that the violence in Whitehall forced the police to halt the traditional May Day demonstration. More significantly, John Vidal of The Guardian (2 May), someone long associated with radical actions within the 'green' movement, told the police to note a man called Ben or Benny, who threw the first stone yesterday and turned a 'good-natured, if incoherent, May Day garden party in Parliament Square...into a running fight with the police'. He then went on to describe him.

The most shameful attack on the event came from George Monbiot, another Guardian journalist with 'radical' credentials. In a scurrilous and pompous article 'Streets of Shame' (The Guardian Society 10 May) Monbiot tells us that he now regards RTS as 'incoherent vigilantes' who are a 'threat to the environmental and social justice movements'. Why is this? Monbiot's reasons are quite revealing. 'Non-violent direct action', he tells us, 'is not a direct attempt to change the world through physical action, but a graphic and symbolic means of drawing attention to neglected issues, capturing hearts and minds through political theatre'. Its impact will necessarily be limited, until it becomes part of a 'wider democratic assault' on the policies which gave rise to it. He goes on to say that when 'physical force' is the sole means of preventing something from taking place, political activism is indistinguishable from the actions of Tony Martin (Norfolk farmer found guilty of murder) shooting the burglars in his house. This is all self-serving stuff, which justifies Monbiot writing about the evils of corporate capitalism, without taking effective action to change things, and so avoid putting his own privileged position as a Guardian columnist on the line.

It is also nonsense, as his fellow columnist Hugo Young, hardly a leftwinger, pointed out in The Guardian (2 May) in a more reasoned article on the May Day events. He argued that the 'guerrilla gardening' threatened no one, 'least of all the bastions of British politics or capitalism'. The event faced a dilemma. If it remained peaceful then it would be patronised or ignored. If it was violent it would get noticed. Inevitably it was violent. He continued, 'the political system does respond to force. Arguably it responds to nothing else'. But he goes on to distinguish force from 'violence' which, he says, can 'easily be seen off by the superior violence of the state'. What is needed, he says, is the 'force of a competing political reality which threatens the power of those who control the system'. At times, he argues, the movement has achieved this and had some success in direct action campaigns over road bypasses and in the case of Monsanto. Other examples are the campaigns to disrupt the meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) at Seattle and Washington. Violence was not absent from these campaigns. What is significant is that they worked by amplifying real forces already at large, in the case of Seattle especially in the Third World. Direct action was the ally of political reality.

Monbiot rejects such a direct action movement precisely because it really would have to take on corporate power and confront the violence of the state. Later on in his article, he gives the game away. The protest, he complained, 'three days before the local elections, managed to jeopardise the best electoral chances radical politics has had in Britain for 15 years'. This then is his political theatre, a farce of ineffective, powerless, local bourgeois politics, of the Ken Livingstones and the official Green Party.

What next?

Building an anti-capitalist movement in opposition to the corrupt parliamentary political system and bought-off official labour and trade union movement is no easy task. It will be made still harder when the new anti-terrorism bill becomes law. Many mistakes will be made and lessons have to be learned. The May Day 'guerrilla gardening' did face a dilemma. To argue as the RTS statement (2 May) did that 'Guerrilla Gardening is not a protest; by its very nature it is a creative peaceful celebration of the growing global anti-capitalist movement' and then say 'Events that occurred outside Parliament Square were not part of the Guerrilla Gardening event', only compounds this dilemma. Unlike the J18 protest in the City of London and the protests in Seattle and Washington, the direct action of May Day could not, except in a very confused way, relate to the political reality driving the growing global anti-capitalist movement.

When RTS linked up with the sacked Liverpool dockers in 1996, a crucial link between the environmental, social and political movements was made and the roots of a new anti-capitalist movement were laid. Interestingly this was a move that John Vidal (The Guardian 2 October 1996) regarded as a step too far. So did the police when they attacked those supporting the dockers during a demonstration on Merseyside. The protest against multinational companies' brutal exploitation of their workers, against the City of London, the WTO and IMF all built on such experiences and this has to be continued.

There is a lot to be done in Britain alone. Multinational companies are invading our educational institutions at every level. We have to stop them. Poverty pay and casualisation have become a feature in the lives of millions of workers. We need to take action. Pollution continues to destroy the health and environment of people who live in our cities. We have only just begun to combat it. Both Labour and Tories are engaged in systematic racist attacks on asylum seekers. They have to be exposed and combated. And finally we need to learn from our experiences and draw out the many lessons of May Day 2000.

* For a discussion of this strategy see 'Kenneth Newman the enemy in our midst' in FRFI 31 August 1983. An edited version of this article called 'State Repression' appeared in FRFI 135 February/March 1997. It is available in the Marxism section of our website .


Churchill – racist bigot

One striking political message in Parliament Square was given through the daubing and decorating of the statue of that racist bigot and ruling class warmonger Winston Churchill. The red paint dripping from his mouth and the hammer and sickle on the plinth were very poignant. He detested the Bolsheviks, reserving for them a special vitriol reminiscent of Nazi tirades against the Jews: 'swarms of typhus-bearing vermin'.

Churchill's racism was at the heart of his imperialist political standpoint. The white races, in particular the British, were for him superior: 'I do not admit...that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia...by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race...has come in and taken its place.' Churchill approved the use of poisonous gas on numerous occasions in Afghanistan, in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and against the Red Army, saying: 'I do not understand this squeamishness about using gas...I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gases against uncivilised tribes'.*

He had a profound contempt for the working class, was opposed to unemployment benefit and, during the General Strike 1926 called for the armed forces to put down the strike by any means necessary. After its defeat he wanted relief for miners' families to be withdrawn – a position too foul even for his fellow Tories.

The ex-soldier James Matthews, arrested for daubing Churchill's statue after his picture appeared in the press, defended himself politically in court and was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment by a viciously reactionary magistrate. He justified his action in a clear, political and courageous way when he said:

'The May Day celebrations were in the spirit of free expression against capitalism. Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence for India. The media machine made this paunchy little man much larger than life – a colossal, towering figure of great stature and bearing the trademark cigar, bowler hat and V-sign. The reality was an often irrational, sometimes vainglorious leader whose impetuosity, egotism and bigotry on occasion cost many lives unnecessarily, and caused much suffering that was needless and unjustified'.

Need any more be said!

Cenotaph: RTS statement

'In relation to the graffiti on the cenotaph, we are obviously aware of the millions of people who have given their lives in the fight for freedom. We know that millions are still dying every year in numerous struggles for independence, freedom and human rights. We respect all those people who are, and have been, prepared to stand up to fascism, imperialism and dictatorship. That said we do not necessarily celebrate the generals and the ruling class that send these people to their deaths to protect the privileges and control of the few. The abhorrence of sending millions of men to their deaths in the trenches dwarfs the stupidity of any possible slogan on a piece of stone'.

* A good biography of Churchill is by Clive Ponting, Sinclair Stevenson 1994. This material on Churchill came from a review of this book in FRFI 120 August/September 1994. A short summary of Churchill 'Damaging a criminal' appears in SchNEWs 5 May.