The opulence of the sales floors at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly is rivalled only by the sheer luxury of the new Tesco in Walsall. It is only a matter of time before Her Majesty transfers her royal appointment loyalty to the aircraft hanger just off the ring road. The photo opportunity as our dear Queen nips in to pick up some marmalade and oven chips will provide a welcome distraction from the last rites of a dying town.
Fortnum and Mason, according to some sections of the press, has been trashed by barbaric anarchists in a mindless orgy of violence. Boris Johnson attributes this manifestation of class envy and murderous Bolshevism to none other than Ed Miliband who, it seems, stirred up this revolutionary insurrection by shamelessly addressing a rally in Hyde Park. One assumes that the indignant outrage at people smashing things up for fun expressed by the Mayor of London is shared by his old Bullingdon Club chums David Cameron and George Osborne.
In a rare consensus, the organisers of the march on Saturday agreed with the Metropolitan Police that 250,000 people took to the streets to protest against coalition cuts to jobs and services. Others, including the hysterical Daily Mail put the figure at half a million. Other media outlets claimed that one million protested. It took four hours for pensioners, babes in arms, samba bands, fancy dressed and “ordinary” people to set off from Victoria Embankment. By the time the back of the march reached Hyde Park, the speeches were over and the stage was being dismantled. The impeccable organisation by the T.U.C. and the Met resulted in zero arrests, no criminal damage and a day that made you proud to live in a big, democratic society. However…
As it became clear that England would not take a wicket in Colombo, the cricket commentary was replaced by the BBC News channel coverage of the march. Astonished reporters on the ground talked of the sheer scale of the demonstration. “And still they come” gushed one excitable hackette. The BBC dragged Paymaster General Francis Maude out of bed to comment on the “unprecedented scenes” but all the former director of Morgan Stanley could offer was the pre-programmed drone of inherited deficit. Against images of little old ladies and small children carrying placards denouncing the coalition government, he attempted to compare the protest to that of 2003 when one million took to the streets opposing what he described as “Tony Blair’s decision” to wage war on Iraq. As air strikes in Libya escalate, the decision to invade Iraq was supported by him and his party.
To try and offer some balance, the BBC pulled up a paving stone and discovered an idiot from the Tax Payers Alliance. Comedy gold.
Then we came to the speech by Ed Miliband. He had barely cleared his throat and after a couple of minutes of his adenoidal whine, the BBC decided to cut away to images of some nutters throwing stuff at Topshop in Oxford Street. The shocking scenes relayed by the BBC helicopter of black-clad face-masked anarchists involved in some argy-bargy with black and yellow-clad police officers with visors down was accompanied by the dulcet, nasal tones of Miliband quoting Martin Luther King.
At last, the media had its news agenda and the BBC re-ran the footage over and over again and dumped the speeches from Hyde Park. By the time the VT was run for the fifth time, it was possible to ascertain that what, at first, looked like a huge crowd of angry thugs was, in fact, no more than about a dozen. The crowd was made up of rank after rank of photographers holding aloft the products of Nikon, Canon and Fujifilm. Beyond that melee, shoppers, tourists and passers-by held up their mobile phones to record the fun and games. Behind the thin blue line, “evidence gatherers” took photographs of photographers. The black bloc had legged it with the BBC describing a tactic as a movement.
The mischievous, if small, Durruti Column then descended upon the HSBC and Santander banks followed by the pack of press snappers. Two or three of the masked men managed to cave in the front window of Santander and then moved on in the direction of the Ritz. First into the bank were about 30 press photographers. Having caught up, the front line paparazzi stood shoulder to shoulder with the anarchists as they attempted breach the defences of London’s premier hotel. By now, the BBC helicopter was on a shopping spree.
The peaceful march by a quarter, a half or a million was now a side show.
UK Uncut is an organisation committed to what it calls “direct action” and have previously staged peaceful protests in the retail outlets of the likes of Topshop, Boots and Vodaphone, companies who avoid paying taxes.
The decision by UK Uncut to occupy Fortnum and Mason was described by disgruntled organisers of the march as an attempt to hijack the love fest in Hyde Park. However, it was UK Uncut who were hijacked by the boys in black. The sit down protest at the Queen’s grocer, targeted because its parent company avoids paying taxes, was peaceful and legal and according to a spokesperson for Fortnum and Mason, damage was “minimal”. The anarchists within resisted looting the four quid lollipops, five quid small chocolate bars and 85 quid Easter Eggs and instead recited poetry at each other. They did not help themselves to Ostrich Scotch Eggs at £75 each or the £500 picnic hampers. One 15 year old girl carried a home made banner which read “We are peaceful, making a point and haven’t broken anything”.
By the time the point had been made, the angry mob outside had been allowed to climb onto the canopy, paint some very rude words on the wall and make good their escape by sliding down lamp posts. The shot from the helicopter revealed that the heavy police presence did nothing to stop this vandalism or apprehend the perpetrators as they headed off toward Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, back inside, some chocolate bunnies were dislodged from a display pyramid and someone nicked some bottles of wine. With chocolate bunnies costing 15 quid each and a bottle of Chevillon Nuits-St-Georges Les Vaucrains 2007 retailing at £65, the cost to the proprietors was probably about the same as a Saturday mornings shoplifting at Tesco.
Having become bored with poetry, UK Uncut wanted to leave but were, quite rightly, prevented from doing so due to the volatile situation outside. Footage released by The Guardian shows a calm negotiation and a courteous atmosphere inside Fortnum and Mason. Sadly, once outside, protesters were kettled, arrested, charged with aggravated trespass and marched off to spend a night in the cells. Given the evidence from so many cameras, it is unlikely that any convictions will result.
Clearly, the role of the police is a difficult one, especially in situations where a small minority are intent on civil disorder and criminal damage. The excellent blog by PC Richard Stanley links to another Guardian video showing the day from the perspective of the Met`s Territorial Support Group. The film finally lays to rest the old ACAB lie.
The BBC, in possession of some brilliant shots of violence, gave up on reporting the main march and rally and played the best bits of people throwing things on loop. To their credit, they did repeatedly stress that the aggro was nothing to do with the T.U.C. and only a small number of people were involved in disorder. One had to admire the professionalism of our man on the ground as he was shouted at, had a can of Special Brew opened in his ear and had every lunatic this side of Tripoli making rude signs behind him as he attempted to deliver a piece to camera. First prize, though, goes to the hoodie who walked through shot and causally offered “bollocks” as a critique of our reporters craft.
As day turned to night, the quarter, half or million teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, librarians, uniformed fire fighters and, allegedly, off-duty police officers dispersed and returned to their coaches, trains and homes. The hard-core black bloc headed for Trafalgar Square, where, a party had been arranged. In the days leading up to the protest, whispers on the internet spoke of a Tahrir style sleepover to celebrate the end of a fairly groovy day and to be intentionally away from home on census day. Our man on the ground was aware that something was up but let the cat of the bag slightly when he reported that all was “calm at the moment but we will be back to you when we get some action…err…if anything happens.” Later a television journalist from Sky News allegedly offered a youth £25 to throw a brick. Things soon turned ugly as the black bloc tacticians were hijacked by the drunks that congregate in Trafalgar Square on a Saturday night.
Now that the dust has settled, the paint cleaned off the Fortnum and Mason walls and the windows at the Ritz repaired, the police face another challenge. A 20 per cent cut in funding, nebulous definitions of what front-line means and the possibility of elected and, therefore, political police commissioners leaves the constabulary with a dilemma. When further demonstrations take place, and they will until we see the back of this wretched, unelected coalition government, will the police continue to keep the peace and protect the population. Or will they be forced again, as during the miners strike, to keep a political party in power and protect dogma, ideology and oppression.
Unlike press photographers who can afford to dine at the Ritz, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one…happy one.