Revolution #162, April 19, 2009
We want another world, or We want this world patched up?
Scenes from the anti-G20 demonstrations
April 6, 2009. A World to Win News Service. “Will French President Sarkozy get his global financial regulatory mechanism, or will the Anglo-American financial stimulus approach to the crisis prevail?” “Will climate change be a priority, or will it be put on the back burner?” People all over the world, and especially in Britain, were barraged with the message that everyone had a vital stake in the debates at the London G20 meeting, the summit conference of the world’s largest 20 economies, and that these were the only choices. Hand in hand with that went another message: how dare anyone even think of protesting?! The stakes being discussed at the G20 were said to be of such tremendous importance to the future of the whole planet that no one must be allowed to disturb our democratically elected leaders as they conduct their delicate negotiations. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden tried to play on President Barack Obama’s newness in government to argue that the demonstrators should “give us a chance” and first listen to what the leaders plan to do.
Yet the future of the planet is indeed vital, and faces unprecedented threats—and that’s exactly why its destiny cannot be left in the hands of the G20 leaders and their ilk. This question—in whose hands should we place our hopes for the future—was what objectively made the G20 demonstrations in London and other cities in Europe so important, and it was also very present in the minds of and debated by quite a few demonstrators as well.
On March 28, the Saturday before the G20 meeting, over 35,000 people marched through London in a demonstration called by a broad coalition of environmentalists, charities and trade unions. The official slogan, “Put People First,” was meant to be a word of advice or pressure on the G20 deciders. On that same day, 15,000 marched in Berlin, 6,000 in Rome (where a meeting of the G8 Ministers of Labour was being held) and another 6,500 in Vienna under the slogans, “Make the Rich Pay” and “Capitalism Kills,” as did hundreds in Paris.
Even greater attention was focused on the G20 meeting itself on Wednesday and Thursday. As the date approached, another, more ominous message came from the police themselves, with mounting force: “violent extremists” were out to “hijack” the protests, even possibly “terrorists.” A few days before the G20, a handful of people were arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Front-page headlines linked “terrorists” and the G20, and said that the “suspected terrorists” had “extremist” political material as well as “dangerous weapons” and were possibly planning an attack on the G20. Only later did it emerge that they had nothing more dangerous than fireworks, and when the media tried to pin down the constable in charge of the investigation, he revealed that the arrests had been made when one of them was caught painting graffiti on a wall. He refused to identify the “extremist” political material seized, but said that “it was different than what you ordinarily see,” which raises the question: are the police now going to treat anything out of the ordinary as “terrorist”?!
This specter of violent confrontation dominated the headlines day after day preceding the G20, as London’s Metropolitan Police mounted what they said was the “biggest operation” in their history, with all police leave cancelled and thousands of reinforcements called in from surrounding regions. A force of 30,000 police was deployed. Bankers were told to “dress down” so that they wouldn’t be targeted, as if individuals, and not the G20 leaders themselves, were the real object of the protestors’ wrath. Here it is worth noting that the only bankers hurt during the protests, and there were some, were injured by the police, not by protestors.
Despite the police and media-fuelled atmosphere of threat and intimidation, tens of thousands turned out on Wednesday to greet the G20. No one really knows how many, including first, because most of the protests were highly decentralized, with six or eight or even more different actions taking place at a single time, each gathering anywhere from a few dozen to many thousands, and second, because the police took every opportunity to block off huge swathes of central London, corralling protestors in isolated bunches and doing their best to prevent coordinated action.
One crucial factor shaping how this whole battle unfolded was Obama’s image. Anyone not joining in the celebration welcoming the first Black U.S. President in history to Britain was portrayed like the town drunk who always shows up to spoil the party. While analyzing the relations between U.S. imperialism and the rest of the world’s major powers is beyond the scope of this report, two things could be said: first, many of the other G20 leaders clearly welcome Obama as representing the prospects of a somewhat more multilateral Washington approach to global policy, but two, they also very much hope that the change in image that Obama represents will reinvigorate the U.S.’s ability to “lead the democratic world,” that is, the global system of imperialist plunder that they all have a vital stake in.
As for the protestors, many of them did have hopes that Obama might bring some real change to U.S. policy. In fact, if this hadn’t been the feeling among so many people, it’s hard to believe that the G20 could have been held in London at all. For some time now in Europe most gatherings of major heads of state had been forced into the shadows, to remote locations kept inaccessible to normal people, like the Scottish highlands resort of Gleneagles for the G8 in 2005 and Germany’s Heilingendamm for the G8 in 2007 (and a militarized island off Sardinia for the upcoming G8 meeting). This life in the shadows was truer for no one more than George Bush, who during his final time in office was forced to confine his major appearances to military bases and other areas safe from the hatred that hundreds of millions around the world felt for what he stood for.
So the very act of holding this kind of gathering of major heads of state in a global capital once again was in a sense an attempt to reverse a correct verdict on these world leaders. It threw down the gauntlet to the ranks of those forces who’ve hounded them around Europe and the world in their periodic meetings. This was particularly so as they were coming to a world financial center at a time when their global financial system is wreaking such pain and misery on literally billions around the world. But while many protestors held out some hope that Obama might bring real changes, at the same time many recognized that the outrages they see reflect the workings of a much larger system. As one protestor put it, “Why on earth should we think that the heads of the main capitalist states getting together should make it possible to solve a problem caused by capitalism?”
And so it was that large numbers of those who descended on London, including from around the British Isles and northern Europe in particular, came with a real sense of determination to try to stop business as usual in London’s financial center while the G20 leaders met.
Scenes from Obama’s first taste of mass protest
On Wednesday, as the G20 leaders arrived, the climate change campaigners held several actions. At the ExCel Centre in London’s East End, where the G20 meeting was to take place, they held a “climate emergency ice-berg demo,” where they brought in a giant block of ice to dramatize the melting of the polar ice caps and the urgent threat of global warming. A March for Jobs passed through some of London’s poorest boroughs to call attention to the millions around the world who’re being thrown out of their jobs and into the streets. At 12:30, in a highly coordinated action that made use of Twitter and other e-media, about 1,000 people suddenly swooped on Bishopsgate, the heart of London’s financial area called “The City,” and set up several hundred tents, creating a “tent city,” behind a huge banner proclaiming, “Nature Doesn’t Do Bail-outs.” They planned to stay 24 hours and use the area as a base to hold teach-ins and fan out and talk with passers-by.
Early that same afternoon, 6-8,000 people gathered at the U.S. Embassy for a march in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Like in the anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg, France, later that week, many felt that it was important that these be strong shows of defiance. Not only were people angry because Obama was sending more troops to Afghanistan and calling on Europe to do the same, but several people also pointed to the recent news of a new anti-woman law passed by the imperialist-backed Karzai government that limits women’s right to leave their homes unaccompanied and legalizes marital rape. This is yet further proof that however reactionary the Taleban might be, the imperialist occupation was not part of the solution, but at the heart of the problem.
Meanwhile, even as the anti-war protestors and the climate change campaigners were on the move, thousands more were gathering at the Bank Underground station to take the protests right into London’s financial center. It was here that tensions were sharpest. Protestors talked of the stark contrast between the bail-out of the bankers and what the broad masses were going through. Many pointed to Sir Fred Godwin, former head of Royal Bank of Scotland, who’d retired at 50 on a million dollars a year after presiding over the bank’s collapse and public bail-out, while hundreds of thousands of working-class people were being tossed onto the dole queues [unemployment benefit lines] on 130 dollars a week. One group of protestors had drenched themselves in blood to show what the reality of the financial crisis meant to the people of the Third World, for whom higher food and energy prices mean going cold and hungry.
The protestors were converging in four smaller feeder marches, each with many hundreds of people, on the main gathering of 5-6,000 already at the station. But suddenly, hundreds of police encircled the main group, while hundreds of other police blocked each of the feeder marches, and then encircled some of them in turn. This is a technique developed over the last few years in the UK called “kettling.” Large numbers of riot police block all the surrounding streets to encircle a mass of protestors, holding them sometimes for many hours, almost always without any advance warning. Then, if they so decide, they allow the protestors to leave only through the “kettle outlet,” one at a time, taking their photo and ID as they exit. If protestors refuse, they are arrested on the spot. This police-state tactic is one way that the authorities in Britain, the home of modern Western parliamentary democracy, have built up a massive computerized database on its citizens, which includes DNA records on millions. This practice has just been upheld by the highest court. It is part of what is said to be the most comprehensive surveillance society in the world, with several million closed-circuit TV cameras countrywide and every square meter of central London said to be covered by police CCTV.
All this has been overseen by the Labour Party. While throughout the week the British bourgeoisie were salivating at the fantasy of somehow having their own Obama moment, or at least basking in his temporarily, their situation contrasts starkly with the U.S. Unlike there, where it was the Bush regime that presided over the post-9/11 juggernaut of war and repression, in Britain it was the supposedly left-wing Labour Party that oversaw this time of war and repression, leaving a big vacuum among millions who had traditionally looked to it as an alternative to the conservative Tories.
For two hours or so, the 5-6,000 “kettled” protestors were resigned to chanting, singing, dancing and just talking to each other. One 20-year-old student from a university in the Newcastle area was straining to understand why more people hadn’t come out, given the devastation the crisis was wreaking on people’s lives all over the world. He talked about his experience struggling with some of his mates who were trying to convince him that he should be supporting socialism in Castro’s Cuba and in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. “But,” he said, “I’ve been studying what’s going on in those countries, and just don’t see how they are getting rid of imperialism. Cuba hasn’t diversified its economy, and Chavez is doing all kinds of deals with the multinationals, and depends on oil to try to get free of imperialism. It’s not bottom up, it’s top down.” He was, like several other students met during the protest, reading Marx’s Capital in a small study circle, and was eager to get into discussion about communist revolution, what kind of society it was aiming for, and what was the experience of the 20th century revolutions.
Some of the demonstrators had gone to Edinburgh, Scotland, to protest the G8 summit there in 2005. One young Londoner said he had been “pretty naive” back then: “We were focusing on Africa then, and I really thought we were going to make the G8 do a lot more for the people there. But if you look at the percentage of gross domestic product that the G8 countries are giving out in foreign aid, it hasn’t changed in the last ten years.”
Many protestors identified with anarchism, anti-capitalism and even revolution. As one high-school youth put it, “I look around and see all these states, and they’re all bad, and it seems that the communist revolutions didn’t solve this problem, so you’ve just got to be against the state.” But at the same time, when pressed for how society could be organized, he, like many others, acknowledged, “Look, I don’t really know, but I’m trying to figure that out.” Anarchism, like anti-capitalism, often translated into opening up space for alternative lifestyles that could break out of the confines of consumer society and exist in some kind of spirit of solidarity with people all over the world, and while the default was that communism had failed, there was also openness to going into the experience of the 20th century revolutions and what it means to say that capitalism is the problem, and what it would actually take to go beyond class society, and intense wrangling about all the “big questions” of revolution, like human nature, and how such change could actually happen.
As the hours went on, the protestors grew restless. No one was allowed out, even elderly people who complained of their health. People began to press against the police perimeter, and scuffles started, with the police wielding their truncheons with abandon. Some of the activists seized on the discontent, and mobilized much of the 5-6,000 people to close ranks and push harder and harder against one of the police lines, finally just rolling over them. Freed from the kettle! But before the demonstrators had marched more than a few hundred yards, the police had called in reinforcements, closed off the surrounding streets, and reinstituted the lock-down. And so the day progressed, alternating between periods of intense confrontation, and periods of intense discussion over capitalism and communism in the “kettle.”
Towards evening, the police turned their attention towards “the greenies” in the Climate Change camp at Bishopsgate, where by now at least 1,500 people had gathered, most with the intention of spending the night in the “tent city.” Even this alternative eco scene was too much for the police, and several hundred of them surrounded it, dumped the protestors out of their tents and kettled them till late into the night.
The heavy-handed police tactics, in particular the use of kettling on a more mass scale than ever, caused a lot of controversy even among the liberal media, particularly when it emerged that a 47-year-old man, Ian Tomlinson, had died during the protest. Sharp controversy still rages as we go to press. It was reported that he was photographed lying on the ground talking with 5 riot police shortly before he died. But why didn’t the police call an ambulance? And had he been kettled before collapsing, or worse? The slowness with which any facts have emerged says a lot about how determined the police were not to let this incident spoil the G20.
Some protestors made the journey from London to Strasbourg at the same time as Obama and the other leaders from NATO countries did the same. Some argued that this was the “real” meeting, the meeting that showed what these leaders were really about: while in London the G20 could put on a big song-and-dance about trying to stop the financial crisis, at the NATO meeting in Strasbourg what came out was their unrelenting determination to pursue and even escalate the latest war in Afghanistan to defend the empire that they all have a share in. In Strasbourg, too, there was a massive police presence, as thousands of French riot police closed off the city to anyone who even looked like a protestor, and fought fierce battles with thousands of youth in the streets.
France’s pro-Sarkozy (and therefore pro-Obama, whose image Sarkozy covets) conservative daily Le Figaro, boasted on its front page after the NATO meeting that “Four days of Obama had erased eight years of Bush.” The major imperialists and reactionaries are indeed squeezing everything they can get out of the change in image Obama has brought the American empire and the global system it heads. But there’s a fundamental problem: the empire remains, and its workings bring misery, war and oppression to hundreds of millions worldwide, over and over again—and Obama is not just someone who happens to find himself at the top of the imperialist world order, he is actively and enthusiastically getting on with that job. For the first time on the global stage Obama was on the wrong side of the fence, being protected by phalanxes of truncheon-wielding riot police from thousands of people fighting for a better world. What took place in London and Strasbourg was the opening of some initial cracks in the shiny new ideological armor that U.S. imperialism is trying to put on its bloody empire and on the global system it leads.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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