Dispatch

London Burning

Saturday's anti-austerity protests were an anti-democratic farce, a parody of the Arab uprisings they sought to emulate.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

LONDON — At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, thick clouds of smoke rose above the Lillywhites sports store on Piccadilly Circus. As the riot police rapidly formed a line to block access to lower Regent Street, bursts of embers flashed in the sky. A small mob of masked protesters raced to the police line, tried to breach it, but was pushed back. Some of them were carrying enormous red Bolshevik flags. The smoke grew thicker and some of the crowd that had gathered tried to move away. The protesters started singing: "London is burning."

More than 200,000 protesters — among them nurses, care workers, lawyers, doctors, and a host of public sector workers bussed in by the Trade Union Congress — had marched through central London that day, protesting the government’s cuts in funding to public services. They promised to transform Trafalgar Square into London’s version of Tahrir Square, the beating heart of the Egyptian revolution. Displaying placards and shouting slogans, they made their way to Hyde Park, where a dais and sound system had been erected. Just after 2 p.m., Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, addressed them. "We come in the tradition of those who have marched before us," he told the crowd. "The civil rights movement in America, who fought for equality and won. The anti-apartheid movement, who fought the horror of that system and won."

Eager to insert the protest into the canon of glorious resistance, Miliband omitted the small fact that he had served in the previous Labour cabinet whose actions, more than anything else, accounted for Britain’s journey to the brink of bankruptcy. Nor could mere invocations of history’s heroic movements obscure the fact that it is not the size of a crowd alone that confers greatness on a movement but also the forces it must combat. Since disagreements in Britain have been resolved, for at least the last 60 years, by means of fair elections, and the government, for all its ills, is accountable, ultimately, to the public, it was difficult to see anything heroic in Saturday’s protest. This was the radicalism of a people who had no experience of tyranny, a self-congratulatory excursion in democratic dissent, a weekend trip to the city.

The days activities began when an assortment of more ambitious protest groups started gathering around Oxford Street. First, they attacked the Boots pharmacy. Then they occupied the Fortnum & Mason department store, enacting what they called a "sit-in." Windows and doors of banks and retailers were smashed. The Topshop fashion store on Oxford Street was flecked with giant patches of white paint hurled by the protesters. A line of helmeted riot police, some them covered in the same white paint, formed a human barrier outside the building. The street was covered with patches of paint and rumpled leaflets. As I looked at the damage, a wave of slogan-shouting protesters surged past the building. The police picked up their riot shields. Two protesters stepped away and, holding their placards aloft, had their picture taken against the Topshop building. The herd passed without trouble.

A few steps away, in Oxford Circus, a small crush of protesters set fire to clumps of debris. Two women posed for a picture with their handwritten placard: "Terminate Tory Twats." One of the women told me she had travelled from Germany to attend the protest. "I am an anarchist," she said. "We have been waiting here since last night," her friend chimed in. "If you are interested in anarchy, you should go to Wikipedia: there is a lot of useful information on it." As I walked down Regent Street, young women carrying cartons of beer joined them. They posed as a group; the camera clicked.

In Piccadilly, giant billboards were displaying advertisements for Coca Cola. A woman handed me a leaflet.

PLEASE READ THIS NOW!

Let’s learn from the successful Cairo protests and stay long after the march has ended! There’ll be late night free parties in Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and other occupied spaces. 

‘We won’t stop! We won’t go home!’ (slogan from Cairo)

The protesters had sealed off the intersection in Piccadilly with caution tapes reading: "Capitalism means war" and "Another world is possible." On a poster affixed to the tape had been handwritten: "9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB." A young woman sitting on the curb said, "Did you know that 9/11 was an inside job?"She was wearing blue jeans and a black jacket, and her neck was covered with a keffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarf that has become the symbol of the Palestinian national movement.

"I am not mad," she insisted to me. "I look at the facts before making my mind up. There is a peer-reviewed paper — and peer-review is basically a bullshit-detecting process — and this peer-reviewed paper is by an American professor. It confirms that there was military-grade explosive material inside the towers." What, in her opinion, could possibly have motivated the U.S. government to kill its own citizens? "To establish the New World Order."

Behind her, smoke began to rise above the Lillywhites building. A balaclava-clad protester clambered up the traffic signal pole to locate his group. Protesters, now visibly drunk, who had climbed the iconic statue of Eros in Piccadilly, began to cheer. It looked like a spectacular arson job on a prominent building. A woman in the crowd seemed to choke on the fumes for a moment. But the smoke went out within minutes. The building had never been set on fire; the smoke was from the debris that had been torched behind the building.

Another fire went up on Coventry Street, a short street that connects Piccadilly to Leicester Square. Outside the Café du Paris, protesters surrounded a small group of police and chanted, "Let her go." It wasn’t immediately clear who they were referring to. Meanwhile, the balaclavas had disappeared: The protesters were sufficiently drunk to brazen it out.

Holding a can of beer, one of them approached the police line. He stared at one of the officers, a big man who stood with his arms crossed. "You cunt," said the protester, with a noticeable Irish twang. The officer did not move. Another officer started taking pictures on the police camera. "You cunt," the protester repeated. "Why do you do this job, you fucking cunt?" The officer remained expressionless. The protester handed his beer to a friend and placed his index fingers over his nipples and started rubbing them. "That’s your wife, you fucking cunt. She’s got sagging tits."

At this, the officer’s face flushed — the first visible sign of triumph for the protesters. They let out a shriek of laughter. "Freedom of speech, freedom of speech," the Irishman mumbled. The officer stood like a living statue, waiting perhaps for some kind of bodily contact. The Irishman leaned down and pointed his finger at the officer’s trouser pocket: "You dropped your sensibility, and your self-respect." A woman from the crowd intervened. "It’s not his fault. He’s a slave of the system," she explained. The Irishman was suddenly overcome with contrition. "I am sorry, man," he told the officer. "I understand you are a slave of the system. You have to understand where I am coming from." The officer responded, "Have a good night."

As the protesters began to walk away, the police released the girl they had detained. She was small, barely 4 feet tall, and her face was pained with red and green stripes: a comrade of the Middle East’s revolutionaries. As the others began to depart, one protester came forward. His face was severely sunken, as though a sock of skin has been stretched over a bare skull. "Fuck you," he shouted at the police and then turned and walked away with the others.

It was dark. People sat in small groups. The base of Nelson’s Column, the famous Trafalgar landmark, was occupied; they were preparing for their final act — any piece of spectacle that would bring them notice, validate their great vanity. "The police is apparently going to turn up in one hour," a woman said within my earshot, sounding hopeful. Two girls sat on the floor, eating from a takeaway box. Their black jackets were crammed with scrawls in white ink: Nihilism, No War, Death, Peace. They clashed with the police shortly afterward. Before midnight, more than 200 protesters had been arrested.

A giant black banner hanging down from one of the plinths in the square read: "Tahrir. Tunisia. Trafalgar." There were no water hoses in sight, no police dogs mauling young children, no mukhabarat transporting protesters to torture chambers.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.

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