Police and anti-capitalist campaigners are preparing for the biggest and potentially most violent May Day demonstrations in a decade on the back of a groundswell of public anger over privatisation, mass redundancies and the war on terrorism.
For the first time, Globalise Resistance, a socialist umbrella group opposing capitalism, will march side by side with official trade unionists, while groups of anarchists converge on Mayfair, the London home of many wealthy people.
Organisers are determined the protests should be peaceful – and not provide a repeat of May Day two years ago, when a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was given a turf mohican.
But a mix of factors may result in good intentions turning sour. Thousands of supporters of the Stop the War Coalition, which attracted a crowd of up to 100,000 for recent rallies against war in Afghanistan and Iraq, plan to join this year's celebrations, swelling last year's crowd – between 4,000 and 8,000 – to one many times larger.
In the midst of two main bodies of peaceful activity will be hundreds of people who were among 2,000 protesters corralled by police last year at Oxford Circus for up to eight hours with no food, water or toilet facilities in a crowd control tactic that many believe was unlawful imprisonment.
One organiser of the event said: "They [those hemmed in last year] are only a few of the thousands we hope will turn up, but if they are bent on revenge against the police, they could cause havoc. Our real fear is that they will give the police an excuse to react. In recent years, riot police have been more than happy to swing their batons but we get the blame for the trouble when people start stampeding out of their way."
The London Mayday Organising Committee, mainly made up of trade unions, has embraced Globalise Resistance this year, the body around which most problems have circled in the past.
Usually, an annual trade unions parade attracts few marchers and is largely ignored by the media, which concentrates on the activities organised by Globalise Resistance. This year, however, their efforts will be united in what they hope will be a mixture of peaceful celebration and pointed demonstration over globalisation, privatisation and war.
Guy Taylor, a Globalise Resistance activist, said: "We are all very excited about marching with the trades unions.
"It makes sense really because we are both anti- capitalists and, together, we are a powerful force to be reckoned with. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the public and workers at the moment over privatisation, terrible public services, thousands of redundancies and the prospect of a war with Iraq. We think this will bring people out to protest in record numbers."
If so, the protest would represent a new high water mark of a British tradition of direct action that, before it was appropriated by anarchists in the late 1990s, had seen off Margaret Thatcher's detested poll tax (through demonstrations in London) and ensured that no more Newbury bypasses or Manchester airport second runways would be introduced in a hurry (through famed eco-protesters such as Swampy and the labyrinthine caves they locked themselves in).
May Day, the calendar's most permissive day and one festival the Christian Church and other authorities have never quite controlled, was always the focus of dissent: the execution of eight anarchist workers demanding an eight-hour working day resulted in it being declared International Workers Day in 1889.
But, at Trafalgar Square on 1 May 2000, hard-core anarchists – known as "spikies" rather than the pro-peaceful "fluffies" – confounded direct action's traditional intellectual rigour.
Mass protests at Seattle and Washington had started alerting mass media to protests against organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation – and the damaging effects of the rise in anarchists were revealed in the depleted numbers at Oxford Street last year. Amid plans for a series of actions billed widely as "May Day Monopoly" – autonomous DIY action against symbols of capitalism around London – many law-abiding protesters were deterred by fears of violence and the Scotland Yard's promise of zero tolerance.
Bob Tennant, secretary of the Greater London Area Trades Union Committee, said anarchists had always seized upon the front provided by lawful protest but security at this year's march would be enhanced by liaison with police and a commitment by each group permitted on the march to steward itself.
The importance of the occasion would be enhanced by the fact that organisers had been given permission to march to Trafalgar Square and hold a rally there while Parliament was sitting, he added. Mr Tennant said: "That will be the first time this has been allowed in over 100 years. There is a sessional order dating back to 1829 that normally prevents marches and demonstrations within a mile of the Palace of Westminster when Parliament is sitting. We are very pleased about that. There will be a rally in Trafalgar Square and some colourful events organised by Globalise Resistance."
The organisers are hoping the official march and rally will be swelled by thousands of disaffected members of the National Union of Teachers, the RMT rail union and the Communication Workers Union, all of whom are involved in disputes over pay, redundancies and privatisation.
A spokesman for the CWU said: "We haven't decided yet what to do officially but, with 40,000 postal workers' jobs under threat, I think you could expect thousands of our members to make their own way there."
While police are dealing with those protests, further west, anarchist groups will be holding several "carnivalesque" events in Mayfair.
On their website – only periodically available, they claim, because of police action – they call on their supporters to protest peacefully while warning them to beware of the police tactics that stifled them last year. "If there is any trouble, it won't be started by us," said one yesterday.
"There has generally been a feeling that we should attempt to answer the question, 'What are you for, because we know what you are against?' So, if anything, what we do should be fun and peaceful. There is a lot of rage around at the moment with this Government and wealthy governments worldwide, but there is also a lot of common sense.
"We want our message to get across, rather than have the media concentrate on violent protest. What is interesting, though, is that they said the anti-capitalist movement had gone quiet after 11 September but half a million people turned up in Barcelona [for recent protests]. If anything, we're getting bigger and stronger."
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman declined to discuss police tactics for the event but said the officers were planning responses for every eventuality.Reuse content