Violence mars May Day protest

London brought to a standstill as clashes between police and anti-capitalist demonstrators leave 50 injured
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Hundreds of anti-capitalist protesters clashed with riot police yesterday in a series of skirmishes that paralysed the centre of London but failed to match the violence of last year's May Day.

Hundreds of anti-capitalist protesters clashed with riot police yesterday in a series of skirmishes that paralysed the centre of London but failed to match the violence of last year's May Day.

A massive operation involving 6,000 police, with 3,000 more in reserve, stifled the activities of a hardcore group of activists who had made it clear they planned to target offices, banks and shops along Oxford Street, London's main retail artery.

Last night, the worst of the damage appeared to be along Tottenham Court Road, where protesters smashed windows in Habitat, Tesco, HSBC, Abbey National and Barclays Bank while retreating north away from the day's protest. But widespread civil disobedience appeared to have been avoided after thousands of demonstrators were drawn into the West End and held in a tightly-controlled pen of officers in riot gear. Scotland Yard said that they had arrested 92 people by the early hours of today.

Police had expected more than 10,000 anti-capitalists to converge on London for "Mayday Monopoly", a day of civil disobedience using locations from the board game of the same name. Of those, anti-capitalist websites and police intelligence suggested 1,000 would be bent on violence. In the final analysis, only about 4,000 turned up, most intent on peaceful protest.

There were peaceful protests, too, in Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow while, abroad, anti-capitalists took to the streets in Australia, Turkey, France, Korea, Russia, Germany and Zimbabwe.

In London, the worst of the violence flared at Oxford Circus, where police allowed the thousands of demonstrators to converge before closing in and containing them for almost six hours. As tempers flared, hundreds tried to break through police lines with violent results.

Police on horseback and in protective gear were involved in repeated baton charges against the demonstrators, leaving at least 50 protesters and three police officers injured, including a woman officer who was unconscious when she was taken to hospital after being caught in a crush. Some demonstrators threw petrol bombs, bottles and sticks at officers who reacted with truncheons and shields.

By early evening, as police allowed the protesters to leave, a car was overturned and windows were smashed. On Mortimer Street, fewer than 500 yards from Oxford Circus, a group of people wearing hoods and masks smashed the windows of a furniture store. Westminster City Council predicted that the disruption cost more than £20m.

After criticism of the "softly, softly" approach last year, when rioters damaged shops and vandalised the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill's statue, police said they had adopted a zero-tolerance policy this year.

Among the group's targets were the World Bank, Coutts ­ bankers to the Queen ­ and retail outlets of global enterprises along Oxford Street. In spite of promises to stay open, most shops in the area closed.

Assistant Commissioner Michael Todd, in charge of policing the event, said: "Whilst many of the protesters were co-operative and good-natured, others have been throwing missiles including paving stones, bricks and bottles at police.

"Our aim is to police peacefully but if people are intent on throwing rocks and missiles at our officers and innocent members of the public, we are not prepared to put up with it."

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, praised the "very, very professional" operation and denied there had been an over-reaction. "A huge amount of effort has gone into the preparations by the police and due warning has been given to potential demonstrators who are going to be intent on violence," he said.

During the day, there was disruption on the Tube when Oxford Circus, Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road stations were closed. Anti-car protesters caused traffic jams near Euston station and several bridges were closed to pedestrians. Among those arrested were eight from Denmark, Poland, Belgium and the US.

Last night, Lord Harris of Haringey, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said the violence had "marred" the day of protest, but he praised the police for their handling of the event.

"I believe [the police] struck the right balance between facilitating peaceful demonstrations and deterring violent disorder," he said. "The police tactic of containment in and around the flashpoint of Oxford Street proved to be the right one."