Thursday 2 April 2009
Deborah Orr: Chaos, conspiracy theorists – and a Putin fanatic
Eyewitness: 'Jump! Jump! Jump!' cried a group of protesters to City workers on a balcony
Confrontation started early on the City's Threadneedle Street yesterday. Only one apocalyptic horseman had arrived at the Bank of England, outnumbered 200-to-one by photographers, when a challenge by the already ubiquitous police of a young man in a mask attracted a couple of protesters with megaphones. "You are creating violence. That is not your job," a woman swathed in glittery purple intoned masterfully to the mini-cordon of police who surrounded the protester as he was questioned. "It is his face. He can cover it if he wishes to."
In no time at all, the protester had acquired an orange-bibbed legal observer at the demonstration to provide neutral arbitration. "Don't even start taking notes until you think you have everyone's story straight," I heard one observer advise another. What a job. One does, of course, have the right to wear a mask. But under will-the-protest-become-a-riot? circumstances, it's a fairly provocative thing to do.
Attracted by the noisy rhetoric, a few City workers wandered on to the balcony of the Bank of England to take a look. "Jump! Jump! Jump!" a group of protesters instructed them. "Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!" Which was a little weird. Anti-capitalists, surely, should at this point be praising the Bank of England with fulsome enthusiasm? It helped so much, after all, to overheat globalisation, even if it doesn't quite understand yet that the show's not going back on the road for a while.
Meanwhile, as a couple of the other horseman arrived, bringing behind them fairly modest crowds of marchers from the four Tube stations of the Apocalypse, the strange police technique of "penning" had also made an early debut. It had been easy enough to get to the heart of the as-yet modest action, even if you were wearing a mask. But by midday, for no discernible reason, police cordons were strung across each end of Poultry, insisting that nobody could leave. Enforced protestation. Bizarre.
One such cordon, at the foot of Cornhill, found itself targeted pretty quickly. Young people, mainly men and some women, all dressed in black and with their faces swathed, mounted a running attack on the line, in a bad-tempered version of the old playground game, Red Rover.
Again, since the protesters were attempting to break out of the main protest area, it was difficult to work out why the police didn't just let them run. Within minutes the group was breaking back in through the cordon, with the police doing their best, and failing, to grab a hold on at least one.
"Nazis! Fascists!" a woman in a smart trench-coat shouted at them. "Why don't you get a proper job? Why do you defend the rotten state?"
The police involved, rather touchingly, looked utterly spooked by the minor disorder they were facing, and began gripping the wrist of the officer on their right, braced to fight off any further attempts to vacate the protest. But when I explained to one of them that my 11-year-old son seemed uneasy about being trapped inside their little drama, they did stand aside for us quite amiably.
If it wasn't already difficult enough to make sense of what was going on, a young man nearby started explaining to an elderly questioner why he bore a placard saying "Go Putin" – adorned, it must be admitted, with a very fetching hand-painted portrait of the Russian prime minister.
"Oh, I just think he's the leader most likely to get us all through this," the protester explained.
"So you're pro-authoritarianism?"
"Er, I don't know what that is."
"OK. But are you in favour of fossil fuels?"
"Well... I just like Putin."
It is commonly observed that the people who turn out for protests like this have viewpoints too divergent to be evaluated with much seriousness. But even compared to the guy whose placard identified him as "a 7-7 bus survivor", and suggested "MI5 did it", this chap was an anomaly. Other expressions of support for politicians of any stripe were hardly in abundance, although it's a fair bet that one or two of yesterday's protesters will one day take the shilling. That's politics.
Up at Bishopsgate, the much advertised Climate Camp was initially a bit of a disappointment. The few people in outrageous costumes and carrying pop-up tents were vastly outnumbered by phalanxes of riot vans. But within half an hour, the street outside the European Climate Exchange had been crammed with people and tents, and a fetching banner – strawberry netting with "Nature doesn't do bailouts" inscribed on it in day-glo pink capitals – had been strung from a couple of traffic lights.
Reasonable environmental protest at Bishopsgate. Small but determined squadron of nutty, masked police-baiters at Threadneedle Street. By 1pm we'd seen enough.
Back home my son was amazed at how much more intense and threatening the event looked on the telly, and expressed misplaced disappointment that he'd missed the storming of RBS. That's the great irony of anti-capitalist protests. They're as diverse, dynamic, chaotic and crudely governed as capitalism itself and that's why people are attracted to both.
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