A historic day of protest descends into violence and childish banality

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The Independent Online

The numbers involved in the "anti-capitalist" May Day jamboree were not exactly huge; indeed, they were rather pathetic. A demonstration of around 5,000 people is never going to make institutions quake. But of those who did turn up for the Reclaim the Streets protest, it must be remembered that only a small minority were involved in the violence. Many gathered for what was in effect a happy-clappy celebration of spring. Some of the disparate band dug up parts of Parliament Square and waved slogans such as "Let London Sprout". More offensively - deliberately so - some desecrated the Cenotaph, or daubed graffiti on the statue of Winston Churchill.

Inevitably, it is the violence that grabs the headlines. It could not be otherwise. But you do not have to be a fan of McDonald's to realise that smashing it up is not the way forward. One man was photographed stealing a briefcase from a car. In other words, hardly serious politics - let alone the spark to cause a revolution.

The policing was softly-softly - too soft, some argued, though the police tactic of containment appeared to work much more successfully than the previous tactic of charging against peaceful and violent protesters alike. Perhaps, as the Home Secretary Jack Straw suggests, it would have been better if the Cenotaph and the Churchill statue had been boarded up.

In any case, the defacing of the statue of Winston Churchill had obvious ironies, since Churchill is remembered above all for his role in helping to save democracy from fascism. You might as well daub a statue of Abraham Lincoln in defence of civil rights. In addition, Churchill was responsible for the quip that provided a suitable comment on the protest as a whole: "Democracy is the worst form of government - except all the other forms." The same might be said of capitalism, the main target of this protest.

The "anti-capitalist" protesters, with their varied slogans, were much clearer about what they did not want than what they did want. Once upon a time, when the Cold War still flourished, those who opposed capitalism could rally to another political flag. There were a few of those about - the odd Maoist or Turkish Communist. But most were clearer about what they opposed than what they supported.

It need not be that way. Mass peaceful protests, with clear aims, can still play a role in indicating issues that people feel strongly about. Above all, however, tomorrow's local electionsare a reminder that peaceful change can be achieved through something as boring as the ballot box. The old "don't vote, it only encourages them" maxim is neat; but it is wrong.

In some contexts, popular protest can play an important role. In authoritarian regimes, mass protest - as the fall of the Berlin Wall showed - can be a crucial lever to force change. Even in democracies, mass protests or clever stunts can signal that an issue must be taken seriously, as Greenpeace and others have shown.

But the protesters have to indicate what they seek to change. The events of Monday were depressing, childish and banal. The violent demonstrators did not care that their protest would achieve nothing; the non-violent protesters should have known that purely negative protest could lead nowhere. It is sad that May Day, a once-respected day of protest, has descended into violent chaos. Protest without focus is an insult to democracy itself.