Originally published in May 2009.
Interview with Marina Pepper/G20 Meltdown
Your public strategy in the run-up to the protests at Bank was rather unorthodox. On the one hand you stressed your image of tea-drinking hippies, on the other hand people from your group spoke of immanent revolution and ‘mutually assured destruction’ if the police attacked. Was this deliberate?
Tea drinking I am sure you know really is hardly the preserve of hippies. Tea drinking as a pastime and a ritual is symbolic on many levels. Tea drinking fueled the Blitz spirit, the American Revolution (think Boston tea party), it’s served at funerals, in cricket pavilions. The Queen drinks it, the workers drink it. No problem is ever worse after a cup of it. I’ve long been serving it on the frontline because it breaks the ice. Somehow the police are more trusting when you have a bone china cup of Darjeeling and a saucer in your hand. It goes so well with cake, too.
The idea of drinking tea and sharing food allowed us to promote the idea that coming out to G20 Meltdown was spikey enough, in that we were going to close the city roads, but a positive, civilized affair all the same. Like in the Asterix comic: when Asterix and friends fought the English, everyone stopped fighting to take tea. We were facilitating not a riot, but a very English revolution – as opposed to a Greek one - to which all races and nations were invited, to come and get stuck in.
It was all going so well. Then one individual got carried away. I guess it was in response to the police describing the future as a “summer of rage”, statements suggesting the police were “up for it.” Very unhelpful. I was beside myself when I saw the first interview on Channel 4 regarding mutually assured destruction.
The fact is, he had no right to offer mutually assured destruction as an option because, quite frankly, we didn’t have that kind of army available to match the threat. As was proven when the police got heavy and we all fell to their truncheons and shields. If we’d been any sort of destructive threat, Molotovs would surely have materialized. But they didn’t.
After the marches with the four horses of the apocalypse, people were kettled for hours at Bank - for many this felt very disempowering. Some blamed the disorganisation and possible tactical errors made by the G20 Meltdown group. Could it have been avoided?
In the early meetings many experienced protesters voiced their concerns that kettling could be problematical. As we couldn’t rule it out, we decided to use it to our advantage. Let the police blockade the roads, much easier than us having to do it. So that was the plan. Bring tea, cake, food to share, something to sit on, music etc and enjoy the kettle. I think it worked to a certain extent.
But so many people came who were new to direct action, who thought they were on a march or something. They came without any supplies. We put our kettle on and people kept asking to buy tea from us. We said: “We’ll swap you tea for your water.” They didn’t even have water with them.
Kettling can be – and was for many - disempowering. It’s boring – and extremely annoying when you need the loo. We have to overcome this by utilising the time. I wish we’d had half the artists they had floating round at climate camp. We needed more entertainment – although the reggae band kept us going on Threadneedle St. A makeshift ladies loo over a drain materialized. More such initiatives were needed.
Tactically, by starting at four railway stations and by having enough push in us to keep us moving (well done guys and gals who kept the Black Horse moving) we split the police. Always the plan. Once kettled at the bank the job was a good un, as they say. No traffic moving around the Bank of England. A blockade using shear numbers. Result. Tactically, we should have spent more time empowering people by telling them what to bring and then organizing once there. Could we have pushed off again in four directions? And if so, what then? What if? Who knows? Were we ready for what might have ensued?
Once again, one person from the Meltdown core group had his own plan for the day, taking off to UEL for some old codgers meeting of Old Labour. Like that’s useful. Staying put was the better plan. We had responsibilities to the crowd. I feel that certain core members let the people down. But all is not lost. We have started something. Many of us have learned from the experience and have strengthened our networks. I’m not getting a sense of “never again.” Quite the opposite. Groups like Climate Camp, Climate Rush, the Whitechapel Anarchist Group, while not likely to take up arms, are radicalized now more than ever. We are more serious about what needs to be done. We’re upping our game, creatively, effectively, for the long haul. And we have stronger international networks now. I’m in contact with Greece and Italy. I have friends in France. We are one.
On the G20 Meltdown website the stated aims for the protest on the 1st April were to ‘participate in a carnival party at the Bank of England’ and to ‘overthrow capitalism’. Do you think it’s possible to create political change using carnival tactics?
Carnival tactics are one tactic. Carnival is has the harlequin at its heart, who resists all authority in a topsy turvy world with the people taking the power, the fool being king for the day. Carnival releases us from the boundaries of the everyday norm. It is an excellent starting point. And the media loves it. If it can’t get a riot, it will settle for a carnival. God, anything to get us away from boring A-B marching on the one hand, and Molotov lobbing on the other.
Carnival gave birth to theatre, the first example of mass media, crowds experiencing the same emotions together. Think Ancient Greece. So empowering, so powerful.
Carnival is the way to get people up off their sofas, out of their houses and on with the action. It is most definitely a way forward for mass disobedience: civilized or otherwise, if we’re serious about stopping capitalism. Carnival is a great mobilizing tactic. But it’s as well as, not instead of, small autonomous groups doing the serious damage eg, where it hurts!
When we become too expensive to police, capitalism will fail. And if they send in the army? The British Army won’t be up for shooting down a Carnival.
How did the J18 protests in the City of London 10 years ago influence your tactical and political aims?
Me personally? I’ll be honest. In 1999 I had two children under the age of two and was working seven days a week, stopping only to breast feed and instruct the nanny. I didn’t even know J18 had occurred.
My political focus back then was climate change and waste, real nappies and organic farming. I thought you changed the world by exposing the problems – I was a journalist. Naively I felt if people knew what was wrong we’d all pull together and sort it. AS IF!
I even got involved in local politics – for my sins I’m still my community’s representative on the Town Council. I think 9/11 and the launch of the “war on terror” has held everyone back. It’s a bit like the suffragette movement which called a “ceasefire” during WW1. On top of that, people felt they were benefiting from the boom or bubble years. Buying their homes, shopping for stuff, all on credit, obviously, but it’s not something people wanted to discuss. They just wanted to strut around in their new kitchens in their new outfits, downing wine from a buy two get one free deal. It stopped them thinking about the overdraft.
G20 was the first opportunity for the movement to thrust forward, having learned not just from J18 but from G8 and Make Poverty History. With the crunch and the bail outs enough people could finally see the bleeding obvious: don’t ask the problem for solutions. We are the solution. No apathy, no extremism and no wrist bands. Let’s imagine it differently and implement.
With the scales falling from so many peoples’ eyes right now, we have an almost self-mobilizing movement to work with. At last!
Already after J18, people said that we shouldn’t just limit ourselves to criticism of the financial sector and of banks. Wasn’t the anti-banker position that G20 meltdown took at bit populist?
Of course Meltdown was populist. Money is what people care about. They feel so let down. That could be seen as problematical for an anti-capitalist movement. But let’s deal with the world as it is, not as it ought to be – that comes later. My feeling is you get people out on money, then through mixing it up with climate change, war, land issues and the squatting fraternity, people will come to understand it’s all part of the same problem: capitalism.
I only realized that relatively recently. I had to overcome the style issues presented by the anti-capitalist movement. I got to my thinking first through Climate Camp and have become totally convinced through meeting and working with Anarchists, who to my mind have it largely spot on.
But it’s too early to bandy Anarchy around the place. We’re fighting too many preconceived ideas. Maybe we have to dispense will all the old descriptions. Right now we need numbers and new blood. At G20 Meltdown and Climate Camp in the City we enabled thousands of new people to participate in anti-capitalist actions. This wasn’t your average summit hopping event, it was a mass of people expressing their need for a better world who don’t know yet quite how to express it.
Money issues are to anti-capitalism what the polar bear is to the climate change movement – not the point, but a way in. I disliked the hanging a banker vibe – although in many cultures puppets and voodoo dolls have a healing role to play. Just as burning effigies does it for the bonfire crowd in Lewes to this day. But the whole banker thing was a bit too literal for me. Our other messages got lost. Bankers aren’t the problem, they are the servants of the system. The system needs profits. This drive for profits is what gives us all the other problems. “Only following orders” is no excuse, but let’s go for those giving the orders as well.
Following the death of Ian Tomlinson, everyone talks about police violence. It is clear that ‘mutually assured destruction’ did not take place. How could we have protected ourselves better?
Barricade and enemy dispersal, eg: roll cars, set them alight and lob Molotov cocktails over the top? I jest.
Look, I saw many people who received worse treatment than that meted out to Ian Tomlinson. He was so unlucky. I personally was thrown to the ground, hit with a shield and squashed against a wall. I saw a woman dragged along by her hair and dogs set on people who were already lying on the ground and certainly not fighting back other than to cover their faces. I have many friends who received bruises the size of dinner plates from repeated bashings on the legs from truncheons.
So what could have been done differently? Nothing much at the time. It’s what we do from now that counts. We learn lessons, regroup, re-form and go again, varying tactics. The element of surprise is our best advantage – if we can work round police surveillance.
If we’re going to be kettled, let’s get kettled in useful places with lock-ons, glue-ons and tripods. Let’s go for the worst offending businesses – the war machine, the fossil fuel industries, let’s make it impossible for the politicians to continue with business as usual.
But we could also do more – as the movement grows – to ensure we act as one and know why we’re acting. The Bank of England didn’t have the drinking problem that arose at Climate Camp (because we were kettled from the outset). A decision was taken to keep hold of Bishopsgate overnight. But there were lots of people in the crowd who’d come for the craic. You can’t hold a road if you’re drunk. There were no blockades at all. That’s why it was so easy to shift everyone.
“No drinking” is a message I’m hearing – and I listen a lot. I’m also hearing: “this is only the beginning.” I personally – and lots agree – feel that we mustn’t get bogged down in this “police brutality” issue, because quite frankly, this wasn’t the worst we’ve seen and it won’t be the worst we’ll see, especially when the cops are dealing with food riots. The idea of protesting against policing with specific protests is ridiculous. Just go and protest – against war, capitalism, climate change inertia. Go take a building and transform it into an autonomous social space. That’s how to address policing issues: on the real frontline, not on some union-backed vigil-heavy posturing parade.
I won’t suggest we have to be peaceful about it – “peaceful” is such a lame over-used and misused word. Let’s keep focused on why and how we want the world to change. Let’s be provocative. Let’s keep them guessing. Let’s keep the kettle on, tea in the pot, love in our hearts and a riot up our sleeve. And if we only manage to change the world enough to create common spaces and new lives to opt out to, then so be it. We’ll have made enough of a difference for those of us who realize the authority we face is a false one. This is our world too and we’ll build it anew if we want to. Now is the time. Up the revolution!