Poisoning in the guerrilla garden - Squall

Squall magazine reflect on the media coverage of Mayday 2000, with focus on George Monbiot's condemnation in The Guardian.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 29, 2021

In this land of hasty critics, it isn't difficult to inflame levels of self-criticism so destructive that the team - our team - is bound to lose, whatever. The mercenaries who populate British media know the formula well. It may be numbingly predictable but relentless criticism sells; the nastier the better. It sways our decision to pluck a newspaper from the stands and persuades us to loiter before the TV news.

It has often been repeated that British heroes are only promoted with applause in order to provide fodder for future lambaste and British journalists largely deserve their scurrilous reputation for fuelling the process. One minute yer friend, the next yer enemy, regardless of circumstances; fickle in search of a novel angle and permanently purchasable for thirty pieces of silver.

The barrage of criticism heaped upon Reclaim The Streets from all sides subsequent to the guerrilla gardening action on MayDay provides an ample case in point; staggering both in its complicity with mainstream political strategy and for the inanity of its pointless self-destruction.

We're used to the likes of The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times proffering the 'Anarchist yobs takeover' and 'RTS stockpile weapons' style of coverage. But this time the usual suspects were joined by an onslaught of critical barrage from pseudo-friends of the movement like Oxbridge journo, George Monbiot. Content to have established a career based on his connections to the UK direct action scene, it is a bitter truth that Monbiot might accept thirty pieces of Guardian silver for an exaggerated kiss and tell onslaught against RTS.

For those who missed George Monbiot's bilious attack, a wade through the spluttered outrage can be spared with a summary of his main points. Liberally peppered with the language and metaphor of utter condemnation, he stated that RTS's ranks are swollen with violent and uncaring thugs, and that, having lost the plot completely, RTS are "a part of the problem not the solution". Furthermore, and perhaps most hypocritically, he stated that planting seeds outside the Houses of Parliament was a "futile" action against Capitalism.

Four years ago, Monbiot was content to wallow in the acres of column inches which revolved around "The Oxford don and his rag-bag army" when as one of a hundred or so activists on The Land is Ours' first action at Wisley, he planted vegetables and trees on a small stretch of long disused WW2 airfield in Surrey. Monbiot launched his career in British journalism off the back of his association with that action, with the Daily Telegraph running a whole page on the "ideological leader" Monbiot and his French aristocratic ancestry. There were many of his co-activists on that direct action who felt the agenda being pilfered even at that stage.

Four years later there's an undeniable hypocrisy in Monbiot's preparedness to describe the Guerrilla Gardening action on MayDay as a futile gesture. And yet occurring as it did outside the Houses of Parliament it was evidently a far more full frontal and significant action than planting up a wooded Surrey copse miles from anywhere and already full of wildlife. If Monbiot was alone with his extravagant and well paid criticism, we wouldn't waste our column inches talking about his. But his criticisms sat complicity alongside a raft of hysterical exaggerations and dire warnings which appeared on BBC and ITV news that evening and in most national newspapers the next day.

Stoked further by the Labour Party's desire to associate Ken Livingstone with those who sprayed the cenotaph, coverage of the event became a laughable circus of hyperbole; an exaggerated monstrosity of self-inflated condemnation portraying all anti-capitalists as mindless thugs who would spit on the grave of the war dead. In the latent belief that there is no smoke without fire, people believed it. The media steer babbled on relentlessly until people were found whistling its tune without thinking twice about the source of the subliminal melody. Even those with previous direct action associations began parroting the position that RTS had lost the plot.

And so SQUALL would like to present a few unreported facts to remind ourselves that staying on our toes is a permanent requirement....

Fact. Reclaim the Streets publicised a guerrilla gardening action in Parliament Square. Their publicity stated that it was not a protest but a constructive action to highlight the necessity to reclaim public space. The horticultural nature of the event was consciously designed to attract those genuinely into 'greening the streets' rather than just getting pissed and exercising their lairyness.

Fact. The event in Parliament Square lasted for seven hours and there was no violence whatsoever, even when towards the conclusion of the day police tried to hold everyone in the Square against their will. The samba band played, seeds were planted, the road was turfed, banners were unfurled, a maypole was erected and activists filed reports and thoughts onto Indymedia UK's new roadside-laptop website. The day passed off as a success. Whether or not activists agreed with defacing statues - some did some didn't - the paint was cleaned off in a day and no lasting damage occurred. At the end of the day the crowd held together in one mass and marched through the police cordon united. The police did not wield their truncheons and there was no violence on either side at any point in the day. Some activists even hung around with bin bags and cleaned up the Square afterwards. How many people heard about this. Six weeks later Parliament Square was covered in plants as the MayDay sown seeds sprung into action.

Fact. A van full of compost, straw bails and seeds bound for Parliament Square was trailed from west London, intercepted by police and impounded for being unroadworthy. Two days later police allowed the driver to drive it away. It was evidently roadworthy. Five weeks later when the van was put in for a service, the garage mechanics found that every nut on the two back wheels was about to fall off. The garage informed the owner that he was fortunate to be alive.

Fact. For three weeks up to MayDay, British mainstream media incessantly publicised the event as a riot. "British army on standby" roared the Evening Standard. More people in the UK learned about the event through the mainstream media than they did through RTS leaflets. If certain people arrived in London looking for a riot, it wasn't an RTS flyer which attracted them.

Fact. The media and those they managed to attract got their riot. Not much of one as riots go but just enough of a ruckus to weave the story around. A plethora of groups ranging from the Socialist Worker Party to the Rover workers to Turkish communists to pissed punks to unaligned anti-capitalists and bemused tourists were all corralled in Trafalgar Square and refused exit by truncheoned police lines.

Fact. For the first time in four years of anti-capitalist demonstrations, a McDonald's Burger bar right in the middle of the demonstration was left undefended by policemen. Nearby not police waited for twenty minutes before going in to disperse demonstrators who had by this time smashed the place up. A pre-event action outside McDonald's on the Strand earlier that morning was swarming with police and intelligence officers. Why did they leave the Whitehall McDonald's undefended?

Let those who got caught up in the scraps with police, those who sprayed the cenotaph, those who threw tarmac lumps in Kennington Park later that evening; let them defend their own actions. Some property-damagers like the ex-British army soldier who daubed fake blood on Winston Churchill's statue had very good reasons for doing what they did and deserve applause for their courage of conviction. Both for their action and their willingness to be emphatic about the political reasons for their action when a "sorry m’lud” might have reduced the sentence. Some were just the pissed lunch outs you'll always find somewhere. A tiny minority amid the thousands.

The barrage of critics laying blame for the MayDay skirmishes and the subsequently overblown media backlash at the feet of Reclaim the Streets are well wide of the mark. In their critical haste they are ignoring the creative work that went into facilitating a remarkably successful event in Parliament Square. An event that was imaginative, politically symbolic, well executed, well attended, forceful yet non-violent. Very few people seem to realise that this event even took place. And yet this was the RTS event, as advertised by RTS, in Parliament Square. A malevolent media so keen for dramatic copy and so capitalistically complicit, continues to foster and ferment the outrage, relishing and inflaming the very riots they pretend to abhor.

The more insidious part of this agenda is the cold calculation. For the abhorrence that such hysterical coverage ferments in the minds and loyalties of a general public is capitalism's attempt to destroy the reputation of its detractors. If the capitalist world can persuade the general public that its opponents are not thoughtful people with a point, but violently crazed troublemakers, then they can keep their tightened grip round the throat of the world, unchallenged.

To split the spikies from the fluffies, the NGO's from the direct action groups, middle England from street folk, one section of society from another so that disunited, we affect nothing. The straggled survivors from a thousand massacred social causes are uniting to provide a significant challenge to the manicured PR of unfettered capitalism; a threat unparalleled in recent years. Beware the wedge now being driven strategically into the joins.

"If you're not careful the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing" Malcolm X