G20 diary

A diary of the G20 mobilisation in London in 2009. Originally published in May 2009.

For some pretty good reasons, summit mobilizations were supposed to have fallen out of favor in recent years. But with the world’s cameras zooming in on London for a meeting of world leaders in the middle of a recession that was throwing history wide open, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the summit action!

The G20 mobilizations essentially took place for want of something better to do. Far from making good of the crisis, organizations across the spectrum of the left have remained in a state of rabbit in the headlights paralysis. The anticipated wave of labour militancy and invigoration of oppositional politics hasn’t materialized. No significant political responses to the crisis have emerged, much less a movement. Maybe a big show of force on the streets of London was the spark required?

The last time world leaders met on British soil was 2005 for the G8 at Gleneagles. The counter mobilization was long and meticulous. Not this time – Christmas hangovers had barely faded before the scramble to prepare began. Political meetings were filled with a sense of panic, but also expectation. So how did it match up?

Saturday 28th

The Put People First (PPF) coalition was formed following the announcement of the London G20 in late 2008. Founded on the principle of ‘people not profit’, it draws together a dizzying array of organizations. Usual suspects like Oxfam, Greenpeace and the Jubilee Debt Campaign sit alongside smaller groups ranging from Sudanese Women for Peace to Performers Without Borders. There are even several Christian groups – witness the Salvation Army marching unto class war! This is all knitted together with the combined might of the Trade Union Congress’s 6 million members.

Their demonstration started the week of protest. Organizers speculated turnout would be the highest of any demonstration since the anti-war movement’s peak in 2003. Titled ‘Jobs, Justice and Climate’, the march aimed for broad appeal. Whilst occupying the respectable political middle ground, this was no Make Poverty History, focusing on charitable handouts without challenging power. PPF instead attempts to interlink climate change with the global economic system and its negative impacts upon people near and far – asserting a coordinated response is necessary.

They succeeded in broad appeal. It was a veritable safari tour of the left in its natural habitat: Anarcho samba-bands alongside marching brass bands. Embroidered trade union banners mingled with environmentalists wearing green builders hats (some kind of peace gesture to the labour movement). There was even a couple of hundred clad in black for the ‘militant workers bloc.’ Broad yes, but the turnout was low - at 35,000 not even the biggest this year.

It’s not hard to see why. in attempting to be as inclusive (i.e. vague) as possible in demands and politics, the crucial business of making bold, concrete demands that might actually inspire people hit by the recession to protest fell by the wayside. The hardcore from various organizations brought their pet issues along, and it became impossible to discern any meaning from the cacophony. It encapsulated the British left: tiny, fragmented, directionless. The march trudged tiredly into Hyde Park, some clustering around ‘anarchists speakers corner’, most went to be hectored by union bureaucrats at the main stage. Attention turned to Wednesday…

Monday 30th

Press coverage suggested massed ranks of anarchists were hidden around the city planning unimaginable destruction. For out-of-towners wanting to join in, it was very confusing. Either secrecy has increased dramatically, or there wasn’t much happening. The ‘convergence centre’ announced on Indymedia was a ‘hoax’ to divert the police, apparently. Hard to stomach when stood outside in the rain.

To Ramparts and the London Anarchist Forum we went in search of information. The undercover Evening Standard journalist wrote as if he’d infiltrated the 21st century gunpowder plot. In fact, nobody seemed to know what was going on. The Climate Camp was judged the ‘most anarchist’ option, causing your correspondent to choke on his lager. In fairness, the Camp does try to be inclusive, open and organized. G20 Meltdown just seemed a mess, with Chris Knight embarrassing ‘the movement’ with ludicrous media statements.

That night, Whitechapel’s ‘we’re closing in’ benefit fraud adverts got covered in Financial Fools Day posters. Funny, but also depressingly ridiculous. The bright press spotlight on the UK’s anarchist scene cast a huge shadow against the wall, making many believe the approaching beast was a lot bigger than in reality.

Tuesday 31st

The elusive G20 Meltdown were tracked to a press conference outside the Bank of England. With the world listening, what would they say? With protective boarding being hammered into place all around, the representatives threw down a picnic blanket in front of camera scrum and began to act the role demanded of them: strange, incoherent radicals. It’s easy to dislike the slick Climate Camp media team, but I felt warm affection for them on this occasion. Almost pity. This time, they occupied the shadows.

Still in search of information for our affinity group, we head to the Foundry, a hip anarcho-cyclista-artista bar. Twitter and Facebook tell us of an open G20 Meltdown meeting there at 2pm. The Foundry is locked, with a FIT team outside. Half an hour passes, and dozens have abandoned hope and move on. When they arrive, there are more press than protesters, and we wait in line for information. Hearing that a large squat has been opened behind Liverpool Street station, we move on. Squatting an enormous office building in the financial district is no mean feat, but it came too late. The atmosphere was tense. Surrounded by particularly obnoxious cops and lacking numbers, a raid was expected from the start.

April 1st

Pick a horse, any horse! What symptom of global capitalism bugs you most – war (red)? Financial crisis (silver)? Enclosure (black)? Or climate chaos (green)? All will converge on the bank from different starting points. Alternatively, forget politics and think safety in numbers. Doing just that, we pick the silver horse. More people than expected, and the mood is as sunny as the weather. Reaching bank unimpeded is an additional surprise. The crowd is diverse, and the politics just as jumbled as PPF, but with more sound systems and less supervision. Drinking, dancing, chalking slogans on the wall and enjoying the spectacle. Nobody seems to notice the police sealing off the roads.

Trying to discern a message from the madness, the scapegoating of bankers, greed and speculation as the cause of the recession emerges strongest. Understandable, but it’s a shame to see a ‘radical’ protest parroting mainstream analysis. Banners don’t have to recite Das Capital vol. 1, but it’s important to do better. The predictable consequence of this foreshortened critique is cooption of popular anger with curbs on bonuses and tax havens. Like the PPF, G20 Meltdown was based around vague principles rather than political demands – they’re desperately needed if this is going to lead anywhere.

Getting out of the kettle was a stressful experience, but Climate Camp was the perfect place to relax. The police allowed the ‘good protesters’ and their cohort of Lib Dem MP’s and Guardian columnists a relatively free reign initially. Bishopsgate was truly reclaimed. A friend who’d enjoyed the best of the Reclaim The Streets years commented: “the soundsystems are smaller, the music’s worse, and people are on less drugs. But, people seem to have a better idea of what they’re here for, there’s more politics. And that’s a good thing, maybe it’s better!”

The European Carbon Exchange seemed a good target, if a bit obscure. It’s good to see attempts to link climate change to the economic system when the tendency in the past has been to lament poor personal consumption habits. The demographic at Bishopsgate was narrow compared to at Bank. An altogether classier breed of protester as style mag Grazia put it “smartly dressed … young professionals, many of whom have never demonstrated before.” The organic food stall – ‘farmers markets not carbon markets’ – seemed apt.

Expecting clashes elsewhere, pacifism defined the Camp’s efforts. More than just a simple grab at mainstream legitimacy, it seemed an attempt to distinguish the camp from the nasty protesters down the road – the ones who weren’t basing their protest on SCIENTIFIC FACT! When police advanced, ‘this is not a riot’ resounded. Every twitter post and press statement reaffirmed the non-violence. Besides that old chestnut of reaffirming the state’s monopoly of violence, in the immediate present it makes life hard for protesters wanting to resist being penned in and beaten. The good protester/bad protester divide was erected by those who are normally on the wrong side of it.

As evening drew in, things got rougher – both at Bank, and despite all the pleas, at the camp too. News of the tragic consequences of this police violence filtered out as the night wore on. The streets of the square mile were eerily quiet but for roving packs of riot police attempting to round up the remaining protesters.

April 2nd

The day of the summit. Time to ’shut them down’? Apparently not, everyone thought. The Excel centre seemed far away for tired legs and bruised bodies. No organizations issued a call for a protest. These meetings are just photo shoots anyway, attempts to portray stewardship over a system that is beyond control. Or so I told myself when the alarm went off.

All attention was already focused on the death of Ian Tomlinson. A vigil at Bank was called for 1pm. As the afternoon wore on hundreds arrived. The media happily replicated police press releases. People who’d been at the scene were contesting their version of events, but at this stage nobody wanted to listen. People talked about a cover up, ‘another de Menezes’ unfolding. Although police tactics the previous day weren’t remarkable, everyone had upsetting stories to tell. There was a sense of being on the back foot – pleading for the authorities to go easy, rather than threatening more unrest. The crowds disappeared without trace by early evening, people drifting back to the places they live and work to re-enter the relations they’d been trying to break the previous day. Then the news began to filter through of Visteon workers occupying factories in Enfield and Belfast.

April 3rd

Not ready to drift back, we board a coach at dawn to Strasbourg for the anti-militarist protests against NATO’s 60th birthday celebration. A tough decision – 12 hours aboard a Stop the War Coalition coach was the price to pay. Twelve turned to 18, and exhausted we blundered through barricades into the convergence campsite, with ‘the need for party discipline’ ringing in our ears. Battles with the police had been running for a couple of days now apparently, and of an intensity that made London look like a picnic. The slogan, ‘you make war, we make trouble’ seemed to sum up the approach.

April 4th

The ‘No to Nato’ demo had been called by a European coalition of NGO’s and peace groups – the majority German and French. Autonomous groups had also mobilized, and were first out of bed. It was pretty hard to tell that you were on an anti-militarism protest. The prevalent politics was anti-authoritarian. Ignoring pleas to keep things calm so the organized march could go ahead, a series of blockades were set up in the morning, igniting running battles with the police. Several buildings were burnt to the ground, including, much to everybody’s delight the customs building on the France – Germany border.

The differences with the London G20 were stark. As the windows of Threadneadle Street’s RBS went in, the crowd screamed for people to stop – wouldn’t want to look bad for the media after all! Whilst not everyone joined in the destruction, even amongst the mainstream protesters it seemed accepted that violence against property, well, wasn’t violence. The French police were met with a hail of stones and fireworks, the reply was endless teargas. UK police have an easier task, people generally police themselves. The passivity allows for the kettling, searches and surveillance. Further teargassing cut short the speeches at the demonstration’s official start point. The march got off to a chaotic start, and finished soon after. The police blocked the bridges leading out of the suburbs - sticks and stones were powerless to budge them.