Steph Davies discusses the contradictions and missed opportunities at the G20 demonstrations in London. Originally published in May 2009.
For me the G20 was a crazy mix of potential, missed opportunities, conflict and division. As someone with their feet in several ‘camps’ I felt torn…should I go to the autonomous march? Should I swoop with the Climate Camp? More than anything, I wanted both protests to converge in a beautiful, messy way. Now that would be a threat…
There were some great things about Wednesday: the scale of the autonomous march, taking a street in the heart of the financial district and holding it for 13 hours, giving workshops, and the RBS action. All this despite a staggering police operation, which resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson.
The most disempowering thing for me on Wednesday wasn’t the state response, or the scale of the problems we are protesting against. It was how quickly we bought their hype, and how quickly we were divided. It’s always easier to point the finger and scapegoat other groups rather than sit back and take a long hard look at your actions, and as activists, we are no exception to this.
Cake and bunting? [see the article on guardian.co.uk, written by Plane Stupid activist Leila Deen titled ‘G20: The Cake and Bunting Revolution’] It ain’t enough. Sorry… Environmentalists (myself included) often talk in scary statistics. Most people agree that the time for action is now. In order to bring about mass scale social change we definitely need movement building. But what about movement strengthening? Sometimes it seems like people are so desperate to get new people involved they stop listening to those who are dissenting. The climate camp created a space for direct democracy, critical theory and positive solutions, but where was the attack? People often get politicised by going on demonstrations, but few would state that this was enough. Positive solutions must be part of any model of social change…but sadly, the state isn’t going to back down to bunting. The lack of defences at the climate camp made me painfully aware that it’s time to reinforce what we’ve got if we really want to scale up to new levels of surveillance and control.
This does not mean that what happened at Bank was any more effective. Thousands of people occasionally throwing water bottles in the air and some Graff does not a revolution make. The police are scaling up their operations, and as a result of this, we need to face up to public order situations better, in a far more effective and confrontational way.
We talk about diversity of tactics but on Wednesday there were two main options: stand in a kettle in black or in rainbow coloured kooky charity shop chic. We need a combination of movement building and also strengthening networks that exist. For me, the climate camp is a brilliant method of outreach, and a great place to provide training and converge. But as an end in itself, is it really going to bring about mass scale social change or tackle the root causes of climate change? It’s undeniable that it’s been a great tool for movement building, and it should be celebrated for that. But, as ever, a look to history is always helpful. Where did the climate camp come from and why are those who helped set it up walking away in droves? I still believe absolutely in the aims of the camp. It has been successful in creating a space from which direct action on climate issues can occur. The media response to the raid and arrest of the 114 activists in Nottingham is a testament to this. Direct action on climate change is now publicly acceptable. Now it’s time to raise the stakes…
At the G20, none of us were up to the job. This is the disempowering truth. Black balaclavas or cake and bunting… neither weapon of choice was sufficient. Where were the affinity group solidarity actions from groups who didn’t make it down to the capital? Why did so few break through police lines? Why was our response to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the Raids at Earl Street and the Rampart Centre a halfhearted demonstration? It’s vital that we acknowledge these issues.
Divisions within the general climate movement have been increasing over the last few years, and it would seem to me that there is a kind of critical mass that can be carried along by it at any one time. As it’s grown outwards and become a successful vehicle for movement building in relation to new people, others have left the process. I felt totally schizophrenic on Wednesday, wishing that we could be united in our dissent and believing that only then would we really be a threat, but realising also that the split was real and that false unity is more dangerous than separation.
The whole day was carefully choreographed by the media and the police to ramp up the divisions: prior to the ‘swoop’ people could move freely by the bank of England. As soon as climate camp took Threadneedle St the bank protestors were kettled. Apart from those who broke the police line, the protest by Bank remained contained all day. Climate campers were allowed to roam free. On the dot of 7pm, the Bank kettle was lifted, and climate campers were then surrounded by a ring of steel until late in the evening, when people queued up to be searched and photographed. Those from bank were not allowed in, and many people from the camp were separated by the riot police who flanked the sides, isolating small groups and stopping anyone coming in until the site was baton charged at 2am. The climate camp would never have been allowed to continue if the eyes of the law hadn’t mainly been on the G20 Meltdown…and as darkness fell, unsurprisingly, the ‘good protesters’ became the target of more police harassment..
Fluffy v. spiky? The debate has raged for years, and this is a new chapter with the same content. Good and bad protesters? Most people that I know are sceptical of the mainstream media, yet we all seem to have bought their narrative. Why are we talking about cake and bunting? Why are we using media spotlight to further outline divisions amongst groups fighting for social change? It’s all a game, and we are foolish to buy into it. This doesn’t mean never interacting with the media, but why do their job of perpetuating stereotypes and belittling serious demands and key messages for them? Complicity between the main stream and the state is an interesting topic for analysis because it does not require an in depth analysis of our own politics. It’s easier to look outside. What is truly disempowering is not the might of the media or their rhetoric; it’s how quickly we buy into it and use it against each other.
Sometimes it feels like we really are at some mythical point of mass scale social change, and other times it feels lost amongst our own entrenched positions and lack of ability for critical analysis. Perhaps it’s time to stop and take stock of our ‘movements’ before we build further on weak foundations… Why can’t there be cake, bunting, violence and riots? Why can’t the samba band provide a soundtrack or diversion for the black bloc? All these tactics have been used before, isn’t it better to think about how we can compliment each other, rather than condemning? There is no one size fits-all tactic for sparking off mass-scale change. We need reflection, analysis and being open to different forms of action, and a desire for genuinely working on collective weaknesses.