Leveling the playing field: horizontal politics, technology and activism in 2011 (part 3)

Chris Browne continues his series on activism, horizontal politics and technology, by drawing on experiences from the January 29th demonstration in London. The question he asks is ‘what place do marches have in activism and resistance?’

A legal observer taking down Police numbers

The last week of January saw a number of protests and direct actions back-to-back. On Saturday 29th was two student demos, one in central London, one in Manchester. The London action was also my first as a legal observer –for the uninitiated, a legal observer’s job is to document and hopefully deter unlawful police action. ‘Legals’ are identifiable by their orange bibs, pads of paper, and pockets full of ‘bust cards’.

The following afternoon, whilst I slept off my exhaustion from the previous day’s march-cum-wild goose chase around the city streets, a UK Uncut direct action was underway. During this, the police attempted to arrest a young woman for pushing a flyer through the closed door of a Boots branch on Oxford Street, on the spurious pretext of ‘criminal damage’. (Had she grievously damaged the rubber around the doorframe perhaps?) When the crowd tried to de-arrest her by pulling her out of the reach of the police, an officer shot CS spray into the faces of ten UK Uncut activists, hospitalising three of them.

The Saturday 29th anti-fees/anti-cuts mobilisation in London was nowhere near as great in size and scale as the November and December dates in 2010. I would estimate upwards of 5,000 people were present. Mostly young people, with the usual contingent of Socialist Worker touting party members trying to flog their Trotskyite wares; the group seemed to be comprised of a significant number of teenagers in masks and their finest black bloc attire. There was perhaps some degree of gender disparity weighted towards men.

Smaller groups are easier to mobilize and coordinate non-hierarchically, however, and so we should avoid thinking of scale as correlating positively to quality or success. A small direct action can have a huge ripple effect, even if only a dozen people turn up. Indeed, the bad press arising from one police officer spraying ten UK Uncut activists will do more to influence future police tactics than 10,000 people marching on best behaviour through the streets.

The non-hierarchical, largely spontaneous networks of activists that have emerged around the periphery of the rejuvenated student movement have been hugely encouraging. Their advantages lie in their spontaneity: police attempts to determine “who is in charge” betray the classic hierarchical mindset that has long been a hallmark of British governmental blundering.

Knowing a leadership with whom you can negotiate, schmooze, and if necessary, coerce into adopting predictable and legalistic approaches to protest is chief in the State’s playbook. The disinheritance of outgoing NUS President, Aaron Porter by a large section of the student movement has left the police flummoxed. Anarchist groups have no official leaders, and the barrage of “no comment” and “I am Spartacus” that meets the police’s fishing keeps them one step behind, both figuratively and literally.

A square overrun by demonstrators. Photo: Bobby D'Marca

The London demonstration marked some of the better and worse elements of horizontality. A case in point would be the latter part of the day, when a large splinter group had left the Egyptian embassy, and began aimlessly wondering through the city centre.

In one respect it was a remarkable feat of achievement that the majority of protesters made it that far. The organisers, a term that should be used loosely, had only planned it to go as far as Milbank –the epicentre of November’s rage. If the narrative could be summarised, I would think 1,000 angry chickens coming home to roost might best illuminate the thinking of the action’s architects.

In the event there was a single arrest at Milbank –one person managed to run faster than the hoard of police, who then formed an impenetrable line, trapping him inside, and everyone else out. Athleticism, it seems, is neither virtue nor friend in the arena of civil disobedience.

Once the splinter group left the Egyptian embassy, the vanguard began to run down Tottenham Court Road. One or two of them had acquired dynamite size firecrackers, which they unleashed with alacrity: a bus full of waving supporters… Bang! A huddle of police officers –a more understandable target, even if problematic… BANG!

This particular incidence continues to resonate. The explosive went off about a metre away from my legal team partner and I, causing in a second an uncomfortable level of deafness known to club fiends and metal heads the world over.

Whilst this is hardly indicative of the wider movement -and neither, for that matter, is this type of behaviour typical of horizontal networks, or precluded by the existence of hierarchy- it does betray an incoherent anger that is common to many of the previously apolitical young people currently taking to the streets.

But while this spontaneity proved damaging in the above sense, it was to our advantage in another respect. Without having planned for the post-embassy march through central London, there was no way the Police could effect any sort of containment. There is nothing more disruptive to people’s unthinking, everyday patterns of wake-work-eat-sleep than the gradual approach of sonic tumult: voices shouting in unison; a mass of people denying the hegemony of traffic in the middle of the street. Thousands of people saw the march, still more will have heard it. The seeds of active dissent are often sown in the knowledge that other people are raising their voices and taking action.

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