Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


May Day 2000
John Heathcote
Reclaim the Streets

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Environment - road protests


The day begins

On May 1st.2000, traditionally a public holiday throughout Western Europe, there were at least three demonstrations in the centre of London.

Two of them, the Reclaim the Streets demonstration, and the Workers Day gathering in Trafalgar Square, were related in their antipathy towards capitalism and corporate pillage of the Earth's resources.

The third demonstration, as reported in the established news media, was an illusion; an exercise in news management and the political manipulation of public opinion.



The tabloids claimed that the Reclaim the Streets demonstration as a wholescale riot, focussing their attention on a few wanton acts of decidedly non-political graffiti. They seemed particularly outraged by the addition of a removable green turf mohican on Winston Churchill (despite his Native American ancestry), but it was the graffiti on the Cenotaph which really seemed to drive them to apoplexy.

In the true style of Neil Kinnock, who shamefully dismissed the poll-tax protesters as "enemies of freedom"; we were treated to a diatribe from Tony Blair about the "idiots" not respecting the "freedom" to demonstrate which was paid for by the lives of those commemorated at the Cenotaph.

A number of points spring to mind here, not the least being that a so-called Labour leader seems to forget that it was the Chartists and other subversives who paid with their lives, on the flagstones of Peterloo and many other places much nearer to home than Flanders, for the right to demonstrate.

It is worth remembering as well that the First World War was an imperial war with no great political difference between the major powers. Upper-class statesmen, generals and bureaucrats narrowly averted the threat of revolution, except in Russia, by sending the working class of Europe to die in a futile slaughter.

The Second World War was reluctantly entered into by the upper class of this country, as they had more than a sneaking regard for the Austrian Corporal and the way he kept the lumpenprole in line, and dealt with the Bolsheviks.

Both Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War had been opportunities for the British Establishment to confront the evils of fascism before it dragged the world back into War. Despite the fact that ordinary people could see the dangers well enough by the time of the latter to join the International Brigade and sacrifice their lives, the Establishment, (with the exception of Churchill), did not seem so concerned.

Finally, a rhetorical point; surely those millions of 'ordinary' heroes who fought and fell in the two wars were promised a little more than a block of stone and the right to demonstrate. Surely 'homes for heroes', and the right not to have their children fertilising some far-away field for the sake of someone's political career. The right to a decent health service and a pension to allow the old heroes to retire in dignity once the battle was over.

These are obviously points which have escaped Blair; but this is hardly surprising considering his readiness to use the machinery of war to enforce political objectives in Yugoslavia.

It will be interesting to see just how the "Cenotaph Incident" will be used to curtail the rights of people to demonstrate their alienation from the system that he seems so keen to support.

An interesting footnote to this particular incident was reported within two days of the demonstration (The Guardian, 3rd May 2000 pg3).

English Heritage had offered to board up the Cenotaph and other major statues in Whitehall and Parliament Square. They were dissuaded by the Metropolitan police, who assured them that all the monuments would be protected for the duration of the demonstration.

And just to throw in one more drop of cynicism about the "spin", below is an extract from The Guardian of May 6th, referring to the "Cenotaph effect" on the London electorate in their poll for the first city Mayor. It just goes to show that the sacrifice goes on even when you're dead:

After a weekend of anticapitalism protests culminating in the defacing of the Cenotaph, significant numbers of Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters appear to have changed their minds about voting for Mr Livingstone. It appears that this whiff of danger was enough to convince them to either sit on their hands home or vote for Mr Norris in an attempt to stop Mr Livingstone.

The figures are dramatic. In the Standard/ICM poll a week before the election 47% of Liberal Democrats said they were going to back Mr Livingstone but in the end this figure slumped to 33%. He won 24% of the Conservative vote, down from 29% the week before.

There is also a sharp divide in social class. Before the election, 57% of the professional middle classes - the ABC1 voters - said they were going to vote for Mr Livingstone but in the end, this dropped to 37%. It was only among the DE manual workers that his support, at around 43%, held up.


I arrived in Parliament Square about 13.00 hrs. Wandering down Whitehall from the Strand, I was surprised by the mellow atmosphere. There was a thin trail of people going the same way; less hardcore activists, more social worker hippies; more than a few with their children.

In the Square itself, banners had been strung across from trees, and there were probably about 1-2000 people milling about. Many were engaged in "guerrilla gardening" activities. A few people were busy creating an allotment in the middle of the turf square; others were processing around the edges of the square dressed in various carnival type costumes.

One group of people had put up what was probably the first Maypole in Parliament Square since before Cromwell.

A couple of people were busy trying to create a map of Britain out of turf on the road opposite Parliament, which seemed to sum up the peacefully symbolic intent of the demonstration. Most people were just chilling out with a spliff and a drink in the hot sun; catching up with old friends.

The atmosphere was already strange, though.

Three sides of the square were already surrounded by phalanxes of armoured police; and it seemed as though everyone was being over-fluffy in a rather strained way.

There were obviously men with long-lens cameras in many of the windows with a view right across the square, and armoured police cameramen began to appear behind the front lines of riot police, blatantly filming the demonstrators.

After a while I started to make my way up to Trafalgar Square with a few friends. A crowd of people had already started to wander up that way, with the intention of joining the end of the Workers Day demonstration, which had taken place earlier.

As we started to go up Whitehall, I noticed that the police in the side roads, who had been sitting around in their shirtsleeves looking bored when I passed earlier, were strapping on their helmets and grabbing their shields. As we got past the General Slim statue, we saw a few lines of them coming out into the road.


Even now when we joined up with the main body of demonstrators, the mood of the crowd could be described as subdued. Within less than five minutes though, the Macdonald's had become the focus of everyone's attention. Why it was open in the first place was perhaps the cause of greatest surprise to everyone; it would not have cost a big slice of daily profit to the Big Mac Corporation to close that tiny branch for one day and pull down the shutters. It would have been good manners, because some people do really regard them as offensive.

It was not a great shock then, when the windows went in and the place was comprehensively trashed within minutes. The cheers of the crowd were short-lived though, because almost instantaneously the Parliament end of Whitehall was filled with police. Ranks of riot police, police in vans, and within minutes police on horseback. The crowd at this point disintegrated into anarchy, the windows of the money exchange were smashed, and a few ''''Welcome to London" tourist T-shirts thrown into the fleeing crowd.

Within minutes the police were in our midst, truncheons flailing, grabbing anyone who was too slow or resisted. They began to drive the crowd into Trafalgar Square partly through sheer weight of numbers, and their obvious willingness to use violence on a mainly peaceful and unresisting crowd.


Once in Trafalgar Square, we realised that the main aim of the police seemed to have been to split up the Reclaim the Streets demonstrators into two parts. Some people did try and face it out with police, who had by now moved such a mass of troops into Whitehall, that it was impossible to rejoin the two halves. Many people had left friends or family back in Parliament Square.

Within an hour, the police had totally cut the square off from the rest of London. Some people in the Square were what they would describe as activists; most were just there to show support for the aims of the demonstration. Quite a few people were left from the Workers Day meeting, including Kurdish communists and a couple of SWP paper sellers.

Almost imperceptibly the police cut off all the exits out of the square. There were no more tourists visible observing from the steps of St. Martins, and they drove the Kurdish parties off the pavement in front of the National Gallery, and down the steps into the square. Their banners were ripped down, and the police seemed determined to enforce a strategy of complete detainment. Some of the Kurds did not seem very happy being pushed into a square surrounded by armoured police. The police now started to drive the press away from the square, to shouts of "free press" from the crowd.

People had started to become quite uneasy by this point, and even parts of the crowd who had been attempting to break out of the cordon before, had reached a point of uneasy stand-off with the front lines of the police.

Behind every ten or so officers was the cameraman, also in armour, filming everyone; on the buildings surrounding the Square, were dozens of other figures filming and photographing the people in the Square.

After about three hours of this; in which the police cordon became tighter and tighter, allowing them in to film as close as they wanted, they began to release the crowd - of about three thousand people- one by one down the Haymarket.

As we were released through the cordon, we were filmed again; just in case they had missed anyone. Quite a few people, many of whom who had been filmed protesting against their illegal detention in the Square for four hours, were bundled off to cells to await the 'justice' of the courts and the tabloids over the next week.

All of us there are now fully documented enemies of the realm, and every file must be stuffed with illustrations.

One wonders how much energy and money is being thrown into the great war against guerrilla gardening.

It is perhaps not surprising that once the interior security service took over the job in fighting terrorism from the Met (specifically Special Branch); and once the war in Ireland was effectively over; that they would turn their attention to citizens who they regard as subversive.

The rest of us were left to contemplate exactly what "freedoms' had been granted to us by our masters in return for our forefathers' sacrifice over the last few hundred years.