March 28, 2011

IconLondon’s half-million protest: a queer account

Half a million people protested in London on Saturday – the largest public demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests in 2003.

Lesbilicious reporter Ruth Pearce was there too. Here she explains why she was protesting, what the cuts mean for LGBT people, and what it feels like to kettle riot police.

london_cuts-demo_200x239A massive march against government-imposed public sector cuts brought London to a standstill on Saturday 26 March 2011. As hundreds of thousands of people marched past Parliament, accompanying splinter demonstrations caused chaos throughout the West End.

It was a very long and somewhat surreal day for this protester. I demonstrated as a bisexual woman, for my opposition to the cuts is not simply ideological, but very personal: I feel strongly that the government’s actions are an attack upon the LGBT community. My resistance to this attack led me into some unusual situations over the weekend, as I marched alongside clowns, occupied clothes shop Dorothy Perkins and found myself in a face-off with riot police.

The somewhat confused press coverage inevitably focused on the actions of more radical protesters. Reporters have conflated the activities of direct action groups such as UK Uncut with property damage and street battles. The story became one of “Ritzkrieg”: of a violent minority mindlessly causing trouble for the sake of trouble.

The estimated half a million people who participated in the overwhelmingly polite TUC march aren’t the only ones lost in this narrative. In concentrating upon the apparent cost of damage, the number of arrests and even statistical details of those who demonstrated peacefully, it’s easy to lose sight of the many reasons for protest.

Demonstrators sought to protect public vital services such as the NHS, fight job losses and defend the benefits greatly needed by many disabled people, families and job-seekers. In the midst of these worthy causes, it’s easy to overlook the impact that cuts will have upon LGBT people. However, the outlook for our community is stark.

LGBT services in the firing line

Charity funding from national bodies and local authorities is rapidly drying up, meaning that many LGBT charities have already closed their doors and others will soon follow. Vital services targeted at particularly vulnerable LGBT groups such as homeless people and victims of domestic violence will be some of the first to go. The remaining mainstream organisations that deal with these issues are all too often unable or unwilling to handle with the unique circumstances experienced by LGBT people.

Schools will have fewer resources with which to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying. Fee rises are likely to disproportionately affect those LGBT students who receive no financial support from their parents after coming out. There will be less funding available for hate crime initiatives.

Many lesbian and bisexual women will find themselves doubly discriminated against by the cuts. The majority of public sector job losses will hit women, the Women’s Commission has been scrapped and the massive gender pay gap is unlikely to close during the foreseeable future.

Students on the streets

With these cold facts echoing in my mind, I awoke early on Saturday morning to make the journey to London along with a group of fellow students.

I have several flexible, part-time jobs that help me afford to undertake postgraduate research, but am grateful for continuing support from my parents. Without this, I probably wouldn’t be studying right now. My research examines public health provision for trans people, and I haven’t yet managed to tie down a scholarship. Funding for LGBT research is already heard enough to acquire within the social sciences, and the situation is only going to get worse.

We joined the education feeder march in Malet Street. There weren’t too many of us at first: only a couple of thousand at most. However, our numbers swelled enormously as we walked past a number of central London colleges and universities on our way to the start of the main march at Embankment. Clowns capered, onlookers fumbled for their camera phones and passing motorists raised their fists in solidarity as we chanted a variant on a now familiar theme: “No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts!”

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The LGBT bloc

As we approached the Strand it became obvious that the capital wasn’t particularly well-prepared for our arrival. We marched down busy streets unhindered by barriers and barely accompanied by the police. We halted traffic due to sheer force of numbers and found ourselves walking around and between halted buses and taxis. The situation became almost farcical once we reached the junction where Aldwych meets the Strand. The LGBT feeder march and numerous Union groups joined us in a colourful collision.

A fair number of LGBT organisations were out in force to highlight the impact of the cuts upon our community. The NUS LGBT and Queer Youth Network hefted substantial banners. Militant queer activists wore black and pink, and rainbow flags fluttered in the breeze. It felt like a heavily politicised Pride rally within the larger demonstration.

The force of this presence was electrifying. However, the marchers were rapidly getting bogged down as thousands of us attempted to crowd down a tiny street. When it became increasingly obvious that we weren’t likely to get very far for a long time, I broke away with a group of queer companions and we decided to head over to Oxford Street for the UK Uncut demonstration.

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Occupations on Oxford Street

When we arrived on Oxford Street, most of the intended targets had already been closed. A line of riot police stood in front of Topshop, which had been hit by paint bombs. The street was free of traffic as protesters roamed freely, and the atmosphere was strangely casual.

We noticed that Dorothy Perkins was still trading. The chain is owned by the Arcadia Group, whose CEO Sir Philip Green is a government austerity advisor known for tax avoidance. A store manager noticed the suspiciously large group of young people walking towards the shop and hurriedly attempted to bring down the shutters. We dived underneath and formed a human chain at the front of the store to prevent our removal, shouting “Philip Green, pay your taxes!”

Many passers-by joined us, and others stopped to watch what was going on. The short occupation afforded us the opportunity to give a number of speeches explaining why we felt that the Arcadia Group and its owners had cheated the country out of millions. We were careful to leave the store undamaged, and offered flapjack to the security guards. Suddenly a message was passed down: “we’re leaving now”. A line of riot police poured into the shop entrance just as the last of us ran out.

Outside the shop was a gigantic, rapidly growing street party. I later read reports of 500 or so people gathering at Oxford Circus, but the crowd clearly numbered in its thousands. When details of the secret big UK Uncut occupation were announced we poured down towards Piccadilly, where the gigantic main march was still ongoing.

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Fortnum & Mason (& the zombie apocalypse)

The target turned out to be the luxury department store Fortnum & Mason. The store is owned by Wittington Investments, who are accused of avoiding at least £10 million in tax. Upon my arrival the police had already blocked the entrances to the building, but it transpired that several hundred protesters had made it inside.

Reports and videos from inside the occupation demonstrate that it was entirely peaceful, but a van of riot police quickly arrived on the scene. Protesters positioned themselves in a human barrier to prevent them from reaching the store, meaning that the police were soon surrounded. They formed into a triangle and we found ourselves in a stalemate, with the police effectively kettled within a vast crowd of protesters. I stood resolutely in front of a riot shield and idly wondered exactly how I’d ended up in this situation.

Eventually backup arrived in the form of more riot police, who pushed their way through the crowd towards the building. At this point people began to throw objects and I decided to leave the area. I regrouped with my friends and we began to head away to Hyde Park, only to see a line of riot police block the end of the street at they began to form a kettle. Hundreds of people began to run away, with several rapidly scaling the pointed gates that closed off a small avenue. Fortunately, we realised that the kettle hadn’t yet closed on the other end of the street and left in a hurry.

Within hours, the streets of the West End looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse. Empty police vans lined the eerily empty streets, some daubed with graffiti. Helicopters thundered overhead. One of them wielded an incredibly powerful searchlight that flicked back and forth through the night. We visited Trafalgar Square, which was filled with mostly placid protesters. A small rave was taking place at the foot of Nelson’s Column. There was no indication of the pitched street battle that would later take place.

Are we invisible?

For all the reports of violence ‘marring’ the day, I feel pleased with our actions on Saturday. We participated in the largest protest march since the Iraq war. We contributed to non-violent direct action against companies that get away with unnecessary tax evasion even as the most vulnerable in society are about to suffer for the mistakes of greedy bankers. I would like to say that I am pleased that our actions raised awareness of a number of important issues, but that sadly would not be so true.

The media focus on property damage and street battles has come at the expense of any real analysis of the protests.

There were almost no professional journalists evident in Oxford Street even as we peacefully closed down every known tax-dodging store on the road, meaning that later coverage confused and conflated these actions with those of the black blocs.

Similarly, you won’t hear anything about the LGBT elements of Saturday’s demonstrations in the mainstream media, and you’re unlikely to encounter much about how we’re impacted by the cuts.

Saturday’s demonstrations have not just highlighted government hypocrisy: they have also highlighted media failures. LGBT people might as well be invisible in the same way that many of the protesters were. It’s all the more reason for us to be out, proud and angry in resistance to the assault upon our public services.

Report by Ruth Pearce. Photography by Garry Knight, Weldon Kennedy and Dave Lewis.

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Further information:

Philip Green “known for tax avoidance”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2005/mar/27/theobserver.observerbusiness2

UK Uncut: http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/

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Milly Shaw

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