This year it’s been all about the cuts. Not since the heady days of the millions-strong turnout against the war in Iraq have we seen such a plethora of people ripping up their bedsheets to make banners and taking to the streets to express their discontent. The image of the Swampy-style demo-pro with unusual piercings and a dog on a bit of string is in the past. From Crouch End to Croydon, people have laid aside their political apathy, stopped moaning about the government while failing to vote, and started to speak up for the changes they want. Here’s a roundup of just a few of the protests we’ve seen this year.
The movement in possession of tents, a ferociously efficient publicity machine and notoriously little in the way of demands have firmly pitched their London operation, both in the physical sense and in the consciousness of the city. On 15 October, a group of protesters made camp next to St Paul’s Cathedral in lieu of being denied entry to their original destination of Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange. Within a few days they created a second camp at nearby Finsbury Square, shortly followed by a third occupation, called the Bank of Ideas at a former UBS office building on Sun Street. Using the slogan ‘we are the 99%’ (which alludes to the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of income earners compared to the other 99%), the Occupy movement’s objections range from climate change to the banking crisis to government cuts.
The ensuing three-cornered battle, with the Church and the City of London Corporation (who own the land Occupy is, erm, occupying at St Paul’s) at the other two points, raged back and forth in the headlines with the Cathedral closing, then opening again, clergy resigning, evictions on then off then on again, thermal imaging-based accusations of being campaigning lightweights and finally complaints about organisers’ loss of control over the protest. Other occupations have proved less sticky; during the student demonstrations on 9 November, an attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square was unsuccessful as was a surprise occupation of mining company Xstrata’s offices on Panton Street.
The Occupy Everywhere protest could see a great many more camps in unexpected places.
Occupation as a form of protest has become increasingly popular. Protesters against the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi’s regime occupied his son’s London mansion in March. In February, The Really Free School siezed possession of director Guy Ritchie’s Fitzroy Square abode and in September, justice secretary Ken Clarke found himself the target of a protest against the criminalisation of squatting. A November demonstration against changes in laws around squatting led to arrests in Parliament Square, which has harboured the long-standing peace camp as well as home to the late Brian Haw, who sadly passed away in July.
Every high-profile protest, however, leads to counter-measures on the part of the government to prevent the same thing happening in future: the proposed criminalisation of squatting will also cover occupy-style protests. Ten UK Uncut protesters who peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason in March found themselves on the wrong end of an aggravated trespass conviction last month, just a few months after charges against 109 other protesters were dropped after police admitted deceiving them. Changes to by-laws could mean the Parliament Square camp’s (and indeed any occupying protest’s) days are numbered.
With the world’s eyes on London next year, the government are busy raiding the knee-jerk cupboard to introduce Beijing-style restrictions on protesting, which would mean that rather than await an uncertain outcome in a lengthy court case, police can quickly raid and clear an occupation.
The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 marked the end of ‘free education’ in the UK, but the removal of the cap on what universities could charge from 2012 has sparked outrage. Claims that the increases will leave graduates in thousands of pounds of debt as well creating an educational elite are among the objections. A demonstration in December 2010 resulted in violent clashes with police, vandalism and disorder, but hasn’t stopped students protesting. In January, Ciara Squires, studying at Queen Mary, University of London, told Reuters her reasons for marching:
‘Education should be free. My little sister is going to lose her EMA (grant) and drop out of college, and then she might not be able to go to university. Parliament is not listening to us and most of the people in college can’t vote, so we should be out here (marching), that’s the only way we can express our opinions.’
A further demonstration against tuition fee increases took place on 9 November and, despite a few contretemps, remained largely peaceful. Police were accused of attempting to intimidate protesters by writing to activists who took place in previous marches and publicising their intent to use baton rounds.
Women, Cuts And Equality
‘Don’t dress like a slut and avoid sexual assault.’ A Toronto policeman’s carelessly misogynistic advice led to global protests operating under the banner SlutWalk. London’s SlutWalk in June saw over 5,000 people marching for women’s rights and against the use of a woman’s appearance or behaviour to excuse rape. One protester gave her reasons for joining;
‘I am marching because my best friend still thinks that her rape was her fault, because the authorities never looked into it, and because it will always haunt her. And that is not okay.’
In another albeit less widely-reported demonstration in November – equality group the Fawcett Society urged people to protest against the disproportionate effects on women of government cuts. Protesters donned rubber gloves and dressed up in 1950s fashion to highlight what the Fawcett Society say is a ‘turning back of time’ on equality for women. Anna Bird, acting chief executive said:
‘Women have not faced a greater threat to their financial security and rights in living memory. Decades of steady, albeit slow, progress on equality is being dismantled, as cuts to women’s jobs and the benefits and services they rely on, turn back time on women’s equality. The number of women out of work is at a 23-year high, with cutbacks in the public sector hitting women particularly hard: two-thirds of the 130,000 jobs lost in local authorities since the first quarter of 2010 were held by women.’
The cuts to services and support groups for women were also highlighted in SlutWalk’s agenda. In October it was revealed that a Hackney project which runs rape crisis centres will lose a quarter of its funding next year while Labour call the cuts the ‘biggest attack on women in a generation’.
November has been a busy month in the world of protest. Anti-Miss World activists demonstrated outside Earl’s Court against the beauty pageant, again focussing on the judgement of women on their appearance: ‘we’re not ugly, we’re not beautiful, we’re angry’ was the message. December also saw merkin-clad protesters demonstrate against ‘designer vaginas’, or more specifically; ‘speaking out against surgeons profiting from body hatred, and raising awareness about the growing pressures on women to seek labiaplasty’. The Time Out article notes an increase in this surgery around the festive season, leading us to wonder if labiaplasty is enjoying (if that’s the word) unexpected popularity as the ideal present for that special lady in your life.
While the anti-cuts demonstrations have often been an integral part of the other protests we’ve mentioned, the government’s austerity measures and their impact on every section of society is at the heart of it all. The March anti-cuts protest was one of this year’s major demos – over 250,000 people attended – the size and scale was astonishing and the BBC described it as the largest public protest since 2003′s demonstrations against the Iraq war.
One of the key focus points of both the anti-cuts demonstrations and the student protests is tax avoidance. Several corporations including Goldman Sachs and Vodafone have been targeted by protesters, angry at the government’s lack of action. Len McCluskey of Unite said:
‘Our alternative is to concentrate on economic growth through tax fairness so, for example, if the government was brave enough, it would tackle the tax avoidance that robs the British taxpayer of a minimum of £25bn a year.’
In August a peaceful protest took place in Tottenham over the shooting of Mark Duggan by police. At 5pm, around 120 of his friends and family marched towards the police station, but by 8pm violence had broken out which sparked some of the worst riots in living memory. The protest at what local people saw as the needless death of a young man was all but eclipsed by the subsequent events and the investigation into the shooting remains open.
The Fawcett Society weren’t the only ones going protest retro this year – Youth Fight for Jobs recreated the Jarrow March from 1936 when 200 people marched from Jarrow in South Tyneside to London. With around 1 million 16 to 24 year olds out of work and huge increases in the cost of higher education, young people are feeling the pinch. Youth Fight for Jobs National organiser Paul Callanan said:
‘Young people now face the worst attacks on our rights and living standards we’ve seen in generations. We will be marching from Jarrow to London in October to show this government that we will not see all the gains made by working-class people over the last century blotted out of existence.’
The march, remarkable for the sheer distance it covered (400 miles), started on 1 October and finished in Trafalgar Square just over a month later. Ironically, out of the hundreds who started the march, only a handful remained at the end – their numbers decimated by demonstrators who had to return to college, sign on or, in one case, start a new job.
Roads And Cycling
The controversial re-planning of Blackfriars Bridge to remove the 20mph limit was the catalyst for some two-wheeled protests in May, July and October. A tour of London’s most dangerous junctions followed in November to highlight poor road planning and frankly barmy cycle superhighway designs, some of which have been cited as partly to blame for the tragic deaths of several cyclists in London.
A regular occurrence, but less-oft-reported, partly because they tend to involve fewer people and partly because the cause can be thousands of miles away. London’s various embassies are the focus for campaigners with an axe to grind against a particular country or political regime. On the anniversary of 9/11 this year, Muslim extremists set fire to a US flag outside the US embassy though the organisation later found itself subject to a ban from the home secretary when they planned to repeat an Armistice Day poppy-burning stunt.
In February, the Libyan embassy was targeted by campaigners angry at the now-fallen Gadaffi regime and again in March when some protesters made it onto the roof, while the Syrian embassy came under metaphorical fire in June for allegedly threatening protesters in the UK. Another protest outside the US embassy, this time over the use of drones in Pakistan, resulted in 20 arrests. The German embassy also found itself under siege in August from protesters over Germany’s opposition to a UN inquiry into massacres in Burma. In December, what originally began as a static protest in central London over election results in the Democratic Republic of Congo ended with 140 arrests. A demonstration over the same issue the previous week led to the closure of Oxford Circus tube station.
We know that the above is by no means a comprehensive list of all the protests which have happened in the last year so please tell us in the comments of any others you know about.