On the morning of April Fool’s Day, every newsstand in London touted the arrival of Barack Obama for this week’s G20 summit. Daily Mail advertisements boasted the first photographs of the smiling Obamas posing alongside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah in front of the PM’s office at 10 Downing Street. As the newly-minted U.S. President made his first official state visit to the UK, the papers gave him the rock-star treatment, conveying a feeling that seemed all too familiar to anyone who was on the other side of the Atlantic back in November. Hope had come to the United Kingdom.
By afternoon, the tone took a dramatic turn for the worst. OBAMA’S BIG DAY MARRED BY VIOLENCE, declared one headline. ANARCHY GROUPS FIGHT FOR CONTROL OF THE CITY, screamed another.
What? There I was, smack dab in the middle of central London, and everything seemed to be business as usual. No angry mobs, no overturned cars or shattered glass, not even the ominous scent of smoke in the air. The papers announced Armageddon—how had I missed it?
On Wednesday morning, swarms of protesters descended upon London’s financial district. A friend and I followed to gawk at the spectacle. In the days leading up to the summit, the media speculated ceaselessly about the possibility of riots. Armies of neon-clad metropolitan police cordoned off streets, shopkeepers boarded up their front windows, and banks warned their employees to come to work dressed casually to avoid harassment.
But even as my friend and I wound up right in the thick of the morning’s demonstrations, never once did we witness any acts of violence or feel we had a reason to fear for our safety. Still, I arrived home that evening to find my Facebook page and email inbox inundated with messages from concerned friends and family, asking if I was okay.
The simple truth is that the urban war zone portrayed by much of the press on April 1 was almost entirely fictional, a manifestation of the sensationalist media’s wishful thinking. At best, they portrayed a tiny portion of the actual events. Of the thousands of protesters who packed the streets of the financial district, there were about 60 arrests, a few broken windows and, sadly, one death (from a heart attack).
The story, in other words, was the same as ever. Thousands protested, most of them peacefully, but the substance of their message was inexorably swallowed by sporadic violence.
So what happened? These hordes of people congealed in a public place with signs and flags and home-made t-shirts and unflattering effigies, so presumably they had something to say, right? What happened to their message?
One reason why the demonstrators’ message was so thoroughly eclipsed by the tired narrative of cops versus protesters is that the latter is simply a sexier story. It’s the one that the media had been gearing up for well before April. Crowds with painted faces and crude representations of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are somewhat newsworthy, but they don’t have the shock appeal of beleaguered policemen wielding batons or protesters smashing windows.
The cover photograph of Thursday’s Times depicts one demonstrator launching a piece of debris through the front window of a Bank of Scotland branch. It might have been iconic, were it not for the wall of cameras in the background capturing the exact same shot. One anarchist, 25 photographers. Somehow it all seems a little artificial.
However, the press doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the protesters’ point being lost in the scuffle because the protesters never had much of a point to begin with. The crowd in front of the Bank of England on Wednesday seemed to be a confused mishmash of opinions and causes, not all of which necessarily had anything to do with the G20.
Good old-fashioned populist rage certainly fueled a good portion of the crowd; many of the demonstrators shouted angry chants like supporters at a soccer match.
Build a bonfire, build a bonfire,
Put the bankers on the top.
Gordon Brown in the middle,
And then burn the fucking lot.
The core of the crowd was anti-banker, but signs and banners indicated individual protesters’ other stances: anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, anti-government. Some in the crowd appeared to be anti-police. Some inexplicably held signs declaring their positions on climate change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One protester waved a Tibetan flag. Others voiced their support for Palestine.
In short, it was a clusterfuck. Instead of a coherent protest for a specific cause, the entire left side of the political spectrum came together to shout randomly for the entertainment of the onlooking police. What resulted was not a demonstration for a political ends, but an inarticulate scream for attention, political discourse on the level of children. It’s just as well that the news story ultimately turned to violence because, for all the demonstrators assembled in London, I neither saw nor heard a single constructive idea.
“We’re as mad as hell, and we’re… well, we’re as mad as hell.”
So when it’s all over, when the last shard of glass has been swept from the streets of London, when the mainland’s anarchist groups have packed up their black ski masks and returned to France, Italy and Germany, when every angry Briton has gone home and replaced his megaphone on its hook in the garage, will it have really meant anything at all?
Or was it just another car wreck for rubberneckers like me.