By about 2pm today, I thought the momentum of the day’s protests – a joint effort by students and trade unionists – had been completely lost. Police lines at Millbank Tower ensured it couldn’t culminate here in a Mark II of the 10th November action last year. Everyone seemed to be going in different directions.
As the word emerged that the next target would be the Egyptian Embassy, in a bid to show solidarity with those resisting the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak, I was with a number of friends and fellow sixth-form students on the steps of the Tate Britain, deliberating on where to go next. By the time we had waited for a few others to arrive and congregate with, those heading for Egypt seemed far, far away.
And when we did reach the embassy, the dense police presence more or less determined that there was little point at all remaining there. And it was what followed which will make this day memorable for me.
In a highly spontaneous fashion, a group at least in the mid-hundreds moved to reclaim the streets. We marched along most of the main roads in the West End. And while you’d have thought that motorists would be frustrated at not being able to continue their journeys (such was the scale of the crowd, stretching back as far as the casual eye cared to look), a surprising number gave hoots and supporting left fists in solidarity. It was remarkable.
The spontaneity of the march was most apparent when the whole thing stalled, as one man at the very front consulted a map to determine our location in relation to the City. This, of course, was after the roads of the West End, Holborn, Bloomsbury and Euston had been reclaimed.
Whilst there were few incidents of violence and brutality here in London (I gather the picture in Manchester was sightly different at least) I witnessed a general sense of grump and abruptness in the police officers (though some, as always, made the best of it). So when a fire engine rolled down their windows and shook my hand among those of many others, I was deeply heartened to see solidarity in the services which are, after all, supposed to be there to protect us. But with Brian Coleman, the Tory chair of the London Fire Authority, threatening to sack ALL London firefighters and re-engage them in a bid to avoid agreements on conditions and pay, you can see why.
Many were chanting at police lines: “Your jobs next.”
But, you may ask, what’s the significance of reclaiming the streets? It seemed to be important to the protesters – the most soulful chant was: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Here’s why.
We live in an age where public space is increasingly finding itself in private hands. In her book Ground Control, Anna Minton chronicles the increasing tendency of city centres to be controlled by development corporations and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). Not that any of the streets concerned today were of this variety, as far as I’m aware. But what was apparent was people’s determination that the world of the government, banks and tax-avoiding businesses should not be able to presume that the streets of London exist to merely ferry people to and from their shop-fronts.
As Minton argues, public space should not just be about serving the interests of profit, but should be focused on what citizens want from it. Often, this is merely somewhere to do not-very-much. Today, it was somewhere to show the people that students and workers are still angry about the programme of cuts being imposed upon us. To hearten the public with the message that they too can join the fight, and that they won’t be the only ones. To show tourists what democracy really means.
And to show the government that they’re mistaken to think that things can go on as usual when such a violent assault is made upon society.
Plus, it means the protests have focused on this government, and not the different (although possibly related) problems of that of Egypt. That could have really let Cameron and Clegg off the hook.