Away from Saturday's main march against the cuts in London, UK Uncut organised a series of direct actions protesting against tax avoidance – but did their message get lost in the mess?
Ahead of Saturday’s March for the Alternative demonstration in London, UK Uncut had already planned direct action away from the main TUC rally in Hyde Park.
“Just remember,” announced one UK Uncut member, a young man addressing a crowd on Embankment just before the march at 11.30am, “to make sure that everyone gets to Oxford Street for 2pm to attend the occupations on the high street, and to look out for advice about another occupation at a secret location at 3pm. But more than that, stay safe, read our advice cards on what to do if you get arrested and again, remember – there are no leaders here.”
Of course, UK Uncut had not foreseen how the day would unfold: how certain outside agents would ride in on their organisational jet stream, smashing banks on Piccadilly (HSBC, Santander, Lloyds TSB, Barclays), high-profile restaurants (The Ritz), and a car dealership (Porsche), while pre-arranged targets on Oxford Street (Topshop, BHS, Orange, Vodaphone) also became targets for violent behaviour.
“Stop throwing shit!” pleaded one UK Uncut crowd outside BHS, as members of their sit-in were covered in yellow paint, hurled from a group dressed head-to-toe in black. This, was soon to become a familiar scene, as the discord between UK Uncut’s peaceful intentions and those of the ‘black bloc’ (the aforementioned individuals dressed in black) became palpable and at times, absurd. Indeed, standing outside department store Fortnum & Masons at 4pm (the secret location UK Uncut had earlier mentioned), the disharmony among the two factions of demonstrators gained its most poignant articulation, as one boy spray-painted ‘ACAB’ (‘All Coppers Are Bastards’) on the wall, while a girl wearing tie-dye t-shirt quietly draped a banner that read ‘Coppers Against Cuts’ just next to it.
After this, Piccadilly was transformed into a riot, in which I found myself running from police charging from one end of the street only to run into another line wielding truncheons and lashing out indiscriminately, from the other. Back in Oxford Circus, I was told that a Trojan horse made from paper and wood I had seen earlier with the words ‘TUC Armed Wing’ written on the side had apparently been set ablaze by the traffic lights. Later in the evening, police clashed with protestors around Trafalgar Square, who had been gathering there since dinnertime, listening to dubstep around a lonely tent, erected to show solidarity with the uprising in Tahrir Square, Egypt last month.
Unlike those recent revolutions in North Africa, however, the protest movement in the UK currently lacks singularity and focus, and nowhere was this better demonstrated than on Saturday as at least 250,000 voices (possibly 500,000, no one is quite sure) gathered in London to broadly protest against cuts in public services, but without one coherent voice.
From the TUC perspective, for example, things are still very much dependent on the ability of traditional politics to solve legitimate fears of job losses and the dismantling of the welfare state. This, is why Labour's Ed Milliband was invited to speak at their rally, despite his admittance that he too would have followed a similar economic policy to the coalition, albeit over a longer stretch. If Milliband is anything like his predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, such promises are certainly to be taken lightly, especially while dealt in opposition.
Elsewhere, UK Uncut’s autonomous members are united over their belief that current laws allowing British companies such as Topshop and Vodafone to dodge millions of pounds worth of tax are inherently wrong, thus looking less towards Westminster and more towards British legislation for solution. And, of course, there are the multitude ‘others’ – anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, Trotskyites, Maoists – all of who want revolution but all for different reasons. This is old news. What made Saturday so exceptional, however, was the potential for these groups to recognise what even the government cannot deny – that our current economic system is not working – and to use it as a starting point for further, collaborative action. Until that happens, it would seem that the old habits of either pandering to untrustworthy politicians or picking fights with policemen are going to continue, while others offering new ideas such as UK Uncut, get ignored or tarnished in the melee.