November 9th was not exactly what you’d call terrifying, in-fact, it was probably the most tame of all the demonstrations we’ve seen over the last year. But as i find myself walking towards the starting point, there seems to be a sense of fear in the hearts of many here as they usher hesitantly around Malet Street. It’s a mood unlike anything i’ve ever seen before. There’s energy and excitement to be back on the streets, yes, but a sense of caution that seems to continue throughout the day. “There’s an expectation that something is going to go wrong here,” says Sam Schafer, a university student that’s out on his first ever national demo, “and this felt odd to me”. I decide to join Sam for the day, helping him take his first steps into the world of direct action.
I get where Sam’s coming from, I found myself the night before, shivering with fear at the prospect of a rubber bullet delivering a heavy blow to my skull. And it’s a dream that kept playing over and over in my mind, controlling my thoughts as i prepared for the worst. I’ve never been someone who’s scared of getting involved in direct action, i witnessed the fall of Millbank, I was there for the demonstration of Parliament Square, but it’s these thoughts infested in my mind by reading headlines announcing a change in police tactics that i couldn’t shift. For a demo that was expecting 10,000, that only turned out around 4000, it’s this fear, broadcast by the media, that i think had the greatest effect on the demonstration itself.
To Sam, it’s the tension between protesters and the police that he can’t get his head around. “Why should we be expecting something to go wrong?” he asks me, i find myself not being able to answer him. He’s got a point, there’s this mood that seems to assume things will inevitably turn bad. “It feels as though they’re gearing up for something” he says, as we walk down Holborn Circus, between the two police containments set up to stop the ‘sparks’ workers, and student march coming together. It’s at this moment we spot 30 or so officers getting into riot gear, and it’s only now that it dawns on us, “each side seems to fear what can be caused by the other”.
Back inside the student cordon, there’s anger and tension building, chants of “free the sparks” start sporadically, as small scuffles to break the containment heat the situation. It’s finally, only under the guise of legislation that this containment has to be released by police. There’s no licence for a static demo here, the crowd has to keep moving.
By this time, the police are ready, prepared for an action that’s seemingly expected to happen. But surely, it’s students, coming face to face with these officers, masked, and wielding batons that is going to make them run through sheer fear. This is what they’d be warned of, in the leaflets and from their friends. They were never prepared for this. Sam describes this as an “us vs. Them” mentality, as each side fears the potential danger of the other, and it’s this fear that builds the tension even further, Sam points out “it only takes one person to put up their scarf’s and others will”.
We see a group of about 100 protesters speed down round the corner, past police cordons and towards Barbican. We follow in tow. “People start to build up adrenaline because it starts to feel like a fight, and everything heightens. It’s stuff like running along the street that builds an attitude that isn’t necessarily productive” says Sam, we of course must note, that this is his first demonstration, and the reality is running usually occurs through fear, but his perspective is fresh and interesting.
There was a ridiculous police presence at this demo, an almost equal number of officers to protesters, and to many it felt like a form of oppression in people’s freedom to protest. What is interesting to notice though, is that as we follow this splinter group of about 100 students, the police find themselves not being able to deploy quick enough. Sure enough, as the group reach Moorgate, there’s no police in sight. The group seem jittery, confused. The tension that had been mounting since the student cordon just seemed to disappear. The fear seemed simply, to have diminished.
Where officers were in such great numbers before, it now felt odd without police. This led me and Sam to both think, Is it just the tension that builds between the police and protesters, and the “us vs. Them” attitude that we are meant to fear? Or is there a comfort in their presence, a feeling of security, a feeling that things can’t go wrong? We choose to detach ourselves from the demonstration for a little while.
We part ways on one final point, “I feel sorry for the police, it’s their kids that will also be affected by this. Some of them may even be on our side, but they cannot ever join in” says Sam, “they have to be there. They have to use the tactics they are told to use, or face loosing their jobs. In reality, they’d much rather have it peaceful. It’s easier for us all that way”. Maybe here then it’s not the fault of the police officers themselves. It’s the fault of those who caused this mess in the first hand, the fault of people who see solace in white paper, and political alliances. “It’s up to us to break this cycle of fear” we conclude as we go our separate ways.
November 9th was never supposed to be the catalyst the media wanted it to be. What it was, was another great learning curve in the art of protest, another chance for people to get out onto the streets and discuss their thoughts with other like minded individuals. “We’re about to enter a time of resistance, kicked off by the students today” says Billy Bragg, performing to a small, exhausted audience post-demo at the OccupyLSX camp. But, Bill’s wrong. Today was just a brief lesson in the art of fear, sitting neatly into a vast education on the realities of politics that’s engaged students for over a year.
Text by Robbie Wojciechowski
Photos by Gregory Fonne