Tactics At The Not OK Corral
Seamus O Conner out and about in boarded up babylon on Mayday 2001
1st May 2001
Even before a single activist turned up to the Mayday demonstrations in central London, the event could have been hailed a massive success for the anti-capitalist movement.
For once, the incessant capitalism which exudes from every Oxford Street orifice, was forced to shut up. Road closed. The epicentre of the capital's consumer culture boarded up.
Down Berwick Street a line of glazier vans waited like undertakers in a western full of gunfighters, measuring up the windows, lurking in the shadows waiting for the shots to be fired.
When we arrived on Oxford Street the police had already corralled over a thousand activists on the crossroads of Regent Street and Oxford Street with a now familiar tactic.
Having been corralled and held for over four hours on Euston concourse by a ring of riot police at the N30 demo in 1999, I was constantly looking not to be caught out again.
Standing in a packed crowd surrounded by truncheon-jabbing riot police ain't funny.........At Euston in '99, 250 of us had been kept standing for over fours hours on end with snatch squads periodically dashing into the middle of the penned in people. When we were finally released everyone had their photograph taken and their pockets searched.
They repeated the tactic at last year's Mayday events in central London. Throughout this year's Mayday event it was evident their strategy was to manoeuvre as many of these activist corrals as possible. Earlier that morning they'd succeeded in surrounding 300 critical mass cyclists and a samba band by Euston station. They kept them standing for three hours in the rain, many only wearing light cycling clothes. Once again they were processed one by one under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. This Act gives the police the right to ask an activist to remove any headscarves etc and the right to search the individual for 'weapons'. It does not give them the right to ask your name or date of birth although the police still ask for them hoping the activist won't know their rights. As each activist was searched, a police cameraman photographed their face. I leaned in to listen to a Superintendent at Euston Station answer off-mic questions from a mainstream journalist: "Well you can see the point of the our action," he puffed pointing at the cold and wet cyclists as they were released one at a time. "Three hours ago they were 350 cyclists together, now look at them." The journalists laughed.
If there was any doubt about the threat to squash peaceful protest with draconian policing this was it. They don't come more non-violent than Critical Mass cyclists.
To the police this was one of the many victories they were evidently hoping to stage-manage today. Corralling the first thousand or so activists to arrive on Oxford Street was another of their battle successes but it was the last one they were due to have that day.
From there on in their composure broke and their attempts at street manoeuvres constantly fell apart as they haplessly chased thousands of other demonstrators through the streets immediately to the north and south of Oxford Street. These large collections of activists never stopped in any one place for long and this proved to be one of the secrets of the activists' success for the rest of the day. Keep moving and never give the police the opportunity to swing their corral-pincer movements into place. Squares and crossroads are no good anymore. We are too easily hemmed in by this now familiar police manoeuvre. Enough protestors have finally learned the hard way how not to be caught in a corral.
Instead a snaking movement of around 2000 activists, with around 25 foam padded 'Wombles' at or near the front, weaved their way through the network of streets around Oxford Street. Up Great Portland Street, into Cavendish Square, down New bond Street, along Maddox Street....always moving..........suddenly turning left then right....a couple of thousand activists on the move and unstoppable. The police desperately chased after the crowd unable to organise anything to check its momentum. At one point this surging column of activists came back onto Oxford Street and marched up to the police lines holding the other activists in a corral.
The ring was heavily fortified with vans, riot cops and mounted police and not easily breakable So the crowd stood, chanted and whistled......a formidable cacophony bouncing off buildings and boarded up shops on either side.
Squads of riot police went steaming in a few times truncheon-flailing but the crowd stood firm, demanding the release of the penned in protestors. Then from behind us came other lines of riot police manoeuvering themselves to block off escape roots. The over two thousand strong crowd were in danger of being corralled themselves.........if the police had succeeded with this particular manoeuvre they would have won the day's battle outright and have four thousand protestors imprisoned.
However, just as the police were closing their grip, the crowd seemed to sense the manoeuvre en masse and swept down an unblocked side alley. When the police pincer fully closed there was no one left in it. The protestors then swept through Soho, Cambridge Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue with riot police hopelessly trying to predict where the giant amoeba might go next and, despite the two police helicopters hanging constantly overhead, failing spectacularly. It was the subject of some mirth to see riot cops put loads of huff puff energy into blocking roads which the protestors had not intention of going down and then watch their blockade collapse awkwardly as irate motorists began berating them for standing in the road..
Despite the huge number of officers and their 'corral and hold' strategy, the Met singularly failed in its attempts to suffocate the demonstration. The vast amounts of money and time spent on the pre-event demonisation was also shown to be spectacularly alarmist and grossly inaccurate. Their supposed pre-event intelligence that groups of activists would be carrying samurai swords was amongst the ludicrous scare-mongering in the run up..........a number of women on the early morning critical mass cycle ride brought plastic samurai swords to wave at cops.
In a preposterous effort to spread fear amongst the residents of London, the Met police also delivered dire warnings to residents' houses. I spoke to one female Islington resident who was advised by police to travel to work in casual clothes on Mayday because, as the Met police informed her, if she wore work clothes she would risk being attacked by activists.
The Met will probably claim their heavy policing of the event meant there was no violence or property damage but as two thousand people swept through the West End, successfully evading all attempts to block their progress, there was plenty of opportunity. However, property damage was remarkably minimal. And, except for a small skirmish up Tottenham Court Road right at the end of the evening which lasted ten minutes and inevitably made the TV news, shop windows remained in tact, street fixtures remained unmolested and the grossly predicted ultra-violence conspicuously failed to materialise in any way. It was truly inspiring to see so many different folk at the protest, turning up despite the best efforts of the police to dissuade people from attending. Young and old, able bodied and wheelchair-bound.
And, with respect to the mind-numbing afternoon spent by the activists caught in the corral (who were kept standing in the cold rain for seven hours) the demonstration was without a doubt a monumental success for the anti-capitalist movement.
And the lessons we learned.......
.....Keep moving ........Stay unpredictable ............Watch yer backs for pincer movements
PRAGUE S26 IN THE CITY OF 100 FIRES - Direct from frontline Prague, Si Mitchell sent back this breathless report - 27-Sept-2000
Washington DC 17-04-00 - Knuckleheads with nightsticks at 20th and 1st - 17-April-2000
Washington DC 15-04-00 - Cracked heads and crack troops on the streets of DC - 15-April-2000