Saturday’s protest and street party was called by anarchist group “Class War” and was the third such event this year. These are ‘Reclaim The Streets’-style walkabouts, with fire juggling, pyrotechnics, a very loud bicycle sound system, and lots of attitude. With no pre-organised route, they are a fingers up to the status quo, to the need for permission to have fun in public spaces, and they’re protests against the creeping privatisation of public space, as well as the wider capitalist austerity agenda, gentrification, and corporate land-grab that poisons our cities and our democracy.
Having said that, by their very nature, they’re also a disorganised, messy and drunken affair, the main result a passing celebration of freedom with all the mayhem that might bring.
So, activists and party animals gathered together under a railway arch outside Shoreditch Station from about 7pm, the sound system adorned with a piggy-faced police effigy which, thanks to the Ashcroft revelations, neatly tied together the Tory class-enemy and the “pig” police. At times, flame torches and smoke bombs invoked images of a post-apocalyptic film set, complete with loud punk or drum ’n’ bass soundtrack.
Near 8, the party set off along back streets towards Brick Lane.
A handful of police followed, ears glued to their radios as they fed back route information to an unseen controller. Around 200-strong, the procession turned north up Brick Lane, and then stopped outside a small shop called “Cereal Killer Cafe”. With some banging on the windows, and a couple of paint-bombs thrown, it was clear that, to some in the crowd, this was a target, but the significance passed me by until someone explained – apparently this business sells nothing other than breakfast cereal, and at nearly £5 a bowl, it was seen as a symbol of gentrification in the area, infamous for having been featured on a C4 programme, and made all the worse by being fronted by two twins wearing hipster beards.
I didn’t really follow why this was marked as such an important target, and its selection has caused much controversy in social media and has gained wide coverage in lamestream media. The hipster twins have been quick to court publicity and victimhood, and there are a lot of questions over whether the message of the night was muddied. But there has also been hysterical talk of physical violence, and a claim that children were in the cafe. I certainly didn’t see any children there, and suspect that like Farage’s similar claim when activists invaded his local pub, it may turn out to be untrue. On the other hand, ‘Class War’ hasn’t had so much press for a long time, but whether “all publicity is good publicity” applies here, I’m not sure. Whatever, a couple of paint bombs, some spilled cereal, some banging on the window, and a felt-penned “Scum” graffiti, shouldn’t really characterise the whole event, given that a tiny portion of the crowd were involved. The supposedly “terrorised” staff seemed to be smiling as they took images on their mobile phones from inside the shop.
Further up Brick Lane, the front window of Winkworth’s estate agent received a blow – a more predictable, and perhaps less controversial target for symbolic property damage. Round the corner on Bethnal Green Road, another estate agent, Marsh and Parsons, got the same treatment.
Up till now, the same few police had been tailing the protest, and apart from a minor altercation in Brick Lane, were very hands-off. Suddenly, sirens could be heard, and two riot vans appeared, out of which some fully-kitted officers emerged.
But as the party doubled back towards Brick Lane, a clash was avoided, and soon a full-scale impromptu party was taking off in a small park, Allen Gardens, with numbers swelling rapidly around the sound system, and a small firework display adding to the merriment. Class War founder Ian Bone posed with one of the large banners in front of riot cops near the gates to the park.
By now a police helicopter was hovering overhead, Brick Lane and other surrounding roads were closed to traffic, and more police were arriving. After a while, the group set off east to Vallance Road, and then up again to Bethnal Green Road where they started heading back towards Shoreditch, reclaiming both carriageways as they walked.
A loud bluster of police sirens announced the arrival of more riot vans, but several of these were empty. Sometimes this can signify an expectation of mass arrests, but there simply weren’t anywhere near enough officers to attempt this, so I think it was mainly for show, and the police were actually quite under-resourced – perhaps they should consider some direct action to encourage Cameron to reverse the cuts and stop giving all the money to the rich?
The sound system led the way west, and then up Shoreditch High Street, followed by a dozen police vans (most empty) and accompanied by about 20/25 police, now back in normal uniforms. Their role was to try to keep oncoming traffic moving, so there were a few minor scuffles as they did this, and there was one snatch arrest, apparently for suspected criminal damage, under the bridge at the crossroads with Old Street.
Further west, the party brought Old Street roundabout to a standstill, and the pig effigy was set alight. After a while, and accompanied by the hands-off police, with numbers just beginning to dwindle, I left them heading back east at around 10.30 – heard later it ran past midnight.
Some activists claim the event was a 1000 strong, but although this number might reflect a total who joined at some point however fleetingly, I’d estimate the main core never grew more than a few hundred at any one time.