This was first published on Turn Trafalgar into Tahrir, an initiative by students, trade unionists, MPs and community groups on March 26, 2011. I was one of the main initiators. This was written the day after the square had been violently cleared by the police.
This Saturday over half a million people took to the streets in the biggest anti-government demonstration since the invasion of Iraq. Trade unionists and community activists from around the country rallied together. The supermarket of the super-rich, Fortnum and Mason, was occupied and shut-down along with many outlets owned by tax-dodger and government cuts advisor Philip Green. Several general secretaries called for strike action.
A BBC news report described it as a “post-Tahrir Square event” – a population rising up against a government nobody voted for, united in rage and inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. And at the end of the day, hundreds and then several thousands of people came to occupy Trafalgar Square in the spirit of the Cairo uprising.
Our banner was “we demand regime change” and the atmosphere was peaceful and positive with fireworks, dancing and campfires after a hard day’s march. For one night at least, Trafalgar Square, symbol of the British state, was instead in the hands of the people. Unfortunately this carnival atmosphere was soured by the violent and reprehensible actions of a few hundred police.
Without warning a team of officers ran into the square to drag one of the protesters away. Others ran to his aid, and were quickly met by dozens of police charging in and making full use of their truncheons. Within the space of a few minutes, a column of several hundred officers in full riot gear stormed Trafalgar and turned it into a battleground.
When organizers of the occupation contacted the police and asked who was in charge, they were told simply to “take their pick” from the uniformed thugs running amok in the square. The police had attacked without provocation and then refused to engage in a dialogue.
Cuts to the NHS kill, as more people are excluded from access to decent healthcare. Raising the pension age kills, as more people have to work until they literally drop. Thousands die in work-related accidents every year, and cuts to the Health and Safety Executive will kill thousands more. The tiny minority that is devastating jobs, services, welfare and pensions are already guilty of tremendous violence.
But violence did occur on the protests yesterday, and with the exception of some minor property damage it came almost exclusively from the side of the police. On the student protests of November and December thousands were repeatedly kettled, beaten and charged by mounted officers. Jody McIntyre was twice dragged from his wheelchair, Tahmeena Bax was knocked unconscious and Alfie Meadows was almost killed by a severe brain hemorrhage.
We are still collecting details of the violence this weekend, but we do know that almost 150 people were arrested, detained and charged for attending the entirely peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Mason. This strategy of mass arrests, kettles and violent charges is one of collective punishment, which aims to criminalize the right to protest at the time when we most need to exercise it.
The policing of recent protests has exposed the hypocrisy of the government’s show of concerned for the right to protest in Middle Eastern countries. When the spirit of the Egyptian and Tunisian protests came to Britain it was put down by police – or, in the words of one popular tweet “Forces loyal to Cameron violently attacked rebels in Trafalgar Square.”