Updated: May 10
On Saturday I spent 10 hours on the March for the Alternative. I was there as an activist to support the political point that there is an alternative to the current government’s policies. I was there as a freelance journalist to report on the march and on the UK Uncut actions planned for later in the day. That’s the disclosure bit done. What follows is the story of my day, with some reflections thrown in. There’s a lot here, and I’ll post more tomorrow – it’s now gone midnight again and I need some sleep. To further establish some context, Paul Mason’s excellent blog chimes pretty closely with my own experiences and thoughts, and I agree with much of what Laurie Penny concludes in her account of events after I left.
Towards the end of last week I discussed covering the event with my freelance colleague Chris Wheal, who I work with writing for the Daily Finance website. The site is still evolving, partly because of all the current changes at parent company AOL, and we are lucky enough to have a line manager who is willing to back new initiatives. We decided to see how much of the day we could live report, and we were joined by Lizzie Houghton from Lancaster University, who is student co-ordinator of the media project that covers the NUJ’s national conference. Chris took a laptop, recorder, two portable video cameras and a couple of mobile phones. I wanted to travel light and stay agile, especially as I was planning to join the UK Uncut actions, so I took just my iPhone. I planned to Tweet extensively, film and perhaps do some voice memos. Lizzie opted for an Android phone and an SLR camera.
During the day we managed to get three stories up on Daily Finance. You can read them here, here and here. All had some video included, with one including recordings of some of the speeches at Hyde Park. We shot the initial film along the Embankment as the march assembled, asking a combination of laypeople and more recognisable union figures such as Bob Crow why they were marching. We then decamped to a coffee shop to edit and upload the first film, write the first story and get it up on line. Luckily, there were powerpoints available so we could conserve battery power.
We then cut through Mayfair to get to Hyde Park to get the march coming into the park, and the initial ‘name’ speakers. I left Chris and Lizzie to head onto Oxford Street. I’d been following the #26march and #ukuncut feeds via Tweetdeck on my iPhone so I was aware that events were starting to happen. I arrived at the junction of Bond Street and Oxford Street at about 2pm. There was a broken window at Next and some paint had been thrown at a bank. Otherwise it was pretty normal. By now I had put up a steady stream of Tweets, and was also uploading short chunks of film to YouTube. It was taking about 5-8 minutes to upload 1.5-2mins of film direct from my phone.
As I headed up to Oxford Circus it became clear that there were more crowds than usual. I spotted a couple of small groups of black clad people with scarves, but they were very much in the minority. At the Circus there was already a bit of a party atmosphere developing and traffic was starting to gridlock. Bemused shoppers mingled with protestors. It was clear Top Shop had been the target of a heavy paint attack. I’d read this on my feeds and, having covered UK Uncut closely as part of my brief writing about tax and alternative policies for Daily Finance, my first thought was that this was highly unusual. The group occupy shops and stress a non-violent approach. The aim is to engage, and they’ve done this very successfully. From what I knew and from what I was seeing on the feeds it seemed pretty obvious that those who had attacked the store front had long gone. The smashed windows and paint were more characteristic of the stuff the happened on the Stop The City events. Anyone with a basic knowledge of protest in the UK over the last decade or so would know this.
Now protestors, mainly but by no means exclusively young, held banners in front of the lines of riot police and engaged with passing shoppers, handing out leaflets and staging impromptu drawing and music events. I got some footage with my iPhone of a demonstrator wearing a Globalise Resistance scarf cogently arguing the case over Philip Green’s tax arrangements. Globalise Resistance are entirely separate from UK Uncut, so it seemed that a number of groups were engaging in non-violent activity and were intent on putting forward a case.
The mood was friendly. There was a lot of movement, and another crowd gathering in front of Dorothy Perkins just north of Oxford Circus. Some stores were shutting, many others kept trading. The street was filling up. I phoned some colour back to Chris who was still in Hyde Park. By now I was dealing with a lot of information. News of a comedy gig in Soho Square, clashes at The Ritz, truncheons drawn at Cambridge Circus. I had to pause to weigh things up.
I risked following stories elsewhere while risking missing stories where I physically was. As I nipped around central London I was arriving up after the event. That was pointless from a reporting point of view. So I decided to return to Oxford Circus and go with the flow. But, even in the midst of events, I also seemed to be finding it easier to construct an accurate narrative than the big media sources were. I could see BBC and Sky camera crews nearby, moving with the crowds. But from what I was seeing on Twitter and what I was to see on TV later that night, they were apparently unable to distinguish between the UK Uncut protests and the more violent actions.
The people we were now with on the street were not attacking anything. Clearly there had been some violence as there were smashed windows and lots of paint had been thrown. But there were sufficient numbers present for there to be further assaults if that’s what people wanted. They clearly didn’t. And if it was obvious to me, a freelance journalist with some knowledge of the political and organisational background to what was happening, that there were two different strands of protest going on, why was it not obvious to big media?
Check back tomorrow for more, including the initial occupation of Fortnum & Mason.