May Day 2002
Festival of Alternatives,
London's 2002 May Day celebrations/protests in central London were a good-natured and overwhelmingly peaceful affair, despite the dire warnings of the Metropolitan Police, repeated ad nauseam throughout the mainstream media; they insisted that they were expecting a hard core of a few hundred protestors intent on causing violence. "They're saying to people 'get involved', and that sounds sinister. Put together with our intelligence, it sounds even more sinister," claimed one high-ranking and widely quoted officer.
There were two main foci for the protests this year: The TUC (trades union) march, which in a historically significant move was this year combined with the Globalise Resistance march; this went from Green Park to Trafalgar Square, and had the police's approval. The other focus, drawing all of the police impatience, was the area around Mayfair, where anarchists and others wishing to protest independently of the big organisations announced their intention to hold a traditional May Fair and a collection of other smallish events: A Critical Mass bike ride in the morning from Camden Town to the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square; a travelling circus, with stilt-walkers, clowns, fire eaters and all; a wake for capitalism; a giant game of football on Oxford Street...
We arrived at Green Park tube at around one o'clock; there were a few people milling about, some of them with obvious intentions to protest, but no mass movement of people, so we picked a road that would lead us roughly towards the middle of Mayfair. We passed a couple of small protests - perhaps half a dozen or so at each - and picked up some 'Mayday Festival of Alternatives' leaflets from one of these. The leaflets listed the various events planned for the day (and surrounding days - the Festival of Alternatives officially lasted from the 26th to the 6th) - but it gave little idea of where or when they would take place, presumably because the police would stop them given half a chance.
After a little more aimless wandering about, we suddenly heard the first signs that people really were turning up for this thing in large numbers: The sound of running and shouting drew our attention to a nearby road, where we could see police and protestors sprinting towards an unknown destination. We joined the stream, running for a while, chilling out a bit as we caught up with a crowd. Together now in a large unit of people, we tramped through the streets in what was starting to feel like a real march, albeit one with no fixed destination.
and then a cyclist would return from a scouting mission with news that
the police were trying to block off the road ahead, and the crowd would
change direction down a side road, or even turn back on itself. This
was an attempt - largely successful - to prevent the police from
repeating their tactics of previous May Days, of trapping hundreds of
people behind police lines without food, water, toilets or explanation
for as long as possible. Although they are currently being sued for
wrongful imprisonment after they used this approach last year, nobody
imagined that this was going to stop them from trying it again, and
indeed a couple of hundred people did eventually get hemmed in for a
few hours in the Piccadilly area later on in the day. It's hard to be
sure of the details, but it looks as if what violence there finally was
may have kicked off after this; it is, of course, a predictable
consequence of trapping hungry, thirsty people for hours on end
(especially without explaining your reasons) that some of them will
want to smash things when they finally get free. |
At its peak the crowd we were with must have been a good few thousand strong - impressive, considering the meeting point had been 'the general Mayfair area'. After an hour or two of walking around with them, changing direction sporadically, avoiding large groups of police, kicking balls around, we stopped at a Burger King to use their toilets. We lost the throng at this point, and headed for Trafalgar Square to see how the official demonstration was going. The Square was not exactly packed, but the turnout was not bad; several thousand people had turned up to unfurl their trade union banners, wave their red flags and listen to a range of speeches on subjects relevant to the Left: The familiar failures of global capitalism and Tony Blair's 'New Labour' government, news on the union movement, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and so on. In one of the fountains, a band of naked men did their bit to promote public nudity.
Once we had had enough of this, we set off again to rejoin the troublemakers elsewhere. We found that the traffic going along Shaftesbury Avenue had been blocked by cyclists and revellers, with Dean Street next door turned over entirely to carnival use. Drums and small sound systems bust out their beats; a few hundred people danced in the streets. Soon we set off home to rest our weary feet.
Archway, I tuned into the Channel 4 news expecting to hear the events
of the day distorted into a frenzy of crazed anarchists smashing things
for fun, as is the usual way of these things; to see a protest reported
on at all, and not depicted as a violent mess, is almost unheard of.
Yet I switched on my TV to find a news item which actually presented
some of the arguments of the demonstrators in a reasonable light, and
acknowledged that the protests had been overwhelmingly peaceful with a
positive atmosphere and only the occasional minor scuffle. This has
left me, if not optimistic, at least hopeful that future peaceful
protests may be reported for what they really are. I take my hat off to
This piece also appears here, on Everything2.