Apr 6, 2009

April 1st Reportback

It's been a while since I've written here. After my exam I had some writer's burnout. Then I was hella busy with the G20 demonstrations. A week of not writing at all has led to an outpouring of words and ideas, most of which don't relate to this blog. I'll try to spare you my critiques of activism and instead focus on the environmental themes behind some of the demonstrations. I was present at several demonstrations during G20, but I'll stick to the April 1st marches and climate camp to keep this relevant to your assumed interests. I say that, but want to acknowledge that there is no way to separate our ecological concerns from the social and political problems that we face.

I consider myself an environmental/ecological activist primarily. When I think about violence and war, I'm forced to consider how much of that is a result of the distribution of resources. When I think about homelessness or land tenure, I feel implicitly that our first 'home' is our planet. State borders frustrate me foremost because they're arbitrary on the land, political attempts to confine and define nature along anthropocentric lines. Regardless of what I'm working on politically, I'm always an earth activist at my core. But I understand the immediacy of other issues, and I think it's important for us to engage in the struggles that move us.

The economic 'crisis', not any environmental issues, brought the decision makers of 20 countries to London. This was not a holistic attempt to change course. It was a blind patching of a sinking ship that's struggling to stay the course of environmental destruction and top down distribution of resources. It was also an opportunity to bring our concerns to the media's attention, though they were much more content to focus on Michelle Obama's outfits.

The sudden need for this summit meant that these leaders couldn't hide out in a fortress like Gleneagle or Sardinia. Instead we got the rare opportunity to address those directing our lives in an urban, easily accessible environment. Few of us bothered approaching the ExCel Center, which is easily fortified against demonstrators. This fact was well known to those organizing the summit as well as to local demonstration organizers who have seen the Arms Fair come to ExCel several times. I might have made it down there on the 2nd if not for the raids, which took precedence that day.

Instead, demonstrations were organized across the London financial district, largely focusing on Bank, an area full of ... well, banks. On April 1st, four marches left from different locations around 11 AM toward the Bank of England. These themes were tied together by the people representing them at Bank. I've heard commentators in mainstream coverage decrying the lack of a coherent message, but I disagree. The message was a simple rejection of the ideologies that have brought us to environmental and economic collapse. A rejection of the systems that these 'leaders' were coming to prop up artificially against the will of many of their constituents. We presented not only an oppositional voice to business as usual, but also manifestations of the cooperation and creativity required to build the sorts of communities that we wish to develop. We demonstrated that although our motivations and tactics are diverse, we see a common opportunity to rid ourselves of the systems that degrade our planet, fuel war and violence, deprive people of homes, and allow the rich to rise above it all.

The organically developed streets of London offer several points of arrival at Bank. This proved quite helpful as the cops kettled (penned) the marches in at their points of origin. Though they eventually allowed the marches to proceed to Bank, it's always nice to make your own way, absent a police escort. And I did make my own way, with about 30 friends, who also got word that our march, the housing/tenancy/property march, which followed the black horse of the apocalypse, was kettled at Cannon Street. We arrived with many banners and costumes just before our police escorted march descended upon the crowded streets surrounding Bank, allowing us to welcome our own march with similarly themed banners (property is theft; G20: 1 Lie; Tea, Cookies, and Revolution; Bread!).

Marches addressing violence and war, climate and environment, and financial crimes joined us at Bank. Samba tunes, bagpipes, and chants rent the air around us. Masses of police twitched on all sides but made no moves against us at this early hour.

Planning to camp just a few blocks away, my friends and I were saddled with large bags as well as unwieldy banners, our intentions solidly displayed. We worried beforehand that we would be stopped from getting to the climate camp location, but found that we were allowed to move, so long as we were creative. A handy map produced by local organizers aided our travel to the campsite. Later that day I saw cops using the same map. I laughed quite a bit at this. It was damn useful though, and I kept a copy in my pocket for several days.

Friends and I made it to the camp location in time for 'the swoop', or the mass erection of tents on Bishopsgate, just a few hundred meters from Liverpool Street Station. We put up our tent, tossed some banners over ours and that of a neighbor, also our friend. Not knowing what would come next, we stayed alert to police movement at either end of the camp. Festivities began as infrastructure for the camp, including toilets and a kitchen, went up. Also inside the camp were several police vans. By 2:30 or so, I was exhausted, having slept about an hour the night before. A friend and I dared take a nap in this hectic environment. I was convinced that the kettle would come at nightfall, so I let the warm day lull me into a less than deep sleep.

I came out of the tent around 4:30 to see many workshops progressing. Soon people were hopping off the tube to join the camp. Folks who had not been at the demonstrations all day. Folks bringing in lots of beer. Folks perhaps less aware of the 200-300 cops at either end of the camp. The camp was crowded. The vibe seemed somewhat ignorant of the possibilities of an imminent kettle, though people slipping in from Bank or who had been around all day still had some realism about the situation.

I love a good street party. I love Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass. I love the idea that we should be free on our streets, particularly in the absence of cars. I even wanted a beer at this street party, though in the end I didn't have one until I left. But I've also seen enough police brutality at demonstrations to fear it. And I guess part of my fear makes me less comfortable with drinking. Being hyper alert is tiring. Being anxious about the cops sucks. And though I was truly enjoying the camp, loving seeing so many of my friends united in a space that in that afternoon felt quite safe, I was nervous about diminishing my alertness. I walked out of the camp with two friends around 6:30. We had each been around all day. Two of us had had very little sleep over the previous days. We were a bit overwhelmed.

We got back to the camp and it had been kettled. I was terribly relieved to be on the outside. One friend really wanted to be on the inside because the festivities continued. I understand the sentiment, but we also had some great musicians outside the kettle, and I couldn't envy my friends stuck inside. I did, however, want to know first hand of their safety. And I was slightly resentful toward, though not surprised at the cops for taking away our street unity. We need those moments of unity and fruition.

We waited on the north side of the kettle for several hours. We had good communication with people inside. Rumors of beatings circulated outside the kettle, but confirmation came from within that spirits remained high. Eventually tension rose outside the kettle. The litter of empty beer cans began to fly as demonstrators got restless. I stood on the cop line for ages. Some of the folks engaging the cops were annoyingly drunk. It was slightly embarrassing. I didn't feel sorry for the cops, but I didn't feel inspired or proud either. I just stood there with legal observers, watching. Once we were pushed beyond the line of sight, we left. Friends inside were well connected to each other. They said we should go. None of my friends seemed surprised by the outcome. None complained of the results. I think they all knew what to expect.

No one excuses the police aggression that rose during the eviction of climate camp. It was completely unnecessary, particularly given joyful the nature of the action. They kept everyone kettled past the last tubes. People who thought they were just dipping into the camp for a peek were stuck very late without warm clothes. A lot of people didn't know what to expect. I assume this experience will be quite radicalizing for many of them, though I'm not entirely sure of that.

I've read so many accounts of the camp that attempt to separate that action from the one at Bank. I was at both and consider them part of the same movement. I reject the notion that climate camp suffered because of actions at Bank. The day progressed nearly exactly as I expected in terms of police aggression, kettles and the camp eviction. So to me it is unrealistic and unfair to blame Bank demonstrators for police violence at climate camp. Why would we expect the police to be reasonable at climate camp just because it was 'peaceful'? Almost all of the Bank demonstrators were 'peaceful'. Same with the Gaza demo's in January. Same with the demonstrations in San Francisco in solidarity with Tristan Anderson. Same with demonstrations against the wall in the West Bank. And yet there was brutality at each. Non-violent demonstrations are often attacked, exposing the brutality of the system, as is one aim of such actions.

I still see the actions on April 1st as part of one movement and encourage those that seek to divide them to think again. To look for cohesion because the bigger division is between us and the authorities, not one action and another. We set out with four themes toward a common space. We have recognized that our motivations are multiplicitous but that our goals are common. Our tactics are diverse, but our need for solidarity is broad. The organizing for G20 offered space for our differences in a way that allowed for some cohesion, some movement building that wasn't entirely predicated on the existence of an enemy. I hope we continue to occupy that space, though we've been evicted from the streets and the convergence center for now. Retaining that creative organizing space is equally important.

Fuck, I did a really bad job of keeping the discussion to the environment, away from activism. Whoops.

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