By the time I arrived at the Embankment, the police had already started turning people back from the front section of the march. Crowds of union members in matching T-shirts – purple UNISON, orange GMB, easy to distinguish at a distance – had formed in the middle of the road, flanked by people passing out placards and vuvuzelas from cardboard boxes and copies of various socialist papers off trestle tables.
I passed a young couple holding hands, arguing about their protest gear: “I don’t want a general strike one, but everyone’s got the No Cuts ones.”
That’s about right. The march wasn’t just staffed by the usual suspects, the hard-left unionists and the white-collar politically-engaged types – it spilled over with people of all sorts of political persuasions, including plenty of Lib Dem voters feeling a combination of betrayal and guilt.
For some it was a march to stop their jobs being lost and their workplaces closed down; for others it was a polite expression of a sad desire to take their vote back, to do it again, and not make the same mistake this time.
It was a grand day out. It was a long way round to get to Hyde Park for a picnic, walking slowly via Whitehall and passing the armed policemen outside 10 Downing Street, where little children jumped up and down and shouted “out, out, out” but couldn’t possibly have understood why.
Handing out vuvuzelas was a nice touch; they made it possible for a group of people who weren’t all there for the same reasons to communicate their displeasure with a wordless horn blow rather than having to set aside individual issues to form a single chant (though “no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts” was a recurring shout).
The horns gave the children something to do. Even the pre-teens had placards, often ones they’d made themselves. One, in multi-coloured felt tip: “My educayshun got cut so now I can’t smell.”
Not one person I met or spoke to mentioned tax dodging. I saw a few “eat the rich” banners but for the most part those holding them were marching with other cuts-focussed friends – “homelessness is not a crime”, “end back door privatisation”, “this placard is rubbish because my TA was fired”.
The protesters who occupied Fortnum & Mason seem, from the reports I’ve seen, a long way away from the people I spoke to, the teenagers and parents and grandparents, ambulance workers and fireman, midwives and teachers who gave up their Saturdays to march. Whole workplaces came out to say the cuts should stop, generations of family marched together against cuts that will hit all of them – among them a group of midwives whose first thought on hearing of the Oxford Street trouble was “I hope the shop workers are OK”.
And many of those people, who’ve never heard of such a thing as the Black Bloc, will feel betrayed by what happened on Oxford Street yesterday afternoon. They came to march and to register their opposition, not to smash the state or fuck the police. (Another good point for the vuvuzelas – fewer sweary chants when children were present.)
When a few people were building Trojan horses, these people were packing picnics. And while the photogenic youth movement smashes windows and throws paint, the quieter, gentler, older one has the attention of the leader of the opposition – and is booing him when he says he supports some of the cuts.
A few of the pictures I took during the first part of the day found their way to the Guardian live blog of the event. They show, and I saw, good humour, biting sarcasm, bitter sadness, vast diversity, politeness, responsibility – and anger. These were people who had already tried talking to their elected representatives and working to make the best of things, and who had decided that wasn’t good enough.
And it must be rare, very rare, to see so many of those people from so many occupations and walks of life, all mobilised against something. As Paul Mason pointed out yesterday:
This passive but fairly angry mass are the people that pose the biggest political problem both for the government and the opposition; because when you can mobilise more or less your entire workplace – be it a special school, a speech therapy centre, a refuse depot, an engineering shop or a fire station – to go on a march, then “something is up”.
Yes. Something is up. And the media whose adherence to news values and desire to shock and titillate makes it easy to reduce this protest to its most violent events – on both the right and the left – needs to remember and bear witness to that.
Otherwise we will have an estimated 400,000 people who not only feel betrayed by their government, but also by betrayed their media.
Edit to add: Ryan Watts, a photographer who was at the march, pointed out on Twitter that the good work of the police is also overshadowed by the violence – the peaceful majority saw policemen being helpful, friendly, chatty, directing them gently, passing out useful information, and even expressing a wish to be on the march themselves. I don’t imagine those policemen see much of their experience reflected in today’s headlines either.