Zombie rights

On Friday, shortly after the royal wedding, five people dressed as zombies went for a coffee together in Starbucks. They’d intended to go to a flash mob in Soho Square, but left after only a few people turned up. They were asked to leave Starbucks by police, searched under section 60 powers, and then arrested for potential breach of the peace. My friend Hannah Eiseman-Renyard has written a thorough account of what happened.

A few thoughts for the Metropolitan Police:

Firstly, people dressed up as zombies do not normally pose a threat to the general public. They are not, in fact, the living dead. Although they may shuffle past you moaning about brains, and may even fake eating each other for a bit of a giggle, the chances of them causing harm to real people are not above average. They are more likely to break into Thriller-style dances than they are to break out into a riot.

Secondly, fancy dress parties in general are, surprisingly, not illegal – even when they happen in public spaces. I know it must be tempting sometimes, especially when you see a really bad Harry Potter costume or a genuinely horrid PVC nurse outfit, but you are not supposed to act as the fashion police. Dressing up is not a crime.

Thirdly, zombies may not be fast, but they can generally shuffle under their own power. Police vans are admittedly much quicker, but arrests are not meant to be used as a way of moving peaceful people out of areas where you don’t want them to be. They’re also not meant to be used to keep London pretty and acceptable while the world’s TV cameras are pointed in our direction. Edit: Nor on people filming arrests and then talking to journalists.

Fourthly, while I understand you can keep better tabs on the living dead when you have them under lock and key, zombies have the same rights as your standard flag-waving patriot. No matter what day it is. We did not turn the law off on Friday. We did not become a dictatorship for 24 hours for the sake of a wedding. Arresting people for acting in ways that are not sanctioned by the establishment is generally not considered to be one of the hallmarks of democracy.

Fifthly, although none of the zombies were charged with any offence, the effect of arrests is to stifle dissent and to scare people into behaving themselves – much like the earlier arrests the night before. There was no violence on Friday and no aggression by this group of zombies towards either the police or the public. No potential weapons or intoxicating substances were found in their bags or on their persons. At best their arrests were disproportionate. At worst they were deliberate intimidation as a consequence of doing something that wasn’t on the official script for the day.

Finally, if sitting in a coffee shop while dressed as a zombie is an offence, I am guilty many times over. And I’ll do it again in future. I will fight for our right to look like idiots while drinking caffeinated beverages, because some things are important.

March 26: the peaceful majority

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.

“Why did you come to the March For The Alternative today?”

Tories: no transport cuts to lunch clubs for the very elderly in Islington

A few answers, from today’s TUC-organised march in London, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the coalition government’s austerity measures. These words come from people who marched from Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park as part of the main march, and spoke to me in the park shortly after Ed Miliband’s speech.

Ambulance worker from Manchester, who travelled with a group from his union:

Some of what the government is doing will directly affect us – we’re going to stop being a foundation trust but we don’t know enough about what will happen yet. But I’m here because I’m against the whole thing – pensions, pay, everything.

Tim Lewis, who travelled from Cambridge alone:

I’m here for a couple of reasons. I think the Chancellor is absolutely full of shit, for a start, and what the government is doing is insane. I’m also here partly out of guilt because I accidentally voted for a Lib Dem candidate thinking it would help keep the Tories out of power and we all know how well that turned out.

Adam Green, a history student with a placard reading “Unite against apathy”:

It’s not just about the tuition fees – I mean I oppose the tuition fees but there’s lots more going on. Like, what’s happening to the NHS, I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I don’t want to just sit there and say I’m only going to fight for the things that affect me and my friends. You’ve got to stand up for everyone. And the government can afford to cut business tax but it can’t afford to help out people who are homeless and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

An NHS worker in her 50s who came with her branch of UNISON:

I’ve been in the NHS all my working life and I’ve never seen anything so wrong-headed as what they’re planning to do. GPs are rubbish as it is and asking them to decide how to spend money as well as look after sick people is just daft. My children and my grandchildren think I’m crazy for coming.

Sylvia Dunhurst, who has severe mobility issues:

When I had my accident I was off work for nearly a year, and when I tried to look for jobs afterwards there weren’t any that I could do that could cope with my wheelchair. So I do what I can to keep myself active but it’s incredibly hard to scrape by at the moment. The coalition seems to want to take away the things that make it possible for me to live my life with any sort of autonomy and dignity.

A teacher at an inner-city primary school in the Midlands:

Some of the children I work with are very deprived. A lot of them don’t speak English as a first language, some of them are children of asylum seekers and refugees, and their parents are desperately poor. The cuts are taking away funding for teaching assistants and they’re pushing more good teachers away from doing these hard jobs because the workload is going up and the pay and pensions are going down.

Geoffrey, a 72-year-old pensioner:

Because if we don’t march against this then they will say we agree with it. I don’t agree with it. They are taking away things that people need. My friends who are in homes need help to get around and that’s being taken away. They can’t be here because they can’t get around, but I can be here, so I am.

Sally, 8, who came with her mum, dad and 11-year-old sister:

Um, because I like going to the library to get books and I like my teachers.


More thoughts on reporting the march tomorrow, when I’m done celebrating being another year older.

“This is not good news for anybody”

After work today I went to the student protest. Been itching to get there all day – 20 minutes from the office, and the helicopters buzzing outside the window like wasps, and the constant, hypnotic stream of tweets on #demo2010 and #dayx3. The horse charges covered by the BBC news (though I can only find this one-line mention of it online, now); the baton-beating of a journalist that went unreported on the rolling TV news. And the debate, another stream of words passing hypnotically by. I couldn’t not, at the end of the day, grab my iPhone and go.

I arrived not long before the vote was counted, a few minutes before the news spread that the measures to raise the cap on student fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year had passed by 21 votes. My small corner of the protest was pretty calm, all told, because I was kept outside Westminster Abbey along with a crowd of a couple of hundred newcomers on the outside of the kettle, with a double line of mounted cops and riot police with short shields between us and the massed students filling Parliament Square.

Twitter was light years ahead of the mainstream media. I passed more than one journalist on the outside of the cordon who didn’t have a clue what was going on, and the fact that I had a phone in my hand made me a magnet for people wanting to find out what was happening inside the boundary.

They talked to me, and I talked to others, and though most didn’t want to give their names all were happy to talk. This is some of what was said.

A woman whose 16-year-old son was still in the kettle:

I was here with a friend earlier and we were in the crowd when the horses charged. We just ran away.

I’m so proud of my son. I agree that it’s wrong to raise the fees like this. I supported him coming here – I came myself – but the police were getting so heavy handed in there and I’m scared for him.

I have a daughter who’s applying now to do film studies and you have to wonder what they’d think of that, the Lib Dems. It’s not what they value. But then with the cuts to science, you wonder what they do value, whether they value anything at all.

A man dressed in motorcycle leathers, who wouldn’t take off his helmet after he came out of the demo:

They were using Section 60 and searching everyone. They wouldn’t let anyone out without filming them or taking photographs. It’s not legal to do that. They have no right, but they wouldn’t let people out otherwise. They trapped us in there and now they won’t let people out. It’s not right.

Overheard, from a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls, giggling as they stamped their feet to keep warm:

We need a better chant. It’s so cold. “Freeze the fees, not our feet!” “Should we stay or should we go?”

A police medic, between politely directing lost cyclists and concerned tourists to various destinations via routes that didn’t go through the riot directly behind him:

It’s a long day. We’ve been on the go most of us since about 7am – I was running with the march when it started this morning. I’ve been all over. I spent a couple of hours with someone who was injured, a protestor – hit on the head with a bottle or something like that. People throwing things, it’s bound to happen. I did stop for a Twix and a cup of tea at one point, but I reckon we will be here a while yet. It’s not going to be a nice night.

Overheard, another policeman, talking to a student:

That’s nice of you, but I’m not meant to eat Nik Naks while I’m on duty.

Joey, a 17-year-old girl who’s studying for her A-levels:

I’m waiting for some friends who are still in the kettle. We ran into a boy, he said he was 15 and he’d come here with a group of older students, like 20 or something, but they’d gone off or he’d been separated and he couldn’t find them. He seemed, like, really immature and unsure and we said he could stay with us but in the chaos we got pushed one way and then we couldn’t find him. I hope he’s OK.

Sandra, a retired mum of two students who are studying elsewhere in the country:

It won’t affect me personally, or my kids, but it’s still wrong to expect young people to start life with such a huge debt around their necks. Of course fewer students are going to go to university. No one wants to be in debt the rest of their lives – that’s why the government wants to cut the deficit, after all. But this isn’t the way to go about it. It won’t even help.

Jodie, 14, who cares for her mother, who is scared her disability benefits will be cut due to the coalition changes to the system:

If I can’t get the EMA I can’t go to college. That’s all. I’ll have to work, because mum can’t support both of us on her benefits. So that’s it for me. That’s it. It’s over.

A student from Nottingham, who had missed his coach home because of the difficulty leaving the demo:

Of course it’s been cold and hard, but it’s been well worth it. It won’t stop here – it can’t stop here. It’s not over. You never forget the first time someone breaks your heart. Nick Clegg is done. We have to keep fighting. But this is not good news for anyone.

There’s another post in the works, a more thoughtful one, about the decision the coalition has just made and why I feel it’s so horribly misguided; my feelings on that are inextricably bound up with and informed by the fact that I was one of the very first batch of 16-year-olds to get the EMA, on a pilot scheme in Birmingham, and without that fact there’s no way in the world I’d be in London, a journalist, typing this. I wouldn’t have A-levels. And that changes how I write about it. So that post is for later.