#n30: audio from south london pickets + main marchTagged as: arrest audio barricade cuts dalston demo2011 dissident federation goldsmiths hospital island lewisham march n30 occupylondon pensions pickets radio reform social_struggles solidarity sound_system south tactic total_policing trafalgar workers_struggles
Published by group: dissident island radio
November 30, 2011 saw public sector workers strike across the country in protest of so-called 'pension reforms' by the Con-Dem government to public pensions. The following features audio recordings of picketers discussing their reasons for participating in the national day of action as well as some rambles and observations of the days actions from my perspective.
The day was bright and brisk. My bicycle, being the only decent and affordable way to get around London, was going to serve me well today! I packed a bag full of audio equipment, extra layers, a map and other essentials and headed off to Lewisham with the intention of dropping by to record, and support, the various pickets that were happening. I was aiming for the Lewisham Town Hall, and even passed by the Lewisham University Hospital picket (noting I would go visit them on my way back up the street!) but the picket of five to ten people in front of the Job Centre Plus caught my eye and I decided to stop. They were packing down and I decided to try and get a quick word in with Tony, the regional secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union and a worker at the Lewisham Job Centre. As I asked him why he was picketing, he mentioned several things: cuts to pensions, cuts to jobs, government cuts [listen]. It seemed that Tony was eager to head to the caf' for a cuppa before going to support other picketers so I said my thanks and took off towards the Lewisham Town Hall, around a mile down the road.
I'd heard of the South London Solidarity Federation and their 'flying picket' which had started at the town hall - and though I'd missed them (and knew I would catch up with them later) I was pretty pleased to see a happy-looking, vibrant crowd of picketers wearing at least three different union bibs (a nice bit of cross-union solidarity and organising going on - GMB, NUT, Unison, Unite...) and a good percentage of women in the crowd of about 30 people. Cars, buses and lorries passing by honked and waved in support every half a minute on average and many pedestrians took the literature that was being handed out. After introducing myself to several people I managed to get a couple interviews on record.
First I spoke to Sarah, a Unison rep, who very succinctly summed up the issues behind the cuts to pensions [listen] and then Jane, a social worker and family therapist, candidly discussed how the pension cuts would effect her: "I'm here today primarily over pensions...I've done the calculation as to what these changes would mean for me, it means over the next three years I will be paying 100 pounds a month more for 100 pounds a month less in pension so it's really significant...I think women are really effected by this because they work part-time to look after children, they take maternity leave...The average pension for women is about 4,000 pounds a year." [listen]
Jane also mentions the cuts to NHS staff and services in her workplace, which provides mental health facilities for young people and families - and linking these two together, observed that these were neoliberal "ideological attacks" on public services and the welfare state. I got pulled aside by Nick from Lewisham People before Profit, a party based in Lewisham which is looking to run a list in the London GLA elections [listen] - perhaps an indication that many are working hard in their non-waging hours to find alternatives to the present political status quo.
By the time Nick and I wrapped up our brief chat, the Lewisham Town Hall picket was moving swiftly to catch some of the Lewisham University Hospital picket and/or head towards central London for the main march. I hopped back on my bicycle and went to the Lewisham University Hospital picket that I'd passed earlier that morning. The crowd was mostly outfitted in the Unison union color of purple and making noise with loud hailers and whistles. There were a number of children enjoying themselves too. Me and my microphone were pointed in the direction of Brian, a psychiatric nurse at the hospital who spoke to me about how he'd been promised a different kind of pension when he signed the dotted line many years ago - one that didn't involve the cuts that are being pushed through by the government. Again, like many others I'd spoken to that morning, he mentioned how difficult this was going to make his retirement and the retirement of fellow workers. We all moved across the road to listen to Brian give us a short speech to the same effect, all the while hearing cheers and honks from the vehicles on the road. [listen: Brian interview | Brian speech]
I looked at my phone to see I'd received a message 15 minutes prior about a solidarity action by the South London Solidarity Federation who were providing "practical solidarity" in the form of tea, biscuits and cakes, and also doing a bit of good old fashioned marching, taking up most of the road on their way from Lewisham to the Goldsmiths University picket. I took off to find out what was going on, managing to scoot by all the traffic that had probably in part resulted from the Sol Fed "action". As I arrived at Goldsmiths I saw familiar Sol Fed faces on one side of the road (across from Goldsmiths) and all the picketers on the other side waving their official union flags. I did a quick interview with Elena, the chair of the Goldsmiths Unison branch [listen] and then crossed the road to great comrades, who introduced me to Nigel, a Sol Fed member who had some interesting observations about the source of union power in relation to the fact that union membership was up significantly in recent months. [listen]
It was getting close to the time for the "official" march and I headed off towards central London. Lucky for me I had friends making their way there ahead of me who warned of the various bridge and road closures. It seemed that much effort was made, as per usual, to barricade and protect the buildings of Whitehall, Buckinham Palace and Trafalgar Square - understandable considering these are symbols of elitism and privilege in this country, probably worth a lot of expense to protect. I managed to get to the start of the march on time, going over Blackfriars Bridge (which was heavily packed with traffic due to other bridge closures) and then having to walk most of the way down Fleet Street (as it was closed to traffic and I was warned not to ride my bike by various coppers). I found some friends and took a walk with the marchers down Kingsway. Being a fast walker makes it difficult to keep a slow, marching pace and I ended up at the front. We had barely made it around the corner onto the Strand from the east side of Aldwych before a senior cop yelled and hailed a line of cops to push their way past us and (rather slowly) form a line and blocking us from easily marching further along the predetermined route. We all waited for 5-10 minutes before the line of copes allowed us to continue moving. [listen]
Perhaps this policing tactic was to: 1) to punish 'misbehavior', prevent the march from moving for a period of time, or 2) to encourage efficient use of police on the streets - if you are being forced to walk at a pace of less than 2 miles an hour, that means any march route is going to be shorter, thereby requiring less police, fewer barricades and/or 3) stopping the march means keeping the marchers together in a tight formation - which is easier to control (and cordon if authorities so chose). Is this part of the new "Total Policing" tactics that made the November 9 student demo a couple weeks prior a rather suffocating affair? It seems that with every march, the authorities "up their game" and actively make the process and experience of engaging in large-scale, peaceful protest marchs so incredibly controlled and restricted.
I ended up outside of the official march, just ahead of it, and walked the Strand down to Trafalgar Square, where I admired the shiny new barricades. I got some close-up looks and even got the opportunity to see one of the doors on the metal barricades open up after two cops knocked on it. The door swung open to reveal...an empty inside of a wall-less van! So these barricades are essentially the walls of police vans. The walls are solid and prevent people from looking in or out, depending on your perspective. It's seems the aim is to decrease visibility and interaction between marchers and the general public - which can only further fuel the alienation that abounds in society. Why speak if no one will hear your words? Why march if no one except those on the march will bear witness? Being in Trafalgar Square made me feel a bit like a penned animal.
It took the front of the march about an hour to get from Aldwych to Trafalgar Square (that means the march moved at 1 mile an hour, about three times slower than the average person walks). I decided to forego the remainder of the slow walk to Embankment and returned to the start of the march to find friends that were late and had rocked up to join the tail-end of it all with a sound system. (I suppose that could be a counter-tactic to enforced slow marching. If the police force protestors to march slowly, they can walk even slower than directed or sit down every couple meters and have lunch or something. There's always scope for creativity within the boundaries of control. Marchers can also stagger start times significantly so that the last marchers start marching hours after the first marchers set off. This seems to happen naturally as London seems to be a city made for tardiness.)
My friends had been in Dalston, where they'd witnessed the arrest of over 30 people, which was why they were late. I still don't know the whole story of what went down in Dalston and look forward to reading more reports on indymedia and other reliable independent news sources. (Not to mention hearing from first-hand sources too!)
We walked all the way down the Strand (my second time that day) and to Embankment. All the official speeches were over by then. There were a couple random small stages still up, a bit of street theatre going on...and it was starting to drizzle. The rest of the day involved cycling to Piccadilly circus, getting mixed up with Greek football fans, missing the Paton Street cordon by a hair, and a hilarious and good-natured evening BFI picket [listen]. (I never realised just how involved learning the lyrics to "Solidarity Forever" would be...)
So what next? I asked this question of several picketers during the day and the answers given were quite vague. You can see that the next two months will involve many meetings to discuss the actions that people want to take - in their workplaces, on the streets, in their schools... - against the cuts and a neoliberal agenda of control and conformity - privitising health services, illegalising squatting, making higher education unaffordable...
And what of the unions? Can we really count on the union leaders to "represent" their membership? Can increased union membership force accountability in the leadership structures? Will this whole political process and awakening of sorts result in a very different kind of workplace organising?
I don't know. But I do agree with Nigel - in that the important thing about the day for me was witnessing the many pickets and local workplace organising - not just against pension "reform" (aka massive wage cuts to already under-compensated workers) but to the cuts as a whole and to business as usual by the banks and the government. The march was definitely a show of strength but for me the enjoyable part was visiting the pickets and seeing the amount of local support these pickets were receiving and the resolve on faces of people deciding that they weren't just going to sit back and take these cuts.
Who else is looking forward to what the anti-cuts movements across the UK will bring in 2012?
See you on the streets!
Contact email: dissidentisland [at] riseup [dot] net