Reporting The Protest

That old saw that yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper has never seemed more accurate. After a days worth of opinion and outrage, the papers have moved on.

Let’s reflect on how the events of March 26th were reported. Up until the breakaway direct action groups rolled out their plans, there had been little to report. You know, just half a million people descending on the capital to express their outrage at brutal and un-necessary cuts to the welfare state.

It was only when paint started to be flung (the uncorroborated claims of light bulbs filled with ammonia also being lobbed at police is now being treated with scepticism. How do you fill a lightbulb with ammonia, anyway?) that the news feeds sparked into proper life.

Footage of Ed Milliband’s speech at the Hyde Park rally was split screened with police scuffles with protesters. A sure sign that although they wanted to be seen as even handed, the network’s interests were elsewhere.

Meanwhile, retail pranksters UKUncut kicked off their own action, and occupied Fortnam and Mason. As ever, the invasion was peaceful and cheerful. The reports of damage taking place were quickly and thoroughly shut down, as video and photos taken inside the building showed singsongs and campouts. The police would later arrest every protester inside, and charge them with aggravated criminal damage. The sum total of said damage – a knocked over display of chocolate bunnies.

The reportage of the day was becoming confused. Commentators like Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy initially accused UKUncut of diluting the original message by acting as the main speeches were going out. But he was also careful to note that they had nothing to do with the actions of the “Black Bloc” outside. Other reporters had no problem with merging the peaceful demonstration inside Fortnums with the paint-throwing activists on Piccadilly. Meanwhile, a rumour began to circulate that a member of the Sky News crew had offered someone £25 to throw a brick. This sounded suspiciously like a plot line from an old episode of Drop The Dead Donkey.

At Trafalgar Square, a group of about 200 had gathered. Violence was sparked off as police squads rushed into the crowd. The reasons for this remain unclear. The official police line is that they were acting to prevent damage to the Olympic clock. Eye witnesses, including the New Statesman’s Laurie Penney, maintain that the squads were trying to pick up individuals that had been earlier spotted causing trouble. Regardless, police lines closed, the kettle was lit, and a tense standoff began that effectively shut off the West End for most of the night. For just about all of the major news outlets, this would be the story. Penny Red’s view is here. And here’s another, slightly less purple version, from Liberal Conspiracy’s Dave Osler.

There’s a jarring disparity at work when you look at the footage and reports of the day. The even-handed claims of a huge and peaceful rally being marred by the action of a violent minority is illustrated almost exclusively with pictures and footage of the disorder. The protestors at Trafalgar Square and the Uncutters have been stigmatised by both the press and Police Commissioner Bob Broadstreet as criminals and anarchists. But as yet, there’s little proof that anyone arrested had anything to do with the window smashing on Piccadilly. And let’s not forget, they may not have been part of the main march, but they still have a perfectly legitimate right to protest. Tying UKUncut in with the brick-lobbers is an act of base dishonesty.

Let’s also note that the crowd was quiet up until they were rushed by riot squads. Even if the police were hurrying to protect the Olympic clock, their actions were certain to spark an already volatile situation. You’d be naive not to expect any trouble at a mass gathering like March 26th. A police charge into a bunch of over-excited kids is the surest way I know of to start some.

The picture that is emerging is muddled and unclear. Both sides are flinging accusations of bias, and of an opportunity lost.  We know that there are concerns about thuggish behaviour from both the police and protesters. It was ever thus, and for every picture of a kid in a hoodie heaving a brick through a window, there’s another of a copper in stormtrooper gear batoning a girl in the face. There’s no argument to justify either. But both seem to be a more valid illustration of the day than the big story.

I’d say the number of arrests speaks volumes, and points you at the bias of the reportage. 201 arrests. 149 people charged, of which 138 were the entirely peaceful UKUncut crowd. If Fortnums want to press charges, I’d say they’ll end up looking very silly making a stand over a few chocolate bunnies. Which leaves us with 11 people charged with criminal damage. Out of, let us remind ourselves, a crowd of five hundred thousand people. Do the maths on that, and then ask yourself why the scuffles on the periphery were the leading story.

 

+++UPDATE reflecting slightly changed numbers of arrestees.

We Went On A March By Accident

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TLC and I went into that London yesterday for art, theatre and general silliness to celebrate her birthday. I was aware, of course, that today was the date for the huge anti-cut march organised by the TUC, but I hadn’t figured that we’d see it.

It went down Piccadilly, and right past our hotel, of course. And that was a good thing, because we got the chance to see what was going on, and for a little while at least, join in and document.

The sheer scale of the undertaking was mindboggling. The march started from Victoria Embankment, and went all the way to a huge rally at Hyde Park. We were with it for a half hour or so, following it from Trafalgar Square to Half Moon Street. We passed thousands of people. Kids, adults, students, grandparents, mums, dads, nurses, teachers, public servants of every kind, all united under banners of every type, colour and material, and one message. The cuts that start to kick in next week are wrong.

I refuse to be objective about the issues at hand. I agree wholeheartedly with everyone on the march. It was amazing to see Piccadilly filled with people from end to end. I was cheered and moved by the good humour and determination of the protestors. I’d say quiet determination, except it wasn’t.

The vuvuzelas, hated noisemakers of the World Cup, has been retasked, and along with the drums, whistles and cheers means that the March has it’s own musicality, it’s own drive. It’s a drone that you can lose yourself in, a beat that matches your pulse. I hadn’t realised before, but marches are fun.

I really hope that the peaceful, joyous racket made today resonates through Parliament. The Government climbdown over the sale of the forests shows that if enough people make their opinion known, we can reverse poorly thought out and rushed policies. We should be proud and supportive of everyone out on the streets today. I’m glad I was there.

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+++UPDATE+++

TLC’s posted some of her rather excellent photos of the march as a Flickr set. Check ’em out here!

Talking Balls

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Me, every single time I'm confronted with a football.

In 2006, I made my position absolutely clear about the World Cup. I wasn’t interested. I was aggressively uninterested. I actually walked away from a couple of conversations when they started to vector in towards discussions of Beckham’s metatarsals. I posted a big sign on the door of my suite at work, a long screed in florid prose. I considered myself the geek equivalent of Martin Luther, birthing a new and radical third way through my protest.

The end result was pretty much what you’d expect. People thought that I’d either flipped out, or that this was the first sign of a new anti-football policy at the lab. My sign seemed a little too official for it’s own good. I was approached by several colleagues, concerned that this was the thin edge of a wedge that would cut internet privileges and outside phone calls. I tried to explain that this was my way of protesting about the pervasive nature of the game, and the way it just got into everything. I was told to get a grip, find a spine and stop whining. This was for one month every four years, after all.

My arguments withered on dry ground. I gave up, took down my sign, and in a gesture of goodwill donated a pound to the office sweepstakes. Taking myself down a peg. A little monetary sacrifice.

I drew Italy, and won £50.

A lesser person would have crowed and flaunted this, celebrating the victory of the geek over the footy-loving majority. But I’d made enough of an arsehole of myself by then. I quietly donated the cash to Sport Relief, and walked away from the whole experience, treating it as a lesson learnt. I had been a passive-aggressive jerk, and I got what I deserved.

Consequently, I’m staying quiet this year. I nod and smile at the work conversations on the state of the teams before gently steering them back towards a subject in which I have an opinion. I embrace the cheap beer and grub offers, and remember to stay away from the pubs with the big screen tellys (actually, this is a rule of thumb that works well at all times of year for me).

The World Cup becomes a month-long retreat for people like me. It’s a time to catch up on your reading, on those DVDs you always meant to watch but are still on the shelf in their cellophane. It’s a time to write, to think, to keep the telly off. The choices offered by the mainstream media seem to be either the footie or the chick-flick/reality show equivalent. I do not identify as a World Cup Widow, I’m afraid.

That’s fine, though. I’m happy to be ignored. It just gives me more time to watch, and think, and write.

Coming up: football, fandom and why sports geeks are still geeks.