Climate Change protesters on the crest of a Wave

Trudging through a soggy December afternoon is rarely as heartening as it was last weekend. The Wave, organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, attracted swathes of punters to London, all intent on putting pressure on the gathered politicians at the upcoming Copenhagen Conference on climate change. Some were seasoned veterans, others were barely old enough to walk. All the pilgrims gathered in Grosvenor Square around midday and the congregation of banners, face-painters and vibrant music gave the day a festival-esque feel. The choice of Galvanize by the Chemical Brothers as the anthem of the day was particularly astute and fitting.

Ed Miliband at The Wave 2009
A Miliband in the midst

When the music subsided, so did the early euphoria. A sizeable stage had been erected for the organisers to give speeches from, yet the PA was either too weak, or badly balanced, so their words fell on deaf ears. Next to me, a small girl, no older than six years old, blew loudly on a whistle. As her parents tried to quieten her down, she retorted: “What’s the point? I can’t hear them anyway.” Among the crowd, Energy and Climate Change minister Ed Miliband mingled, fielding general questions and posing for photos.

From this point onwards, the lack of organisation began to show, as the march got off to an awkward, stumbling start. The planned exit to Grosvenor Square became an impenetrable bottleneck, and made the event seem more like queueing for climate change, rather than marching. As we reached Mayfair, the pace began to quicken and the eccentricity of the protesters shone through.

A Cycle-powered stero at The Wave 2009
The Cactus Caravan

Later, my group passed the Cactus Caravan, a cycle-powered stereo atop a garishly-decorated trolley, which entertained the masses with classic protest anthems such as Gold Lion by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.

As we marched past Starbucks, McDonald’s and Porsche garages, I was surprised not to see even a hint of anti-capitalist rage. Despite various communist banners, the tone of the Wave was peaceful and a million miles away from the hectic events of the G20 protests, back in April. The sheer turnout and the diversity of the crowd made this a far more significant demonstration of public sentiment. Those who marched in The Wave were undeterred by the wintery conditions and there was no allure of anarchy and violence to draw in the curious or those attending for the wrong reasons.

All the major charities were out in force, some making more helpful contributions that others. I was in two minds about the rickshaws that Oxfam had deployed to ferry protesters along. On the one hand their irritating size hindered those of us on foot (what’s the point of going to a march and being chauffeured around anyway?), but on the other hand they did provide valuable support for the elderly and infirm.

As the march turned onto Piccadilly, a party atmosphere began to build. Walking down the middle of one of London’s most famous streets was a liberating experience, which climaxed at the world-famous Piccadilly Circus. This invigorating feeling continued to buoy up the troops as we passed Trafalgar Square, despite a cynical banner that proclaimed: “Don’t be duped, investigate climategate“. It may be a while before people are marching for climate change denial, but the presence of this defiant banner was indicative of the sea change that has taken place over the past week.

Houses of Parliament from a bridge over the River Thames, London
A View From The Bridge

Reaching Parliament Square should have been a triumphant end to this march, however, due to a gross lack of central organisation it was more of a damp squib. The proposed finishing point was 3pm, at which point we were all meant to create a Mexican wave around the Houses of Parliament. But when exactly is 3pm? By whose watch? From where I stood it was impossible to hear Big Ben’s chimes, so the wave that came was disorganised and confused.

As we crossed the eventual finish line at Embankment, we were greeted by a man on top of a bus giving general encouragement via a megaphone; words to the effect of  “Thank you all for coming, aren’t we all great?”. I have no idea who he was or whether he was meant to be an important figure. “Last year we had George Monbiot, this year we’ve got this berk,” a man next to me bemoaned. Our megaphoned crier was certainly far from well-informed. “How many did we have here today?” he asked an assistant, before inaccurately proclaiming that 40,000 had turned out.

Later, from the comfort of a nearby pub, BBC News informed us that the turnout was closer to 20,000 and our fellow beer drinkers cheered heartily. In some ways it was all about the level of participation, which showed a real groundswell of support ahead of the Copenhagen conference. The range of people, from toddlers to pensioners, hippies to yuppies, showed that climate change truly is an issue with the scope to garner widespread interest. To convert this popular sentiment into results will take much better organisation, however. Stop Climate Chaos ultimately failed to provide a focal point for the march, resulting in an anti-climactic, disaffected end to an otherwise encouraging march.

To see more photos from The Wave, click here.

G20: Protesters strike back

Just when I thought the G20 protests would get swept under the rug, the events of this week have re-stoked the fires of dissent and unrest. The alarming second post-mortem on Ian Tomlinson revealed that the 47-year-old newspaper seller died of internal hemorrhaging not, as was previously thought, a heart attack. Reports suggest that the officer involved could face the charge of manslaughter, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

This seems to have garnered genuine public interest and the Evening Standard’s splash yesterday ‘What Have You Got To Hide?’ pours further scorn on the tactics of the Metropolitan Police. It seems this one is not ready for a rug sweeping just yet.

Nicola Fisher does seem to be milking her altercation for all it’s worth and her decision to hire Max Clifford does raise serious doubts about her real motives (as if you need reminding, this is the man who juiced the last days of Jade Goody). Hugo Rifkind acerbically dissects Fisher’s anti-capitalist credentials in a typically witty column for The Times.

But the really impressive footage to arise this weekend comes from Climate Camp in the City. At 9 minutes 50 seconds, this professionally-edited documentary pushes the upper time limit of YouTube, but it is well worth a watch as it wonderfully encapsulates the mood at Climate Camp and exposes some disgraceful police behaviour to break up the protest after dark.

For those of you who don’t have 10 minutes to spare, the highlights are:

4:50 – An officer is clearly seen smacking a protester across the head with his shield.
7:49 – An officer punches a protestor in the face.

Whilst I can partially sympathise with the police who must have had one of the hardest days of their careers, the assaults shown here are simply indefensible. In my last post, I called for a bigger stick to beat the police with. I think the protesters have found it.

The Metropolitan police haven’t seen the back of this one yet.

G20: Some perspective on Ian Tomlinson

Police tactics over G20 have been widely criticised
Police tactics over the G20 protests have been widely criticised (Photo:

Imagine you shove someone in the street and they fall to the floor. By the letter of the law this is assault and you should face prosecution for your actions.

Then imagine that the same person has a heart attack over an hour later and dies. You would be incredibly unlucky, but you would not be liable for manslaughter.

As simplistic as it may sound, this simple scenario needs to be kept in mind when assessing the case of Ian Tomlinson. I am not one to pull punches when it comes to criticising the Met police and I was not in favour of the kettling techniques used during the G20 protests. But to compare Tomlinson to Jean Charles De Menezes is simply ridiculous.

I am pleased to see that the Guardian tracked down and published the footage showing the assault on Tomlinson, and as a result the incident has been reported to the IPCC. The following material has come to symbolise the frustration of the thousands of protesters caught in the kettle:

But lets not get carried away. This will not be an albatross around Sir Paul Stephenson’s neck like De Menezes was for Ian Blair. As far as the IPCC is concerned, I find myself thinking cynical thoughts: “If they didn’t take any significant action over shooting an innocent man to death, are they really going to act over a man who was shoved to the floor and died 85 minutes later?” Most likely, this investigation will drag on for months and will be resolved quietly after the public has long forgotten about it.

The media has performed a great service in bringing this evidence to public attention, as Morwenna Coniam argues, but blowing this out of proportion would be a gross disservice to the Metropolitan police, despite their many shortcomings. It seems that many are trying to use this incident as a stick to beat the police with, but it’s just not a big enough stick.

Tomlinson was an innocent man who got caught up in the action, but he is no De Menezes as the police attack cannot be clearly linked to his death and a second post-mortem will surely confirm this. Despite the advances in citizen journalism, it’s a shame that no-one has found a more relevant example to illustrate the full extent of the violence that occurred on the streets of central London last week.

G20: The view from the frontline

Firsr damage at Threadneedle Street
First damage at Threadneedle Street

Violent, anarchist protesters grabbed headlines yesterday by smashing their way into a branch of RBS on Threadneedle street, effectively stealing Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s thunder. Whilst this certainly got people’s attention, it is hardly the most effective way to convince the G20 to listen and act responsibly on the climate and economic crises.

At the frontline the atmosphere was electric – crowds pushing, chants erupting out of nowhere – not dissimilar to a heavy-metal gig or a music festival. It was hard not get swept up with the call and response: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

But it didn’t have to be like this. Had the Metropolitan Police not pursued such stubborn ‘kettling’ tactics on the protest at the Bank of England, the damage could have been mitigated. Admittedly, there were several thugs who were intent on violence, but their ire was spurred on by the thousands of peaceful protesters who had been trapped in this small part of the square mile.

Police surrounded the main area, blocking all the exits by standing shoulder to shoulder and refused to allow protesters to leave “until the protest was over” for fear of the various London protest groups combining to form a riot, but the frustration of being penned in one area for hours without food, water or toilets is enough to make borderline dissidents turn to violence. Such controversial ‘kettling’ practices were only deemed legal in January.

Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest
Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest

Police stood by in full riot gear, but remained calm to the rising tide of anger. Photos were taken from rooftops and helicopters hovered ominously. The basic tactic seemed to be: “Let them loot and smash all they want, we’ll arrest them later.” After half an hour of unbridled window smashing, egg throwing, smoke-grenade lobbing and curtain ripping, 24 police horses were brought in to force the crowd back. In our modern times it is humbling to see such graceful creatures and their composure amidst the chaos. Melanie Reid has written an excellent column about this over at Timesonline.

Eventually an exit was opened, but there was no mass rush to escape. Rather, the disinterested protesters were left to find this back-door on their own. The majority of the protest was peaceful and colourful; full of dancing and accompanied by music from Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly. However, without a powerful enough PA to address the entire crowd, the event lacked focus or guidance.

A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate CampClimate
A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate Camp

Over at Bishopsgate, the Climate Camp protest was a much more peaceful affair. The hippie atmosphere provided a welcome relief and the level of debate and discussion was far more intellectual.

One speaker used a PA system powered by kinetic energy from a bicycle and invited passers-by to play climate change Top Trumps. If meaningful global change is going to come from direct action and protest, this seems like a much more likely source than the aggressive anarchist tactics which were unleashed at Threadneedle Street.

I took all of the above photos – to see more and two video clips from this protest, visit my Flickr stream page. My partner-in-crime Abby Edge has a lovely slideshow of photos she took on the day and some great analysis over at her blog, Grassy Roots.

Lights out for the G20

My view
My view

As I’m sat here in the darkness I’m wondering if this is all worth it. An hour without lights seemed hard enough, but I felt compelled to go the extra mile and forgo all electrical appliances. All that’s left is me and my guitar. Sounds romantic, but it’s too dark to see the frets and my Biffy Clyro impression sounds lousy. I can hear clearly that my neighbour is watching Matrix Revolutions. Seems I’m in this alone.

Last night, in case you missed it, was more than just the beginning of British Summer Time. At 8.30pm WWF’s annual Earth Hour began – an idea which struck me with its simplicity and symbolic power last year, but I never got around to contributing to it. With G20 protests bringing alive the spirit of activism, it felt right to do something personal to try and change the world.

Only to the world I probably looked like a lone nutter. The first few minutes were bizarre – I anticipated 8.30 with mild trepidation as I wondered if I would go through with it or just lame out. As it happened, Earth Hour inconsiderately began half way through my dinner, so I started the hour fumbling with my curry like a diner at Dans Le Noir? After a couple of minutes, however night vision came surprisingly easily. I opened my curtains to let in some natural light. Instead of moonlight, my room was lit up by the distant yellow glow of a million other Londoners happily ignoring this hippy protest.

Newcastle glows with electrical power
Newcastle at night; glowing with electrical power

Symbolic gestures weren’t too scarce (The London Eye, The BT Tower and The Coca-Cola Lights at Piccadilly Circus were all blacked out), but looking out over central London it seemed like few had taken it on themselves to join in.

In truth, I got used to the darkness. It was oddly relaxing not to be hammering away at my laptop or flipping through channels trying in vain to find an episode of Top Gear that I haven’t already seen. Half an hour in I received an encouraging text from my fellow eco-nut and darkness dweller Abby Edge. “I’ve still got my laptop on,” she admitted, “does that count?” I felt proud of my puritanical effort.

I strummed another chord trying to remember some Bob Dylan. Whilst my guitar work leaves a lot to be desired, that is probably more down to a lack of practise than a lack of light. In the end I got so engrossed in my practice that I happily played on in darkness for an extra four minutes at the end of the hour.

What the G20 protests this week show us is that for politicians to really make difficult decisions on the economy or the environment, they need the public pressure. Marching on the city is a great start, but for individual actions to make a difference it’s going to take long-term commitment as well as widespread co-operation. If we don’t then blackouts might not be voluntary in the future.

The good news, I can report, is that Britain is on course for meeting its Kyoto target for 2012. But now is not the time to get complacent. Far from it – now is the time to get active.

By all accounts, WWF seems to be praising Earth Hour 2009 as a huge success. Total figures of CO2 saved have not yet been calculated, but the symbolic power of plunging landmarks into darkness will surely have a worldwide impact.