This blog post sets out some of my thoughts from Saturday's demonstration against the Government's cuts agenda.
It should be taken in the context of my immediate reaction to some of the things I witnessed; my initial analysis and the resulting insights.
I'll also use it as an opportunity to develop some thinking around ideas related to my PhD, in particular theories of power and the media, using things I saw as case studies. I'll save these for a follow-up post.
What follows is, in part, a narrative and, in part, a series of first-hand accounts and analyses. It's been written quickly so my apologies for typos, errors, etc
Firstly, some observations
1. Mass turn out
Make no mistake, Saturday's TUC march was huge. Thus I was surprised to see the BBC reporting that the estimated figure was only 250,000 [EDIT: the BBC has now revised this to "250,000 - 500,000" which is possibly even more useless]. Frankly, I don't understand how they arrived at that figure. More below
2. The limits to social media showed
While social media and digitally networked activism provides radically different opportunities for movements (e.g. UKUncut growing from and organising around a hashtag) there were some limitations with the 'real-time' web on this demo. Although I should caveat that I used my smartphone sparingly to converse battery-life.
Firstly, I found it difficult to track everything that happened in real-time. This is perhaps less a limitation of social media and more a by-product of the sheer dynamism and fluidity of the demo. 'Real-time' on Twitter just wasn't real-time enough to keep pace with the speed things evolved on the streets.
Secondly, some technologies (at least the official Twitter iphone app I was using) struggled to function appropriately under the circumstances. So, for example, the official Twitter app pushes popular tweets (determined by the number of RTs) to the top of the timeline. Perhaps there's way of turning this off but it meant that the up-to-date information so essential in live situations wasn't instantly accessible. The anti-kettling site, Sukey, too while appearing very useful in mapping the situation on the streets also aggregates important tweets, but crucially without a time stamp.
Essentially, the point I suppose I'm making is that in very dynamic and fluid situations making sure real-time is real-time and knowing just what 'real-time' is becomes of paramount importance and I didn't feel the information I was getting was reliably timely.
Perhaps there's a need for an activist-led Twitter/online info tool that is built around quite specific needs.
As a footnote - and I have some thoughts I need to work up - SMS became a really useful too in this situation.
3. Massive black bloc
The size of the black bloc surprised me greatly. I'm no veteran activist but I was with some when we heard about the size of the black bloc and I think it's fair to say even they were surprised. Newsnight's Paul Mason, tonight said it was the biggest black bloc seen on the streets of the UK for a long time.
Speaking from personal experience, I recall seeing a small black bloc of no more than 20-30 during the G20 in 2009; and if you believe the tabloids these were possibly a European black bloc summit-hopping.
At the Mayday demonstration in Parliament Square in 2010 there was a similarly sized black bloc - or at least a group of activists dressed as a black bloc. From recollection they weren't active.
On Saturday, word on the street was that a black bloc of between 2,000 - 3,000 mobile around central London.
I've seen a similar number reported by activist media although a smaller number reported by the mainstream media [saw it somewhere but no link just yet]
Aside from the finer detail, I don't think I've ever seen such a significant black bloc in the UK.
3. The black bloc had very, very young elements
I mean seriously young. On the strand we passed a group of young people possibly 16-17 who were clearly 'blacked up' under their day-to-day clothes. The same scenario was repeated through-out the afternoon on Oxford Street.
4. These have possibly been 'radicalised' by the student demos
There's a very strong possibility, IMHO, that the younger elements of the black bloc have had their outlook on the police, state and capitalism changed as a result of a) government policy and b) their experiences from the student demos late last year.
These young people have had their perceptions of democracy (built up through education, media and recent prosperity) challenged by the reality of how liberal democracies in free-market regimes operate and the inter-relation between the state and police.
5. Black bloc violence wasn't mindless or unconnected to anti-cuts demos
It is a mistake to believe the media reports on this as they're based partly on police press releases and official statements and partly on internalised beliefs within which the media operate (more on this in the conclusion).
Reporting that claimed - as the BBC did - that the black bloc weren't connected to the wider anti-government protests are incorrect and misleading [EDIT: since reading the original BBC report I can now only find references to the black bloc as a 'separate group'].
Those in the black bloc were - from what evidence I saw - acutely aware of the reality of capitalism; the government's policies and agenda and its effect on people. This wasn't mindless vandalism. It was very mindful vandalism. Neither was it violence.
Secondly, some ideas and insights...
5. What is the role of the internet in supporting the black bloc phenomenon?
Thinking about this, the role of the Internet has been perhaps to play two significant roles:
- Educating people about role of the black bloc
- Connecting people keen to build affinity groups around black bloc tactics
Perhaps this is a facile point but without the internet, finding out about black bloc history and its tactics and then connecting with others sharing similar aims would be difficult.
For obvious reasons this activity traditionally would be based around small-scale affinity groups and learning would be a rare and practical experience.
For #26March there was a well publicised Facebook event for those wanting to take-part in black bloc tactics - with upwards of 1,000 - 2,000 cofirmed attendees reflecting the younger demograhic mentioned above [again, no link showing on facebook anymore]
Of course, using the Interent to research, plan and implement black bloc tactics will potentially open up other challenges such as online surveillance and data mining, but that's something for a separate post.
I've got an embryonic conclusion to write up that ties some of these thoughts together within a framework of power and media but I'll save this for a follow-up post.
*UPDATE* I was hoping to get these concluding thoughts around media and power blogged shortly after this post - however, I need to get some more reading and writing done for my PhD and then hopefully I can come back to this line of thought with a more robust and radical argument.