What’s the Point? Protest and the Housing Crisis

I recorded this footage at 7.00pm on the evening of Thursday, 19 February. It captures a moment in the march by Class War between One Commercial Street, Aldgate, and One Tower Bridge, Southwark. Class War have been demonstrating at the former building in protest at the so-called ‘poor doors’ through which the residents of the building’s so-called ‘affordable housing’ are obliged to enter the premises. This weekly protest, which began in July, 2014, went for twenty weeks up to the 27th of November, 2014. It ended in a temporary ceasefire when the owner of the building, the Texan billionaire Taylor McWilliams, who is the managing partner of Mayfair property developers Hondo Enterprises, finally agreed to meet with Class War to discuss their demands. When talks broke down after only ten minutes, the protest was renewed on 12 of February, 2015, two weeks after the March for Homes.

For the second week of the renewed protest, on 19 February, Class War organised a march, following the same route as the March for Homes, from One Commercial Street to One Tower Bridge. In an echo of the former site’s poor doors, this second site, owned by the Berkeley Group, had recently declared its gardens off-limits to the residents of the development’s ‘affordable housing’, and the march was intended to draw parallels between these twin forms of what they call ‘economic apartheid’. But there was another reason to march. In an attempt to suppress the increasing incidents of demonstrations and marches across London in response to the housing crisis and rising economic inequality in the capital, the Metropolitan Police had recently declared that organisers of protests would from now on have to pay private security firms to police these events. Class War’s response to this, in solidarity with numerous other London housing protest groups, was a curt: ‘Go fuck yourself!’

It had rained all day that Thursday, and when we met at 6pm outside the marbled entrance lobby of One Commercial Street it wasn’t certain that the march would go ahead. But by 6.30 enough demonstrators had turned up and we set off. We walked south down Leman Street, the first of the two banners stretched across the lane and blocking the traffic behind, which happened to be headed by a No. 78 bus. We turned west onto Mansell Street, which took us south to Tower Bridge Approach. With one or two exceptions – I remember an Audi driver pushing aggressively through us – the cars stopped at our approach and seemed more worried about what we would do to their paintwork than with breaking through our occupation of the street. A few honks of their horns was the limit of their rebellion. The buses, by contrast, and the people in them, seemed pretty happy to sit behind us, though no doubt we pissed a few of the passengers off. I remember at the junction with the A1203 seeing a traffic jam stretching hundreds of yards west, their lights blinking in the pouring rain.

This traffic jam, it seemed to me, was the very image of society under capitalism and why that society does not constitute a community. Whereas it outnumbered our little group of disparate marchers many times over, each of its members was enclosed not only in the means of his or her transportation but also in the commodity for which each of them labours to acquire the money to afford and which isolates them from each other, physically and socially. While we walked abreast, not only to protect our space from the commodities by which we were threatened, but also to conceal how few we were, the drivers sat in a line. Stop one, and we stopped all of them. In contrast, when we came across an aggressive driver intent on driving his machine into our knees, we simply flowed around his car. And while we had a common goal that could only be achieved by collective action, the drivers, though also sharing a common goal – getting home as quickly as they could – sought to achieve this in competition with each other, each one risking his own and his competitor’s life to gain an advantage as small as the length of a car. I’ll return to these tactics later on when I discuss the use of the image in Class War’s protest.

One of the reasons our march was able to occupy the car lane is that, before we left One Commercial Street, numerous torches had been handed out and lit – not electric torches but the kind used by jugglers or fire-breathers. Despite our numbers we presented a head-turning spectacle as we marched at a quick pace through the pouring rain. People looked worriedly from their office windows and homes as we marched by them. Perhaps most surprisingly, the police, who had been aggressive during the protest at One Commercial Street – attempting to grab one of the megaphones and stamping out a lit flare – largely hung back during the march itself. Several times they ordered us off the street and onto the pavement, but we simply refused, and they didn’t have the numbers to make us. And with half of London’s rush-hour traffic looking on against the backdrop of the Tower of London, it seemed they did they want to start a street fight. So they walked behind and to the side of us, though with a constant stream of radio updates to the cops we knew would be waiting for us at our destination.

When we marched onto Tower Bridge itself, many of the cars coming the other way stopped to look at the spectacle. In a city where you can be assaulted, beaten up, attacked with dogs, suffocated with tear gas, electrocuted with tasers, hit with weighted truncheons, shot with water cannons, thrown to the ground, your face pressed into the tarmac while five coppers press their full weight into your back before handcuffing you with plastic cuffs that cut off your circulation then holding you overnight in a cell without legal representation for the least infraction of newly-passed laws on everything from public assembly to trespassing on privately-owned land – in a city where all this is done regularly and with impunity by paramilitary police forces like the Territorial Support Group, seeing Tower Bridge held by a motley group of marchers was quite something.

When we passed under the southern arch of the bridge, the flares and banners silhouetted against the skyscrapers of the City, and directly parallel to City Hall, I think the uniqueness of this spectacle dawned on us too. Stopping on the street, the two banners, which until now had followed one behind the other, moved side by side and stood still. Now both lanes of traffic were blocked, those behind us and those coming nervously towards us. The left-hand banner held the words ‘Class War’ above photographs of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage with the message: ‘ALL FUCKING WANKERS’. On the right, blocking the oncoming traffic, was the second banner, carrying a quote from the Chicago labour activist, radical socialist and anarchist communist, Lucy Parsons: ‘We must destroy the avenues where the wealthy live.’ Then someone lit a red flare, and the wind blew it through the burning torches.

At this moment I had gone ahead to take a photograph of City Hall. But when I saw the spectacle unfolding behind me, I started recording and walked back towards the banners. Ian Bone, the founder of Class War in the 1980s, was saying what a photograph the scene would make, and behind the marchers Lisa McKenzie, the Class War candidate standing against Ian Duncan Smith in Chingford at the forthcoming election, was shouting through a megaphone. Out in front of and between the two banners was another marcher, Steve Strange, standing absolutely still and holding up a burning torch like a Class War Statue of Liberty. The stillness of the group gave it a threat that its numbers certainly didn’t warrant. And before them, running backwards and forwards like bees around a hive, were the four or five photographers who had accompanied the march, all of us aware that here was the shot of the night.

Without any decision being made the scene was dissolved, the march continued, and we reached our destination. To the right, as we marched off Tower Bridge, was the first of the two entrances to One Tower Bridge, the Berkley Group development were apartments are currently on the market from £1.45 to £15 million, but where they don’t have the money, apparently, to allow social housing tenants, in flats starting at £166/week including service charges, access to their ‘rich gardens’. Outside stood a dozen cops and several large security guards.

Class War use a tactic, which certainly isn’t theirs alone, but which they deploy particularly successfully. It’s an extension of the many banners that they carry. While the police and private security – although if one thing has become evident from these protests it is that the Metropolitan Police are private security – while the cops and security line up to block entry to whichever private property they are being employed to protect, Class War, instead of confronting them face to face as the police are expecting, line up directly in front of with their backs turned to them. I watched very carefully the faces of the guards and coppers, which at first registered nervousness and expectation of a fight at the approach of a torch-lit march of angry anarchists. But they quickly turned to deflation and annoyance when they found themselves staring at the back of the heads of the well-organised protesters. Displaying their banners across them turned the police into unwilling and very foolish-looking participants in the image of protest Class War were painting. It’s a very successful tactic – which, while confrontational, sucks the air out of the ability of the police to confront them. Even for the sociopaths that make up our police force, it’s hard – or at least harder – for a copper to hit a protester in the back of the head with his truncheon. Instead, they become part of the image of protest.

I’m using the word ‘image’, because what was being done here is not only for the residents who may already occupy the development (although, as we know, very few if any of these apartments will be occupied), or for the police and security guards, or for the general public, or even for the members of Class War. The protest is also, and I would even say primarily (and this is the point of my talk) being held for the viewers of the images of the event as they will be circulated, not in the mass media – for it was entirely unrecorded by them – but through the diverse range of social media that constitutes an independent means of propaganda for the housing movement.

The next morning, on Friday, 20 February, at around 8.30am, I posted the footage of Class War on Tower Bridge onto my Facebook page and downloaded it onto that of Class War. Class War accepted it around midday, and later that evening Revolution Britain downloaded it onto their own Facebook page. These have been the three main sources of the footage’s dissemination – although, given how widely spread that has been, it is probable that other viewers have done the same.

By Friday evening the footage had already been viewed by several thousand people and – what was most important – shared by many hundreds, and I could see that its viewership was increasing exponentially. By the end of that weekend 78,000 people had viewed the footage, and nearly 2,000 people had shared it. A further 18,000 people watched it on Monday. It took to the following weekend to break the 100,000 mark, with 2,250 shares, which is about where it stands now. I’m sharing these figures to show how quickly a piece of footage on social media can go viral. And with them went the widespread and varied comments and discussions the footage generated online, which I’ll try to summarise here.

Not having access to the records of Government Communication HQ, I can’t trace every viewing of the footage, only where it was shared; but it has to date appeared in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Latvia, Slovenia, Cyprus, the U.S.A., Canada, Haiti, Australia, Japan, Libya and Ethiopia. In England the footage drew mostly positive, but also many negative responses, which I’ll return to later. In Scotland it was almost unanimously popular, and generated a large amount of discussion in the context of the referendum. A similar desire to break away from Westminster politics was expressed in the posts from Ireland. In both countries it was used as a call to organise opposition and take to the street in protest. In a Spain suffering from even worse austerity measures than Britain it found wide solidarity. In France, Germany and the Netherlands it was mostly posted by anarchist and left-wing groups. In the United States it was posted both in solidarity and in opposition.

In general the footage drew a sort of – ‘If this is happening in London, things must be bad!’ – response. It seems that most of the world, and a lot of Britain, still lives under the impression that the streets of London are paved with gold and lined with million-pound houses – which, of course, it mostly is. Quite a number of times the London accents of the speakers in the video were commented on. It seems that outside of East Enders a cockney accent is still rarely heard in the media, except when it’s to denigrate a single mother, a council estate tenant, a benefit-scrounger or a criminal – which these days are represented as the same thing. Hearing them at the head of an organised protest drew an almost surprised and mostly positive response – evidence, if more evidence were needed, of the need for self-representation and the opportunities social media offers for this.

However, some of the most interesting responses to the footage were the negative ones, and I want to try and answer the question most widely addressed not only to this protest, but to the hundreds of protests that are being held all over London in response to the housing crisis.

I have always believed that aesthetics is not divorced from politics. On the contrary, and especially in this country, it is one of the clearest – and, perhaps most importantly, most unguarded – indicators of political allegiance. Where middle class liberals will twist and squirm in their seat at saying exactly why they doesn’t want a new council estate built next to their rapidly appreciating Victorian town house, they will not hesitate to denounce a banner calling the leaders of our political parties ‘ALL FUCKING WANKERS’. ‘Is this what out political discourse has been reduced to?’ demanded people whose own engagement with politics extends to buying The Guardian over The Telegraph. ‘Anyone who calls our police force “filth” loses my respect!’ wrote Leonard Smith of Manchester, ex of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. There were the usual Daily Mail-type sexist insults directed at Lisa McKenzie. There were observations that the very notion of a ‘class war’ is outdated and divisive – this in a country where the wealth of the richest 1 per cent of the population is equal to the poorest 55 per cent, and the poorest 40 per cent share a lower proportion of our national wealth – only 14.6 per cent – than in any other country in the West. And of course the usual responses, made famous by the Major of Newham, that if you can’t afford to live in London, get out! Perhaps the most outraged responses were by those who argued that blocking a major artery through London would lead to a) people dying in diverted ambulances, and b) hardworking working-class people being stopped from getting to work – not like these lazy, jobless, work-shy lay-abouts who have time to waste protesting when they should be saving for their future. The apparently informed doubted that the footage, or at least the march, was authentic. The banner, they said, was ‘too well-made’, the accents too cockney, the swearing too extensive. ‘A forgery!’ it was confidently proclaimed by those who have never walked the streets except to go to work or shop. Disgust with ‘unpleasant people’ was expressed by the inhabitants of shiny, clean, secure homes. These responses, as I say, are primarily aesthetic reactions to the footage, but which contain within them a world of class allegiances, prejudices, revulsions and fears.

Many people asked how they could find out about the next march – which demonstrates the need to continue to advertise and publicise these events on social media and elsewhere. But easily the single most widespread comment was the observation that this march had not appeared in the media, in the national papers, on television news programs, or such internet news outlets as MSN. This was repeated over and over again, and it drew a response from the contributors to the online discussions. This was that the official news outlets were not to be trusted, that news of protests was being systematically suppressed by the largely right-wing owners of these outlets, and that social media and other uncensored – if not unmonitored – means of mass communication were now the best, and perhaps the only way, to find out what was ‘really’ going on in Britain.

However, rather than the lack of media coverage detracting from this footage, its uniqueness – because I was the only one who recorded the event on video – appeared to give it greater authenticity in the eyes of its viewers. It was widely said that not only were marches like this were being suppressed by the forces of law and private interest, but that the recording and publicising of the march was being suppressed by the media.

I’ll tell you now, that the reason this march wasn’t reported in any news outlet was that no-one, besides the Metropolitan Police and Class War, knew about it. It’s perhaps unclear from the footage, but the banners were not at the head of a column of marchers stretching back across Tower Bridge. They were the march. At no time were there more than two-dozen marchers at most, including the photographers. And we blocked the bridge for two minutes at most. Even if they had the inclination – which they don’t, even if their paymasters had an interest in reporting it – which they haven’t, the media wouldn’t have had the time to get there. It was all smoke and flares. Which brings me to my question . . . ‘What’s the point?’

This is, of course, the single greatest response to any protest, and it was to this one too. It’s the response to any form of activity that judges it by its end product. It is, therefore, an expression of capitalist social relations that measure the value of any activity by the money you make from doing it. What is the point of protesting unless you know the goal and result of your protest? It’s a strangely deflationary tactic that wants to anticipate the outcome of what is, by its very nature, a highly uncertain activity. For this reason alone, it is anathema to a risk-avoiding consumerist mentality that wants a planned package deal for every trip, no matter how far away. It also asks the impossible – and therefore impossible to answer – question: ‘What’s the answer?’

I was this asked recently in a pub by a working-class Liverpudlian turned capitalist entrepreneur who still had enough of a social conscience to feel uncomfortable about his wealth and who expected me to come up with an answer. I told him the answer is exactly what we are in search of; that while protest is directed against a particular injustice – from the eviction of families onto the street, to the creation of poor doors in luxury developments, to the decanting of working-class communities out of London, to the assault by riot police on squatters – protest is also the search for the answer to another way of living and being together. It’s an answer that no one of us has, and which I would say can only be arrived at collectively, through collective action.

Who would have thought – who could possibly have envisaged – that when the Focus E15 hostel in Newham decided to relocate the young mothers they had corralled and bullied like cattle, and were now about to ship off anywhere only out of their way – that that same group of mothers would become one of the most active, inventive, effective and inspiring housing protest groups in Britain?

Coming back to the footage of Class War – overwhelmingly the response across Britain and abroad was positive, excited, affirmative, supportive. Solidarity with the march was widely declared. There was much relief that Britain was finally waking up, and not before time, and of the need to take opposition onto the street. Exaggeratedly, there were even declarations that this was the beginning of a revolutionary movement. I say exaggeratedly not only because blocking Tower Bridge does not start a revolution, but because the housing movement has already begun, not in one place but in many: at every protest, at every blocked eviction, on every march, in every occupation, at every demonstration.

So, ‘What is the point of protesting?’ The very simple answer – which we here all know – is the response, the debate, the arguments, the thinking, the speaking, the awareness, the action, the consciousness, and the sense of community it generates amongst activists, protest groups, the people who might join them and those they are fighting for.

It is often said in popular movements, and especially in the Occupy Movement, that ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ I disagree. Protesters, marchers and activists are the far less than 1 per cent of the population, and like the 1 per cent who control almost all of our political, legal and media institutions, we are fighting for what political parties call ‘the hearts and minds’ of the 99 per cent. The majority of those in London have been placated into fear and complacency with the seemingly limitless appreciation of their properties and the systematic destruction of collective and communal institutions. These include our libraries, council estates, the NHS, the welfare state, the very notion of a nation with public services and ownership of the land we walk on. In our struggle, therefore, not only for homes but also for the eyes and ears of the slumbering 99 per cent, it is important that we take control of the representations of our protest. If we don’t, those representations will be left to the forces that employ the media to misrepresent, denigrate and suppress the housing movement, and the needs, identities and voices of those who compose it.

Sometimes this is deliberate, as in the slur campaigns waged at the Daily Mail end of the media spectrum, in which every council house is on a sink estate and every resident is a criminal. This is an image the Focus E15 campaign has done so much to explode. But sometimes it is an expression of well-intentioned but class-bound attitudes. As an example of this, after the March for Homes, The Guardian took a line that I’ve heard repeated everywhere by journalists and protesters alike. It goes something like this. ‘If all the poor people are chased out of London, the capital will be a culturally poorer place.’ This might be the only way to get the middle-classes to comprehend why people are so pissed off, but ‘poor people’ are not here to entertain the rich. This is the language used by estate agents selling penthouse apartments in Aldgate who look on the East End as a cultural brothel for their clients. The enforced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from London isn’t wrong because the City boys won’t have anyone to serve them cocktails, or the hipsters won’t have anywhere to drink their ethically-sourced coffee. The enforced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from London is wrong because it will have a catastrophic effect on the lives of those people.

Finally, last Thursday, Class War’s ‘ALL FUCKING WANKERS’ banner was confiscated by the police under Section 5 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act on the grounds that it was ‘offensive’, and one of the protesters was arrested and held at Paddington Green police station. This is one of the London bases of the Territorial Support Group, and is where suspected terrorists are held and interrogated. Despite this, the protest continues this evening at 6pm, and I invite all of you to join me there after this talk. The address is 1 Commercial Street, Aldgate East, London.

— Read at ‘Real Estates: Focus E15 Mothers’, at the Peer Gallery (19 March, 2015)

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