Last Saturday, the TUC’s March for the Alternative drew an estimated 500,000 protesters to London from across the UK. They followed a route from Embankment to Hyde Park, where speeches were heard and experiences shared.
The network UKUncut staged its largest action to date on the same day, with an aim to shut down branches of the shops and banks most guilty of tax avoidance in and around Oxford Circus and the West End.
"Setting up the actions on Oxford Street is up to you!... ...There will be lots of people on Oxford Street, so don't worry too much about getting numbers."
After Saturday’s events, I re-read this note, posted on the UKUncut website. I had witnessed the conflation of the network’s planned series of peaceful direct actions with the acts of violence perpetrated by the Black Bloc and other groups that day. The lines were blurred not only spatially, but in (continuing) coverage by the mainstream media and, seemingly, in the eyes of the police. It gives some pause for thought.
The 'splinter group' – who either peeled off from the official march route after 2pm, or were never there in the first place – now dominate the headlines. I was among them after being on the march. At first there was a rave atmosphere: samba drums; multi-coloured smoke from home-made flares; the ‘Trojan Horse’ brought to the march by the ‘Armed Wing of the TUC’ was burned joyously at Oxford Circus. My friend joked that while Hyde Park was a picnic, this was more like Notting Hill Carnival.
But already, a minority, many carrying red and black flags, mostly young and with their faces covered, had begun a game of cat and mouse with the police, leaving a trail of smashed windows, upturned bins, graffiti and smoke bombs in their wake. The escalating damage to property, and large-scale disruption to shoppers, was answered by a ramping up of riot police operations. By around 3pm, UKUncut’s planned scenes of revelry and mischievous civil disobedience (an anti-cuts choir in RBS, a ‘hospital’ set up in Boots) had morphed into a chaotic, violent and surreal landscape – a mini conflict zone in which no-one knew who was on who’s side, covering a large section of Central London.
The 2012 'Olympic' clock, the memorial, the Ritz, Fortnum and Mason, Top Shop, Ann Summers, Santander, Lloyds and HSBC were just some of the shops, banks and sites reported by the nationals as ‘assaulted’ on Saturday (as if they were the human beings, not the protesters beaten and forcibly arrested later that day). Many of these branches were UKUncut targets, either from previous actions or planned for the day. On Sunday night, the Guardian published an article under the UKUncut spokesperson pseudonym 'Alex Pinkerman’. It said:
"There has been anger directed at us because some media outlets incorrectly use our name for actions we did not organise, giving every action the name UKUncut. But it is clear, if you spend two minutes on our website, who we are, what we are about, and what our plans were."
It is not clear who UKUncut are. How can it be, when it is a nation-wide, open and inclusive network, with no official leaders or organizational structure? (Despite the Telegraph’s claims today.) UKUncut is a “banner” around which a network of individuals (including myself) has formed; open to interpretation, appropriation and transformation by those individuals. This was recognized by UKUncut spokesperson Lucy Anderson on Newsnight last night. To the frustration of presenter Emily Maitlis, Anderson not only refused to condemn the violence, but rejected “the premise of that question.” She said: “We don't have a position on things; what we do is share resources to plan actions against the cuts… UKUncut provides spaces which are creative, fun and inclusive... (it is) an idea, a piece of inspiration”.
It’s not that Anderson and ‘Pinkerman’ (no doubt the name for a collaboration) have not taken a position on the violence on behalf of UKUncut; they have recognized that they cannot speak for the network.
What they can, and have done, is describe the kinds of actions that the network has staged until now. UKUncut actions had been developing a strongly recognizable ethics, imaginative strategy and image. The fight against tax-avoidance, anchored in an appeal to a 'British' sense of fairness, expressed through unthreatening acts of defiant civil disobedience (such as closing Topshop on a Saturday before Christmas) in a jubilant, creative spirit has won the network sympathetic coverage from unlikely corners (see the Daily Mail). Through its actions, the network has been consolidating a nonviolent political strategy, and a clear political message. But on Saturday, the UKUncut banner was held aloft over scenes of violence.
Some were clearly not the handiwork of members of the network. (I saw the windows of Asian restaurant ‘Cocoon’ smashed in, seemingly for no other reason than its convenient location down a narrow alley, and stones being thrown at police with no provocation.) Yet it would be reckless to denounce all the violence as mindless thuggery. It’s certain that some on Saturday 26 were morally convinced of the need for what they saw as political violence, while other protesters will have been swept up in the rush of anger, adrenalin and fear. Some will no doubt have been part of the UKUncut network. Members of The Solidarity Federation wrote on Monday in their “letter to UKUncutters from the violent minority” that “anarchists and UKUncutters were not mutually exclusive on that day” (the 26th). Although their definition of what was ‘anarchic’ is disputable, they are right to point to the fluidity of the situation.
Those most heavily involved in UKUncut are under enormous pressure to denounce the violence on behalf of the rest of us in the network. Without doing so, it is hard to see how UKUncut will regain lost support from the general public and the mainstream media. But this cannot be the answer.
I did not perpetrate property damage or instigate violence against the police on Saturday 26, and I do not support those who did. Equally, I don't believe it is always morally wrong to damage property as a response to injustices, such as the billions of pounds in tax avoided by the super-rich, or the continued failure to regulate the banking system or hold the banks to account. Unprovoked violence against the police is deplorable. But I have witnessed the rapidity with which confrontations between police and protesters escalate into confused and violent clashes, in which it is by no means the case that the police are not also the provacateurs.
I, like the tens of thousands in the network (including Lucy Anderson and ‘Alex Pinkerman’), am not a ‘member’ or a ‘leader’ of UKUncut. We are UKUncut. And we cannot be spoken for.