You wouldn't know it from most of the coverage, but last night's Million Mask March might have been the quietest protest that London has ever seen. This is probably down to the fact that it's from the internet, having been called by Anonymous, the world's scariest anime club. The result was pretty much what you'd expect: several thousand people in identical Guy Fawkes masks milling awkwardly and not saying very much. One person waved a nyan cat flag, another held up a sign reading "Investigate 911." Wobbling on top of a stone plinth in Trafalgar Square, a red-faced man was blowing into a plastic horn every few seconds for no discernible reason and to no particular effect. Sometimes someone would attempt to start up a chant, which would be mumblingly echoed and then fade back into an embarrassed silence.
The demands were appropriately incoherent. "We're out here fighting pedophiles," one woman explained. Others were angered by the use of dogs in Chinese cuisine, vaguely defined threats to the internet, and organized religion. "One of the police told me that if I don't like how things are, I should run for office," a Guy Fawkes mask said. It laughed. "I don't know a fucking thing about politics."
While the cops and the newspapers treat it as a political protest, it's worth pointing out that the Million Mask March is actually an attempt to reenact the final scene from the awful 2005 film V for Vendetta, the one where vast, silent, and totally badass crowds kitted out in Guy Fawkes costumes converge on Westminster just in time to watch the Houses of Parliament being blown up. (In real life, it was a bit less cinematic.) Unlike many protest groups out there, Anonymous's model for political revolution isn't based on Marx and Lenin or Laclau and Mouffe, but on Warner Brothers and the Wachowskis. It's cosplay, not politics: maybe slightly more radical than going to a convention in furry costume, but probably slightly less than trying to trace Leopold Bloom's path around Dublin.
Of course, most of the photos from Parliament Square tell a very different story; they tend to show something that really does look like mass social unrest, terrifying figures shrouded in smoke and fire running riot over the home of our cherished democracy. But these images are always necessarily incomplete, because they don't show the person behind the camera. What tended to happen is this: Someone would light a flare canister and hold it up in a heroic pose, there would be a small cheer from the crowd as if something had actually happened, and that person would then be instantly mobbed by a frantic phalanx of photographers trying to document something exciting. Few people at the protest wanted to talk to the press, but they did like posing for them.
This led to some events that were frankly weird. As the march passed the line of riot cops guarding Downing Street, for instance, there was a sudden flurry of violence, as the dozens of cameramen and photographers started jostling for a good position to capture whatever it was that was about to happen. What this actually meant, though, was that the media had ended up forming a protective line between the cops and the protest. The march stalled, as everyone tried to work out what they were meant to do. Someone shouted that David Cameron was a pigfucker. Satisfied, their duty done, the protesters then carried on.
It's not that there wasn't any violence, but it all seemed eerily stage-managed. When the march arrived at Parliament Square, there were four roads it could have continued along: three that were entirely open, and one, Great George Street, that had been blocked off by a line of cops in riot gear, batons raised. Obviously, because this was about defiance, yeah, (far more so than it was about overthrowing the government or even breaking windows) everyone immediately crammed themselves into Great George Street. The result was a lot of pushing and shouting; sometimes the demonstrators threw bottles or firecrackers, sometimes the cops surged forward to hit the nearest and loudest person in the head. The Metropolitan Police described its efforts to manage the protest as a "significant policing operation," with thousands of officers being drafted in against potential riots, but it's very likely that if they had decided not to show up at all, everyone would have got bored and gone home.
It was almost an hour after arriving in Parliament Square that a small breakaway group realized that they could escape the police kettle by just taking another street. A group of about fifty people ran off, shouting that they were going to storm Buckingham Palace, so naturally I followed them. Along the way there were some displays of symbolic violence: insurrectionists extravagantly kicking over signs that read "diversion" or "road closed" (fuck your oppressive traffic advice!), or spray-painting anarchist symbols on hoardings or bus stops, but never any actual buildings.
We passed an empty police car: a bin was upended on top of it, and a window smashed in; they then posed in front of it like rappers showing off a Lamborghini. Most of the destruction was actually quite civic-minded—even when the small crowd was standing in the middle of an intersection to block traffic, they'd bunch up to let ambulances and even couriers through. I couldn't help feeling that when we did make it to Buckingham Palace that little switch in the British national psyche would flick on: oh but we love the Queen, really, she's not that bad, let's leave her alone.
In the event, it didn't matter. Once we arrived (it took a while; the group tended to shed a decent portion of its members at every turning, where half its number would run roaring in the wrong direction), the Palace was surrounded by hundreds of police, some on horses, manning an impressively Byzantine network of barricades to protect Her Majesty's beauty sleep. One man was despondent. "Let's just storm the Palace anyway," he said. "We do this every fucking year and nothing ever happens." Nobody followed him. The Palace remained unstormed.
After that it was more of the same. A little knot of Guy Fawkes masks would coalesce somewhere in central London, police vans would pounce screaming out a nearby side-street, and the demonstration would trudge off to the next target. By 9 PM, when the protest was supposed to finish, most of those that remained had returned to Trafalgar Square. The police announced that everyone had to leave the square, and they enforced this by blocking it off entirely and preventing anyone from getting out. It made about as much sense as anything else.