This weekend, leaders of the eight richest countries in the world are converging in Northern Ireland. There, they will pose for the cameras, make idle chit-chat about wishing they were in Dublin so they could visit the Guinness factory, keep schtum about those pesky, enduring remnants of the Troubles and discuss capitalism's continued dominance of the Earth.
Unsurprisingly, it’s that last bit of the annual G8 summit that tends to wind up anyone who labels themselves an anti-capitalist. And yesterday, a load of them got together in central London to publicly air their grievances ahead of the meeting.
While there will also be protests held in Northern Ireland itself, many protesters weren't sure they wanted to travel all the way to a rural golf resort just to fight a sea of cops in the only part of the UK where they're allowed to use water cannons. As well as that, extra police and judges have been drafted in to help the authorities in County Fermanagh cope with the expected increase in the number of arrests, which is only going to act as more of a turn-off.
So, to keep the flame burning, activists have called for a week of protests in London – where a lot of the companies getting rich off the misery of the poor actually operate – in the lead-up to the G8 summit proper. We headed to the West End yesterday in the hope of watching some anti-capitalists kick the arses of blood-diamond magnates up and down Piccadilly. Or at least smash a few windows.
We arrived in Soho to find the police evicting a disused former police station that had been squatted by a group of activists, some of whom had arrived from locales far outside of London. The group were using the building as their HQ, presumably because it was the most brazen fuck you to The Man they could muster. And, predictably, it was a fuck you that the police responded to by sending a ridiculous number of officers down to kick the 40 or so activists out.
Cops forced their way in with angle grinders and reportedly smacked one activist in the mouth, splitting his lip. It all got too much for one guy up on the roof who nearly martyred himself, only to be tackled by cops before he could leap to his death.
Behind the cordon, one of the activists’ friends told any of the passing tourists and bike couriers who'd listen that this was an illegal eviction engineered to crack down on political dissent. But the lorry driver next to him didn't seem concerned with state oppression, he was just a bit furious that the whole thing was blocking the road. In his opinion, the activists should all have been arrested.
"You shouldn’t be allowed to protest these days!” he reasoned. By "these days", I assume he meant any time his route involved driving down Beak Street. Unless he was making a wider condemnation on the state of activism in 2013.
Up the road at Oxford Circus, 300 or so anti-capitalist protesters were determined to go about their day’s business despite the plight of their squatter friends. In preparation for the big day, a map of the West End's most reprehensible capitalists had been prepared, including banks, hedge funds, oil companies, corporate PR agencies, weapons manufacturers and nightclubs that charge you £10 for a Pepsi. The map made me wonder if an anarchist group had been infiltrated by someone who makes infographics for the Guardian.
Anyway, the plan, as usual, was to go to these dens of fatcat inequity and try to disrupt them in some way. The march set off, but before anybody had a chance to even grimace in the direction of a city slicker, the police started pulling people out of the crowd to stop and search them.
The biggest crime anybody had committed so far was to walk menacingly down a street and, generally speaking, anarchists tend not to be the biggest fans of getting stopped and searched. So things got pretty chaotic very quickly.
The black bloc protesters broke into a sprint as they tried to put a safe distance between themselves and the police, causing a stampede in the process. Cops and activists played a human tug of war, using as their rope those activists who'd been trampled and caught – police trying to grapple them into their wagons, their mates trying to haul them to safety.
People were knocked to the ground and I saw one woman faint into someone’s arms for a couple of seconds, before shouting that she'd just been, “Punched by a fucking pig,” as she came to.
Heavy-handed policing of the 2009 G20 protests in London infamously resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor who hadn't even been involved in the protest. That memory didn’t seem to be playing too heavily on the minds of the riot cops, as they took protesters out like bowling pins, slamming their heads into the pavement.
Those who didn’t end up eating tarmac took the opportunity to lead the police on a wild goose chase around the West End. Being at the less violent end of the activism scale, following this group mostly involved being surrounded by comedy wigs, righteous whistle-blowing (as in actual whistles, not the Ed Snowden type) and Marks & Spencer quinoa salads.
After a while, things started to die down, but then we came to a halt outside BP – one of the biggest targets on the protesters' capitalist pig map. However, everyone was a little bit tired from all the running. It was time to chillax for a sec and have a rest. You know how it is: sometimes it's better to just let the oligarchs and slum lords off with a warning and have a chat about how bad they are.
People stood around catching their breath and looking a little frustrated, listening to this guy and taking photos of him on their camera-phones as he made a quick speech about why he was opposing the G8; corporations using sweat-shop labour, destroying the environment, etc, etc.
And then we were off again, running through the streets to nowhere in particular. It was as if today’s anti-capitalist activists spent last summer glued to Mo Farah at the Olympics rather than studying Noam Chomsky in darkened New Cross squats.
Tourists looked on, shocked and appalled. Or maybe that's just the face you instinctively pull as soon as you realise you've paid £7 for tea and a croissant.
After some more running around, everyone eventually congregated at Piccadilly Circus, to bask in the glow of the huge illuminated adverts for global corporations while they held their anti-capitalist street party. Which basically involved standing around, being knackered, chatting and listening to music.
Oh, and some awful comedy routines. This master ironist started telling everyone that his very rich boss was paying him a few grand to be there and tried to goad the protesters by telling them how poor they all are. When a couple of people thought he was being serious and shouted at him to "fuck off", I decided it was time to leave.
By the end of the day, 32 people had been arrested in a fully-formed example of extreme police overkill. Of course, that overkill was most likely calculated to kick an already limping protest movement in the balls as it continually fails to galvanise support, even as those on the bottom rung of society wallow in austerity gloom.
A financial journalist I spoke to told me the markets had continued to do what they do unhindered. The police weren’t willing to put up with any fucking about yesterday, or even the hint that you might be the kind of person who could maybe be up for some fucking about. They’ll probably be even less fun in Northern Ireland in a few days' time, when a meeting between some of the world's most powerful people needs to be policed, rather than some nonviolent activists waving placards around and having discussions in empty buildings.
More stuff about the G8 summit and anti-capitalists: