This Saturday, delegations of working class youth from all across London and beyond came together in central London to make their voices heard and to protest a system of injustice and police harassment of working class communities. From midday, the entirety of central London north and south of the river was plunged into gridlock as the people of our city came together to reclaim their streets.
There was no mention of postcodes as working class youth from every borough converged united in Parliament Square in one of the largest demonstrations of working class power since the Iraq war demonstration. The police presence was massively reduced after the kettling and routing of Wednesday’s demonstration.
After a brief rally with moving speeches from young black men and women from within the crowd, the decision was spontaneously taken to march on towards the US embassy in Vauxhall. However the majority of the crowd were unaware that, unlike most embassies in London, the American compound is not a residency – but a militarised fortress surrounded by a moat and designed to deflect military assaults from within the city.
The vibrant mass of hopeful youth moved through London across Lambeth bridge. Even as the head of the enormous march reached the embassy, its tail end was still in Whitehall. All over London the youths and working class people whose ancestors built this city and have kept it running through this crisis were observed on the streets in force, carrying signs, chanting and making their anger at this system of injustice known. The scant police presence could mainly be seen scurrying through back streets doing their best to remain clear of the people’s wrath.
By the time the march had congregated at the embassy it became clear that this was not the place for the crowd to voice their righteous frustration; an imposing compound of mirrored reinforced glass looking out onto a deserted construction site next to the Thames. Armed police looked on from behind the moat while a thin and visibly concerned police squad stood behind their vans blocking the embassy’s driveway.
After another round of stirring speeches from impassioned young black Londoners, the crowd spontaneously began to move back towards Parliament Square to bring their message to the people responsible for the injustice in this country. The combined mass of protesters still spanned the distance between the embassy and Parliament Square, swarming the main roads of central London. What had begun as a demonstration had quickly developed into a people’s occupation of the whole city centre.
After the central mass of protesters had formed at Parliament Square the most passionate and embittered of the crowd began to converge en masse along Whitehall, congregating outside Downing Street. The crowd broke into chants in support of George Floyd, as well as of Belly Mujinga – the transport worker killed by prejudice and negligence, whose death the government wished to go under the radar. Many chants were directed against the Prime Minister himself: “Boris is a racist/paedo/wanker,” etc. Volunteers from within the crowd dispensed hand sanitiser and provided water bottles to all those in need.
Once the demonstration had gained control of Whitehall, the protesters began to let off flares and smoke and an atmosphere of celebration came over the huge crowd. An effigy of Donald Trump was produced from the crowd and the younger members began to attack it like a piñata. A small guard of City of London police stood nervously around the Cenotaph while their colleagues gathered in riot gear behind the barriers at Downing Street.
As flares and smoke were released over the crowd, the heavens opened with a torrential storm. Thunder echoed through Whitehall and the crowd became drenched with rain. The impassioned youth were not deterred however, instead seeing it as further motivation; the booming thunder electrified the crowd. Many began dancing, jumping up and down and chanting at full volume. It was clear that, for many of the youth in this crowd, this demonstration – at the heart of the British state, surrounded by their comrades – was the safest, most free and most confident they had ever felt in their own city.
The officers looking on were not having quite as good a time of it. Whether it was the pouring rain, seeing the effigy of Trump be destroyed, or that they simply couldn’t bear to see so many working class youths protesting so joyously at their expense – once the flares and smoke were let off, they began to push back at the crowd. This caused the mood to turn quickly from celebratory to militant. The crowd pushed the police back to their lines with ease and began pelting them with water bottles and cardboard signs. As more flares were lit and flung into Downing Street, with one landing on the balcony of Number 10, several lines of riot police approached the head of the crowd. Flanked by riot vans, they locked off the road and prevented the crowd from advancing further down Whitehall.
But the mass of hopeful youth would not be turned back. They linked arms and stood together to hold their line and push back against the police. Some at the forefront of the crowd attempted to kneel down in protest in front of the police line. They were kicked and walked over.
As it became clear to the police that they would not be able to push back the enraged crowd of Londoners, their line pulled back to allow a line of mounted police into their place. The riders, with batons drawn and visors down formed into position to charge. The crowd was undeterred, and maintained their position as the horses trotted towards them. The line only broke when the horses picked up their pace and it became clear they would not stop, and though it broke, it did not scatter. While the mounted police might have been accustomed to dealing with frightened lefties or drunken hooligans, this crowd was neither. This was a mass of angry working class youth, on the streets of their city at the heart of their government to demand justice and equality.
The crowd did not flee, but many instead took shelter on and behind walls, posts and trees on either side of the road. Among the few that did run from the police horses’ charge were those with small children, including mothers with prams and fathers with kids on their shoulders, and some more elderly people. Those that stayed and took cover began to pelt the charging police horses with more bottles and placards. One officer’s horse was too frightened to charge into the mass of people, instead slamming its rider into a traffic light, bucking her, and galloping on – knocking down several protesters in its path. As the rider lay motionless on the ground at least one of her colleagues trampled her with his horse while trying to clear away the protesters who went to her aid. Riot police dragged her limp body away as those on horseback desperately attempted to push the crowd back.
The crowd rallied, invigorated by this symbolic toppling of state power, pelting the mounted cops with bottles and even a few Boris bikes from the younger and more zealous members of the crowd. It was clear that the mounted police had been defeated – quickly routed and sent galloping back as the crowd reformed into a line to block the police infantry from advancing further.
Once the line was reformed against the desperate foot charges of the riot police, contingents of the crowd began to double back quickly through the protest along Whitehall to the occupied Parliament Square, in order to alert the other protesters to the situation and rally support for the front line. As they went, elements of the protest came across the squad of City of London police which had been standing by the monuments. Anticipating a successful cavalry charge, the squad had drawn their batons and begun to force the protesters into a tighter space. Now that the charge had failed and the crowd was regaining formation, the hapless officers were attempting to force their way through the crowd and bolt for their lines around Parliament Square. City of London police are known across the communities of London for their brutality – existing largely to protect the financial trading sector, they play by and enforce their own laws with little accountability. Seeing these infamous and detested officers running with fear on their faces further emboldened the crowd – who began chasing after them, hurling bottles and insults, some even confronting and pushing them as they ran.
By the time the squad had managed to scramble to Parliament, several more police vans arrived at high speed over Westminster Bridge. Swarms of police piled out and began kettling off the protesters in Parliament Square. The crowd at this side of the demonstration had much less energy – many had been sitting on the grass before the rain broke out – so they were overwhelmed by the sudden police presence and were quickly kettled in. The crowds began to concentrate on both sides of the police line as protesters understood this was an attempt to kettle and divide them. Eventually the protesters rallied, and a large contingent that had been sheltering from the rain was able to push through the police lines and force them back, opening a corridor for tired protesters to leave and fresh supporters to get in.
The crowd rallied from Parliament Square to Downing Street and the frontline was bolstered. Again and again the riot police at Whitehall tried and failed to push the crowd back and again and again they failed – even as they kicked brutally at the shins of protesters with their steel-toe cap boots in an effort to make them crumple, out of view of their body-worn cameras.
This process went on for hours in ceaseless rain. Such was the strength of the protestors’ line, each time the enraged police line tried to engage it they would find themselves forced back a few metres – and the crowd would reform and fall back to its original position. The protesters were not there to attack. They were there to hold their ground and make their voices heard, but they would defend themselves if they had to – even if that meant, as it did for a dozen or so working class youth that day, spending the night in the cells.
Even as, lacking coherent leadership in the cold and pouring rain, the crowd began to thin – a large number of scattered protestors kept the fight going on until the evening and through much of the night. When Saturday’s occupation finally came to an end, that militant and vibrant mass of working class people, who had that day taken the streets of the city for their own, did not go home in defeat – but in hardened resolve for their cause, to fight on another day.