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DSEI Reclaim The Streets: Protest Tactics Deja Vu

YearZero | 11.09.2003 15:24 | DSEi 2003 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | London

When will we learn? March, stop, kettle, wait, search, film, disperse in dribs and drabs. Not the most uplifting protest tactic in the world, yet once again it's all the majority of yesterday afternoon's DSEI arms fair protesters in East London felt up to ...

Having a street party is a laudable idea. Unfortunately it's one that's been done before, numerous times, and the cops (especially the Met) have had plenty of practice at containing it, shutting it down, and preventing anything else from happening afterwards.
Are the protesters suffering from recurring amnesia? When you've been kettled once, there's no excuse for failing to notice police lines forming around you the next time you're on a demo - and moving before they're in place. This is Protesting 101 - and yet several hundred people at the anti-DSEI Reclaim The Streets 'party' obviously still haven't grasped it.
That's a bit harsh, you might think? At least they tried, you could say? Well, yes that's true - doing something is better than nothing. But if each and every protester was just a little bit more aware of what was blatantly going to happen to any pre-announced mass gathering of people in the vicinity of a controversial arms fair, the protests could have been so much more effective. Several people accurately predicted exactly what the outcome of yesterday's 'action' would be - and were condemned by the pro-RTS group for 'negativity'. I'd like to think those who pooh-poohed the predictions will now admit they should have listened.

There are two ways forward for protest tactics in the UK (and particularly London) - the first is to carry on with mass gatherings (parties, demos, marches) but develop our tactics and awareness so that WE are the ones in control; the second is to move away from mass gatherings, working instead on actions involving small groups of people who are easily mobile.
Let's take the mass gatherings option first. It has many plus points - it's easier to attract people when they feel something has been planned 'for them' rather than asking them to do it all themselves. It shouldn't be, but it is. Large gatherings also tend to get more media attention, and can cause a good amount of noise and disruption.
So how to retain these benefits without letting the police shut the protest down? The answer is obvious - don't let them form lines around us. If they can't do that, their control is severely weakened. If they do start forming lines, protesters should break through them while they are still weak, before the police have got reinforcements in place. Why don't we do this already? Because in any charge against police lines, someone will be grabbed, and possibly nicked. Nobody wants it to be them. So even though they know that a charge is the best way to collectively challenge a kettle, individuals' will simply isn't in it. They'd rather sit on the tarmac for a couple of hours, moan about needing a pee, then get filmed and perhaps searched on the way out.

Keeping moving is also vital. It's much harder to cordon people if they keep moving - especially if the police don't know where they're going. For this reason, no 'pre-agreed route' should be publicly announced, and any standing-still should only be done for extremely good tactical reasons. For example, yesterday the DSEI delegates couldn't use the Docklands Light Railway station because the whole line was shut down thanks to a small number of clued-up activists. Delegates were forced to walk the ten minutes to Canning Town station. This was a perfect opportunity to block their route - they'd have no way of getting home. If you're going to get kettled, at least make it count for something. Have the street party outside the tube and bus station. The vast numbers of police, plus their vans and horses, will do much of the job of blocking and disrupting for you. Getting kettled on a road well away from both the conference centre and the transport links is invisible and pointless.

The police would find it much harder to cope if, instead of facing one large group of protesters, they had to run around after several smaller groups. Their established tactics simply aren't developed with this in mind. The anti-war protests in San Francisco earlier this year showed how effective it can be - hundreds of groups of people marched along city centre roads, blocking the traffic and keeping moving. The US police were caught on the hop - and the protesters caused gridlock.
Why hasn't this type of tactic been taken up by UK protesters? Because it's much harder to organise centrally. Each demonstrator has to be pro-active about planning what to do beforehand, developing their own action rather than simply turning up to someone else's. Small affinity groups are needed - a lot of people don’t have enough interested friends to form an affinity group and it's hard to get strangers to work together on something like this. It's a different type of action altogether to a street part or march, and it will take a huge shift in the protest mindset to get it off the ground.

The RTS 'party' was just one of many anti-DSEI demos taking place this week. Many (such as the DLR stoppages, and the people who infiltrated the fair to unfurl a banner) have been far more successful in making it clear to the arms dealers that they aren't welcome in our city. It would be wrong to paint the whole week of actions as a let-down. Why am I focussing to such a degree on just one event? Because to me it had the potential to be the biggest and the best. Several hundred people turned up - including many who couldn't attend other protests because of their jobs. It had local support - I experienced this first-hand. It could have been a rallying point, boosting morale and celebrating the other actions that have taken place so far. It would have been so easy to have a very different protest yesterday - an empowering one, one that sent a clear message to the DSEI delegates. In fact, it was a damp squib. Who among the kettled protesters felt their views were heard? Who felt they did the best they could to show their contempt and disgust for the arms dealers? In fact, who felt the arms dealers even noticed their presence, several streets away from both the tube station and the exhibition hall?

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Display the following 9 comments

  1. am mostly in agreement — un
  2. yes but... — ZZ
  3. Dress smart — omni
  4. I agree — Paulie T
  5. Yes you are being negative — on the ground
  6. couple of points — jimbo
  7. almost worked! — misty
  8. Great action — partyhead
  9. future tactics — tadpole