Demo report

Picture of Riven Vincent being interviewed under Hungerford Bridge, 26th March 2011So, I made it to the demonstration yesterday, as I had arranged to meet Riven Vincent who wanted someone to walk with her. I got there late because I was delayed leaving home and then missed the 9:55 train out of New Malden, but I got there just in time as she said the wheelchair users were being moved out of the street where they assembled a few minutes later. I expected to find lots of wheelchair users in Savoy Street (next to Waterloo Bridge) but there were very few — about ten, if that. We then moved out of Savoy Street and made our way down the Embankment to under Hungerford Bridge, where we were entertained by a TUC brass band which struggled to compete with all the blaring horns that the crowd were using. We finally got off about 11:45am.

We marched down to Parliament Square, up Whitehall, past Trafalgar Square, up Lower Regent Street, down Picadilly and finally entering Hyde Park by the Queen Mother’s Gate and then proceeded to a stage which was fairly close to Speakers’ Corner. We both arrived just after 2pm, although at that time, people were still leaving the Embankment. The march was noisy with a lot of horns blaring, and I remarked that my friends who have ME (often sound-sensitive) would not be able to tolerate the noise; she said that people with autism would have similar problems. I didn’t get many photos taken, because I needed to keep pace with Riven and so could not do my usual thing of taking a step out of the march while I took the photo; you can’t turn and look the other way otherwise you’d get walked over. (I’ll post the pictures I did take on Flickr later, and link them here.)

Unusually for a march in London, I did not hear that many slogans being shouted; people mostly marched in silence except for the horns, letting the posters and placards do the talking. There were a few witty ones, including one I saw at the start of the march saying “Cameron puts the N into CUTS”, and I saw a group of women by the side of Piccadilly with a banner saying, “Dykes in Black Against War”, which they had crudely amended to say “against cuts”. At Hyde Park itself I saw a lot of people carrying Syrian flags including a huge one which they carried between them, face up, and I also saw a small group of what looked like pro-Qaddafi (or at least, anti-intervention) demonstrators carrying the Green Libyan flag (rather than the old flag used by the rebels). One banner I saw quoted in a tweet by Johann Hari was from a severely disabled woman and said “Cameron, if you want my benefits, you can have my disability”. A group of disabled people and their assistants I saw at the start of the march had T-shirts saying “We known inclusion works”.

I broke from Riven to pray, while she watched the speeches, including one by Ed Miliband which she found underwhelming. When I came back, she told me she was bored listening to the speeches; I suggested we go and have a coffee, which led us to a Starbucks a couple of streets away where she could also plug in her wheelchair to recharge the battery. We had to go via Oxford Street, and found that the street had been closed off and shops were beginning to close in preparation for the “side demonstrations” by the anti-capitalists. We were safe in the Starbucks, we both had a flat white which, unlike their lattes, does actually taste of coffee (and I told her about the time I ordered a flat white in a Slug and Lettuce recently, and they brought me a glass of white wine instead of coffee) and we discussed an awful lot of things to do with her children (she has one with Asperger’s as well as Celyn who has severe cerebral palsy; she uses a wheelchair herself because of MS), my own Asperger’s experience and various aspects of disability politics, before setting off for her hotel (in County Hall, south of the river at Waterloo) by a round-about route through Mayfair, Soho and Chinatown, so as to avoid both Piccadilly and Oxford Street. We got to Regent Street via Conduit Street, and found that a demonstration was being contained just north of there and headed down Conduit Street just after we left, and I later heard that there had been some incidents in New Bond Street which we had to walk down (or rather I did!), so we got through there in the nick of time. I finally left her at her hotel around 4:30pm and headed for east London for a curry.

Throughout the afternoon I kept hearing of incidents of vandalism around various parts of central London, including banks having paint thrown at them (I saw some of the results of that later in the evening) and the windows of shops and banks being smashed; one thing that kept coming up was that the media always reported the vandalism but didn’t say much about the march itself because a peaceful march without any trouble is not news. There is some direct action I have some sympathy for (like occupying the premises of companies that dodge tax while the rest of us suffer tax rises and service cuts), but smashing windows really doesn’t achieve much. That said, the BBC’s top story on its website was the march and not the violent incidents surrounding it, and they printed a selection of pictures of the banners people carried (I particularly like the “crocodile” one). The march I saw had a great atmosphere and was well-attended and calm; I hope the idiots who smashed up buildings didn’t spoil the event for anyone who demonstrated after us.

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