Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stop the City, London, March 1984

'Protest and Carnival against War, Oppression and Exploitation'

In 1983-84 the financial centre of London was the focus for a series of one day Stop the City protests. The first of these took place in September 1983 and was followed by a bigger one in March 1984. The protest in September 1984 was also substantial, but by then the police had got wise to the tactic and were more successful at imposing control through mass arrests. I took part in both of the 1984 events.

Stop the City was defined as a 'protest and carnival against war, oppression and exploitation'. There was no single organisation behind the actions, though London Greenpeace (an anarchist group distinct from the national environmental organisation) helped initiate it. The idea was that people would plan their own actions within the overall Stop the City framework. Stop the City wasn’t simply a punk protest. It also drew its energy from the radical fringes of the peace and animal rights movements and from the broader anarchist scene, as well as from some veterans of the earlier free festival counter culture. But it was through the anarcho-punk scene that a lot of the information circulated about Stop the City, and through which many people came together to organise themselves to get to London from all over the country.

What made Stop the City so exciting was this it didn’t play by the rules. There was no march along a prearranged route negotiated in advance with the police. No permission was asked for - instead people were invited to turn up and use their own creativity and imagination. In March 1984 a combination of numbers and innovative tactics gave the protesters the upper hand for much of the day. Rather than get caught up in ritual set piece confrontations with the police, there was endless movement with groups heading off in all directions and no direction, blocking traffic and forcing the police to spread themselves thinly. There was a tangible sense of power - it was the first time I had seen people de-arrested. Coming down Change Alley we came across some isolated cops trying to make arrests, but they were quickly surrounded by a big crowd and let people go. Instead of hanging around a load of us just ran off and found ourselves on London Bridge where we blocked the traffic until a lorry decided to call our bluff and drive straight towards us. Somebody kicked a Bentley or some other luxury car stuck in the traffic.

There was anti-nuclear street theatre, and people in City suits and bowler hats made out of bin liners carrying copies of the Financial Times with slogans written on them like “Read all about it- the bomb is coming” (actually courtesy of the IRA the bomb was coming to the city, but that was a few years later, and probably not what people had in mind). By the end of the day, the police were more in less back in control. Nearly 400 people had been arrested and many of the remainder were stuck in front of the Royal Exchange building surrounded by cops - nobody called it 'kettling' then, but that was what it amounted to.

'Stop the City - People not Profit'

The following report of Stop the City on March 29th 1984 comes from the anarchist paper Freedom, published in May 1984:

'Stop the City (Freedom, May 1984)

'For your future, for our future, STOP NOW’ (Anon)

'The City is the place where your money from taxes, savings and pension funds is invested, and you have no control over them’ (Islington Action Group)

'We believe it's time to put a stop to the suffering of millions of people around the world, suffering created by the same economic system that runs our lives. The City of London is at the heart of all this, it is the logical place for our protest’ (Leicester Green Affinity Group)

‘Women not only serve the boss at work, they also serve their husbands and children at home as cooks and cleaners. Not only do women work harder, we get no pay for half the work [housework]’ (Stop the City Women's Group)

‘What we are trying to do is point out the grim reality that lies behind the mask of normal daily life’ (Grays Anarchist Group)

‘Ten ways to wreck the micro-computer in your office:- 1. Pour coffee ( with salt instead of sugar in it) into the keyboard to gum up the works...’ (Free London)

‘Dear fellow commuter,...on an average commuter train, about 20 people are directly involved with producing goods for military use’ (anon)

‘What's going on? As you walk through the City area today you may see quite a few people involved in various forms of action aimed at exposing the nature of London's financial district. Do not be afraid of these people, they could be your friends... As we listen to EMI records, people in foreign lands listen to EMI weapons guidance systems... People need each other, not money!’ (anon)

‘We are claimants, and as claimants we are forced to live in misery and poverty because of the decisions made behind the doors of these institutions. It's not jobs we demand...but the right to a decent life for everyone.’ (Claimants Action Nottingham)

‘In countries where people used to grow their own food, they are now paid minimal wages to produce non-edible cash crops for western companies... if dissatisfaction with this system causes social unrest, the west sells the same countries arms with which to restore law and order. ’ (LSE CND)

'I am here today because... I want everyone in the world to be happy... because they are stealing my life away and selling it back at a profit... because a terrified animal dies unnecessarily every 6 seconds... because everything has been appropriated and we want it back... because they are giving the children guns and violence and destroying their innocence... ’ (Mike, Brambles Farm Peace Camp)

‘Look at this fucking world, it's not ours no more. It belongs to rich fascist scum who, unless they are stopped, are gonna blow it to shit. The time has come to stop holding back... No longer will we march ‘peacefully’ to Hyde Park. It’s banks what fund war, not parks!’ (Paul)

‘I, the Commissioner of Police for the City of London, by virtue of the powers conferred upon me by Section 22 of the City of London Police Act, 1839, as amended by Section 8 of the City of London (Various Powers) Act, 1956 for the purpose of keeping order order and preventing obstruction of the thoroughfares in the immediate neighbourhood of the Mansion House and Guildhall of the said City, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, the General Post Office and other places of public resort within the said City and liberties on the 29th March, 1984… hereby direct Constables on the on the 29th March, 1984 in the said thoroughfares:

1. To prevent the gathering together of persons within a group.
2. To disperse any group of persons which may gather together.
3. To direct any person found loitering to move.
4. To prevent any procession.
5. To prevent the deposit or any refuse, litter or other object.
6. To secure the removal of any refuse, litter or other object by the person the Constable has reason to believe is responsible for the deposit thereof.
7. To prevent the making of any unnecessary noise which the Constable has reason to believe causes, or contributes towards, disturbance of the peace.
Dated this 26th a day March 1984, The Commissioner of Police for the City of London'

'You failed totally!' (STC)

Last September, after 6 months of discussions and preparations around the country growing out of the actions against military bases, about 1,500 people came to Stop the City of London in protest against wars and arms trade profits. The success of that day in terms of communicating to workers, disrupting business, and creating a determined and festive event encouraged many others to join in preparations for another protest — on the day profits for the whole year were symbolically to be counted up - March 29th 1984.

Having been in the City, seen how it works, how all companies and banks are interlinked, it was decided this time to make a general protest against the profit system. This would be a chance for everyone involved in trying to change things - opposing the exploitation of women, of nature, of animals, opposing wars, repression and poverty, and the power of money over us - to come together on this appropriate day and challenge the financial heart of the country.

As a network grew, everyone encouraged each other to create the kind of day they wished, to protest about the things they felt most strongly about and in the way they wanted. A truly decentralised yet well co-ordinated attempt to Stop the City and reclaim it for people.

The week before, on March 22nd, there were local protests in financial centres of 7 or 8 towns with pickets, occupations, leafleting, graffiti, processions and music.

On the 29th, up to 3,000 people took part together in London and this is an attempt to get down on paper some of the amazing and diverse activities...

Stopping the City

7 - 8am, First Aid, creche and assembly points set up. Police divert all lorries from City. 30 cyclists set off to do a very slow tour of the streets and stop the traffic. Balcony of arms trading company in Holborn occupied by London Peace Action, banners and balloons.

8 - 9am, Green CND protests at Electricity Board HQ all day. St Paul's packed already, many go to Bank area. People try to block roads. March down Cannon Street, Threadneedle Street blocked. Radio reports. People at Stock Exchange forced to move on. Women's action at Bank of England to protest about unpaid domestic exploitation foiled by police — continue to leaflet nearby. Many groups all over City, leafleting, dressed up, with placards, puppets, games, etc.

9 - 10am, 500 people at Royal Exchange. Police try to split people up. Leafleting and smoke flare in Bank tube station. 150 people disrupt Leadenhall meat market against animal exploitation. People continue to assemble at Bank - up to 1,000 - police try to block everyone in and keep traffic moving. Hundreds of cars begin to be quietly immobilised in car parks (all day). Free vegan food distributed for hours at St Paul's. Many locks glued up throughout the day.

10 – 11 am, The crowd who’d taken over the front of the Royal Exchange resist police efforts to force people out, wooden barrier collapses. People then hemmed in, police using horses. Lots of noise. Everywhere workers look from windows. Group go to do Fleet Street action — too many police. Spirits still high everywhere despite police violence. Lots of graffiti. Anti-nuclear street theatre at Nat West Tower. People enter banks to open and close accounts. A couple of groups walk back and forth over zebra crossings.

11 – 12 am, American, Russian and British flags burned at Bank. 3-400 march around fur trade area. 100 people break out of police cordon at Royal Exchange and attack windows of financial institutions — Barclays, Navigation House, Nat West and 30 other places. Car overturned as barricade and constant moving means police unable to stop action. Smoke flares, paint thrown etc. Securicor van too heavy to turn over, Roll Royce which tries to run someone over is wrecked. Still hundreds at St Paul's, and others running excitedly around (for fun!). Leafleting at Bank tube station continues.

12 - 1pm, Anti-apartheid picket of Barclays forced to move, so visit nearby branches. Jugglers, singers, puppeteers also threatened and police try to clear Bank again. Traffic blocked. Quiet for a while. A group take 2,000 leaflets to Greater London Council ‘democracy day’ march. Evening Standard quotes police as being ‘worried about possible link-up’. Creche going well (8 kids). Our own legal back-up people begin to get busy. 30 people ‘die-in’ on roads at St Paul's. Cacophony of noise everywhere on the hour. Some of large crowd on steps of Mansion House resist mass arrests. Statues, especially military ones, ‘decorated’.

1 – 2 pm, Claimants group burn UB40 identity cards at Bank. 30 women visit Fleet Street, raid Boots the Chemist and throw tampons in the street to protest at their ‘luxury item’ VAT classification. Protest outside the Sun also. People again break free from police cordon at Bank, resist their violence and damage bank property – Norwich Union, Leeds Permanent and American International. Spikes to stop traffic thrown in road.

2- 3 pm, More rumpus on the hour! 20 cyclists again stop traffic. Mobile carnival stage, with live bands and people following almost reaches Bank from Tower Hill, but seized by police. Over 200 people held in police cells continue their protest and have fun by making noise and causing floods etc. Nat West Tower entered, files ripped up, fire alarms set off. Police bike knocked over. Groups of ‘nuns’ and Stockbrokers’ still leafleting. St Paul's - face painting, and also ‘God is Dead!' charge into cathedral. Musical and noisy processions round Royal Exchange. Orange smoke flare set off – thrown back by policewoman who hits another cop. 200 people go to Guildhall but driven back by police – court opened but no-one brought to appear so closes again (later we discover that Princess Alexandra was due to visit at 6pm)

3 - 4 pm, 200 people make human barricade across London Bridge. Traffic stop until police arrive. People begin to congregate at Bank again, spilling into streets all around. Lots of chanting, angry and good humoured at same time! Still many hemmed in. Still groups of singers and leafleters walking around.

4 - 5 pm, 1,500 at Bank. Surges into the street and back. London clearing bank window smashed as movement of crucial ‘City’ cheques is disrupted. Stockbrokers’ messages fouled up. Thousands of workers begin to go home, many watch with interest and amusement what is going on, as at lunchtime. 350 prisoners held in cells, and up to 200 in police vans. Incredibly, despite police violence people still good humoured, but gradually getting worn out.

5 - 6 pm, People hemmed in, but relax, and gradually everyone disperses. 3-400 go to block Whitehall and Ministry of Defence in Central London as protest against Cruise missile convoy movements during previous night and in solidarity with women of Greenham who had blocked its path on the motorway.

It's impossible to do justice to everyone’s activities. Throughout the day many people were also hanging around, taking photos or watching. For some, this was the first experience of a self-organised protest and so they were unsure of what to do, the need, to come prepared, take initiatives, talk to others, etc. Also many were angry yet intimidated by police violence. But also loads of people wanted to join in and kept asking ‘what's happening?', ‘where's the action?', and so on. Some came for just an hour or two to show support. Everyone made a contribution in their own way.

What were the achievements?

Well, it was certainly a day people in the City will remember. The machinery of oppression thrives on appearing invincible, unquestioned and eternal, and our protests have begun slowly to break this spell. All day workers looked from windows, stood in doorways and on balconies, or walked unhurriedly about. No-one seemed threatened, some were prejudiced yet many more seemed excited, thoughtful, amused or provoked to think and discuss with colleagues what was happening and why. Some were surprised and angry at police violence which partly aimed to keep workers and protesters apart.

I collected leaflets being distributed by 31 different groups, a dazzling range of opinions and ideas —complemented by graffiti. But there were still many working there who didn't understand or feel involved. Likewise, many of us benefited from trying to talk to and understand the people there, their attitudes to work, difficulty in challenging their roles and employers.

As for actually disrupting business — while we were there we certainly had some effect. We enticed people away from their jobs and towards the human community in their midst. Traffic, mostly on business, was often stopped or slowed up all day. The front doors of some buildings were closed, some were picketed and those around Bank disrupted for hours. And don't forget that some phone lines were blocked by those contributing from home or work to the phone blockade.

On two or three occasions, largish groups of people managed to directly damage property of financial institutions, both as a statement of anger and also to make them pay a little for a change. And perhaps the most significant disruption was of the movement of cheques at the end of the day when millions of pounds physically circulates around the area. According to the Times, ‘The banking community struggled to keep money flows moving, despite the unrest. They succeeded - but only just’. ‘Bank balances were £11million below target overnight’.

The aim of creating a festive, human atmosphere was partially successful, despite everything the police did. There was lots of music and noise, clowning, puppets and banners, painted faces, joking and openly expressing our energy and humanity. There was a great deal of solidarity, warmth and respect amongst ourselves despite being strangers and of many differing ideas and groups. This is so important and is a strength which will attract others to think about what we're saying and doing.

Likewise, the fact that there were no leaders or formal structures, just so many people with initiative, energy and determination to do their best. It is also encouraging to read the 17-page police briefing (which fell out of a back pocket on the day) now widely distributed, to see what their aims were for the 29th. They took the protest very seriously, cancelled all leave in the City force, and all coppers worked at least 12 hours continuously. With the miners strike and blockades, other large demonstrations and Greenham blocking of roads near London, they were at full stretch. London Transport police and even ‘special constabulary’ were brought in. Special powers (1839) for the City were enacted. They clearly understood the aims of the protest, and the range of events that had been planned and publicised. And they made all sorts of-preparations. However, despite their plans, 450 arrests and other violence, they failed.

We showed that we have the determination and the strength, initiative and imagination to make a telling protest, and that if people everywhere only realised their strength, the power of the state could be effectively challenged on a wide scale.

Involving more people

But if we are to learn from our struggles, we have also to look at and overcome our limitations. Most of the people who took part are active in anti-militarist, animal liberation or general libertarian groups, or a part of the large dissatisfied urban unemployed sub-culture...

Yet it was difficult to involve those who went on strike on the same day to defend public services and the GLC, and also striking miners. Likewise, the vast majority of people who feel strongly about some aspects of what's wrong with the world, still think that joining an organisation (like CND, War on Want, RSPCA or whatever) or voting for the Labour party is the thing to do. Many others would also like a better world but don't believe people can change things, or are afraid to express their feelings. lt is all these people who need to get together to begin to move against the system.

And there are yet millions more, billions world-wide, working class people who have to struggle where they live and work just to survive, to maintain self-respect. Many don't relate to political parties or endless protests, yet we need everyone to begin to really stop the systematic industrial destruction and exploitation of our world.

The Stop the City demonstration is one small yet significant step in a developing process of awakening and of real opposition. We are learning as we take part. Many more people have become involved, not only in large scale protests but also in everyday activities, overcoming isolation and gaining confidence. Changing society is not only about collective opposition, it is also about people creating and extending mutual aid, solidarity and libertarian relationships amongst each other — neighbours, work-mates and wherever people meet. If the Stop the City idea contributes to that and to the creation of diverse local initiatives and resistance, it will be worthwhile.

What now?

On the 14th and 15th of April there was a follow-up weekend. On Saturday 60-70 people, many having been arrested, came to discuss court procedures, solidarity, films, look at photos, etc. Anyone who wishes to support those arrested can come to Guildhall Magistrates Court on Friday 11th and 25th May, 10:00am, or send donations to the Bust Fund Network, c/o Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road,London N1. Any other legal enquiries, phone Amanda 01-833 1633. An exciting unedited film was shown and is being turned into a film/video to be made available. Contact Mick 01-278 0075 if you have any additional material.

The second day was a general discussion about stopping the Cityy, what happened and the future. There was a very constructive and respectful atmosphere, and a general feeling that we had achieved a lot and there was so much more that was possible - not just in the City but everywhere. There will be a week of of protest against financial institutions, and the wars, exploitation and destruction they cause and profit from on September 22nd- 29th, with a general call to Stop the City, Thursday September 27th again. Everyone in the world is invited!

Likewise it was decided to Stop the City on Thursday May 31st also, while the enthusiasm and memories of March are alive. A totally self-organised protest – there won’t be any co-ordination meetings for May 31st, so everyone is encouraged to spread the word, come prepared and do what they think best.


See also Richard Metzgers' memories and photographs of this day at Dangerous Minds.

Other related History is Made at Night posts:

- J18 Carnival Against Capital, 1999

[post originally written in 2011 as the Occupy Stock Exchange London protest camped out by St Paul's in the same area targeted by Stop the City. Updated September 2023 with flyers and press cuttings]

Report from The Standard, 29 March 1983

'policewoman throws back smoke bomb as demo brings violence to the city'

'London grinds to a halt as thousands march'
(on the same day as Stop the City thousands took part in a march against plans to abolish the Greater London Council)

A Lambeth Stop the City planning meeting at 121 Railton Road in March 1984

Saturday, October 29, 2011

UK nightclub chain goes bust

The financial crisis looks to have killed off the UK's largest chain of nightclubs, threatening up to 3000 jobs. According to the Finacial Times (27 October 2011):

'Clubbers put away your dancing shoes: Luminar , the only London-listed nightclub company, is to go into administration after failing to secure an extension to its banking covenants.In a statement, the owner of clubs such as Love Social and Fuzzy Logic said it would immediately suspend business and place the company in administration because it was unable to meet repayment obligations on its debt, which fall due on October 27.

Luminar has approximately £85m in net debt owed to Lloyds TSB, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland. The company is the largest UK nightclub owner by number of venues, with 75 clubs across the UK employing 3,000 full and part-time staff. However the company had experienced several years of declines in like-for-like revenues.

The company was hit hard by the smoking ban and government licensing re-arrangements which meant pubs could extend their drinking hours beyond 11pm. Following the changes, Luminar cut the number of clubs it owned from 230 at the end of 2006 to 100 clubs two years later. More recently Luminar’s core 18-24-year-old customer base has been badly hit by the economic downturn and subsequent youth unemployment' (read full article here).

Venues owned by Luminar include the numerous Lava & Ignite, Life, Oceana, Bar Rock, Jumpin Jaks and Liquid clubs found in town centres across the country (full list here). It started out in 1988 with one club, Manhattan Nitespot in King's Lynn, and grew rapidly, being floated on the stock exchange in 1996.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chile Thriller Protest

Personally I am a little jaded by Michael Jackson flashmobs, but this example from Chile in June 2011 takes it to another level of political protest with around 3000 students, many dressed up as zombies, dancing to Thriller by the Presidential palace in Santiago.

The dance off was part of the ongoing student movement about the funding of education, with zombies wearing signs saying 'died in debt'.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy London Second Thoughts

Since last Saturday's start of Occupy London Stock Exchange (Occupy LSX), I've been back a couple of times to the camp. The tent town by St Paul's Cathedral is now settled in complete with food, information and legal tents, portaloos and a library. There's a Uni tent with lectures and discussions, I gather my old comrade Massimo de Angelis spoke on Wednesday.

The best thing about it is probably its messthetics. Don't get me wrong, it seems very tidy, but its very existence messes up the sterile homogeneity of this part of London. You rarely see much in the way of street life other than tourists and people rushing to and from work, so it was interesting yesterday seeing all the little encounters and conversations and encoun going on around the camp with protesters and passers-by. Good too to see the walls plastered with all kinds of posters and messages.

I've included quite a few images of the posters because they give a flavour of some of the different positions of people in the occupation (click on images to enlarge to read some of the posters in more detail) - anarchist, marxist, liberal, new agey etc.

In a way, the fact that people are sleeping in the streets here represents a reclaiming of the City as a living space. The financial area of London is now largely empty of residents - it is a place to work, not to live. But until the nineteenth century it was the heart of London, filled with people of all kinds living in close proximity. The population of the City reduced from around 130,000 in 1800 to only 10,000 today, while the rest of London has expanded and become home to millions.
The camp is actually on Church land, and today the Church authorities issued a statement saying that they were having to close the cathedral for health and safety reasons because of the protest. It seems inevitable that this will be used as a pretext to seek the eviction of the camp, and the 'health and safety' has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The tents are not blocking the entrances to the church and people have been freely entering the Cathedral all week. Indeed even this afternoon, after the Church had issued its statement about closure, a service was held there for school children - so presumably it was safe enough for them.

The outcome probably reflects political tensions within the Church - on the one hand there is some support from radical Christians for the protest (and some are active within it). On the other hand, St Paul's is at the establishment end of the Church spectrum, with its 'corporate partners' including JP Morgan, Lloyds Bank and the London Stock Exchange.

The assembly today (pictured above) vowed to continue the occupation. In a sense what is being played out repeats the medieval history of this part of London. From the 12th to the 14th century St Paul's enclosed surrounding streets with a wall and annexed them for the Church, and the citizens demanded the right to continue to assemble on the land.

According to the historian John Stowe: 'King Edward II. in the 10th of his Reign [1294], granted that the said Churchyard should be inclosed with a Wall, where it wanted, for the Murthers and Robberies that were there committed. But the Citizens then claimed the East Part of the Churchyard, to be the Place of Assembly to their Folk-motes; and that the great Steeple, there situate, was to that Use, their common Bell; which being there rung, all the Inhabitants of the City might hear, an come together. They also claimed the West Side, that they might there assemble themselves together, with the Lord of Baynards Castle, for view of their Armour, in defence of the City' (A Survey of London, 1603).

Glad to say that this week there was no sign of some of the dubious anti-semitic currents I detected at the weekend (see Occupy London: first thoughts), indeed there was singing and dancing there this week for the Jewish Simchat Torah celebrations.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mona's San Francisco: 1940s lesbian club

'After 1920 women who occasionally wore men's clothing and those who passed as men began to socialize more openly in cafes and night clubs. In Chicago two night clubs, the Roselle Club, run by Eleanor Shelly, and the Twelve-thirty Club, run by Becky Blumfield, were closed by the police during the 1930s because "women in male attire were nightly patrons of the places". Many of the couples who frequented these clubs had been married to each other by a black minister on Chicago's South Side. In San Francisco, lesbians met at Mona's, where, it was said "Girls will be Boys"'.

Source: San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project 'She Even Chewed Tobacco: A pictorial narrative of passing women in America' in 'Hidden from history: reclaiming the gay and lesbian past' by Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (Meridian Books, 1989).

This advert for Mona's Club 440 (440 Broadway, San Francisco) comes from San Francisco Life 1942:

This advert mentions Gladys Bentley, described as "Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs" and "America's Greatest Sepia Piano Artist."

In his A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem, Eric Garber mentions Bentley's appearances in New York in the 1920s/30s:

'Perhaps the most famous gay-oriented club of the era was Harry Hansberry's Clam House, a narrow, smoky speakeasy on 133rd Street. The Clam House featured Gladys Bentley, a 250- pound, masculine, darkskinned lesbian, who performed all night long in a white tuxedo and top hat. Bentley, a talented pianist with a magnificent, growling voice, was celebrated for inventing obscene Iyrics to popular contemporary melodies. Langston Hughes called her "an amazing exhibition of musical energy." Eslanda Robeson, wife of actor Paul Robeson, gushed to a friend, "Gladys Bentley is grand. I've heard her three nights, and will never be the same!" Schoolteacher Harold Jackman wrote to his friend Countee Cullen, "When Gladys sings 'St. James Infirmary,' it makes you weep your heart out."

In the 1950s she appeared on Groucho Marx's TV show:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy London: first thoughts

The various Occupy actions around the world at the weekend have varied in scale, intensity and political mood. Rioting and huge crowds in Rome, a big demonstration in Madrid, and an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement into the heart of New York, with a demonstration in Times Square.

Anti-austerity protests based on the occupation of public spaces in the heart of the city have been building for months (Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Syntagma square in Athens, not to menton Tahrir Square in Cairo and Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv). This weekend can be seen as a conscious internationalisation and that counts for something when a major trend in relation to the crisis of the global economy is a resurgence of populist nationalism.

The London action was smaller than New York, Spain or Italy, but respectable in terms of numbers - I would say there were a couple of thousand but difficult to be sure, as the crowd was split up by the police cordon. Unsuprizingly, police lines prevented entrance to Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange, but the crowd did manage to occupy the steps of St Pauls Cathedral. There were some surreal scenes such as people dressed up for weddings in the church making their way through the crowd, and tourists variously frustrated and entertained. I heard one American woman complaining about the protests say that she had come here to help our economy but she wouldn't be coming back!

Compared to previous actions in the City, Occupy the London Stock Exchange felt a bit lacking in energy/intensity. But then again while Stop the City in the 80s and J18 in the 90s aimed to cause havoc for a day and then disperse, the Occupy movement is in for a longer haul, with many people staying there all weekend (and we shall see how much longer). So maybe some conservation of energy was in order.

There was a mix of people there, good, bad and ugly according to your taste. It would be very easy to listen to a few of the latter and dismiss the whole movement out of hand, as for instance Ian Bone does ('One Thousand Cultists Kettled at St Pauls'). But I would say that it is currently too diverse, fluid and open to give up on - there's plenty of room for discussion and development.

And there's certainly plenty to argue about... The adulation of some for Julian Assange, who turned up on Saturday, certainly made me feel uncomfortable, as the guy seems to have a bit of a messiah-complex combined with some incoherent politics (leaving aside the rape accusation - he hasn't been tried yet after all).

A movement without visible leaders is not one that has necessarily solved the problem of leadership, i.e. how to create direction and momentum without giving rise to a self-serving elite (whether elected or self-appointed). Without consciously tackling this issue, the lack of leaders can just mean that the 'leader's chair' still exists even if it remains empty, just waiting to be filled by the first plausible demagogue/celebrity that comes along .

Likewise a movement that disdains politics is not a movement without political assumptions. There is a fundamental shared feeling of 'enough is enough', of the refusal of austerity, and the search for an alternative to a life subject to the fluctuations of the economy. That's all good, but then what?

There are some odd alternative economy models around in the occupations, notions of capitalism without finance capital (the 'real economy'), of monetary reform, of a resource-based economy that is beyond capitalism and communism (this is the line of the new-agey Zeitgeist Movement who had a banner on steps of St Pauls). It is not just that some of these ideas seem to have very little understanding of what capitalism actually is and misrepresent it as a conspiracy by a few rich bankers rather than a global mode of production and exchange. It's far worse than that, because some of these ideas have very murky antecedents and indeed dubious present-day associations.

A lot of 'monetary reform' notions just read like recycled 'Social Credit' ideas, as developed before the Second World War by CH Douglas. As Derek Wall pointed out in his article Social Credit: The Ecosocialism of Fools (Capitalism Nature Socialism, September 2003), Douglas was not only an extreme right wing racist, but his monetery ideas are saturated with an anti-semitic world view. Likewise, the Zeitgeist Movement basically rehash the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, simply subsituting the word 'bankers' for 'jews' (see Zeitgeist Exposed at the Third Estate).

At the Bristol occupation at the weekend this racist conspiracy theory view of capitalism was openly articulated by someobody telling the occupation that 'Zionists want a new world order'. What was disgraceful about this episode was that people dutifully repeated this poison and cheered him rather than kicking the guy out. And that whoever was responsible for 'Occupy Bristol update' on youtube thought this was uncontroversial enough to give the guy a platform.

The 'human microphone' thing in the occupations is in danger of becoming an absurd fetish. In Wall Street people repeated the phrases of speakers to make sure that people further back could hear speeches when a microphone was banned. In most cases where there is no ban it would be surely be better - and very simple - just to set up a PA or use a megaphone, like people have been for years. By the looks of the Bristol occupation, there was no need for anything as the crowd seemed small enough for everybody to hear. It did look like a religious 'call and response' exercise, and involved people in the bad faith exericse of speaking nonsense which on reflection I would hope many would prefer not to utter.

I know that there are plenty of good sound people camping out at St Pauls now, and I think it is very important to get involved and challenge reactionary ideas. To just walk away holding our noses could allow some of these dangerous ideas to get a foothold in the very high profile occupation movement.

Oh yes and this poster on Saturday really got on my tits: 'Go to work, follow fashion, watch TV, spend money, look happy, act normal, repeat after me. I am free'. Patronising activist superiority complex nonsense, looking down on the 'duped' proles. People who work, follow fashion and watch TV (I am guilty on all three counts, your honour) know when we get out of bed every morning that we are not really free, and we know when we have to spend money we haven't got what the economy is all about in a visceral way. And until we move, the 'movement' against capitalism is going nowhere.

See also: Occupy London Second Thoughts

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An 18th century drag ball in London

Richard Norton's Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook includes lots of fascinating material, not least in relation to 'Molly Houses' and other places where gay men socialized in that period. The following account from 1718 alludes to a Ball in Holborn, in the vicinity of which a number of men were arrested and imprisoned.

The context is interesting as the arrests were ordered by Charles Hitchin, Under City Marshal and a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which campaigned against 'immorality'. Hitchin though was accused of being no stranger to 'He-Whores' himself, as claimed here in the words Jonathan Wild, the famous thief-catcher/crook whose capture Hitchin had secured:

'As he was going out of the House he said, he supposed they would have the Impudence to make a Ball. The Man desiring him to explain what he meant by that, he answer'd, that there was a noted House in Holborn, to which such sort of Persons used to repair, and dress themselves up in Woman's Apparel; and dance and romp about, and make such a hellish Noise, that a Man would swear they were a Parcel of Cats a Catter-wauling. — But, says he, I'll be reveng'd of these smock-fac'd young Dogs. I'll Watch their Waters, and secure 'em, and send 'em to the Compter.

Accordingly the Marshal knowing their usual Hours, and customary Walks, placed himself with a Constable in Fleet-street, and dispatch'd his Man, with another to assist him, to the Old-Bailey. At the expected Time several of the sporting Youngsters were seized in Women's Apparel, and convey'd to the Compter. Next Morning they were carried before the Lord-Mayor in the same Dress they were taken in. Some were compleatly rigg'd in Gowns, Petticoats, Head-cloths, fine lac'd Shoes, furbelow'd Scarves and Marks; some had Riding-hoods; some were dressed like Milk-Maids, others like Shepheardesses with green Hats, Waistcoats and Petticoats; and others had their Faces patch'd and painted, and wore very extensive Hoop-petticoats, which had been very lately introduced. His Lordship having examin'd them, committed them to the Work-house, there to continue at hard labour during Pleasure. And, as Part of their Punishment, order'd them to be publickly conducted thro' the Streets in their Female Habits. Pursuant to which order the young Tribe was carried in Pomp to the Work-house, and remain'd there a considerable Time, till at last, one of them threaten'd the Marshal with the same Punishment for former Adventures, and he thereupon apply'd to my Lord-Mayor, and procured their Discharge. This Commitment was so mortifying to one of the young Gentlemen, that he died in a few Days after his Release. — Any that want to be acquainted with the Sodomitish Academy, may be inform'd where it is, and be graciously introduced by the accomplish'd Mr. Hitchin'.

SOURCE: Richard Norton (ed.), Jonathan Wild Exposes Charles Hitchin, 1718, based on 'Select Trials at the Sessions-House in the Old-Bailey, From the Year 1720, to this Time', 1742.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

1980 mods: reaction or rebellion?

(click on images to enlarge)

In January 1980, London-based radical magazine The Leveller tried to come to terms with the mod revival that had emerged in the previous year. After the explicit social critique of the post-punk period, some saw it as a retrogade if not outright reactionary movement, as Ian Walker argues in his article here:

'The union jack, in 1979, is a fascist symbol. The red white and blue chic is the perfect accessory to the white power sticker the young lads wear on their parkas down at the Bridgehouse in the East End on a Friday night. Mod is white historical romance. It is the disco before the pollution of minorities. It is the high street before the smell of Asian food. It is instead the smell of pease pudding and the public baths where the whites come out whiter (this is the scenery of Quadrophenia). It is the land of hope and glory before the advent of feminist social workers, gay pop stars and black footballers. It is the glorious proletarian past to be recreated in the fascist vision of tomorrow. How did we trip from ripped'n torn to neat'n tidy, from punk to mod? From avant garde to retrograde, subversion to incorporation?...

We want mods to be dissidents in knife-edge creases, dredge up some anti-Thatcher quote for that cover, but really we know they are more interested in pulling power than workers' power. We want to make important-sounding statements about the corruption of street culture into consumerism, just to show we've still got all our ideological marbles (What the fuck can we do?). We dream about the council estates shaking to the rhythms of Madness and then we read the news stories about blood and glass and hospitals, the Boreham Wood mods have beaten up the Stevenage mods. We want to think the kids are alright, even if they might just now be saying they're fascists. We want to be loved by those kids, not derided as wimps and social workers (but of course we know fascism has always stressed manhood and valour). I want never gets...

The youth culture is the safety valve. Let's have surfers fighting heroin addicts in the downtown benefit disco for the astronaut asbestos mob who were ripped up by the flower power razor gangs. Let's have a permanent war of the working classes. The Glasgow experiment worked: ship the bastards out to housing projects on the dark side of town and let them kill each other, protect the law abiders with barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements. Three cheers for the classless society. Hip, hip. Grandad was a ted, Dad was a Punk, grandson is a space cowboy. But what the fuck?'.

David Widgery is more ambivalent, finding the scene wanting in comparison to its predecessors: 'Ian Page [of mod revivalist band Secret Affair] is a fair trumpeter but intellectually he makes John Lydon look like Walter Benjamin'. But still 'every genuine new culture is part of a guerilla war in the entertainment industry. New Mods have elevated the originals to stylistic deities and taken the sheer elan of the Mod explosion in the era of affluence as a disguise for the new depression'.

Red Saunders reflects mainly on his experience as a first wave mod in the 1960s, critical of its later representation in the 1979 film Quadrophenia:

'I was so disappointed with the racism in 'Quadrophenia' because it just wasn't like that. All that stuff about the blacks off the banana boat. It was the other way round on the original Mod scene. Like I first got onto Blue Beat through a black bloke who was a despatch rider in our office. I was cool because of him. If a black GI would say 'Hey man, alright' in the club you'd fall over yourself as you sweated it out in your Madras jacket. 'Cos the Flamingo was 110 degrees. But you could never take your jacket off. Never.

See we were all new. Just out of school. And your head was full with a straight middle of the road type racist, imperialist type education. More or less Brittania Rules the Waves. And suddenly it wasn't on. You suddenly thought twice. And black music was the first thing that had hit you. And you weren't supposed to friendly with Blacks. So you were. Because anything you weren't supposed to do, yuu did. Rather than that you were seriously friendly, you did it first of all because it was Cool. But then out of that came a very solid anti-racist feeling. That's why I'm anti-racist. It stems from the early Mod days.

But our political consciousness was very weird. I was a West End Mod because I lived in Paddington. I remember going home after the all-nighters through Marble Arch pissing In the litter boxes and drinking up their milk bottles. And if any figure of authority like a Park Attendant came up had a go, you'd say 'They're still dying in Vietnam man. Its alright.' In the days when no one used to hardly know about the war in Vietnam. I don't know what it meant. It was just something we started to say. And we used to say things like 'Gas house Baby'. It was the Youth Rebellion I suppose. You weren't supposed to be popping pills, so you did that too.

But we thought CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] were just dirty beatniks. You'd have a good time down Trafalgar Square at the end of the Aldermaston March to 'check out the birds'. But you wouldn't go on the March. Not unless you were very conscious. But we used to wear the Ban the Bomb badge. Very cool. On my Beatle jacket. But you were much more interested in clothes. I used to be a real dresser. I queued for 4 hours outside Anello and Davide in Drury Lane to get my red Cuban heeled boots. Superb. We never had wheels. The scooter people were more suburbs. Every now and again we'd go down this Mod Mecca called The Orchid Ballroom Purley. There'd be a million scooters outside. We'd think 'What a Bunch of Peasants'. 'Quadrophenia' was a bit over the top on the suits as well'.

Then there’s interviews with Mods themselves. Mark, a 20 year old from Yorkshire, explains the tension between the scooterist Northern Soul fans and the fans of the new mod bands: 'When it started up here it was totally to do with scooters. In ‘76 you could near enough say every scooter kids in the North was a Northern Soul fanatic. It was an underground scene, unheard of in the South. To be a Northern Soul fan was to be something different. We organised a run to Brighton to try and bring North and South together and to try and get Mods without scooters there and Mods with scooters. It turned out a bit of rivalry sprang up. They thought we wore stupid clothes and no good because we didn’t follow the new mod bands. Sixties soul is what I listen to and funk, Wilson Picket, Otis Redding, a lot of Tamla Motown'. Vic from Huddersfield concurs: 'Down there they spring up and say they are Mods but I don’t think they are. I think they are just punk bands with suits on'.

Sally Player (19) from Edmonton discusses racism at gigs: 'The NF types are a load of hypocrites. Listening to ska and Blue beat and then turning round and say they hate blacks. I can’t understand them. The BM [British Movement] and NF [National Front] come to concerts where people are performing songs that were originally made by black performers and do Seig Heil and Movement Movement. I just can’t see why they’ve paid money at the door just to do that…'

What's being played out in these articles is an age-old tension between the strategies of 'counter culture' and 'street culture'. The former, generally but not exclusively more middle class, emphasises 'alternative' values, dropping out, critiquing 'materialism' and 'fashion' (even though there is usually just as much of a dress code as any other scene). The latter, a more proletarian dandyism, emphasises dressing up, style and working class assertiveness but is often less overtly 'political'. Still, against those who would set sub-cultures in aspic, the boundaries between these currents are always shifting. After all many of the first generation 'mods' went on to be 'hippies' and within a few months of leftists agonising about whether ex-skins turned mods in the late 1970s were the harbingers of fascism, similar people were writing excitedly about the latest mutation of that scene: 2 Tone, with its explict anti-racist sensibility.

(I don't agree with Ian Walker's stance here, but he did write some other interesting articles in that period about 'The Other Britain', some of which have been reproduced by Inveresk Street Ingrate).

See also: Mods, Rockers and Revolution.