We got to the demo late, just as it was leaving George Square. This meant that I couldn’t march with my union as planned but had to slot in behind the Fire Brigade Union, Lothian and Borders branch. Most of those marching behind this banner had special fire brigade jackets. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about passing myself off as a (fake) fire fighter and snuck down the side of the demonstration as it passed along George Street. No sign of the UCU, so this time we slotted in with the PCS. They had a lot of placards and a man called Hamish on the loudhailer. I know this because someone else on the other loudhailer said ‘shut up Hamish’ after a few rounds of ‘Oh they cannae shove me granny off the bus’. There were a few new chants, which I was pleased about because ‘When they say cut back we say… fight back’ gets repetitive.
I went on a lot of demos in the last half of 2010. I was very angry with the government. I am still angry but maybe you can’t keep up that same intensity of anger consistently over two years. It would wear you out.
The first big demo after the government was elected was organised locally (by groups in Camden, I think) and took place on the day of the first budget. It was a massive release to march with friends through the middle of the London, past my workplace on the Strand and down to Downing Street. At a time when things were bleak it was a source of hope and also of reassurance that other people felt the same way. Summer turned into a cold autumn/winter. The next few demos I went on were focused on the issue of the education cuts (‘no ifs, no buts, no edu-ca-tion cuts’). Based on array of our headwear at first education demo my friends decided that we were ‘hats against the cuts’. The education demos had a tremendous energy and an edge to them. They were policed in very heavy-handed ways, to put it mildly. My worst experience being the night in December when I found myself held on Westminster Bridge by riot police. I wrote a long account of what happened there, here is a snippet to give you the flavour:
‘We see the police charging on the crowd for the first time, coming from Whitehall. People are running and shouting and there is some kind of clash at the treasury. We watch from afar but things have changed now. On parliament green we see a big fire, I don’t know what’s burning but it’s made of plastic. The smoke obscures the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben chimes. It’s all gone a bit heavy metal. More time passes, we eat some of Andy’s wine gum sours….
The police draw back their line slightly and I step down off my wall. I’m squashed, claustrophobic and frightened so I look up at the night sky. The people next to me are singing in Spanish. One girl is having a panic attack and everyone makes way so she can go back to the green … It looks like they’re letting us go over Westminster Bridge. But then it stops. I see an ex-student of mine who has been pushed to the ground twice today in the police charges. There is a police line in front that isn’t moving. This is not good, I think. We are on a bridge over a massive river. Picture Westminster Bridge, if you know it, the barriers on the sides are fairly low. If it kicks off on here, I think, someone is going in the river. The police are also behind us. Keep in mind all these police are in full riot gear. Their faces are mostly covered. They are wearing helmets and they have big round plastic shields in front of them. But there is no conflict. The odd outburst of ‘let us out, let us out’ … There are now three lines of police backlit by the lights of their vans and the houses of parliament and a load of peaceful protestors some of whom are doing the hokey cokey. A bizarre scene… What will stay with me is the sight of those backlit police lines on the bridge and the sound of the song ‘if you think this is illegal, clap your hands’.’
This experience changed the way I felt about demonstrating. I had seen police violence on demonstrations as a teenager so wasn’t completely naïve but maybe I had become complacent. After the Westminster bridge experience, my expectations changed. Demonstrating was no longer something that took a few hours, and that might be followed by a warming pint with friends. It became something that was potentially dangerous and very uncomfortable. I always took snacks and water on demos but the first one I went on after the Westminster Bridge night, I took carrier bags of food and water. It passed without incident and we had a pub buffet afterwards.
The Glasgow demo held no such fears for me. Sure enough, the policing was minimal, there was no trouble and the whole thing didn’t take very long. We marched from George Square to Glasgow Green where there were speeches. It changes the feel of the march when you are not marching on/to a centre of power. You don’t get the Downing Street moment. This isn’t to say that demonstrating in other cities isn’t worthwhile. Of course it is. It is good to make opposition visible on the streets. But it is a different experience and has a different impact. Some of that is to do with the numbers, if you had hundreds of thousand of people marching in Glasgow…
Also, the immediate political situation is not the same in Glasgow and London. Scotland is being affected by the budget cuts in Westminster but there is little to no support for the Coalition government here, whereas in London opinion is more mixed. Boris is mayor. So taking to the streets in Glasgow feels less like reclaiming them.
Coming up to Glasgow Green we get a lot of support from people outside pubs. ‘We need our pensions! God bless all of yis… [points at a young man in the crowd] But you need a haircut pal!’ There is a rally on Glasgow Green, the People’s Palace café does a roaring trade. And then the banners are rolled up and the placards lent against the bins.