One of the things that has surprised me most during our 3 years in London is the frequency of protests escalating into violence. The stereotype of the patiently queuing Londoner with his bowler hat and brolly is at odds with the hooded hooligan throwing rocks at cop cars and setting double-decker buses alight who features on the news whenever a peaceful protest goes bad.
In 2009 a string of protests preceded the G20 summit, protestors smashed the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland with coins and computer keyboards and forced their way into the building. This was apparently sparked by the recent £703,000 pension arrangement of RBS former chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin.
Climate change protests outside the European Climate Exchange were more peaceful, their protest featured ‘music and meditation’ and tents pitched in the street. The major trouble was when officers tried to prevent demonstrators from reaching the protest, and were pelted with empty beer cans, fruit and flour – more like a bad night on stage than a protest.
Several hundred anti-war demonstrators marched to a rally in Trafalgar Square from the US Embassy in central London. As would be expected, this was the most peaceful of the protests.
In 2010 after a night taking in the Christmas lights on Oxford, Regent and Bond streets, my sister and I watched from a restaurant as demonstrators steamed past the window. When the crowd had cleared we emerged onto a smoky street to find ourselves on the wrong side of a crowd barrier. We must have looked harmless as police officers ushered us behind the barrier and pointed us towards the nearest tube stop. I noticed that the Topshop windows had been smashed, though Topshop probably faced more violence and damage from their own customers each time their designer collaborations went on sale.
We escaped this skirmish unharmed, but the papers the next day showed a frightened Camilla and Charles on their way to the Royal Variety performance, cowering as their Rolls Royce was spattered with paint and the windows cracked. There were also reports of fires lit in Parliament Square and an attempt to burn down the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. This was one of a string of protests regarding raising university tuition fees to £9,000.
Obscene pensions, climate change, war and increased tuition fees are all worth protesting, and it is wonderful to live in a democracy where protesting doesn’t get you thrown in jail (unless you resort to the smashing and burning). However this week’s London riots seem utterly mindless. A peaceful protest in Tottenham over the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan escalated into the first night of riots, which quickly changed from a protest into an opportunity to smash, burn and loot. Over consecutive nights the riots have spread to other London suburbs such as Hackney, Camden, Peckham and Clapham. Aside from news reports, the only signs I have seen of the riots are increased activity at our local fire station, more helicopters overhead and the vastly increased police presence on the streets today, but my boss had to negotiate her way around a burnt out bus at the end of her street on her way to work this morning. Tonight the rioting has spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds. It’s not a protest, it’s an opportunistic mob taking what they want with no thought of the impact on other people, or even the impact on their own futures should they be caught and arrested. I hope that is what happens to each and every one of them.