Did anyone notice the summer of rage? Like all British summers, it was disappointingly non-existent: a few letters in the guardian, a climate camp of Cath Kidston tents and, to top it all, hardly a day of sun.
At the beginning of the year, the forecast was hopeful. We were told we were in the midst of a crisis. Each week another bank/factory/country went bankrupt. And everywhere a response: riots in Greece, unrest in France, occupations in Italy. Even in Britain, people were responding. The unions, the Stop the War Coalition, were losing control: workers went on wildcat strikes and February’s Stop the War trudge turned into something approaching a riot.
And we were told that the summer would kick off at the G20 counter-summit, when the recession’s ‘victims’ would come out to fight. We were told when, where and how we would protest; and the invite was made by no less than the country’s most senior police officer, delivered via the great British media. Mobs and cells of hate-filled, masked-up, dirty sofa-owning anarchists, who recruit children and foment protest, were to be hosted by hundreds of riot cops, all leave cancelled. The date: April Fools’ Day.
Any suspicion over accepting an invitation from a cop was forgotten in our desperate hope that this time it was for real, that this was the beginning of the end of capitalism -after all, didn’t they say something like that on Newsnight?– that this would be a counter-summit that went over the summit and out the other side.
We made our separate ways there and our separate ways home. Gone were the days of the anti-road protests, when the meeting at Bank was the culmination of something more –a mass movement apparently moving somewhere. All that united us now was nostalgia, a sense of not being quite sure what we were doing, where we were going –Have we met before? Shall we dance? Whose streets?- rage diffused to confusion.
A decade on, and the terrain hadn’t changed -we were even using the same map– still ‘Squaring Up to the Square Mile’, acting out the same roles, in the same place, but this time the cops were directing. While in those ten years we had lost any kind of strength, the police had been perfecting their response –to learn when to contain, when to hit out, when to arrest, when to take pictures, when to go home.
And they told us why we were there –our battle was with the banks. After all, we were reminded time and time again that this was a crisis not of economics, but of finance; not systemic, but cultural. The Bank of England would play its role as the physical centre of the crisis. Bankers had long ago been auditioned as the baddies: in the media, by the politicians, by the Socialist Worker. Old anarchists were wheeled out by the BBC to warn that bankers would be hung from lampposts, and cops told city workers to disguise themselves in casual clothes, presumably to avoid a hanging. We were provided with a symbolic outlet for the rage -RBS, the baddest of all the bad banks, was left as bait: its windows unboarded.
And we fell for it. For every protestor there were five cameras: smash, smash, smash; flash, flash, flash. The climax -again and again on TVs across the country. Each time a little more unsatisfactory, each time a little more removed –they frame us to act, then frame us in photographs. If our action was ever ours in the first place, it certainly wasn’t any longer. Watching from their living rooms, people were replayed the powerlessness of the protestors, the power of the police; the powerlessness of protestors, the power of the police. Later, arrests. The window is repaired. You won’t try that again.
Nearby, Climate Camp looks like a bad memory of the sixties: tents, flowers, samba, baked potatoes… except now there’s a CCTV camera watching it all. But the ‘good protestors’ don’t get away without a good battering. The cops go in with truncheons. The campers, with upraised and open hands, chant the last words of the day: ‘This is not a riot.’
There would be no riots that summer. Any pretensions we might have had about our power were shown to be foolish: we had been got. Nothing is more indicative of this than that somebody was murdered without a response –we hardly even noticed. The repercussion consisted of a couple of funereal marches, a few letters in the guardian, an enquiry in the distant future, a new climate camp that made friends with the cops, and praise for police reform, again -a summer of middle class ‘outrage’ and reconciliation. The cops weren’t afraid of beating to kill, for they knew –as we should– that there would be no fighting back, because there was nothing there to fight back –we were nothing more than those few hours at Bank. ‘We’ do not exist.
Capitalism might be in crisis, but its defences are alive and well. When Newsnight asked whether Marx was right –is this the end of capitalism?– it was proof of the opposite, proof of a confidence that such a question would be answered with little more than knowing chuckles in middle-class living rooms. The real crisis is not in the state, but in resistance.
If whatever it was that turned up at Bank last year -this weak, containable, directionless scene of a ‘scene’- means anything to capitalism, it is as assistance not resistance. And if the cops were fighting anything that day, it was the threat of something else: some other people, some other ways, some other summers.