The Truth about May Day, London, 1 May 2001

We received an eye-witness account from one of the London May Day protesters. It shows how the police behaved in keeping several thousand demonstrators, against their will, in a square with no facilities and with no explanation as to why this was happening. It is an example of the use of police measures which go against basic democratic rights of people who wish to demonstrate on the streets of Britain's cities. Using the excuse that there were some demonstrators, undoubtedly a small minority, intent on using violent methods, the police used this opportunity to establish a dangerous precedent.

We received an eye-witness account from one of the London May Day protesters. It shows how the police behaved in keeping several thousand demonstrators, against their will, in a square with no facilities and with no explanation as to why this was happening. It is an example of the use of police measures which go against basic democratic rights of people who wish to demonstrate on the streets of Britain's cities. Using the excuse that there were some demonstrators, undoubtedly a small minority, intent on using violent methods, the police used this opportunity to establish a dangerous precedent. The writer of the article sent this message with his written account: "I was one of the thousands of protesters unjustly held in Oxford Circus for 7 hours on Tuesday last. I have jotted off an account, which I've attached. With the absolute failure of the media to report anything as it truly happened that day, I hope that some people are able to hear the truth. If you can use the piece in any way, I give my permission."

The intentions of protesters were peaceful from the start. A very small number perhaps intended on direct action, committing the victim-less crime of property damage. None intended injury to others or anything more than bringing awareness of a range of issues to Londoners and the media.

The media leapt at the chance to sensationalise the planned protests. They covered the approaching May Day with intimations of an all-out riot between hardened anarchists with no compassion and a noble police force fortified to save London from chaos. Newspaper articles emphasised that all holiday leave was revoked, and some 6,000 officers were recruited to police and protect the capital's streets from angry mobs. The media and police centred on the Monopoly-theme promoted by organisers of the protests. Diverse groups of anti-capitalist protesters would select squares from the Monopoly game board, such as Trafalgar Square, Park Lane, and Oxford Street, and hold non-violent demonstrations on these locations. Each location highlighted a different issue; the gathering at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park would publicise the problem of homelessness by constructing a cardboard hotel; protesters would highlight third-world debt and unfair trade agreements outside the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) offices; and under the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, a Beltane festival invoked the celebration of love and fertility &endash; the ancient roots of May Day celebrations.

I had come to the Eros statue for this. People crowded beneath the statue, some in masque, some costumed, one older woman had her face painted rainbow, some had guitars and flutes. Flowers were handed out, a man on stilts juggled pins, someone read a poem of Donne from the stone steps beneath Eros; people blew soap bubbles and chatted peacefully even though a light rain fell throughout. Police officers surrounded the Circus, displaying themselves as omnipresent and dour, yet they didn't interfere with the celebration, and let participants come and go as they pleased. Teenagers wore shirts written over with: 'Please don't kill me; I am fluffy'. 'Fluffy' and 'spiky' were the words used to distinguish non-violent protest from violent property damage. The media and police considered all protesters 'spiky' and felt they needed to handle them accordingly. Officers filmed every minute of the celebration with video camera, and a few with 'MP-Photographer' helmets took still images of as many participants as they could. The authorities & media purposely intimidated anyone attending the protests. Indeed, even the once-socialist mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, encouraged people to stay at home, and to not vocalise their concerns about the environment, globalisation, third-world debt, the arms trade, workers' rights, slave factories in developing countries, marginalisation of women, political prisoners, human rights violations, and endless other forms of exploitation. Quiet actions and small protests were fine; but, if the complaints of protesters swelled into a 6,000-strong voice, this type of overwhelming dissent would not be allowed. Stay at home; do not believe you have a real voice in this democracy.

In this model democratic nation, which assumes such a stance of moral superiority, teenagers who were dissatisfied had to fear for their safety, and wear t-shirts asking not to be assaulted for their right to free protest and speech. We see a young man being crushed by a military tank in Tienanmen Square and show disgust and disbelief; then a day like this May Day passes, and citizens praise the police for protecting them from murderous anarchists and young girls with t-shirts pleading not to be beaten by truncheons.

A crowd of 3,000 or more came walking up Piccadilly carrying banners calling for the support of causes like political prisoners in Turkey, the dismantling of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the end of nuclear proliferation. They blew whistles as they turned north onto Regent Street, handed out leaflets to pedestrians, and chanted messages like, 'Our world's not for sale! Put the bankers into jail!'. Lines of police bordered each side of the street, between protesters and shops, escorting the marchers along the road. A handful of officers continued to videotape as many of the protesters as they could. The protesters were doing what they promised to do: peacefully march and inform the public what the costs of global capitalism are. Casual witnesses eagerly took leaflets, curious what issue or concern could raise such a spirit in so many diverse people. There were no attempts to smash shop windows with bricks, no intimidation of the crowd, and no violent threat posed. Each person, demonstrator or eager pedestrian participated in the most elementary form of democracy &endash; the right to convene and discuss. Once more, the police were everywhere visible, though permitting and even pleased to escort the march toward Oxford Street.

It was only 2 p.m. The planned culmination of the May Day Monopoly protest was a march down Oxford Street, the commercial centre of the capital, set for 4 p.m. The websites coordinating the protests plainly advertised this; police, the public, the media, and the protesters all had the same knowledge. The government and police cited last year's May Day protests, when windows of multi-national corporations like McDonalds were shattered by violent protesters, as a justification to this year's 'zero tolerance' attitude. Police would be visible and intercede if they found a breach of peace or destruction to property. There would be no repeat of 2000. A few extreme protesters promised smashed windows and vandalised property. These people were in the slightest minority, and if there were to be 6,000 police officers on duty, these exceptions could be easily sighted and prevented by the overwhelming police presence.

The media took these exceptional threats as the general feeling among the May Day protesters. Newspapers and television broadcasts told of fear that May Day protesters would be waving Samurai swords. The media enthusiastically spread fear throughout the capital, scaring the public and protesters alike. Consumers were told to stay indoors, as their lives were at stake; business persons were told to dress casually so they wouldn't be a mark for lunatic anarchists with sharpened swords; the media warned that IRA bomb-threats would spread police resources to an attenuated braking point, giving the anarchists more freedom to practise terror on London and its people. If Seattle, Prague, Nice, and Quebec were terrifying riots, the media promised, London on May Day would be Armageddon. As I spoke to police officers that afternoon, it seemed they too had been told to frighten the worst. They were tense and suspicious, repeating the warnings in the media and agitated by their commanders who predicted such appalling violence.

The fear was not only channelled through the protesters, but through the police force as well. Three days before May Day, over a restless weekend, the media began to run stories that the police were authorised to use CS gases and rubber bullets on protesters. This would have been the first time on mainland Britain that rubber bullets had been used. This wasn't central London any longer; it was the Gaza Strip, it was the Balkans. Protesters were alternatively called anarchists and terrorists in the press. A mounting threat of complete upheaval had necessitated this severe state action. People began hoping that the day would pass, and their lives would be the same, that London would not be in ruins. Protesters worried over their safety, and even heard from the mayor of London, a man who once said he supported direct action, that they should stay at home. The government, police and media spent the final few days before May 1st telling everyone involved that this was not a democratic protest, but a certain anarchy that would threaten the very foundations of democracy. To protect freedom and peace, the demonstration must be sterilised and silenced at any physical cost.

Quietly on Tuesday morning May Day, the police issued a press statement saying they would not be using the rubber bullets. By this time, the police were in position and the protesters were preparing for their marches. None of the protesters feared samurai swords in the hands of their fellow marchers. We did fear a nervous, aggressive police force drugged on the certainty that we'd be insane and deadly. I, like many others, hoped to enjoy an effective march through the streets of London with people who believed in the same cause. The marchers wanted to have a direct dialogue with the people of London and any others elsewhere who came to know of the event. If a few protesters provoked violence, they would be quickly detained by the police present to keep the peace. The march was peaceful, was democratic, and knew it'd be most effective in that way. Many protesters hoped the police would assist us in keeping the peace to protect the right to speak with the public.

The police escort up Regent Street seemed content with doing just this. They formed a non-threatening security presence and, with the exception of the frantic filming of potential criminals, appeared as indifferent enforcers of justice. It was only 2 p.m., the marches would continue through the streets of London conversing with the public, until they converged on Oxford Street at 4 p.m. for the grand march. The rain had begun again as the front end of the march reached Oxford Circus. The police escort happily walked beside us until the intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street, the very centre of Oxford Circus, then broke off and stood as walls blocking east Oxford Street and west Oxford Street. Masses of people in front of us prevented us from seeing why we couldn't proceed north on Regent Street. No one had any interest in turning onto Oxford Street, so police barricades didn't disturb &endash; the Oxford Street march was two hours away. Perhaps, as we stood in the centre of the Circus, more protesters that had joined us from the direction of Tottenham Court Road slowed the march. Everyone was still lively and peaceful, energetic from the camaraderie of so many people. I stood just north of Oxford Street and began to feel a tension among the group. Police in riot gear, two rows deep, with vans and more police behind them, blocked the passage north onto Regent Street. The tail end of the march from Piccadilly Circus shouted blindly, 'Why have we stopped?' No one had any idea why the now 4,000-numbered crowd had chosen to cram themselves unmoving in the centre of Oxford Circus. I walked ten metres west onto Oxford Street and saw an amazing sight: two deep police lines in riot gear, a line of police on horseback (plastic visors even provided for the horses), then innumerable police vans stretching down the road. There were no pedestrians or civilians to be seen down that street, only police vehicles and officers. The sky deposited rain from sickly grey clouds, and the view west down Oxford Street looked dreary. The city looked as if it had been under siege, a ghost town except for one presence controlling the streets. Down the street I could only see police in near military gear. Three police helicopters canvassed the skies overhead. The police had seized the streets, and I tried to exit Oxford Circus west, to be denied by a riot shield. The officer said that we could exit east toward Tottenham Court Road, and only that way. Groups of people began turning east, only to see the familiar two deep police lines in riot gear and vans and emptiness behind them. It became clear: the police had forcibly contained 4,000 people in the centre of Oxford Circus. There would be no more marching, there would be no more conversations and distribution of leaflets, the causes of the protesters would no longer be visible.

No announcements were made by the police. The crowd surged a few times north, then beaten badly by police truncheons. No one knew why we were being detained, no one knew how long it would last, and nothing came from the police. Twenty minutes ago, we saw only normally uniformed police walking alongside us on Regent Street. There was little fear or intimidation, only large numbers of police and protesters. Suddenly on arriving in Oxford Circus, protesters find astonishing arrangements of police in impersonal riot helmet, riot shield, and truncheon. Normal life was absent from the streets, and we felt as if there were something very terrible happening. We couldn't leave either; these intimidating police had sealed off all four exits of Oxford Circus, and closed the Underground station so protesters could not take the tube home. The police had no voice either, making the anxiety of a siege escalate. Many asked the police behind the face visors why we were being detained, and how long would it last? They stood unanswering, straight-faced forward, or replied that they knew nothing. This is why the surges began. A small group who perhaps was not intending on violence, had been provoked by this unjustified imprisonment, and only wanted to exit the crowded square. When they tried, they were beaten back by police who would not say why. Crowds began to be swept into a momentum leading straight toward the police barricade. The police braced themselves and swung their truncheons at anyone in proximity, even though most of the protesters were merely trying to regain their balance after having been carried into the police. I heard journalists on mobile phones reporting the crowd surges, monopolising the steel railings on the street median which were the only anchors for balance. Teenagers, those with signs in hand, and other peaceful protesters were falling into police swinging blindly. Police responded with a full-out rush at protesters. People fell over each other, the wet pavement making it even more difficult to stay upright.

The morning after, the media shows short video clips of protesters rushing at police lines, and of a female police officer being carried off unconscious after being smothered in the rush. They show one Jaguar that had been badly damaged by a protester, and windows broken late in the night after the police had released the 4,000 demonstrators from Oxford Circus. The media runs these images, using the words 'May Day rioters' and 'anarchists', lets heard the head of Scotland Yard praising each police officer for a magnificent defence of the city, mentions the Prime Minister Tony Blair's applause of the police forces, then ends the segment saying, 'Some of the protesters have claimed the police were heavy-handed and kept them unjustly.' From the images and statements by Scotland Yard and Downing Street, this final comment is a non sequitur. The public is not made aware that 4,000 protesters were forcibly held on Oxford Circus for seven hours, from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. The public has been told, after weeks of paranoid build-up, that the samurai-wielding anti-capitalist anarchists had been contained with only minor damages to property. For the media's public to hear only this, the final comment makes no sense, and sounds like incoherent rumblings of terrorists who had been thwarted. The other report was a number: 93 protesters arrested. There was no mention of the number of peaceful protesters injured, or the number left without a toilet for 7 hours, or the number standing without food, water, or proper clothing from the rain and cold in the middle of Oxford Circus. Without these publicised, there was no reason to answer 'Why did the police imprison these people like this?' It is not made known that 4,000 peaceful protesters were held against their wills, only wanting to return home.

I couldn't understand why the media would not admit that the mass of protesters agitating loudly was not there of its own accord, and that protesters' anger was simply because they were being penned in by police promising violence. The media had been involved in the May Day protests from the start, and worked as a tool of state justifications for unjust police action. Television broadcasts and newspapers fuelled fears of an angry mob versus a brave, if overwhelmed, police force. It would be urban warfare with the protesters as aggressors.

This was not the intent of the decisive majority of protesters. Demonstrators wanted nothing of the media's promised battle, only the right to march and protest. If there were no violence, the media may have had to give attention to the causes highlighted by the protesters. The media build-up to May Day protests needed violent, incredible scenes to end the sensational event. Angry, spiky, deviant anarchists peacefully walking down streets chanting slogans and doing no harm hardly justifies the smear campaign or this monumental massing of police forces.

To suggest that the media, police, and government were complicit in imprisoning peaceful protesters and making them out to be monsters may seem paranoid itself. But once the crowd of 4,000 had been stuffed together in the centre of Oxford Circus for two hours, the events became clear. Loudspeakers had been positioned on the tops of the four buildings making Oxford Circus, and police stood atop these buildings looking down. Professional camera crews also looked down on the crowd, some from the roofs, some from balconies many floors up, with reporters in suits standing in front of the cameras. We knew that all entrances and exits to Oxford Circus had been closed off. The buildings in Oxford circus were boarded up and guarded by police in riot gear. Media had not positioned their cameras on top of the buildings after the police had bottled us up; they had not come through after a lead. Like the police loudspeakers, the media had positioned themselves well in advance of 2 p.m. The many thousand protesters peacefully marching for human rights causes had been led into a mousetrap, coordinated by the state, police and media. The media would have their footage of a discontented crowd of protesters with banners and signs, and the police will have justified their costly presence when their prisoners begin to become nervous.

Only after two hours of detainment without a word for it, an announcement came over the police loudspeakers: 'You are being contained for breach of peace and destruction to property. If you remain calm, you will be released in due course. Please be patient.' Not one person in the 4,000 had breached the peace, or done damage to property. The protesters had been peaceful and, if supposedly this crowd had done recent damage, how had the police and media orchestrated this ad-hoc prison with such speed? There were three or four other small containments further east toward Tottenham Court Road and another west and one north. The Oxford Circus detainment was the largest of the coordinated traps. The police and media had turned a peaceful protest in support of human rights into a genuine circus, encaging people with no cause and in violation of the activists' human rights. Any malcontent from the 4,000 entrapped protesters was provoked by an unjust holding, and the anger displayed, from a few bottles thrown to a brick or pieces of brick thrown, was reactive emotion at being held and not told why or for how long. After it was obvious that the messages of the protesters was to be silenced, the protesters simply wanted to go home, and come in from the cold and rain.

Yet the police would not move an inch. They advanced, in fact, gradually trying to force every person into the very intersection of Regent and Oxford streets. The police taunted the crowd. The same announcement, falsely accusing us of criminality, promising freedom, and begging for patience, played about every half an hour. No new demonstrators or observers had been allowed into Oxford Circus since 2 p.m., so the message became a nauseating insult to the same 4,000 people that had heard it the first time. The media waited patiently as if watching entertainment, and had all afternoon to wait for irritation from the crowd to develop into violence. A protester near me listened to news reports on a portable Walkman; he said the media was reporting the detainment as a 'standoff between protesters and police'. The same media perched on rooftops and hanging from balconies, who saw the police turn away people trying to leave and avoid confrontation, reported that the two were deadlocked in a struggle for position. The protesters wanted to leave, and had no desire for confrontation. The confrontation was more like a bully assaulting a fixed victim; were the police permitting these masses to leave, they would have, without violence. That was, after a few hours, their only desire. The crowd's voice raised as one, chanting in genuine agony and desperation, 'Let us go! Let us go! Let us go!'. I have not heard that sound byte replayed on one newscast yet.

Also unreported were the conditions of this unwarranted imprisonment. We stood closely packed, 4,000 people, in the centre of Oxford Circus. Protesters were dressed for a day of activism that would end after the Oxford Street march. Many did not pack food or water, as they meant to be home in time for tea, and certainly before dark. When we knew that our march had been prevented by the police, people in the crowd worried over their improper dress for long exposures to the wind and rain. The concern of the protesters turned toward the health of themselves and their fellow activists. Perhaps the police would retain us until after 4 p.m., or until we had become so tired, hungry, and dis-spirited from the torture of being held captive that we'd drag ourselves home exhausted. The repetitive announcement from the police told us we'd be released 'in due course', and only reinforced the impression that the police and media had no reservations over holding us here for the entire night. There was no face to our captors, or rationale; they used the tactics of fear and coercion. Men and women had to use toilets, though no provision was provided by the police. No one could leave, for any reason. People resorted to urinating down the steps of the Oxford Circus tube entrance. Police officers behind the steel fences at the bottom of the steps reappeared occasionally to chase away prisoners from urinating. The smell of human waste appeared, as protesters were compelled to urinate on building corners, in fear of being harassed by the riot gear police. Rains came and went, stirring up the dirt and urine. People had settled in spot, peaceful, and the cold of approaching night and immobility struck everyone. One young man needed a cup of water to swallow a medical pill he was required to take. I walked with him to the police line, and listened as he asked for a bit of water. The policeman responded, 'Do I look like an f'ing water fountain?', and turned away my friend. We found a girl with a bottle of water slumping exhausted against a steel railing; she happily shared her water.

The police officers forming the barricades claimed to have no information. They simply carried out an order, they said. One spoke to a group of us for a full ten minutes. He confessed that he wanted to go home as well, and that he saw no reason to detain us. He finished saying that he had no idea when we would be released. Thirty minutes on, he called us over, and told us the police on the north side of Regent Street were letting small groups leave. We thanked him, and made our way toward the point where the first surges had occurred more than 5 hours ago. It was 7 p.m., and the light began to fade, and the three helicopters that had been circling the skies since the beginning had turned on their lights. We were now being instructed to move to the centre of Oxford Circus, as if we weren't packed in tightly enough already. Their instruction was unrealistic &endash; there was simply no room left to move. We soon realised the officer's tip that Regent Street had been opened was a lie to have us move further east toward the centre. The first broadcast at 4 p.m. had indicted us of false crimes, and promised we would be released if we were calm. The disobedience by some &endash; throwing of objects, rushing the exits, lighting bonfires to keep warm, and one youth who scaled the traffic light and dismantled it &endash; this disobedience materialised in protest of being unjustly held for several hours with no information. The limited riotous behaviour filmed by the watching media was in the context of an unjust captivity. Police and media created this prison of Oxford Circus, they created an environment of injustice, and encouraged desperate actions from the protesters. If we could have left peacefully, we would have. We never wanted to be claustrophobically held in Oxford Circus. By 7p.m., when peoples' legs began shaking from fatigue (there were too many to sit down on the pavement, and plus it was streaked with rain, dirt, and urine), a veritable nightmare arose for the 4,000 protesters. Night came closer, the police had not moved (they advanced in fact), and the media continued to film the imprisonment without the slightest apparent concern for the health of the prisoners. We looked up to see the media cameras engage their lights, and one man, who had come to peacefully demonstrate, had a look of anguish and fear by now, and screamed at the media crew and reporters on the surrounding balconies, 'Help us for God's sake! Tell them to let us go home! Help us! Let us go!'

At last, nearing 9 p.m., protesters who had ascended underground signs to see police movements yelled down that people were being permitted to leave individually, after being searched and photographed. 4,000 people, after 7 hours of captivity, were being herded out one-by-one by the sole exit &endash; north on Regent Street. The supposed rabid mobs of anarchists set on absolute destruction at any cost had passed 7 hours of unjust detainment without any unprovoked violence. This was abnormal patience shown by this many people held for this long of a time. Even a peaceful person can be driven to anger if he is treated unfairly for too long. Protesters understood this latest decision of the police was further insult. It would take hours to siphon each person individually from Oxford Circus, and we had endured 7 hours of standing and waiting already. Crowds surged forward again, driven to frantic attempts to escape the small area, and police shoved the crowd back without concern for protesters' safety. The stairs leading down to the Underground were unprotected, and facing the north side of Regent Street. As police beat and commanded the crowd back, many were in risk of being thrown backwards down a flight of stairs. Protesters yelled to each other not to rush forward, as they had screamed earlier for the few who threw objects to stop such violence. We had obeyed the commands of our criminal captors; we had remained calm and had provoked no violence. We had complied, and been rewarded with the emptiness of lies. We would be released eventually, we saw this commence at 9 p.m., but from the knowledge that this was a coordinated trap set by the police and media, knew the media's audience would never hear what truly happened.

The state and police preconceived this silencing of the protests and, if one were to listen to only the media, would seem to have made the activists' causes disappear in the drama. The final word in the media and the official government stance is that May Day 2001 in London was a power struggle between undemocratic activists and the protectors of justice. As the damage was limited, and the crowd 'well-kept', the right side had won, the defenders of liberty, of your city, of your unimpeachable moral superiority. But who has emerged victorious when the state, police and media collaborate to silence peaceful dissenting voices by imprisoning 4,000 of them in the centre of London, turning the city into the siege they supposedly were employed to prevent? 4,000 people with diverse concerns about local, national, and international politics became prisoners of conscience on 1 May 2001, in a country that supports economic sanctions for countries committing the same human rights abuses. The British government, police forces, and media have indicted themselves of grave crimes that you thought happened only in distant and radically undemocratic countries.

Join Us

Join the International Marxist Tendency and help build a revolutionary organisation to participate in the struggle for socialism worldwide!

In order to join fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.