Central London was brought to a standstill on Saturday, March 26, as hundreds of thousands of people marched against the government’s cuts to public services and activists took direct action against symbolic targets.
The Trades Union Congress-organized march far exceeded its expected turnout of 100,000 with estimates varying from 250,000 to 800,000. People from every corner of Britain attended to register their anger at the austere economic policies of the Conservative-led government, which is axing public sector jobs and cutting social programs such as the National Health Service.
As protesters gathered at London’s storied Hyde Park to hear speeches against the cuts from trade union leaders, radical activists embarked on a “sightseeing tour of London.” Banks accused of tax dodging had windows broken and were bombarded with paint bombs. Symbols of wealth, including a Porsche dealership, were also attacked and daubed with graffiti. A traffic sign was tossed through a window of the Ritz Hotel.
UKuncut, a direct-action group that targets tax-dodging corporations, staged an occupation of Fortnum and Masons the department store famous for selling picnic baskets for tens of thousands of dollars. The store’s owners have a 54 percent stake in Associated British Foods, which stands accused of avoiding more than $65 million in taxes. The occupiers left the building following assurances from the police that they would be allowed to go free if they cooperated, only to be trapped and in many cases arrested as they left.
Late in the day, a few hundred protesters attempted to occupy Trafalgar Square for the night. Sound systems and samba bands created a carnival atmosphere, which was soured as riot police locked down the square, seemingly in reaction to paint bombs being thrown at a clock counting down to the London Olympic Games in 2012.
Government Business Secretary Vince Cable responded to the march by insisting the cuts would continue: “No government … would change its economic strategy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind.”
Nonetheless, the government appeared rattled by the militancy of the direct action. Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons, “I am willing to consider powers which would ban known hooligans from attending rallies and marches, and I will look into the powers the police already have to force the removal of face coverings and balaclavas. If the police need more help to do their work, I will not hesitate in granting it to them.”
Simon Childs is a student, activist and citizen journalist based in Newcastle, England.