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Mayday Madness: Newspaper Hacks Make A Hash Of London Mayday 2001


Rioter intimidating police whilst holding a banner inciting violence - Mayday London 2001. Pic: Simon Chapman

In the build-up to Mayday 2001 in London, rather than report the facts and cover the issues which the protests were focussing on, newspaper journalists showed that they can write the sort of fantasy fiction to rival Lord Of The Rings.

Protestors are used to having the media ignore them, ridicule or demonise them. But Mayday 2001 showed how easily the state can influence the papers, especially with a vacuum created by very few protestors speaking to the media. This article shows how through the mainstream papers the agenda is set early on by the police warning of a sinister plot of a massive "riot". The first to pick-up on the stories are the broadsheets, it is only later that the tabloids - with a shorter attention span - take notice. Many politicians lined up to condemn the protests before they happened, most notably no-longer-Red Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London).

Police got so carried away that they regularly contradicted earlier statements and even warned that rubber bullets may be used for the first time on mainland Britain, this was retracted a day later. The stark warnings from police and politicians served two purposes: to discredit the anti-capitalist movement, and to acclimatise public opinion for a violent police crackdown.

It also meant that most shops in Oxford Street closed on Mayday, losing 20 million trade and many workers got the day off - so in a way the protestors had achieved one of their aims before it had even began. And of course it all began peacefully enough. until the police decided to trap thousands of people for six hours in the rain with no access to food, water or toilets. But with the whole of central London not burnt to the ground as had been predicted some of the reasons behind the protest were given a few column inches.

Calm Before The Storm

The Times led the way on 13th February "ANARCHISTS PLOT MAY PROTESTS TO DISRUPT ELECTION" read the headline followed by how organisers are recruiting support from abroad, all this provided by "intelligence reports". The article indicated that police were going to come down hard on protests. The Sunday Telegraph was quick to follow suit, the fear was that three days of rioting could affect the election on 3rd May (later delayed of course till 7th June due to foot and mouth disease).

Speculation was rife - "the Army could be called in to quell riots", and "Among anarchists who are likely to attend are those from the Black Flag movement and German Terrorists. These are the same people who caused trouble at the meeting of the G8 group of economic powers last year at Seattle in America." Clearly this journalist hadn't done their homework. It was the WTO, not the G8, who met in Seattle and it was Robocops gassing and beating protestors sitting in the road that was the worst violence that occurred. Black Flag isn't a movement it's a journal, and won't all those nasty Germans be at their own Mayday protests like they are every year? And no pre-riot hype would be complete without a mention of Reclaim the Streets who - said the Telegraph a few days later - according to the police were "planning a repetition of last year's disruption."

Pressing The Button

"200 police officers staged a dawn raid yesterday on a secret training centre for anarchists who are planning to bring chaos to London on May Day." opened the Sunday Telegraph on April Fool's Day, complete with picture of a riot cop kicking down a door. The location they were referring to - the Button Factory - was publicly advertised, hardly a 'secret' and the fact that 200 police were needed to evict the empty building wasn't questioned.

Instead they printed the words of Detective Superintendent Randall "Last year's demonstration was largely organised by Reclaim the Streets, which is a peaceful organisation, although there was trouble. This year the organisation has been taken over by far more violent groups." Er, hang on a minute, the month before the police warned that Reclaim the Streets were "planning a repetition of last year's disruption." Weren't they the naughty anarchists the police told us not to talk to? Curiously a day later The Times reported the Button Factory as a training base used by Reclaim the Streets, clearly they hadn't listened to DS Randall. Obviously they thought, "Anarchists? Mayday? - Must be Reclaim the Streets!" In the Independent a Scotland Yard spokesman said "We did not anticipate people being on the premises and no arrests were made."

Again the press failed to question why such a large show of force was needed. Maybe the police were scared that once word got out, the black bloc (shipped over from Germany perhaps) were gonna come down in force tooled up for a riot? Or maybe Uncle Bulgaria and the Womble posse were going to get padded up for a bit of push and shove? No, this was done as a symbolic show of police force for the media.

From mid-April the media stepped up a gear following the Met's briefing on the 12th of April about their "zero-tolerance" tactics against those who were out to "hijack" the protest. Assistant Commissioner Mike Todd said "I appeal to anyone who really cares about these issues not to get involved in this protest because it is in danger of being hijacked by a violent minority." or in other words 'If you're nice and fluffy don't come 'cos we might hit you.' However the police still wanted to appear reasonable "We don't want to prevent lawful protest. It's a basic right and we police demonstrations all the time. But we are not going to allow people to commit criminal offences." But the criminal offence the police seemed most concerned about was the 'the organisers' not liasing to the police's liking about the demonstration .

Samurai Ruckus

When British activists allegedly attended the Ruckus Society training camp in California the Times got something right for a change stating that Ruckus teaches people in "the skills of non-violent civil disobedience." But the Daily Mail's headline read "US TRAINING CAMP FOR MAYDAY RIOTERS" and the Evening Standard's "MAY DAY RIOTERS TRAIN AT U.S. CAMPS" and then a few lines later explains that the Ruckus is a non-violent organisation. Er, is it possible to have a non-violent riot? Maybe all those cushions the Wombles were collecting weren't for padding but to give to pissed punks to chuck at the cops instead of an empty beer bottle.

Then things started to get really ridiculous. As if they weren't silly enough already. "Specialist firearms teams are being drafted in to police this year's May Day demonstrations in the City of London over fears that rioters armed with samurai swords and machetes will infiltrate the protests" screamed the oh-so-liberal Observer. In the same article was a good point from Jim Carey of Squall who said "Attempts to reduce anti-capitalism to a menacing monoculture of violence are so wide of the mark as to suggest they are being strategically divisive." Perhaps if the journalists had listened to him instead of the mysterious "senior officer involved in the operation" then they might have printed a more balanced article.

But then balance doesn't make for a good story. Such as printing pictures of 25 people wanted by police from Mayday 2000 and saying "Police fear that they are plotting a violent protest in London next month" (The Times). If these papers actually had any reliable information they'd know that this assertion was implausible.

Reclaim the Womble

Past media reports of anti-capitalist demonstrations demonised the baby-eating anarchist scum Reclaim the Streets. But with RTS taking no part in Mayday 2001s the media hunted for another scapegoat. The Anarchist Federation, Class War, Urban Alliance (or Urban Violence as the Express called them) all sorts of animal rights groups, plus the now defunct S26/Section 28 (journalists seem to confuse the Prague IMF/World Bank meeting with oppressive anti-gay laws) all got a mention, along with the various forms of foreign anarchists and Turkish Communists. The imagined threat of hordes of foreign anarchists descending on London was given new life when the Monopoly guide was translated into different languages: "Until last week, detectives led by Mike Todd, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, believed that foreign activists were being dissuaded from attending." Reported the amnesiac Telegraph, forgetting that a couple of months ago they were warning German terrorists were on their way!

The "hoards of foreign anarchists" fears were further fuelled by the appearance of the Wombles - inspired by Ya Basta! who are almost always referred to as "violent Italian anarchists". Unsurprisingly the Wombles received most media attention. Most of the speculation about the "paramilitary" Wombles was vague and relied on police intelligence (again). Much of the lies stemmed from the raid of the Button Factory (see above), when the Wombles were described by the police as a "radical organisation of anarchists importing a frightening brand of Continental-style violence" - frighteningly silly costumes more like. Just as frightening, the Evening Standard said it is "frighteningly easy to obtain" items such as football shin guards, white overalls and steel capped boots. Isn't it outrageous that it is so easy for footballers and builders to purchase protective equipment? They described the Wombles equipment as "increasingly sophisticated protective clothing" but bubble wrap and duct tape can hardly be described as sophisticated. They also named and shamed the Italian-born "driving force behind the Wombles".

But it was also the Evening Standard that carried one of the best articles about Mayday, in its magazine London Life by Matt Munday. He contacted the Metropolitan Police about the Wombles asking what specifically proved they weren't non-violent. The police spokesperson avoided the question and instead sent a fax saying: "There is intelligence to suggest that a variety of anarchists and other groups are organising a day of anti-capitalist protest on Tuesday 1 May 2001. There are further indications that a sizeable minority is intent on exploiting opportunities for public disorder and violence against a variety of targets which are likely to include the police, commercial institutions and government buildings. We are not prepared to discuss individual groups or their aims." Again we are asked to rely on the police's so-called intelligence (top media tip - put so-called in front of anything to discredit it: so-called anti-capitalists, so-called Mayday protest) to justify a violent crackdown.

Rent-a-Gobs

Sometimes the media didn't need the police to feed them stories, they just got commentators to say a few choice words: "WHY WE MUST STAMP ON THE MAY DAY TERRORISTS" by Richard North in the Express. Ah yes, that emotive word terrorism, and what form does this terrorism take? ".above all, being photographed getting hit by the police." Yes we all like getting knocked unconscious - there is no better way to advance the cause of terrorism.

Such comments from the right-wing Mr North are to be expected. But the Mayday protests were also attacked by some involved in the student protests of the 60s. David Triesman, General secretary of the Association of University Lecturers, wrote in Guardian, starting with all the usual crap about the protestors being simply intent on causing trouble and their ideology not being sufficiently intellectual. His arrogance was astounding "They positively reject any notion that protest or anger occurred before they discovered the Internet. They have "discovered" big business exploits - workers and shareholders are out to make a profit on the investment. Well now, there's a surprise." Er, had he even read the Monopoly game guide? If he had he would have noticed all the references to the history of protest. The first sentence for the first square on the board, Old Kent Road, reads "Always a hotbed of religious and political ideas, the first noted event was that of Wat Tyler who was involved in the poll tax uprising in the 13th century." So much for being a university lecturer, maybe he should do a bit of research before spouting off about something he knows nothing about.

"Nobody outside this coalition has any idea what these demos are about." said Bryan Appleyard in the Review section of the Sunday Times, who then curiously continues to list all the issues the protests are about, but just dismisses the protests saying "These people just seem to be irritated and hey, are protesting against everything and, therefore, in effect, nothing." But, maybe if the mainstream press printed some intelligent articles about the issues then more people might actually know what the protests are about.

Instead they went for 'lifestyle' articles such as in the Sunday Telegraph about Luke, a middle-class University graduate. His parents explained how he had turned from an animal loving veggie into a lout, ah yes being veggie is obviously a precursor to terrorism. He had apparently gone to "anti-GM crop riots". Er, anti-GM crop riots? Can you call pulling up a few plants a riot?

Mayday!

"The limits if tolerance are past when protestors, in the name of some spurious cause, seek to inflict, fear, terror, violence and criminal damage" - Prime Minister Tony Blair leader of the spuriously named Labour Party.

"ONE NIL TO THE OLD BILL" read the Mirror's headline with a picture of a copper hitting a man over the head, the Mirror took great glee in reporting "Several demonstrators looked seriously injured as they were dragged away. One man was unconscious." The Sun praised the police "It takes real guts to stare down a howling mob with only a baton and shield for protection." - it takes real guts to hit someone only armed with a woolly hat. Most other papers, although not quite as sensationalist still tended to focus on the damage the protestors had caused and the injuries to police. But a look at figures from the ambulance service show police had 3 injured, and the demonstrators 50 - clearly it was the police who inflicted violence on the protestors. The Daily Mail showed how "balanced" its reporting was by reporting the three injured police officers, but not even mentioning that protestors had been injured.

The media focus was on Oxford Circus and a lot of what happened elsewhere tended to get ignored or pushed further down the article. The first police pen (or kettle) happened near Euston station. NO violence had occurred but the police decided to contain people for a couple of hours - so much for allowing peaceful protest. The numbers of police outraged one local resident who said in the Telegraph "I've lived here all my life and you never see a policeman. They're nowhere to be seen when all the scumbags are selling drugs."

The journalists' attention was focussed on Oxford Circus, but there were other groups around. One of those was a crowd of a thousand with the samba band who nearly got into Oxford Street through Holles Street (by John Lewis). They were viciously beaten back by police in full riot gear, backed up by mounted police resulting in many protestors getting knocked unconscious. This was described by the Telegraph as "large numbers of brick throwing protestors trying to get into Oxford Street" Large number of protestors, very few bricks. But despite the press always looking for a good story they all failed to mention that protestors did in fact breach police lines at Holles Street, rather than being let out, and it was surprising that they never mentioned the fact that the Wombles did also break through police lines - given the attention the group received in the pre-Mayday buildup.

But in Oxford Circus the protestors were trapped for over six hours including two German tourists who missed their flights home "even though they showed them their passports and airline tickets" and some office workers who had popped out for lunch. If anyone acted provocatively it was the police. The press all seemed to agree the violence occurred after the police had cordoned everyone in Oxford Circus.

It seems that the police tactics backfired on them when civil liberties groups criticised the police's tactics, and more stories of bystanders being caught in the Oxford Street kettle emerged. The Observer reported that journalists were not allowed to leave cordons and the police "ushered the media away from witnessing the main confrontation with demonstrators outside the John Lewis store in Oxford Street." Once again we have the police stage managing a "riot".

However the Daily Mail remained true to form and totally backed the police and criticised solicitors who advised Mayday protestors as "legal vultures". Yet all the solicitors did was to act professionally and give advice - "Shock-Horror! Solicitor does their job and advises someone of their rights."

Later it emerged that Anna Carteret, more well known as TV cop Juliet Bravo, was caught in Oxford Circus, interviewed in the Guardian she said "We were protesting peacefully, which is every citizen's right, and always has been. Until, suddenly, this country became a police state." But she said she wasn't intimidated "People mustn't feel threatened if they want to speak or protest about something they care about". Another person trapped was Susan Irvine, fashion and beauty writer for the Sunday Telegraph who said she saw very little violence and most of it was borne of frustration. When she asked if she could leave a policeman told her "No. That'll teach you to come to things like this."

All the media hype however did mean that anti-capitalism as a concept got some coverage, even if a lot of it was described in terms such as "anti-capitalism bile", but then what do you expect from the likes of the Daily Mail. Anti-capitalists have to learn to live with the capitalist press, they inform the vast majority of the population, but are fighting against comments like this in the Times "The poorest are not victims of predatory capital but the lack of access to it." With such a large difference of opinion we need our own voice.