The Unquiet American

Article published on April 10, 2009
Article published on April 10, 2009
Article and photos by Alexandra Cacciatore 2nd April 2009 It’s time for me to come clean in two ways. First, I have never been to a protest. For the past week and half, the media in London has been rabidly spinning the G20 summit.
The casual observer might have noticed that the local press seemed to be giving more coverage to the protests and supposed violence surrounding the summit than to the actual events and issues. It’s only the leaders of the top twenty economies getting together to talk about why the world is falling to pieces, yet the media swirled itself around a few sound bites about “bankers being strung up”. Pssst, I think it was meant metaphorically.

Second confession: I am an American and as such, am used to a slightly fear mongering media. Fox News, anyone? Perhaps, my second confession also explains the first. In his documentary that looks at the American healthcare system/ fiasco, Michael Moore suggests that the reason Americans are less inclined to protest or strike has to do with the fact that we have fewer social safety nets to fall back upon. If an American’s participation in public demonstration were to result in no longer having a job, that individual would suffer heavy financial consequences such as the loss of their job-sponsored healthcare. In case you Euros didn’t know, nearly half of all bankruptcies in the US are the direct or indirect result of medical costs. Compound that with the fact the average household has $12,000 of credit card debt (not mortgage or education related, just credit cards) and you can why Joe American might be stars and stripes terrified of protesting their own government, let alone capitalism.

So as an American, I’ve always been curious about protests in the non-U.S. context. I mean, it’s the un-official French national pastime, right? Yesterday, I sought to remedy the situation by going to the G20 Meltdown in banking district of London. I checked, grabbed a camera and was on my way. Now, the media had been advising that people who worked in the square mile should not wear suits lest they are identified as “bankers” and become the targets of an angry mob. Trying to get the real protest experience, I made sure to wear my suit (I put a slip of paper with my name and parents address in the breast pocket in case someone needed to identify my lifeless body later on). The main website stated that the protest had three goals: 1) to participate in a carnival party in front of the Bank of England, 2) to support all events demonstrating against the G20 and 3) overthrow capitalism. I also put a granola bar in my pocket, as it might turn out to be a long afternoon.

Four separate marches, aptly named “The Four Horsemen”, were set to converge in front of the Bank of England at noon in what was supposedly a carnival. Each march represented some different grievance like anti- global warming, anti- crappy global financial regulation, anti- war or anti-homelessness. These are a bunch of issues I am very anti, so I figured I’d just meet everyone in the middle.

City cop looks down on crowd Unfortunately, when I arrived, the police wouldn’t let me in. The London police, decked out in bright yellow jackets, had effectively quartered off the area and refused to let anyone in or out. No journalists, no protesters, no winsome Americans. In fact, I had never seen so many police in my entire life. We could hear the drums of the protest not 30 feet away, and yet there stood the impassive police (the po-po, as some Americans call them). Having never had any problems with the police, I now found myself more annoyed with them than anything else. A nice little ditty by NWA flickered through my head. I tried to convince one of them I was a banker. Not a good idea. After about 30 minutes, we were finally let in only to encounter yet another line of yellow jacketed police. It looked like such a fun protest in there with at least 4,000 people! I decided to try to get in another from another direction.

As I walked, I thought about how many police had shown up. In the wake of the famous 1999 Seattle WTO protests that took the city (and the media) by surprise, numerous sociologists and communications experts wrote about the transformative effects of the Internet on the organization of large groups of protesters. The basic idea is that prior to that period, it had been difficult to get smaller liberal causes together for one big project. There are many reasons getting liberals together is like herding cats. Unlike political parties, smaller cause based groups like anti-war groups, climate change groups, human rights groups or anti-poverty organizations don’t have much in the way of central governance. Lots of the people in the US and Europe who run them, do so in their own time. I mean, who has ever heard of an Anarchist’s head office? Even if you had one, who would check in? With big aid organizations like say Amnesty or Oxfam, their members might protest, but the organization itself has to be careful what they put their name on. With the internet revolution, however, it’s become unbelievably easy to mobilize smaller causes, splinter groups or simply interested unaffiliated individuals and keep them and their email lists in the organizational loop for massive demonstrations. The effect of the Internet has changed not only the way protests are run, but also their scope and achievement. Most people had never even heard of “anti-globalization” until the WTO protests. The simultaneous world-wide demonstrations against the Iraq War would have been impossible without using the internet and mobile phones as organizational tools. This weeks protests by Tamils over violence in Sri Lanki was organized via social networking sites and texts. If anything, being affiliated with a cause these days means that you’re also a member of virtual community. Trippy.

While technology has offered protesters an invaluable tool, it brings a unfortunate level of transparency to their actions. Hence, all of the po-po and the media frenzy about social unrest this week. We’re all reading the same websites.

As I cut around to Threadneedle Street, I popped into a Starbucks to use their toilet. Every surface of the Starbucks was covered with cameras and laptops with serious minded people working furiously. I realized that most of these people were journalists, both professional and citizen, who were live blogging the protests. In the age of iPhones, Twitter and expanding 3G networks, there is yet another level of transparency. The events of the afternoon were being disseminated to the world as they happened. That which allows the police to know the protesters plans also allows networks upon networks of people at home, in every country to know what the British po-po are doing. Considering that the government decided to turn off a bunch off their CCTV cameras, its comforting to know that someone is watching the detectives.

Finally, I was able to get in on Threadneedle. Pushing through the crowd, I found myself squished against the RBS window which would be smashed several hours later. I pushed myself further through, past some police vans towards the chanting. I didn’t notice this at the time, but a line of police in riot gear was forming behind me. I think the anarchists were in front holding effigies of what looked like people in suits. They were trying to move down Threadneedle, as a scraggly line of police tried to hold them back. I noticed a few bottles flying through the air, and what looked like smoke going up in weird places. Something sulfuric began to irritate my eyes. Suddenly, the scraggly line of police fell back and the crowd cheered. “Yes!” I thought. “It’s only taken me an hour. Finally I will understand!”. Then I turned around and realized I was now in the middle of the street stuck between the anarchists and a huge line of police with helmets and plastic shields. And I was wearing my favorite suit.

Like, I said before, I have never had anything against the police. However, I suddenly remembered how my mother, a city attorney back in the States warned me never to marry a policeman. She often had to defend them in court.

A policeman with a baton pulled me and another girl back. The other girl started losing it and screaming, “My boyfriend is in there! I have to get him!” and then the policeman shoved her backwards. She regained her balance and kept yelling about her boyfriend. Out of nowhere, a crowd of people came rushing down the sidewalk trying to get out of the way. Somehow my face ended up pressed against a lamppost. I managed to get further down the street into a clearing and was standing next to a big, bald policeman who was bleeding from his shiny head. He didn’t even see me. I watched for a while and realized that the police far outnumbered the protesters and every minute of it was being recorded on mobiles and digital cameras. “Good” I thought. “I bet that will come in handy”.

Police vans On April 2, the day after the protest, the Internet was awash with stories. On, a young liberally inclined news website, one commenter proudly talked about how she waved ten pound notes at the protesters from the widow of her office. Another commentary passionately went off on global conspiracy theories. Comment sections were peppered with viewer photos, videos and links to other articles that can send you in a myriad of directions. On the non-commentary side, The Guardian ran a story that clearly came down on the side of the protestors, saying that the police had over reacted by not letting anyone in or out of the area for hours and hours. Some protesters were penned into the area for nearly seven hours with no food or bathrooms. Cutting off crowds from one another is a tactic that police use to try to break up really big marches, but just penning them in seems like a demonstration of power rather than an action with a point.

Apparently, one man died in the throng, collapsing from was reported in a press release from the police as heart failure. However, over the weekend, witnesses came forward claiming to have seen the man brutalized by the police. The Independent Police Complaint Commission is reviewing witness statements and CCTV footage before launching a full investigation. More recently, video has been released of the man being assaulted by the police. The video came from a fund manager from New York who just happened to have a camera. Transparency, technology and the blogosphere can out muscle the po-po when it counts. The incident did however, allow for the media to refer to the protests as “deadly” for a few days.

Over the weekend, I talked to a few people who had also been to the protests. Many echoed my sentiment that there seemed to be an unusual amount of media there. Someone who had been inside the main area said that the media were trying to goad the protestors to be more violent. If you look at the footage of the RBS window being smashed, it is slightly suspect how many angles it was filmed from and how many professional video cameras can be seen in the background of any shot.

However, what did this little American learn from her first protest? Lesson one: Do not wear a suit. It didn’t make me a victim of violence, so much as a fashion victim. Looking at the people around me, I realized it is more appropriate to wear either a panda costume or a hooded sweatshirt to a protest. I will note that for my next protest/ carnival/ overthrow of capitalism event.

Lesson two: Only certain people are allowed to be angry together. In America, I used to go to “stop corporate media” events and I recall one where an FCC Comissioner was speaking. The audience was mainly liberals, like myself. Unlike myself, many of them felt the urge to speak and voice their opinions not only to the Commissioner and the other speakers, but to the audience as well. It was like watching people testify to their religious faith. I mean, I suppose you could testify to your belief in certain principles alone- but what would be the point? It’s a little bit like if we all went and sang our respective national anthems alone in the toilet. The action loses it’s meaning. You’re supposed to sing your national anthem in a group. Similarly, defining your beliefs in front of others or even with other people, makes those intangible principles become more “real”.

While I was watching all of these liberals speak to the FCC Commissioner and the audience, I realized that what liberals in America needed was a church of sorts. Not a religious church, but a place where people got together and sang some Bob Dylan songs and then someone talked about how Neo-Cons nearly dismantled our government and global capitalism doesn’t make all boats rise equally. Maybe this sounds strange, but I’ve been in plenty of evangelical churches in America where people go through the songs, the sermon and then people get ANGRY about abortion, gay marriage and how liberal America is out to destroy the sanctity of the family. They’re allowed to get together, get angry and re-affirm their beliefs, right?

Actually, come to thing of it, whenever I watch sessions of British Parliament on TV, all of the politicians shout, jump out of their seats, make native grunting English noises at their PM and through partisan politics re-affirm their beliefs in their respective sides- in one big, angry group. So they’re allowed to get together and get angry.

Speaking of anger, when every you check the headlines, some political leader has just gotten angry about the financial crisis. President Obama and Federal Reserve head, Ben Bernake, both claimed to be very “angry” about the AIG bonuses. So, they’re angry. Gordon Brown looks on the verge of a panic attack lately and Angela Merkel seems mightily annoyed. I’m never sure about Sarkozy because he’s always smiling angrily. So in essence, you could look at the G20 summit itself as a bunch of angry people getting together to re-affirm their beliefs- they just happen to be world leaders and their belief just happens to be global capitalism.

So your presidents and mine are allowed to get together and be angry about the financial crisis, but you and I aren’t? Perhaps the website should have suggested we all wear suits. While the stated goals of the protest were to have a party and overthrow capitalism- capitalism is an abstract concept and networked system- it’s not the window of RBS. Its not like you can murder capitalism. You’d have to be a complete moron not to realize that protests are symbolic actions- like getting together for church. That’s their purpose. Sure, I’m generalizing a bit and clearly protests can get violently out of control, become riots or lead to regime changes. But in the context of last week, they hardly constituted riots or civil unrest. If the guy in the Panda suit and the two women dancing around in mermaid outfits are the death knells of capitalism, maybe the global financial system is in worse shape than anyone thought.

While protests are about public anger, as a ritual, they can be seen as a means to reaffirm people’s belief in each other. Protests show that we are indeed a society committed to our decision to live together in cities, towns and countries. If we can be angry together, then we can get over it and find a solution together- which is ignored by the media storm surrounding the G20 protests. Personally, I get more worried about people who simmer in anger and resentment alone. In America, we have this problem with angry, isolated people who buy guns and go on killing sprees in schools. Yelling at a bank building really isn’t such a big deal in comparison. Protests are not the unraveling of social order- but a part of it. It re-cements the social contract and helps remind the G20 leaders that politics is not just their job, but our lived experience. At the moment, we are all angry and upset, but we aren’t alone and neither are they.

And so physically and intellectually, that was my first international protest and I am none the worse for wear. I hear Obama is in town. It’s rumored that if you’re an American and you hear him speak, your heart grows twice as big and doves of peace fly out of his mouth. Next project!