2 April 2009

Divide and conquer in EC4?

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Today a day in the City like none before. I’m not a total stranger to peaceful civil protest – partly due to student days in the "manif "mecca that is Paris – but if you do engage in this form of democratic action, you’re accustomed to march around Westminster or Hyde Park. If you are one of the many that seem to have a default huffish disapproval of any form of demonstration, then put down Grazia for a second and reflect for a moment that you would still only enjoy serfdom if many others had not done it before you. To see civil protest, even civil unrest, in the City of London, the new location chosen for obvious reasons, is something else. After many years in investment management, my associations with the City couldn’t be more different. To see this hyperinstitutional place so transformed and in the minds of some at least – invaded – by democracy, the mob, had something of the surreal about it.

I head first to the Bank, one focus of protest. Relief at the lack of ambient tension my first and welcome reaction. Threadneedle Street felt like it was hosting a carnival. A heavy, alert (but cheerful) police presence dividing the street in sectors, sure, but the drumming, whistling, dancing and cheering of the protesters, the observers (and everyone in between) completely unthreatening. It felt momentarily like someone had opened a wormhole from Cornhill to Rio de Janeiro, albeit , regrettably, minus the Samba Boys. The first placard I read: Resistance is Fertile summed up the serious but smiling nature of the demonstration’s embryonic phase.

Much of the clearly identifiable strictly-observer-only attendees were actually city workers; amused or bemused but with a pronounced lack of the condescending disapproval I may have expected and maybe with just a seasoning of solidarity? Certainly analogous to the atmosphere of a trouble-free football terrace. To witness this lot in mandated casuals was actually quite amusing; just because the Essex money broker lads were in tight Abercrumble & Vadge and gleaming trainers instead of pin stripe (that they actually never wear anyway – that’s the insurance brokers), it didn’t make them any more difficult to identify. It’s not hard to understand why city firms’ management were probably advised and felt obliged to instruct their staff to dress down through reasons of duty of care. Lynch mobs were dreaded. Nevertheless I don’t think you can underestimate the profundity of this sartorial limitation. Bosses actually decreed that staff must spend the whole day in a part of town they inhabit at least 5 days a week in disguise. Prudentially precautious? Or is it just me that senses a hint of shame, a veneer of cowardice? 

One female marketing/ops (meaning given on request) -type person was nevertheless only very slightly dressed-down. She obviously finds it impossible to operate minus twin set and heels, think Joseph. At one point she seemed aghast: “Oh no, they can’t arrest Jesus!” (Jesus .. as in stop usury in the Temple Jesus… did appear under pursuit by 3 officers, but they were only using his wake in the crowd created by the crucifix for speed). But then she confidently informed me that no-one protesting would have a job and are living off her taxes. £35 a week? Hmmm. Not thought through that one. She was the most upset by her presumption of their ignorance of what the City does. If only they understood what goes on then she could respect their protest. Interesting point. But I do wonder if she herself had a good grasp of CDS-squared, for example? Did she understand the unquantifiable level of multilayered, opaque, illiquid investment in US sub-prime? Did she see through the fog and capture why these products had the same investment grade as a FTSE 100 Company? Doubt it very much: and there resides a more interesting point. Most in ‘the City’ did not grasp what sections of their institutions were up to. In some cases the management didn't 'know'. I bet no-one (except maybe 5 managers and a quarter of the board) at Lehman for example knew their Temple was about to flounder. The conclusion: the City workers, the (vast majority of the) protesters and the public in general share a much commoner interest than they realise (look what’s been agreed today). Yet they are projected as being on different sides.

Within a nanosecond the atmosphere plummeted: destination Armageddon. Some violence erupted. I cannot comment on the nature of the trigger and don’t fancy the violent thug / incendiary police debate; I did not remotely see enough to make an assessment. I only saw one very bloodied police man and then the very bloodied protester photograph on the cover of the Standard. Not that a tit for tat analysis is appropriate either. The speed of change of atmosphere was exhilarating, yet petrifying. The tone of chorus stepped down to something markedly more adversarial. The police ran in, shields, batons etc; the (non-fighting crowd) ran out the other way, a painful collection of moments of panic. The already relatively narrow Threadneedle Street now feeling like the smallest medieval City alley. Remember Cheapside next time, it’s wider. Just to calm things down someone let off a red flare, nice. Thankfully for my trachea no CS gas ensued. But for the record; the 'RBS building' into which a storming was attempted was already vacant and embellished with its For Let signs. Thanks, as ever, to Sky News for giving us a version of events totally divorced from reality.

It did calm down again. It was, as ever, a tiny, tiny minority of people involved; this was no poll tax riot. Extraordinarily, the potential average per capita loss due to the current crisis dwarfs by orders of magnitude any perceived loss to Maggie’s Poll Tax, but the Poll Tax was much easier to understand. Whoever was behind the violent escalation however, managed to assert a permanent degradation in the event. The police water-tightened cordons, very scary dogs were corralled in, the mounted police arrived in serious number. Determined but joyful(?) civil action had irretrievably descended into conflict. Movement was suppressed. The music died. The sirens and shouting of police instructions urgently incessant. There were sides to be on. Shame. Inevitable?

Being trapped in the central pen, but not being one of the few after a fight, not an enviable outcome, fortunately I was not.

Further back amongst the (still mainly city boy) ‘spectators’, how were people reacting to the paradigm shift? Some disgust, anger and disapproval at both ‘sides’, yes, but maybe a smidgen of delight at ‘a bit of action’? Sure there was. Quite a lot of it. Modern coliseum, Big Brother, small riot: wherever or whatever, quite a lot of English do love to watch a fight.

Tiring of observing the residual tension undulate down the street, I made my way to Bishopsgate to check out Climate Camp. The short transfer was unexpectedly lovely. The roads, lanes and alleys of EC4 were void of diesel fumes, substituted for a while by the milling groups of demo tourists and bathed in a lovely spring sun. Serious media hardware everywhere. It was just gorgeous to see the square mile like this. Turning from London Wall into Bishopsgate, I got all in a tizz at the thought of a second wormhole encounter in one day. Or someone had just teleported Glastonbury to the City. Tents everywhere, students basking in the sun, talks and various demonstrations of non fossil fuel energy. And a compost loo. I don’t know how the rest of the night panned out, but if there ever was a model protest, it was this one.

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