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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The day Brixton came to Clapham (and Clapham tried not to notice)

It was undeniably a moment to relish - the sight of a crowd of chanting people, placards and banners waving, approaching Clapham Common. A big demo, marching on Clapham? When did that last happen?

Well, it happpened for a few hours on Saturday afternoon,when   #standuptolambeth's "Pink Protest" took a whole bundle of Lambeth issues across the streets of the borough, all the way from Windrush Square in Brixton to the statue of Temperance on the north-east corner of the Common.

It was the day the people under threat of eviction from their homes on threatened Lambeth estates such as Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill at Crystal Palace joined forces with the "Defend the Ten anti-Library-cuts campaigners, plus representatives of small businesses kicked out of their premises in central Brixton - as well as a big group opposing the building of the Garden Bridge.

So it was a highly diverse group of about 200 people, united in spirit at least by their disgust at the way an elected Labour  council can take such an arrogant stance on so many deeply-felt issues.

As the march rounded the corner of Acre Lane and into Clapham Park Road, you could hear the chanting. "Clapham! Join Brixton! Oppose the Lambeth cuts" or stuff to that effect. The heart skipped a beat - maybe "radical Clapham" would turn out not to be just a topic for local historians?

But as the march began its final descent on what, for many, is now yuppy central, you realised that this bit of Lambeth is really much more interested in shopping at Waitrose, eating and drinking at the chi-chi caffs and posh restaurants lining the common, or pushing its designer sunglasses down and looking away. The very rich cashmere-draped types who have a disporportionate presence in this part of town do not like to be reminded that they share this patch with actual poor people.

I have no idea how many - if any -  Clapham residents joined the march. Some bystanders looked bemused, a few boozers jeered, but most (or so it seemed) did their best to ignore it.

Until, that is, the march reached one of the busiest traffic intersections in the area: the bit where the A24 splits from the A3 and also meets the Clapham Common one-way system.

At this complex junction, about half the marchers got across two roads and into the Common. Then th elights changed and the rest of the march, including the main sound system and the most vocal of the chanters, were stuck at the lights, with a couple of cops looking on.

As we waited, a couple of people sat down, and then one of the guys with a megaphone claled on everyone to sit down, and one by one people did, some sitting on the yellow box juncxtion of two of the busiest roads in Clapham.  The two or three police there made a few polite requests for people to get up and move once the lights had changed, but they didn't.
The great Clapham Common roadblock of October 2016. It lasted for all
of 15 minutes, but it didn't half annoy the local yuppies.

This changed everything. It had been a peaceful, orderly demonstration, marching an agreed route with police escort.

Now it was a different sort of protest: a refusal to move, a blockage of three busy lanes of three busy roads. The police switched from demo-escort to traffic cops, holding traffic, letting one or two through when there was the chance.

We sat and awaited instructions from the de facto leader of this impromptu protest, a youngish guy with a beard and a sound system. He handed the mic around and people started trying to explain what they were doing and why  - and why if others didn't join in, we'd only have ourselves to blame when the cuts got worse.

It was a crystal clear example of that moment when sanctioned "democratic" protest turns into a rebellion, even if only a very small one.

There must've been no more than 30 or 40 people sitting on the road junction, and the police were no longer smiling benignly at the protesters.  Within minutes huge queues of buses and cars had built up in three directions. Peak Saturday afternoon shopping traffic!

The previously cheery toots of car horns egging on the march turned into a blaring cacophony of outrage as dozens of angry drivers lost their rags. Looking at some of the smart occupants of these expsnive vehicles, you got a sense of the ire behind the designer shades: "How dare these oiks disrupt our Saturday afternoon shopping trip!"

This is more like it! Anyone with even one rebellious cell in their bodies could not help feeling that thrill of knowing you are disrupting "normal" goings on in the name of causes you believe are worth the disturbance and possible retribution. Like many other waverers, I sat down, and was offered bread and apples by the sound system crew.  And thinking, if only we had 500 here instead of 50 - then it would perhaps make a real impact. Where is social media when you need it?

But an argument was breaking out. The ones who'd started the sit-down said it was essential to stay put, and not to move until the police physically moved them out of the road. This, they said, was the only way anyone would take any notice: all the democratic routes had been tried many times and had always failed. All that was left was direct action. Disruption. Peaceful resistance. Civil disobedience.

To a great extent what he said was true: just think of all those marches and demos and public meetings and lobbyings we went to as part of the anti-library closure campaign last autumn through to April 2016, and the final sad ending of the Carnegie Library occupation.

Mind you we sat in the street outside Parliament in March 2003, but that didn't stop them voting to go to war. Maybe because not enough of us sat there, and not enough of us had the strength or courage to keep on doing it.

Lambeth Council had certainly shown itself to be an absolutely world class when it came to not listening to public opinion. It seems they took their lessons from their old leader, back in the days of "New" Labour.

The police issued an ultimatum: move or we move you. After five more minutes only the hard core of protesters remained on the road, and they kept up a very loud critique of the ones who were no longer with them.

It was a strange, difficult moment. At a crucial point a flashing blue light of an ambulance stuck on the one way system jolted people into a different sense of priority: there might be someone dying in there! We have to let them through! Of course the cops got the ambulance through with no trouble, no-one was going to stop that. But what about the buses...all those people, maybe their difficult lives were going to be made even worse by our action?

At the end of the day...there's always thiss sad moment at the end of demos in London. What do we do with all the placards?
Being good responsible Lambeth citizens, the answer of course is to recycle them, responsibly - at the next dmeo.

These are thoughts of the guilt-ridden middle-class would be activist, ever the pinko-liberal, the fence-sitting impotent one.

The remaining half or two thirds of the marchers were standing around near the paddling pool, waiting for everyone to arrive. Finally the roadblockers took a vote, and decided to move on. So although the great Clapham sit-down could not match last month's much more prolonged and effective affair in Brixton, it was noticed by a lot of people, and even made a top story on the Evening Standard website.

But for a different view of the events, check out this lovely photo-journalistic report of Saturday's demo on ourcity.london.

There were some stirring impromptu speeches to a crowd that had dwindled to a few dozen.

In the background, the church where the Clapham Sect had hatched its schemes to begin the parliamentary abolition of slavery nearly 200 years back. Around the statue, activists and hangers-on (me) discussed what could be done.

It should have been a much, much bigger affair. But the fact that it happened at all is a huge positive. If only a handful of previously unconcerned locals were made to be aware that something is wrong - no, plenty is wrong! - in the state of Lambeth, then it was  a success.

It's there, in the words: Clapham Common. Bring it all back home!

Here are a few more snaps from the demo....

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