Fueled by anger at drastic government cuts, 500,000 protesters took to the streets of London yesterday in the largest protest since the city’s 2003 march against the Iraq war.
Few parts of British life will remain untouched by the massive $130 billion in cuts to public services now being rolled out by the coalition government. Local budgets are being slashed by up to 30 percent, leading to cuts in child care, public safety, programs for retirees, and library closures — and an increasing privatization of the popular, publicly-funded National Health Services.
“Women, parents, carers, disabled people, teenagers and elderly people” are likely to be hardest hit, reported the Guardian in a study of the cuts’ devastating impact. On top of services, the job losses are expected to be enormous. Amidst the UK’s current record 17-year unemployment high, the cuts will mean a loss of 490,000 public sector jobs.
The crowd at yesterday’s protest — the major march organized by the Trades Union Congress — was as diverse as the cuts people came out to rally against. On the streets, I stood next to firefighters wearing ‘Cuts cost lives’ shirts, a ‘book block’ of 20-somethings wielding large pink cardboard books as shields, kids on parents’ shoulders, and loads of homemade signs: ‘Give me back my future,’ ‘Stop teabagging the public sector,’ and ‘Hands off — the NHS is ours’ were just a few.
UK Uncut, the distributed effort that calls attention to corporate tax avoidance by taking over stores, used the march as a jumping off point for occupations throughout London’s major shopping areas. The spin-off group US Uncut also spent the day targeting more than 40 Bank of America branches across the United States.
UK Uncut peacefully took over London’s upscale Fortnum and Mason department store, whose owners they say have dodged more than 40 million pounds in taxes. Others climbed onto the store’s second-story roof, where they strung up tape saying ‘Closed by UK Uncut’ and sprinkled glitter on the crowd. Later in the evening protesters danced in Trafalgar Square when they were surrounded by riot police, who prevented them from leaving by using the harsh ‘kettling’ technique that was introduced during this winter’s UK student protests.
While the line that played out in the media focused on a small minority of protesters throwing paint and smashing windows, the vast majority were parents, students, health care workers, and union members there to voice their anger about the cuts. The real power of the day came from its dual nature: both the smaller groups ready to take more direct action combined with the strength in the numbers and stories of ordinary people standing up to say ‘no more.’ Their half-a-million strong presence in London’s streets yesterday gave rise to the feeling amongst many that this is just the beginning of something much larger.