Yesterday there was a demonstration in Central London against the NHS bill. You may not have heard about this, because the media completely failed to report it.
It started as several hundred people attending a rally outside the Department of Health. Statically they stood there, listening to speeches with an air of Waiting For Something To Happen. The rally had not been well-publicised, but those who attended were the ones who felt like something–anything–had to happen, that we could not let this bill pass without event.
Finally, something did happen. A man cycled into the middle of the road, with a colourful trailer attached to his bicycle. He shouted something into a megaphone. Maybe he called for the demonstrators to join him in the middle of Whitehall, or maybe he said something else. I don’t know. Nonetheless, they joined hands and formed a chain across Whitehall then sat down on the ground. We chanted vigorously against privatisation and of our love for the NHS.
Fittingly, we were sat in the shadow of the Cenotaph. Recall that the NHS was set up following the Second World War: it is itself a war memorial. Unlike the Cenotaph, it serves a function, helping us up when we are harmed, when we are sick, when we are dying. In blocking the road, we had moved from a static commemoration like the Cenotaph, to an active action like the NHS.
At this point, the media was there. I know this because I sat on the ground cross-legged with a news camera pointed up my skirt, painfully aware that in my rush to leave the house that morning I had forgotten to wear knickers. Photographers swarmed and flashbulbs clicked. I’d thought that perhaps this would mean we would get reported.
It started to rain, and the mood changed again. Someone on a megaphone proposed that we pay a visit to Virgin Healthcare, a private company who had been instrumental in drafting the bill with a clear conflict of interest. People sprung up and proceeded to march down the now-empty Whitehall. Suddenly, on the horizon, the powder-blue hats of an advancing TSG line became visible. Adrenaline kicked in, the urge to run at a particular shade of blue following so many bad experiences with that lot of thugs. I ran like crazy. So did many others. Behind us, the line closed in, kettling the rest of the demo. Those at the front waited, unsure of what to do next: to continue or wait for the rest.
It turned out that decision was unnecessary. The kettled crowd–most of them first-time protesters, young and old, all out for the NHS–surged through the line, having successfully broken the kettle. I was pleased; that first broken kettle is one of the most empowering things possible. Down Whitehall they ran, trying to outfox the police.
When the group reached Trafalgar Square, there was some initial confusion. I’d had no idea where we were going, and neither did most others. In the confusion, many milled around in the road or by the square.
It was then that police with machine guns tried to break us up. A red police car drove at the crowd, trying to clear the protesters from the road. A young woman sat down in front of the car, and the officers got out. With their guns. Armed police on the streets of London, all because a woman had sat down and some people were outraged by the corrupt government and businesses who were gutting our welfare state. Protesters scarpered, but did not disperse. Instead they ran down the Strand.
There, more TSG turned up and again tried to kettle. It seemed that nobody knew exactly where Virgin Healthcare was. We found out because the TSG swarmed in front of some gates, effectively shutting it down. Kettle broken, we marched on.
We ran through London, to cheers from the public. Everyone loves the NHS. We chanted, we made noise, we were visible.
I left the demonstration as they turned up Chancery Lane with yet more TSG dogging them. It looked like an unavoidable kettle and the numbers were too small. I understand they got kettled again, threatened with mass arrest and were only allowed to leave following a humiliating data-gathering exercise where they were coerced into giving names and being searched.
The day was pretty eventful, all things considered, and the media were there. So why was it completely unreported?
Several reasons spring to mind. Most cynically, there are a lot of groups with a vested interest in this bill passing without much resistance. It is entirely possible, given the labyrinthine complexity of corporations, that much of the media wins something from the creeping privatisation of the NHS.
This demo also failed to fit with current narratives of dissent. At the moment, everything is all about Occupy: large numbers of people statically camping and waiting for something to happen, asking as nicely as possible. Yesterday was the opposite: yesterday was a small number of people moving and disrupting. We also didn’t break anything. The demo was completely non-violent, and there was no property damage. There was no “MINDLESS THUGS” aspect to hang a story off. It didn’t fit at all with how the stories surrounding protest go.
It is a crying shame that this last stand will go unreported, and I tell this story as I feel it needs to be told. These actions will likely be futile, as there is so much at stake for the state and the corporations. We just refused to go out with a whimper.