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The G8 in Scotland – round up

July 6, 2005

Discarded posters

With the G8 summit coming to the country, Scotland has seen a wide range of political activity this week. Edinburgh in particular has been caught up in an atmosphere of political festival reminiscent of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2001. But this is a small city of only 450 000 people, and protestors are angrier and more focused than those at the WSSD, and the tension is starting to tell.

The week started on a good note with the Make Poverty History march creating a white band of 225 000 friendly marchers around the city of Edinburgh on Saturday. There was no trouble, and police were friendly. Scottish newspapers had been making dire predictions about the anarchist terror about to be unleashed upon the capital, and looked rather foolish after the largest march in Scotland’s history went off without a hitch.

Crossing the Mound

Everyone was at the march, including religious groups, pensioners, charity organisations, NGOs, trade unionists and socialists. Many businesses closed and huge banners were erected around the city.

There were a number of South African, Zimbabwean, Lesotho and other African flags in evidence, though the vast majority of marchers were British and many were Edinburgh locals, who had taken the whole family out to make a stand against poverty in Africa. Zimbabwe was particularly in the public consciousness, as a number of Zimbabwean refugees have been on hunger strike against deportation this week.
People in general are very well informed about issues, perhaps more so than Africans themselves, and are desperate to express their solidarity with Africa.

There is some disagreement on how to go about this, and many of the more reformist groups have been able to spin the issues into talk of free trade being the answer to Africa’s problems, while others state that Africans should have the right to set their own, appropriate economic policies, as the wealthy countries did when they were still developing.

The local media has also carried a number of thoughtful and intelligent articles about African issues, and a number of powerful documentaries have been screened on TV, including one on Tuesday night on the BBC about farm murders and the struggle for land in South Africa. The bulk of media coverage, however, has been on the potential for violence and the Live 8 concerts, somewhat overshadowing the real issues.

Sunday saw a number of talks and counter conferences addressing the complexities of global issues, and a number of South African activists were billed to give talks, including Zackie Achmat of the TAC, and Trevor Ngwane of the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

Monday saw the first ever deployment of riot police on the streets of Scotland, who were brought in to quell a ‘Carnival of Full Enjoyment’ staged by anti-capitalists in clown suits. The small group of largely peaceful protestors were hemmed into Princes Street, the main street of the capital, by large numbers of riot police with batons and plastic shields. Many locals were trapped in the cordon, and did not take kindly to the aggressive behaviour of the predominantly English police. Local youths – many wearing football shirts – joined in the protests, throwing missiles at the police.

I heard a group of teenagers egging each other on to attack the police: “Ah dinnae want mah heid kecked in”, complained one, demurring.
“Ah’ll keck yer heid in mahself if ye dinnae have a go,” threatened his mate.
Many local residents and passers-by – including this reporter – were trapped by riot police for several hours and were only released after being searched, photographed and questioned.

My perspective is that police have been extremely heavy handed and have not provided any scope for legitimate protest. For all the dark pronouncements about violence and public safety that the chief constable has been making, none of the demonstrations I have witnessed – including Monday’s violence – is anywhere near as inflammatory as, for example, a march by striking municipal workers in Johannesburg. Edinburgh is a staid and conservative city, and any disruption seems to be met with a disproportionate response.

Wednesday – the day the G8 summit officially started – saw the biggest police operation in British history, with 11 000 officers mobilised from around the country. Between 3 000 and 4 000 surrounded the Perthshire village of Auchterader and the Gleneagles estate where the G8 is meeting, while the rest were deployed around central Scotland.

About 4 000 demonstrators marched on Gleneagles, while police prevented many others from reaching the site.
I joined a group of demonstrators trying to reach Gleneagles from Edinburgh. Protestors included trade unionists, church groups and young people with drums and whistles, but most were not easily identifiable as being affiliated to groups. They were ordinary citizens, who, as one man put it, felt they had the right to express their disapproval of the fact that eight men were meeting today to conspire to destroy the world.

As buses filled, police initially used intimidation to try and deter protestors, by searching and filming them. Later some busses were allowed to leave the city, but were stopped and isolated before they reached Gleneagles. The rest of the crowd of about a 1000 people was extremely angry at being denied the right to peaceful protest, and determined to have their say. They disobeyed police orders to disperse, and pushed through police lines, proceeding down Princes Street and blocking off the city for most of the day. Initially police – who were seriously outnumbered, as most of their colleagues were at Gleneagles – looked extremely nervous. But the crowd was generally good-natured, at one point breaking into song and singing Travis’ “why does it always rain on me?” as the Scottish skies opened, bringing smiles to the faces of the police.

At one point, the march organisers were invited to negotiate with police, but were promptly arrested under anti-terror legislation. Despite this, and lies and provocation from the police, the crowd was determined not to let violence mar the protest.

As a Black woman from London put it, “I didn’t come all the way here to knock over police vans, I could have stayed in Brixton if I wanted to do that.”
After a police baton charge that chased protestors down the famous Royal Mile, protestors were forced out of the city centre.

As an African, the level of concern that people show for our continent is deeply moving, as is the fact that many are willing to hear African solutions. While I don’t think we can expect much from the G8 summit itself, I think we can expect solidarity from the people of Europe, who have been truly inspiring in their commitment to help Africa to solve its problems.

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