Halloween Ride Against War
An anonymous cyclist sent in this dispatch after the Burning Planet Awards ceremony and Halloween demonstration against war, both in London...
31st October 2002
Arriving at the Imperial War Museum for the Pedal for Peace was a heartbeat-quickening experience, what with the specially laid on lashings of police riot vans, motorbikes and cyclists. Did they know something we didn't about a massive turnout? The odds didn't seem that good, since the only unpolice in the park alongside the Museum were 10 or so occupants of the makeshift peace camp set up there a few weeks ago, and three or four early-bird cyclistas.
On arriving, I made my way to the Museum to use their excellent conveniences and to pass a leaflet or two to anyone who might be wondering why the place was crawling with police and barely-concealing-their-excitement security personnel. I gave one leaflet to a bewildered cashier, inviting her to pass it round her peers, since I could only imagine what tales of anarcho-peace-brutes had been spread around by the authorities. I also pressed a leaflet into the willing hands of a head of security, deep in conference with two policemen no doubt informing him of the possibility of hordes of maniacal cyclists ditching their plans for an afternoon's ride around selected dark'n'dodgy haunts of war in favour of a direct assault on their museum. He seemed grateful.
Back in the park, a few more friendly folks had turned out, including some women fresh from their brief blockade of Westminster Bridge, which had been brought to a sudden and brutal end by riot police who were obviously rearing for a scrap and managed to arrest, assault and abuse a woman who seemed to have aroused their bored random ire.
Numbers grew slowly but surely as 2pm came and went, building up to, oh, a few under one hundred maybe? Some had obeyed the Halloween dress code and sported scary masks or maybe decorated bikes (like the guy with red bike lights in the eye holes of the pumpkin he'd strapped to his frame.) Others didn't bother, which was a pity but a fact of life I suppose.
A jocular senior policeman strolled up with a couple of pals and enquired who was in charge, and where we were heading first, to spectacularly poor response.
To be honest, there had been a group working on the ride idea for 3 or more weeks, and there was a rough route already mapped out. The leaflet, which clearly listed who and where the contenders for our 'Burning Planet Awards' were, had already been sent to those contenders, as well as the media. So you'd have expected the police to be up to speed with the plan, but they still seemed pretty much in the dark until the pattern (ie. cycle to various dodgy places, make a speech and a bloody great racket, then hand over (or throw in) the award, which was actually a miniature pumpkin with a Halloween scary face carved into it), made itself clear to them after 2 or 3 visits.
Anyway, when the last stragglers and late leaflets had arrived, a small but sexy segment of the Rhythms of Resistance samba band drummed us out of the park, leaving the camp dwellers and friends to their refreshments. Banners held between two bikes read 'Pedaling for Peace' and 'Cycle Paths not Psychopaths', and at least one and a half sound systems serenaded us to our first destination: Shell Centre opposite Waterloo Station. Here a ceremonial exhortation was made on a dodgy PA to the assembled throng (made up of cyclists, one skateboarder, passers-by and police) to ignore Shell's savvy greenwash, and see that behind the caring faced there still lurks a company dedicated to global injustice and ecological mayhem, all in the name of cashmoney. Oh, and that if you were boycotting Esso, then you might as well include the whole sorry lot of them as they're pretty much all the same, it's just the PR budget that's different. Then the problem of how to deliver the Burning Planet Award. The police had passed through our request to Shell staff that one of their number was invited to be the lucky recipient, but no one had appeared through the police line from within. Lobbing it onto the roof above the door was one possibility, though the police advised against that. In the end, the only option seemed to be to roll said deeply threatening non-incendiary device between the legs of the policemen into the revolving doors behind them. This was duly done, to whoops of delight from the pedalistas; rumours that the award has been placed in a place of honour in the Shell lobby have yet to be confirmed.
Although the police obviously didn't like the uncertainty and leaderlessness of the ride, they still 'facilitated' it with very little complaint. Which was weird, because to have the road in front of a deliberately disobedient ride emptied of motorised traffic by the police can emasculate that aspect pretty successfully, even if the whole thing is being monitored by a stack of police vans and a helicopter. Also, the presence of police cyclists inside the ride was, to me, a bit like having them stroll through a temporary autonomous zone like a street party ie. an invasion, albeit a low-key one. For that reason, as well as the fact that they're likely to be 'intelligence gathering' at some level, I'd recommend not interacting with them either aggressively or chattily.
So the ride headed over the sun-spattered river and into the West End, hoarse voices calling out 'No Blood for Oil' and similar slogans to bewildered cabbies, tourists and shoppers. The main sound system greeted the Strand with a blast of Rage Against the Machine telling us all that no, they weren't going to tidy their room, but were followed by a burst of spoken word Jello Biafra (once of the Dead Kennedys), probably talking a load of sense but unfortunately coming out of the speakers sounding a bit furry. One other aspect of the ride's outreach was the leaflet which explained a bit about what we were up to, and detailed all the candidates for awards, along with their addresses and phone numbers, just in case someone felt like getting in touch to unleash a piece of their mind. We were a bit short of those sadly, but apparently the response from onlookers was pretty positive, which is a useful reminder that opposition to war against Iraq has enormous unifying potential amongst a wide swathe of British (and overseas) people. But are we doing enough to catalyse that potential? Answers on a postcard please.
From the Strand (in the excitement missing out the Armed Forces recruitment office and MoD!) we headed over to Carlton Gardens to visit UK arms giant, BAe Systems, who are currently (as of November 2002) running a despicable advertising 'Innovating for a safer world' ad campaign, and who have a huge office there next to Robin Cook's mansion. In a touching act of self deprecation, they had taken down the big company logo that usually greets visitors as they enter the building. But our advance reccy meant that we weren't foxed, and the ceremony duly took place. "I'm sorry you've got such nasty neighbours," I said to a friendly woman having a look at us on the porch of the Institute of Pathologists opposite.
Next it was a short pedal to BP's new head office in St. James' Square, where they'd already shut the huge imposing new doors by the time we arrived. None of the BP reception staff, decked out in ridiculous beige suits, greeted us either, so again we invoked the powers of resistance with whistle blows, foghorns and a rant that plugged the current campaign to prevent BP from building a 1000+ mile pipeline with US & UK government support from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey, (which a diverse coalition of groups will achieve sometime next year, I predict).
The rest of the winners were as follows: arms company GKN in Cleveland Row next the Queen Mother's old nest; Lukoil (Russia's biggest oil company, with a huge contract for Iraqi oil, situated in the heart of the British establishment's tailoring district, at 86 Jermyn Street; Lockheed Martin (the world's biggest arms company, once in Berkeley Square, though moved elsewhere when we got there, embarrassingly; and, last but not least, the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square (tel: 020 7499 9000) where we were noisier than ever (almost dislodging that big old brass eagle from its perch). The only wrong foot came when we found ourselves blocking a bus lane, so thought a short cut through the (very posh) Burlington Arcade might do the trick (or treat). But the security man walked bumptiously towards us as we started wheeling our bikes through, saying "You can't come through here - no bikes are allowed!" "Even if we push them?" we asked. "That's right it's private property." "Who owns it then?"
"Prudential," he replied. We took him at his probably inaccurate word, and took Regent Street instead. So remember: don't do your Christmas shopping in Burlington Arcade, as I'm sure you were planning to do.
Dusk was falling at our feet by that point, and it was time to amble gently towards Parliament, our final destination, to join the disobedient Halloween festivities down there, designed to wake MPs out of their stupor, or better still get rid of them and run things ourselves (in time, all in good time, I hear you mutter).
On the way there we gamboled down Park Lane, waltzed merrily around Hyde Park Corner (twice), drifted down to Victoria and from there through to Parliament Square. More bikes joined us along the way, as did a few schoolkids who thought it'd be a wheeze to see what was going on, (and receive some anti-capitalist propaganda into the bargain.) The green in the centre of the Square was jammed with people waiting to hear the usual luminaries queuing up to speak. We rode round until we found ourselves on the road directly in front of Parliament, which seemed like as good a place as any to take a break and settle down on the tarmac. But however much we implored, cajoled, asked or demanded those green-dwellers to join us, since after all "direct action could stop this war!". Very few of them took the plunge and did so. Also, the Disobedience Day occupation of Parliament had either been delayed or pre-emptively arrested, so after five minutes or so, the police horses reared up in front of us, and we were very unceremoniously shoved off the street. After that, we rode around the Square a bit longer, in fewer and fewer numbers, getting in the way of things, but the moment had passed, and it was time to join the crowd following the samba band towards Whitehall and Downing Street.
All in all it was a pretty good day we could have done with a few more banners and leaflets, not to mention cyclists, but the concept of weaving a web of complicity can really be effective in telling a dastardly untold story. All of the award recipients rely on their good PR and our ignorance as to their true activities, and many are located in the very guts of the British establishment, where making a hearty racket can prove embarrassing at least, and might even nudge some of their less messianic employees to start asking questions about what their employer is really up to in the world. After all, anything that destabilises this lot has to be a good and necessary thing, and as the leaflet said, 'We will also be requesting them to shut up shop, permanently'.