From New Age to New Rage
Here’s my first piece of speculative fiction for this project. It’s written in the style of a newspaper weekend magazine article and is set in June 2012, when events that started in 2011 have recurred in a more amplified, extreme manner. I think the scenario is actually quite likely, although I don’t advocate the killing of bankers… What I did want to illustrate is how non-violent ideological movements such as Occupy could combine with other extreme expressions of dissent, to rapidly become a powerful revolutionary force; once mass rioting is directed by an agenda then anything can happen.
David Walton is an authority on the 2012 phenomenon, and an advocate of what he calls ‘the ecstatic doorway to consciousness evolution’. This is the point at which, on 21st December 2012, he believes humankind will undergo a significant and positive step-change in its evolution. He sits in front of my laptop, quietly sipping tea in a west London coffee shop, whilst I replay footage from last month’s global Mayday riots – scenes we are all now familiar with, but which still burn with an incandescent brutality.
‘Sure, this makes for uncomfortable viewing’ says Walton, somewhat dismissively in his laconic Californian drawl. ‘But what we’re seeing are the birthing pains of a new consciousness. We are literally in the middle of a revolution – between the old order and the new; an old, unsustainable and selfish view of our humanity and a new, substantially enlightened model.’
I tell him I don’t understand how death and destruction on the streets of the world’s cities in any way provides evidence of human evolution.
He looks at me blankly. ‘All of this is because of capitalism, right? So under the aegis of capitalism, we were engaged in constant, furious competition with each other. It was exploitative and destructive. But that era is passing. Evolution of the human species is now manifesting as higher cortical phenomena; in a Jungian capacity, we collectively, unconsciously understand that revolution is necessary in order to move forward.’
I admit that I don’t fully understand what he’s talking about.
He smiles benignly. ‘Come along to one of my lecture tour sessions and it’ll become clear. But look at it this way –‘ he nods towards the laptop screen – ‘what you’re seeing here is both revolution and revelation.’
It is now June 2012, just a matter of days before the summer solstice. The six months thereafter will lead us to December 21st, the winter solstice. On this date, according to evangelists of 2012ology like David Walton, the Mayan calendar cycle of 5,000 years comes to an end, signaling a period of either great cataclysm or great transformation. Yet while these claims have been repeatedly dismissed as scare mongering and the worst kind of New Age hokum, millions still believe the predictions and prophesies. Why do so many of us seem to crave Armageddon? Perhaps it’s not that we crave it, but we fear that it is actually imminent; one does not have to look far to believe that events in the real world are rapidly acquiring an eschatological complexion.
Already this year, two major flashpoints suggest that the forthcoming months could lead to catastrophe. Iran’s blockade of the Strait of Hormuz has, according to observers, ‘put the likelihood of an all-out Middle Eastern war by autumn at 80%.’ Secondly, Kim Jong Un is establishing his new-found supreme authority by conducting the largest-ever North Korean naval exercise around the disputed territory of Yeonpyeong Island. More worryingly, US sources claim North Korean troops are also massing on the border with its southern neighbour.
Yet both of these events are dwarfed by the scale of the grassroots uprising that has engulfed much of the world these past few weeks. In addition to the anti-government protests of 2011, the world has since witnessed the African Spring, the Russian Spring and the beginnings of a China Spring – and all have met with violent suppression. But the most violent crucible of civil unrest has most definitely been Europe and, in particular, the UK.
Erika Barton was an enthusiastic activist in the Occupy movement, part of the original City of London occupation and witness to the terrible events of early May. ‘The way I see it, Occupy was hijacked. Anarchists, so-called revolutionaries, bored kids, gangs – I still don’t know who was behind it. But the murders went completely against Occupy’s original principles.’ She is of course referring to the systematic beatings, and subsequent deaths, of City of London workers during last month’s protests. The response from the Metropolitan Police was to use rubber bullets for the first time in mainland Britain, thereby provoking a firestorm of rioting across most major UK cities, in which over 50 police and 200 protestors were killed. Weeks later, away from the chaos of it all at her parent’s home, she is still clearly traumatised by the incident. ‘I was there when the bankers were dragged from their offices. There was nothing I could do. But I watched them get beaten. Even at the time I could barely believe what I was seeing, and the terrible memories will stay with me forever.’
In retrospect, it was a disaster waiting to happen – a conflation of provocative events that, according to critics of the police’s planning strategy, could have been prevented. It began on Sunday May 6th when one of the largest demonstrations against the government’s austerity measures converged on Westminster: public sector workers, unions, unemployed and vulnerable members of society, students, fuel price protestors and anyone else who had a beef with the Coalition government, all marched in a largely good-natured and well-policed affair; this was, after all, a three million strong protest (the largest ever recorded) that represented every section of British society. But amongst the sea of banners and placards were more sinister totems: effigies of bankers tied to gallows, and messages reading ‘we’re coming for you.’ While the column snaked from Trafalgar Square towards Whitehall, further east another unofficial protest convened: at around midday, militant so-called ‘black bloc’ agitators peeled away from the main march and, joining forces with the Occupy site outside St Pauls, advanced on London’s banking district.
‘It was well organised’ says Barton. ‘They were using the main anti-government protest as a smokescreen. God knows how they managed to get across the city, but they did. We couldn’t believe it when they arrived – thousands of them, pretty fired up, mainly masked. I asked one of them what was going on and he said “come on, we’re gonna take out the banks. You can’t occupy unless you’ve invaded. That’s what we’re gonna do – invade!”’
Barton claims many of the Occupy activists stayed put, but she confesses to being carried along by a wave of fervour. ‘I admit I kind of agreed with them. Sitting outside St Paul’s in a tent, you could only achieve so much. I’d always believed some kind of direct action was going to be needed. But what happened next went much, much too far.’
The majority of the Met’s forces were deployed around the main protest, which meant the estimated 6,000-strong splinter protest had almost total free reign. ‘There were no police around, at least not at first’ continues Barton. ‘Even when the police helicopters spotted us, there wasn’t much they could do, and we knew it. Everyone was chanting “we are the 99%”, running down Cornhill towards the banks’ headquarters. Then we split up – some targeted the Lloyds Building, others Barclays.’
Aerial and CCTV footage showed high levels of organisation – some protestors were armed with bolt cutters and crowbars, methodically testing entrances for weaknesses. In all, three buildings were breached. Initially at least, this looked like something more co-ordinated than mob rule. Despite it being a Sunday, some staff were inside the buildings and, in the case of Lloyds, this included a group of senior directors attending a weekend briefing.
‘The security staff ran off as soon as we got in,’ says Barton. ‘And at first it was all about just making a mess – spraying slogans, letting off fire extinguishers, smashing stuff up. But quite a few of the more hardcore fraternity jumped in lifts or climbed the stairs, looking for bank workers. When they got a few floors up and stumbled across this meeting room full of directors, you could hear the cheers right down the atrium.’
What happened next was what police later called ‘a sickening, sustained and brutal attack on ten senior Lloyds staff.’ Security camera footage showed protestors smashing glass partitions, throwing chairs over balconies and dragging bankers out of their meeting room and into lifts. Once in the lobby, they rained kicks and punches onto the terrified staff; some were dragged into the street and, in one case, even hoisted up a lamppost as part of an impromptu and – luckily – unsuccessful lynching. Four Lloyds directors lay dead and six were seriously injured.
As Metropolitan Police commanders became increasingly aware of the gravity of the situation in the Square Mile, the mood amongst protestors and police along the route of the main march grew prickly. Four weeks on there is still no consensus on how and why the situation escalated, but the most likely explanation is that police on the ground switched to more robust tactics in light of the chaos further east. The protestors responded in kind and, in the heat of a hot May afternoon, both sides rapidly upped the ante. Eyewitnesses claim the first casualty was a middle-aged woman who attempted to push through the cordon of police lining Whitehall to find a toilet. She was shoved back, fell to the ground and knocked unconscious. Elements of the march then surged forward to remonstrate with the police and were met with baton blows and pepper spray. At this point, ‘opportunist anarchists’, as the Met’s Chief Inspector later called them, broke through the police line and made a bid for Downing Street, Fearful of losing control, the mounted branch charged and a number of protestors were trampled, two of whom later died. Thereafter the march descended into chaos. Protestors surged east to witness the carnage in the financial district for themselves; police kettling tactics failed and, in the panic, their ‘muscular responses’ became indiscriminate; images of the public – families, mothers, pensioners – bloodied from police assaults, will not be forgotten for many years.
The Met’s tactics were about to become harsher still. CO19 armed response units were deployed to the Square Mile, along with teams from the Territorial Support Group escorted in armoured Jankel trucks. By 2pm a new precedent had been set for law enforcement tactics in mainland Britain: plastic bullets had been used against civilian targets – an approach later defended by CO19’s Chief Superintendent, who claimed that ‘given the extraordinary circumstances, and the gravity of the situation, such measures were entirely justified.’
‘It was carnage’ says Barton. ‘The police used tear gas and we couldn’t see a thing. But they knew where we were and just fired into us. All I could hear were screams.’
Although the Prime Minister gave the Met his full support, the rest of Britain disagreed. Special news bulletins broadcast live footage of dead and wounded civilians into the nation’s lounges and, the same evening, Britain took to the streets in numbers that dwarfed the riots of 2011. But this time, the rioters were just as likely to be teachers or council workers as young hoodlums and, rather than attack their own communities, the rage was focused on banks and big business.
Britain burned overnight and then burned again the next day: Mayday bank holiday. Police had already cancelled a scheduled Mayday anti-capitalist rally in Hyde Park, but thousands still descended on London. Even before the blood could be washed from the tarmac, protestors flocked to a battered financial district and twisted the knife. Throughout the day, weary police and rioters fought pitched battles in rubble-strewn streets, with black-clad activists ultimately gaining the upper hand. In an act of unprecedented vandalism, a number of city buildings were fire-bombed, including the iconic ‘gherkin’ at 30 St Mary’s Axe; images of fire and smoke engulfing its lower floors were luridly spread across next day’s newspapers.
The riots lasted a week, spread to every corner of the UK, and in later days were mirrored in similar violent scenes across Europe. What started as a peaceful demonstration against the government’s austerity plan became a hate-filled assault against Britain’s financial institutions. Yet the beating and murder of bankers is something most people would not even consider in their wildest revenge fantasies. But it happened. Why?
Erika Barton’s theory is simple: ‘Anger towards the banks. Anger, frustration and, yes, hatred. The gangs who murdered the bankers were just thugs, but they saw themselves as revolutionaries – modern-day Lenins or Robespierres. Extreme situations provoke extreme acts. The austerity plan is biting deep. Everyone is affected – millions of people are losing their jobs and homes, cannot even afford food for their family. But the banks that got us into this mess, who gambled with our livelihoods, are totally insulated from any hardship.’ Barton, who throughout our interview has been reserved, contrite even, now grows animated. ‘The British taxpayer bailed out RBS to the tune of £45bn. Based on the bank’s current value, we’ve collectively lost £30bn of that investment. That’s the same amount the government spends on housing and the environment. £30bn is £50 for every man, woman and child in the UK. While we suffer, bankers pocket tens of millions for their mismanagement – or take the banks to court if they don’t get the bonuses they expect. It’s obscene. The government does nothing, refuses to levy a Robin Hood tax. Is it really any wonder things have come to this?’
Then, interestingly, she adopts the language of 2012ologists such as David Walton: ‘what happened in London, Paris, Athens, Rome, Madrid and elsewhere is part of a wave of worldwide insurrection. There is a hunger for change, and plenty of determined people out there who refuse to accept the status quo. They won’t stop until the dominant system is overthrown and something fairer, more compassionate, is put in place.’
It is true that discontent is growing. The yawning gap between rich and poor, the groundswell of anti-government sentiment around the globe – these and other factors have galvanized public direct action to the extent that, in many cases, the population no longer fears the State. One protest feeds another and there is a sense that, together, the masses can do what they like: incite revolution, topple governments, foment change.
David Cameron was clearly shaken by the events of May and, although his televised address appealed for peace and reconciliation, and proposed a new kind of inclusive government, Whitehall insiders claim that plans are being drafted to deploy the army in the event of further confrontations. There is a bunker mentality in Westminster now; TV cameras have been removed from Parliament. The Cabinet would not have ignored the threat made by one masked protestor, leering down the lens of a Sky News camera, shouting: ‘we came for the banks and we did them in. Watch out Cameron. If you don’t pull your finger out, we’ll be coming for you next.’
So what can we expect from the next six months? Will the chaos get worse? Will civilization degenerate further into complete anarchy? Or will December 21st 2012 mark a turning point, a new dawn of tolerance and co-operation? David Walton is unequivocal: ‘as a species, I believe we will make the necessary leap. We are approaching the point of singularity, when the accelerative thrust of change occurs instantaneously and at a highly granular level. The human adventure has become the expression of this – we, by our actions, are both shaping and being shaped by events. We are both observers and participants, mutating and transforming ever more rapidly as we approach December 21st.’
When he gets up to leave, I say to him ‘I hope to see you again in 2013.’
Curiously, he doesn’t smile, or meet my gaze. ‘You betcha’ he says flatly, and then disappears out into the street.