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The G20 marches - a pointless protest against everything, or the dawn of a new collective action?

Sylvia Rowley and Rachel Rickard Straus

2nd April, 2009

Protests. A political free-for-all or a new collective activism around social and environmental problems? Sylvia Rowley and Rachel Straus find out.

Jobs not bombs, a free Palestine, low carbon growth…and job security for the Institute of Chartered Psychiatrists. These are just some of the demands made by G20 protesters this week.

Last Saturday [28 March], 35,000 people marched through central London in the first of a series of protests urging leaders to 'Put People First’. Organisations supporting the march ranged from the Trade Union Council to Oxfam, from the WWF to Every Child, and from the STOP AIDS campaign to Stop The War.

At first this and other G20 marches taking place this week may look like an unproductive mishmash of discordant agendas - with demands ranging from carbon cuts to a communist revolution. 

There’s a risk that even if G20 leaders do decide to listen to the marchers, all they’ll hear is a blur; an undifferentiated cry of discontent amounting roughly to “you’re shit” - which won’t exactly encourage decisive policy change.  

But, while individual messages might get lost in the din, these marches could also be the seeds of a collaboration with revolutionary potential. 

For years some people in the know have tried to show that environmental, social and economic problems are intertwined. Now because of crashing banks and ecological crisis this idea is starting to gain mass appeal.

We went to talk to people at the first G20 march to see what the campaigners wanted, and what they saw as the connections between their causes.

We found people demanding sustainability, and they meant the economy as well as the environment. They were demanding green jobs. They said that underlying the problems in each of the trio of issues they had come to campaign on – jobs, justice, climate – were greed and profit.

Here are some of their comments:

'Cooperation is crucial. When people see charities like Oxfam and Action Aid working together with climate change organisations it breaks down the stereotype of green loonies trying to save the pandas. They realise ‘oh it’s about poverty.’

'My main concern is climate change – we don’t want to go back to business as it was before. We’re here to apply political pressure; we need a restructured economy bearing in mind ecological limits and social justice.'
- Alex Towler, 25, an architecture student focusing on sustainable design
 
'Everything that’s going on is related, whether big banks, foreign policy in the Middle East or climate change. We’ve been told a lie that we can’t make a difference. But for a long time trade unions have been saying you can make a difference as a collective.'
- Robin, hip hop artist from The Lazy Habits

'Greed and profit are the root of almost every issue we're campaigning on. When everything was going smoothly people didn’t stop to think where the power is – globally, but also here – there is too much power in unregulated organisations.  

'All the trade unions are here. Their people are being screwed over. As soon as things start to bite here and it’s in their faces people take notice. But I’m worried that this action is too little, too late - especially for people in developing countries.'
- John Stevens, 22, ex- president of People and Planet at Cardiff University last year

Holding a banner which reads 'Jobs not Bombs', George Sullivan from Stop the War,  says: 

'From war in Iraq to child poverty in Africa, it's all interlinked. We went to war in Iraq for oil, oil is the cause of climate change, and climate change will affect the poorest people the worst.

'The overriding message [to political leaders] is they should resign because they’ve failed. Economically and politically they’re bankrupt and they should allow the new generation to take control and build a better society - to put people first.

'Most people here in London have family outside the UK. When they start reporting that there’s no food in their country, there’s no this, there’s no that, Londoners will be on the streets.'

Holding a placard saying, 'Low Carbon Growth - I'm Lovin It', Mary Whittaker, a 26-year old charity worker explains:  

'We're here because we want the G20 leaders to listen and put the interests of everyone in the world before those of the few. This is a crisis but it’s also an opportunity.'

Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, says:

'Let's see all the ideas and all of the different policies being put forward by people here. I think that through mobilisations like this, together with the anti-war movement and Peoples' Charter [a petition launched last month], we will see the beginnings of a broad democratic peoples' alliance against big business policies, and against war, for the future of the planet.'

These alliances are not without their tensions. What happens to a coalition between trade unions and environmental groups when the latter go from arguing for green to jobs to arguing against brown, polluting jobs?

We need a clearer idea of what this sustainable, low carbon and socially just society might look like. How is the economy going to work in this new society? And where are the jobs going to come from?

But if these different groups can move from chanting together to talking and working together on these issues, this could be the beginning of a revolutionary new collaboration. One that understands that neither social nor environmental goals can be fully achieved without the other.

Sylvia Rowley and Rachel Rickard Straus are freelance journalists

 

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