I wrote this last week and sent it to the Independent as a right to reply piece. I got no answer. Of course, since I wrote it, the Project Griffin “report anarchists to the police” stuff has come out – more on that later.
They’re starting early, last Sunday saw the first scare piece about anarchists and the Olympics in the Independent on Sunday. Apparently, we’re planning to disrupt it. I say we, but actually, the piece named only one group of “anarchists” and it was UK Uncut – which isn’t actually an anarchist organisation. UK Uncut may be organised on a radical decentralised voluntary co-operation model, which sounds fairly anarchic, but its aims are simply to use direct action to highlight the hypocrisy in the system, particularly the tax evasion and avoidance of large companies while cuts are made to services. UK Uncut attracts a wide spectrum of people, some anarchists, but also people from a range of other perspectives.
The article correctly identifies reasons that anarchists, and anyone with any sense of social justice, might be unhappy with the way the Olympics have been organised. The orgy of private capital involved in these games is obscene – yet the article fails to mention two of the most egregious – McDonalds and Coke: “Faster, higher, stronger – do you want fries with that?”
Then, of course, there’s the links to blacklisting and the sweatshop conditions endured by sportswear workers. Lots of reasons to protest about the way the Olympics are being staged in London – but that does not equate to any kind of wish to disrupt the games themselves. Anyway, it looks like London’s transport system will do that anyway – Boris’ confidence everything will be perfect is somewhat less than reassuring.
Much like the royal wedding and the non-existent plans to disrupt that, most anarchists will regard the Olympics as a sideshow. The problem with society is not too many people involved in elite sports and the target is not sports-persons or fans. However, scare stories like the Independent on Sunday piece have a role in providing advance justification for the police to violate people’s rights – as they did for the royal wedding.
There is an even more important reason why anarchists won’t be bothering with the Olympics. From April to July 2012, around the same time as the games are happening, we’ve got a hugely important part of our own history to remember. One hundred years ago, anarchism played a part in something that changed British history.
1912 was probably the high-point of anarchist influence in London and it was the middle of the Great Unrest period of radical syndicalist trade unionism. In East London, there had been a lot of tensions between two communities – the Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the textile sweatshops of Whitechapel and the community on the docks, of whom Irish immigrants or the children of immigrants made up a large proportion. Anti-Semitism and religious sectarianism was a common element of life in East London.
However, that changed in 1912. After years of trade union organising, initiated by the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker and others, the tailors went out on strike in April. Other textile workers went out as well, men and women, 13,000 in all were on strike. Within three weeks, they’d won and they all but ended the sweatshop system in England.
London’s dock workers went out on strike around the same time. They weren’t as successful and faced a long drawn out strike that ultimately ended in defeat. However, what changed the East End was the solidarity the Jewish strikers showed. When the two strikes were on, joint meetings were organised, and once the tailors strike was won, Jewish families took the children of the starving dockers’ families into their care until the strike was over.
Rudolf Rocker, in his autobiography The London Years, describes how “[i]t did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.” Twenty-four years later, this relationship was at the core of the anti-fascist mobilisation in Cable Street that prevented the British Union of Fascists marching through the predominantly Jewish area. Historian Prof Bill Fishman, who was there, said “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.”
In the summer of 2012, when the great and the good are watching the sport, I hope to be working with trade unionists, fellow anarchists and representatives of the communities of the East End – past and present – to organise a series of events to commemorate the 1912 strikes. For me, it will be a chance to remind people that anarchism is not about broken windows or fighting with the police, but is a movement dedicated to bringing people together to fight for a world based on liberty, equality and real justice.