12:44pm Thursday 7th May 2009
By Andy Chiles
There was an indisputable air of tension on Monday morning. The pressure had been ramping up for days.
Thousands of people were expected to congregate in Brighton to protest against the presence in the city of a factory owned by an arms manufacturer.
Banks and branches of McDonald’s were on high alert after protest organisers Smash EDO distributed information linking them to the factory as shareholders in its parent company.
Sussex Police, who were not informed about protesters plans for the day, deployed hundreds of its officers. They were joined by officers from neighbouring forces.
The spotlight was on the police in the wake of the events at the recent G20 protests in the City of London and the death of Ian Tomlinson after he was pushed to the ground by an officer.
There was much talk of protesters from across the country using Monday as an outpouring of anger against the police.
Those predictions were fulfilled in part.
Chants of swearing and slogan shouting, such as “Kill the bill” and “Shame on you”, were heard throughout the day and individual officers faced constant harassment from protesters seemingly intent on provoking a reaction.
Police held back for as long as possible, allowing the protesters their lighthearted seizure of the Palace Pier roundabout in the morning and their predominantly peaceful march through the city centre.
But things changed when the protesters started hurling cans and bottles at McDonald’s in London Road and police were forced to drive people away from the building.
Scuffles became more violent as the march seemed to lose its way near the Preston Park and Fiveways area - presumably they were attempting to head for the EDO factory in Home Farm Road, Moulsecoomb.
Police began using their batons to hit protesters legs, seemingly unhappy with the direction they were taking.
I witnessed dozens of occasions when police officers were being targeted, but reacted calmly, asking aggressive protesters to step back and maintaining their cool - particularly when the march seemed to disintegrate into small pockets crammed into the narrow roads around Trafalgar Street.
The unfortunate problem for Smash EDO is that the group appears riddled with contradictions.
Its primary cause is the opposition to Brighton having any involvement with the arms trade, and unnecessary deaths through war.
It is an admirable cause, which a great many residents of the city might identify with and support.
It is debatable whether the EDO-MBM/ ITT factory in Moulsecoomb, should be targeted.
The plant makes electrical components rather than any weapons, but it is owned by a major arms manufacturer and the Smash EDO campaigners consider it a legitimate target.
The trouble is their cause gets lost in their methods and the protests all too often appear to turn into an excuse for a pop at the authorities and the establishment in general.
As one member of the crowd said towards the end on Monday: “I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to lob a bottle at the cops and not get done for it.”
That kind of attitude does Smash EDO’s cause no favours, and neither does the refusal of its leaders to distance themselves from those kinds of antics.
The breakdown into general disorder at the end of Monday’s march seemed to be driven by the mob that had gathered to join in what was happening, rather than the core Smash EDO members who had generally been well-organised and purposeful.
Their red and black outfits, hoods, facemasks and helmets were notably absent in the final scenes of pointless barging, vandalism and clambering on buildings at the Palace Pier.
But those were the moments which cost the protest the most support in the city the wanton vandalism of places which have nothing to do with the arms trade.
Smash EDO’s greatest failing has been not to attempt to reign in the excesses of those who damage their cause, or at least condemn their behaviour.
Their other great contradiction is the aggressive nature of their campaign for peace.
The first part of Monday’s march, through the city centre, was essentially peaceful except for the minor vandalism of hurling red paint bombs at the Army Careers Office and high street banks.
However, several shoppers and passers-by who inadvertently found themselves in the thick of things were clearly intimidated by what was going on.
Smash EDO might not have intended to hurt members of the public, but their appearance a mass of red and blackclad people with covered faces was certainly daunting.
Smash EDO has labelled its protest their most successful yet, and there is no doubt it has significantly raised the profile of their cause.
But it has a lot to consider if it truly wants to carry the support of the people in this city.
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