Big Issue; 21st April 97

An unholy alliance
When the dockers' march ended in violence the police blamed Reclaim
the Streets. Strangely, the press agreed. Jane Cassidy reports

Did you hear about the huge March for Social Justice, the one where thousands of people turned out to support the sacked Liverpool dockers and had a party?


Then you must have been relying on your newspaper to report the news.

What the papers saw:
photos copyright Nick Cobbing
'rioting' made the news; the dancing (below), and the issues, were ignored.
Anyone who wasn't on the April 12 march from London's Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square could be forgiven for thinking the entire afternoon was devoted to pitched battles between police and a bunch of dreadlocked anarchists who had spoilt the poor striking dockers' day.

Scotland Yard's press office put out a statement and, it seems, the mainstream media swallowed it whole. Three 'rioters' were charged with attempted murder, they said (these charges had been dropped by the time the papers hit the stands). A bus was 'hijacked' in the fray, apparently (other witnesses claim the bus was actually boarded by petrified marchers chased by police). Most disturbing, though, were the reports of a 'rift' between dockers and Reclaim the Streets (RTS). The dockers were upset, police and press agreed, that this unruly mob had hijacked their day. This was immediately rubbished by the direct action group and the dockers themselves, who decried "irresponsible journalism". No one reported that.

So how did the March for Social Justice go down in history as a Reclaim the Streets riot? Sacked Liverpool docker Jim Davies said the march was being billed as another Poll Tax riot by press and police before he and his family even arrived in London: "What happened was an absolute disgrace. We've built up good links with Reclaim the Streets. The trade unionists may have abandoned us but RTS never have, and the dockers are disgusted with the attempt to totally undermine it."

What struck some who were actually there, rather than pounding telephones in distant newsrooms, was an absence in the press coverage of any discussion of what the march really represented.

"There was a misrepresentation of the relationship between the Liverpool dockers and RTS, along with a misrepresentation of the importance of the day as a social justice march, which included pensioners, the unemployed, the homeless, a lot of groups in society who feel they've had a raw deal," says Big Issue editor-inchief A. John Bird, who spoke on the day. "It did represent something positive and none of the media wanted to talk about that, they lazily wanted to talk about a few incidents involving the police.

"The reason I spoke," continues Bird, "is because the way forward is an alliance of groups that take responsibility for their own actions rather than leaving it to the politicians."

The dockers complain of a media blackout in their 18-month struggle for reinstatement, after 329 were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line in a dispute involving overtime. They were replaced by a casual work force.

Mainstream media disinterest stems, perhaps, from a view that the clockers' struggle is an outmoded one, a dinosaur, 'workers against bosses' fight. What has been missed is a recognition of the joint concerns bonding older trade unionists with young green activists, and the fact that their experiences affect us all.

"If this alliance is about the past it's also about the future," says Bird. "There is a widespread sense of unease about the future, the sense that there is no security, no ability to build anything firm. We're in this ever-changing world with signs of social collapse are all around. This community-based alliance counters that sense of not belonging anywhere, having no job, no community, no home."

photos copyright Nick Cobbing Many column inches have been devoted to agonising about youth voter apathy. But those who marginalise the dockers and their supporters underestimate the discontent of a generation growing up in an era in which employees" rights have been whittled away to the extent that many people live in the shadow of redundancy.

Photos: Nick Cobbing

See also :
  • Eye witness report by McSpotlight activist

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