Shoppers stood in amazement when demonstrators entered the shop accompanied by the Rhythms of Resistance samba band. With the crack of drums echoing around the building, activists unfurled a huge banner spanning the checkouts saying ‘All we have to lose is our chainstores.’
According to Fermin Fernandez, one of the Precarity Network organisers, ‘the reaction of the workers and customers was good, and they enjoyed the samba band. The fact that it was in Hackney, one of London’s most deprived areas, meant that people were responsive to our message. We were saying that people in precarious situations need to be responsible for changing their own situation through action.’
The Community Support Officers on the scene were initially powerless to act, but reinforcements soon arrived and the demonstrators were surrounded, removed from the store and, after two hours, escorted to London Fields, amid accusations of heavy-handed policing. Nine people were arrested. A statement from the Metropolitan Police claimed they had ‘thwarted’ the protest.
This was the first UK May Day event to be organised as a ‘flash mob’ demonstration. Details were announced by text to protesters’ mobile phones an hour before the event, in order to avoid the meticulously planned police operations of previous May Days. In the run up to this year’s action, 750 mobile numbers had been collected by the Precarity Network, but on the morning of 1 May the SMS email account to be used to distribute the information was mysteriously frozen. Nevertheless, activists managed to contact over 500 people.
Tesco was specifically targeted as a symbol of ‘precarity’ at work. Activists accuse the company of exploitative working practices, including paying new employees less than the minimum wage, cutting Sunday pay and ending sick pay. They point to reports of Tesco using immigrant labour under gangmasters to pack its food, and of appalling conditions on Tesco-accredited farms in South Africa. In April Tesco became the first UK retailer to announce profits of over £2 billion. It is thought that the chain takes one in every eight pounds spent in Britain’s shops.
The Hackney action marks a significant change of tactics for the anti-capitalist movement. Previous demonstrations have involved set-piece events in the commercial centre of London. According to activist Bob Black, ‘This action wasn’t about smashing up Tesco and leaving broken glass behind us. There has been a valid critique of the anti-capitalist movement, saying that just smashing-up McDonalds won’t challenge capitalism. We were attacking Tesco from a different angle. To stop this company we look for the issues that unite the workers and the activists, and it comes together around working conditions. This is a progressive development.’
Although the new approach may have attracted less media coverage, Black believes it was a success: ‘There is a perception that the only purpose of May Day is to get in the press. But it’s really about communicating issues. A week after May Day we went back to Hackney and handed out leaflets. We had conversations with workers and shoppers and explained our actions. We showed that we weren’t just an anarchist mob that had come to attack Tesco.’Bob Black and Fermin Fernandez are aliases used to protect the speakers’ identities
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Join us on Friday 27 November from 5pm as we talk to Momentum NCG members Sonali Bhattacharyya and Deborah Hermanns about what's next for the left
Sam Stroud looks back at the UK’s first ever LGBTQ+ demonstration and explains its significance for liberation struggles today
Gargi Bhattacharyya reflects on the state of UK universities a decade on from the student uprisings in 2010
Max O’Donnell-Savage explains how university support staff are forced to risk their lives – while ensuring campuses are 'Covid-19 secure' for students
As Trump continues to contest the validity of the US election, it’s time we look deeper at the causes of our post-truth malaise, argues Marcus Gilroy-Ware
Despite its outlandish reputation, A M Gittlitz's analysis of Posadism shows there is value in occasionally indulging in fanciful thinking, writes Dawn Foster.