london -- the squatted conver-gence centre of the London anti-capitalist May Day protests is decked out in colourful graffiti, but the mood among the 100 or so activists in its warren of rooms is dark. We're 24 hours from May Day.
"I'm a bit worried about the demo, a bit scared'" an activist whispers to me, and no surprise. After a month of police and press hysteria, Lord Harris, the chair of London's police authority, has just suggested that plastic bullets could be used against protestors.
Cops are brazenly filming everyone entering the building, which doubles as a nerve centre for the Wombles (the name comes from a British kids' show about bears that live underground, but the acronym stands for "White Overall Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggle").
The Wombles are a local adaptation of Italy's Ya Basta movement, who kit themselves out in white overalls, crash helmets, foam padding and makeshift dustbin-lid riot shields. They are fun-loving, disciplined and exceptionally well-organized.
Last month, 200 riot police raided and demolished the squatted Button Factory in nearby Brixton, a community centre used by the group. Press reports said the Wombles were planning riots there, but unlike the Black Bloc or the police, the Wombles don't carry sticks or offensive weapons.
"If they are so concerned about violence against property," Uncle Bulgaria asks, "why did they smash up the Button Factory? If it's OK to smash up community centres, it should be OK to smash up banks."
Uncle Bulgaria grins mischievously. "But we won't do that, of course."
Upstairs, activists practise whacking one another's padded arm bands with drumsticks. They've agreed to let me come on the demo as an honourary Womble, and Orinoco hands me white overalls and an arm band made of cardboard, foam and bubble wrap. Then he thumps me.
"Ouch!" It hurts. Orinoco smiles languidly. "It's what's going to happen tomorrow. Better you get prepared for it now'" he says.
In the affinity group meeting downstairs, a cross-legged activist circle are introducing themselves in a probably futile bid to weed out informers and undercover hacks. "Hi, my name's Arthur, I'm a friend of the Wombles and a journalist," I begin. Everyone looks up. "But I won't report anything that's said here." There's a collective hmmm.
Journalists are universally distrusted following a press campaign that verged on hysteria. Scotland Yard called the Wombles a "sinister paramilitary-style" network "importing a frightening brand of continental-style violence." And journalists reported it all credulously.
Meanwhile, the Wombles remained steadfastly committed to non-violence. "Tomorrow the police are not going to know what's not hit them," Orinoco quips. "No," another Womble corrects him, "we're not going to know what's hit us'" and there's a silence.
May Day has been celebrated as a seasonal festival since pagan times, but its identification as a workers' holiday dates back to the American Federation of Labour strike in 1886 for an eight-hour day. Then, a bomb that killed a policeman in Chicago's Haymarket Square was used as a pretext to smash the campaign. A press witch hunt led to the arrest of eight prominent anarchists.
No proof was offered that any of the eight had thrown the bomb, had been connected with its throwing or had even approved of such acts. Only three were even in the square that evening, and one had brought his two children.
A stacked jury returned guilty verdicts, and four of the men were hanged. Evidence later emerged that a police agent had thrown the bomb.
Fade to 2001. The fight for an eight-hour day goes on across the developing world, London's Evening Standard is alleging a May Day plot between a Womble member and Ya Basta to bring chaos to London. The method? May Day Monopoly.
The idea is that a game of Monopoly will be played around London, with actions against unethical companies and their symbols taking place at locations corresponding to key squares on the board. Everyone knows the flashpoint will be the "sale of the century" by Niketown at Oxford Circus, where Wombles will hand out fake money for activists to "buy" goods.
I'm in the studios of BBC London Live radio to be interviewed about the protest. Outside, 6,000 officers are hemming in protests, from the pagan celebration by Eros at Piccadilly Circus to the Elephant and Castle district street party, refusing them permission to march.
Here, Henry, the host, wants to talk about violence. "Isn't the problem the effect violence has on people who may not be sympathetic?" he begins neutrally. "Isn't that why in a democracy the powers that be have to say, "Thus far and no further'?"
"Violence results from the frustration of people who feel their voices are not being heard," I start to say. I might as well be waving a Samurai sword.
The reputedly left-wing mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has already condemned the demonstration and warned Londoners to avoid it. His reputedly Green assistant, Darren Johnson, is here to argue the case. "The organizers have failed to isolate the violent, nasty extremists from the movement," he says. "I am very concerned."
Of course, there is a tension in the movement between "fluffies" (pacifists) and "spikies" (non-pacifists), and as long as the two tolerate each other the movement goes forward. When either tries to outflank the other, problems arise.
No organizers have called for violence. They've called for street parties. I say all this, and the debate ranges from Quebec to Seattle to Sudan, but it keeps returning to protestor violence.
As the interview finishes, Henry confides that he hates police horses: "They're so big and they've got horrible teeth." But Yasmin, his producer, has fond memories of riding lessons as a child. She tells me to lie down in front of the mounted police, because horses won't trample people. This doesn't sound like good advice.
Oxford Circus, 3 pm. The demonstration was supposed to assemble here, but an IS (International Socialists) front group marched up too early, and riot cops with mounted backup sealed them off in the middle of the road, in the middle of a rainstorm.
It's impossible to move around the Circus. Police are sealing off every major artery, splitting pockets of demonstrators, trapping them and funnelling them into a corral, where they will be held -- activist, journalist and tourist alike -- for the next six hours.
I'm carrying a Wombles kit in my bag -- overalls, padding, hat -- so my priority is to avoid the funnel. The police cordon seems to be taking place under section 60 of the Public Order Act, which, although technically illegal under such circumstances, is bad news.
Section 60 means demonstrators can be detained until the police feel they no longer pose a threat. It allows officers to photograph, search and take the names and addresses of every activist before they are released.
The cops say they are preventing a breach of the peace, and they are also gathering intelligence. But the real aim is to humiliate the opposition. Lurid media reports later say that women were forced to urinate in corners of the cordon, while policemen peered up their skirts.
Luckily, there are enough winding streets for the thousands of arriving activists to dodge and weave for a time, and groups congeal around Soho's side streets.
While I'm looking for the "Abolish capitalism and replace it with something nice" banner, two bearded bandits steal a cameraman's headphones, and a fight breaks out with the network reporter. Immediately, a fluffy activist intercedes. He gives the headphones back to the journo and remonstrates with the bandits to "keep it peaceful."
"But the police are baton-charging people over there!" one exclaims. "I know, but they want it all to kick off, so keep it fluffy," he says. The banditos look at each other before feigning open-eyed sincerity. "We're sorry -- we'll be good from now on, we promise'" one assures him unconvincingly.
Further up Titchfield Street, the first clashes are breaking out: orange smoke bombs and rocks are thrown by a clump of demonstrators trying to break through police lines. The cops charge, and the group panics.
On Oxford Street, three women under a "Community not Isolation" banner plant marigold and lily plants in the road. "Is the violence coming this way?" one asks urgently. "No, you're safe," I lie. The cops are surrounding the Titchfield mob, and the area is fast becoming a demonstrators' hell.
"Arthur, man, it's all gone pear-shaped'" says Tobermory, a lone Womble I bump into. "No one's where they're meant to be. We're going to ditch the tat (Wombles kit)."
I decide to dump mine, too. A protestor dressed as Superman, carrying a "Power isn't all about money" placard, walks past, and a respectable-looking moustachioed man in a raincoat hurls a beer can at a passing police van. He hunches his shoulders and shivers "bastards" by way of explanation.
It all seems pointless, and I'm on the verge of leaving when an almighty cheer erupts behind me. Out of nowhere, some 30 male and female Wombles in white overalls, super-hero padding, dustbin-lid riot shields and builders' hats have appeared at the mouth of the street.
They look terrified, but to the rest of us it feels like a miracle. People are shouting , "The Wombles are here!" and embracing each other. From every doorway and alley, hundreds of activists emerge to converge behind the Wombles' plain azure banner.
Someone shouts, "Wombles, line up!" and as the group link arms, the row of riot cops on Great Portland Street take a step backwards. Then another. The march goes forward, and the riot cops retreat. Not one stone has been cast.
"Whose Streets? Our Streets'" the chant goes up as bundles of Monopoly money rain down on us like confetti. Maybe, I think, just maybe this is the fluffy-spiky synthesis the movement has been waiting for. The crowd's enthusiasm has infected the Wombles, and the cops quicken their pace until they're practically running backwards up the road.
Drunk on our success, we turn left to free the trapped contingent at Oxford Circus. In our euphoric state, it's difficult to appreciate that there are only 700 of us.
From behind me, Tobermory pulls a massive lifejacket-sized foam-padding unit down over my head. I fish out my padded hat, but trying to tuck the padding under my coat bulges my shoulders up to my chin until I look like a cross between a brown bear and a 1930s gangster.
Other Wombles strap teddy bears and stuffed penguins to their arms, figuring that hitting them will be psychologically disturbing for the cops. But the police line at Cavendish Square is decidedly twitchy.
Ten yards from the line, we stop. Someone yells, "Wombles to the front!" and there's a brief standoff. Then, with arms linked, we advance on the line, our raised banner blocking their sight of us -- and ours of them.
There's a crunch as we collide, and then a torrent of baton blows on teddy bears as the riot cops panic. No one fights back, but the group stays disciplined, keeps advancing, and somehow the police line dissolves.
The Wombles are coming!" That's all I can hear. The trapped demonstrators can see us now, but there are another two lines of scared-looking riot cops, and they already have their batons drawn. Again, we pause and slowly march forward into the photographers' flashes, shouting, "No Violence!" and "This is a peaceful protest."
But it isn't. This is the last line of police defence, and as we crunch again, they lash out furiously at Womble heads and unprotected body areas. At one point, the cops are forced back into the trapped contingent, hundreds of whom surge around their lines to join us. But more riot cops are wading in, spraying pepper gas and ferociously clubbing people. There just aren't enough of us.
Tobermory takes five blows to the face and doubles over. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me," he says with ridiculous bravado. His face is covered in blood and his glasses are smashed. I take him off to the pavement.
Other Wombles are also making tactical retreats to tend to the wounded. Sensing an opportunity, ace BBC reporter Ben Brown jumps in for a sound bite. "We don't want to do a fucking interview. Will you just get out of the way!" Madame Cholet screams at him.
It isn't working. Mounted police and hundreds of reinforcements are being brought up behind us, and a decision is taken to get out of the area while we can.
With about 2,000 people behind the Wombles banner, we set off toward Holborn . There are numerous opportunities for looting, but none occurs. When three lines of riot police confront us at Charring Cross Road, someone shouts, "We have not broken a window or thrown a brick or a punch. Let us disperse!" The cops respond with a frenzy of baton blows, and the Wombles reposition to take people safely out of the area.
Hundreds of riot cops are being bused in, and although they run after us, people run faster away. "You're too fat!" a sprightly activist shouts at a heaving constable. Womble overalls and padding are littering the pavement as protestors melt into alleys and pubs.
One riot cop catches up with me as I pause for breath -- and starts banging his shield again my back. "Go on, keep running. We can keep this up all day," he chuckles gleefully. "You're being run out of town."
I slip into an alley and begin making my way back toward Oxford Circus.
Oxford Circus, 10 pm. All the major chain stores are boarded. Niketown, Ravel, Laura Ashley, the lot. Many windows are smashed. TV reports are estimating the cost of the protest at 21 million ($46 million). The trapped activists were squeezed tighter together until they were shoulder-to-shoulder, and finally they were photographed, searched and released.
On Oxford Street, there's an eerie calm. One blond-haired punk walks up to a shop with a hoarding that says "Food sensitivity test -- Get healthy!" and headbutts it as hard as he can.
"That's using your head!" exclaims an anarchist at my side.
From Sydney to Berlin to Vancouver, massive May Day demonstrations have seen activists and workers reclaiming the holiday, and the Indymedia Web site is full of Wombles eulogies. There's even a message of support from Papua New Guineans outraged at the footage of police violence.
But at Oxford Circus, the mood is sombre. A homeless Glaswegian on crutches asks me for money, and ventures, "I couldn't do anything, with my legs, but imagine telling the cops you're going to raid Oxford Street? That's fucking stupid, that is."
This is the glass-half-empty view of May Day. But maybe you could imagine something else.
Imagine a country where every newspaper reads like the National Post, where suspected protest organizers can be threatened with arrest as "terrorists" if they march, where May Day demonstrations themselves can be squashed before they even assemble. Imagine what the world's oldest democracy would look like without activists prepared to challenge all this.