That Was the Mayday that Was: Photographing Resistance

By Sukhdev Sandhu


The photographs are odd, apocalyptic, banal. Prada, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan - companies whose logos tattoo the brandscapes of modern cities, whose names are cooingly incanted by Hollywood actors in gauzy ads designed to invade and re-engineer viewers’ dream lives: all their shop fronts in central London, elaborately lit screens fashioned to make passing pedestrians stop, sigh and gaze longingly, have been boarded or shuttered. Have the companies gone into receivership? Have their staff been stricken by vomiting sickness? A mystery attaches itself to them.

These photographs of Oxford Street and its environs were taken by Grant Gee on May Day 2001. It’s a day that elicits all sorts of conflicted and conflicting memories. Memories of hope and pride and collectivity: thousands of protestors, a loose alliance of anarchists, Leftists, eco-activists mislabelled as ‘extremists’ by the popular press, descending upon London to raise a noise against the policies of the real extremists at the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund. Memories of how quickly the euphoric insurgency of that gathering was battered and muffled by thousands of police officers who saw the occasion as an opportunity to advertise the strength of their grip on the capital.

The shops and fashion boutiques pictured here, and others such as Nike Town, had been forewarned of trouble. And so, while their temporary closure can be seen as a victory for the protestors, it also represents the growing complicity between militarized authority and high retail: did the protestors close down the city, or did the city close its doors on the protestors? The day itself is a watershed: one of the last major shows of dissent before the 11th September attacks on the World Trade Center, whose destruction accelerated the conversion of London into a fortress city protected by a ‘ring of steel’ and surveilled with a scrutiny unparalleled anywhere else on earth.

Now, at the start of 2009, with high street chains being shuttered forever as a result of sustained mismanagement, and smaller retailers in the lanes and alleys off Oxford Street wilting in the face of digital competition, the photographs assume a prophetic quality. They speak, eerily and forcefully, to a historical moment when so many of the pillars propping up the economic establishment are giving way, when everything solid seems to be melting into air. And where, in 2001, that scenario would likely have provoked glee, now it induces dread.

In some respects, London has changed little since Gee took these photographs: its psycho-tectonics and power-capillaries have merely become more transparent. May Day’s populist space-hijacking is being replicated by developers and politicians eager to profit from the staging of the Olympics. The advent of identity cards and permits regulating movement around the city appears inevitable. The protestors have changed though: targeting shops seems trivial compared to tackling global warming and environmental catastrophe. The men and women at Stop Climate Chaos and Climate Camp (to name only two such assemblies) are continuing the legacy of May Day 2001. In and through them, the spirit of resistance continues to burn true.

Sukhdev Sandhu is one of our finest writers, critics and cultural commentators. His books include London Calling, I’ll Get My Coat and Night Haunts.