The largest force of police ever assembled in London will today confront 10,000 people. Or perhaps 2,000. There may be 1,000 people intent on damaging property, or there may be 500. Or 200. Or 5,000.
The police intelligence is at a loss to predict clearly what will happen, just as the protesters themselves do not have a big picture. Modern protest is no longer about people making great speeches and leading orderly marches behind banners; increasingly it is a form of free expression, with disinformation rife by both "sides".
With more than 30 separate protests across London against everything from capitalism to the banning of pigeon feeding in Trafalgar Square, the police have a near-impossible task. They must justify why they will be adopting draconian no-tolerance policies, while at the same time they must not be accused of curtailing civil liberties. The line is fine, but to cross it with images of over the top policing would be disastrous for New Labour.
A man looks at the boarded up frontage of the offices of the Commonwealth Secretariat on Pall Mall in central London, April 30, 2001. Police are mounting a massive security operation ahead of planned demonstrations May Day across Britain. (Dan Chung/Reuters)
The protesters were worried their message of solidarity with others around the world, anger at world debt, or disappointment with global governance might not get through either. No matter that 9,000 people are peaceful, if 1,000 run riot in Oxford Street or in the City the media will focus on the violence. Any appeal the majority would make to the public about the justness of their cause would be lost.
Last night there were conflicting messages coming from both sides, with some protesters sensing more people would turn out on the principle that no one should be deterred by a massive police presence, and the police and Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, suggesting the authorities had succeeded in keeping many people away.
An opinion poll yesterday indicated people agreed strongly with one of the protesters' main complaints - that corporations influence life more than government does. An NOP poll for C4's Powerhouse programme had 76% agreeing "big international companies usually care only about profits, and not the interests of the people in the countries where they operate". Only 19% disagreed.
Of 1,000 people asked whether they agreed or disagreed that "big international companies have more influence on daily life in Britain than our own government", 67% agreed while 25% disagreed.
On the other hand, only 25% disagreed with the suggestion that international companies had helped to increase prosperity in Britain by building factories and creating jobs.
The protests in London are expected to be mirrored across the world, with many countries preparing for the traditional workers' day with massive street demonstrations against globalisation, unemployment and corruption.
In Berlin the government has banned anarchist and other marches in an attempt to prevent violent clashes. But a court decision allowing a march by the neo-nazi National Democratic party threatens to heighten tension.
In France, where global free trade is widely blamed for cultural and economic problems, thousands of people are expected to demonstrate against recent job losses at international firms, including Marks & Spencer.
In Australia a predicted 10,000 activists will blockade stock exchanges and other financial institutions in the big cities.
Spanish trade unions have organised 61 demonstrations to denounce precarious working conditions and labour market reforms by the conservative government, which they say favour companies which want to make redundancies cheaper.
Protests over unemployment, discrimination and poverty are also expected in Greece, Poland, Guatemala and Taiwan, where some 20,000 people are expected to take to the streets.
The Japanese, for whom May 1 is a normal working day, brought forward their protest to last weekend when 450,000 people turned out to demand wage rises.
Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, and Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers leader who is challenging him in the next election, clashed yesterday over the protests . Mr Scargill backed the anti-capitalists but Mr Mandelson responded that he was an "an extremist prepared to give more support to a bunch of violent anarchists than a democratically elected Labour government".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001