Friday, December 10, 2010
Welcome to fascist Britain.
Much has been written about yesterday's student protests from people who weren't there or have some axe to grind. So with reference to the chant "Shame on you", which the police got to hear a lot, here is my first hand account.
Extra pictures can be found here on flickr.
I had a meeting in Westminster but the tube station was closed because students were protesting about the vote to increase tuition fees more in line with the USA. So I walked from Embankment, listened to some politicos banging on about free education for all from a caravan and took some photos of a beautiful helicopter filled sunset over Parliament Square. It was soon clear I wasn't going to get to my meeting.
There were police vans parked along the embankment and some coaches had reinforcement officers ready for the action to take place later on. Hundreds of police wearing yellows, blacks or a combination were shuffling their feet to keep warm. Some had Perspex shields, helmets and nasty looking batons. Others just looked nasty.
The square was blocked off by some vans and when a policeman asked me where I was going (being helpful or suspicious I don't know) I admitted I didn't know and he kindly pointed in the direction of Embankment. Given I love a good photograph, despite only having my Blackberry on me, I took a detour up Horse Guards Avenue and walked along a well protected Downing Street and ended up at Parliament Square where I understood all the action was.
A small line of police were watching the fires and firecrackers, the dancing students of all classes and creed, and listening to drums - overtime expenses would be good this evening (paid by me of course). As the sun set, it started to feel like bonfire night without the tomato soup.
There were a lot of people and the police were pushed back to the Square, as if on purpose, and I followed the protesters. A couple of dog owners were escorted out of the vicinity and a few individuals picked off at random and taken away but on the whole everyone was welcome.
Unlike the last protest I was caught up in (day1x), there were few parents or mature adults to be seen. There were "gangs" of handkerchief wearing anarchists and some "thick types" who certainly weren't students (at this point I would point out the ethnicity of the gangs but I wont as profiling is not in fashion these days), a few seasoned complainers and lost people like myself. There were less Pro photographers and those I did see wore crash hats. I guess they were photographing in a war zone. A few undercover police were with the students, highlighted by their cropped hair and black combat trousers, but it was getting dark and everyone started to look the same. There were lots of young kids too, probably about 12 it is hard to tell sometimes peoples ages.
Many of the agitators wore white hoodies photos (just look at the photos and film footage) and soon I was photographing such a gang taunting the riot police. They threw things, insulted them and goaded them to respond to their actions. As I followed the baying pack to the entrance of Westminster tube, 8 youths were holding a barricade above their head ran towards me. Pushed against the wall of the Treasury by a stream of baton wielding police I feared for my life. I protected a student and pulled her around the corner as bricks, bottles and tree roots were hurled in the air. Another metal fence was prepared, passed back to the thugs who then threw this at the police.
It was unclear when the vote in Parliament happened, the one the protesters were campaigning against that would force tuition fees up and tax payers funding down, but groups jeered at what they thought were MPs leaving the Houses of Parliament.
It was obvious we were now trapped as all entrances to the Square were closed off by the police who were not allowing anyone through (tough if you were pregnant or hadn't eaten since breakfast). So when bullet proof windows of the graffiti adorned Treasury building were smashed with broken breeze blocks and steel poles it wasn't a surprise for tensions were high. What was a surprise was watching a camera team asking a rioter to stop and then start again as if they were directing a Hollywood film. The police did sometimes appear out numbered and stood back as property was wontedly destroyed and the cameras flashed and filmed. The BBC were there trying to be impartial but of course only focusing on the violence (you can see me taking pictures with my Blackberry). Telephone boxes, statues, gardens, anything was attacked.
On the muddy grass square, small fires (made of leaves and leaflets) warmed the hands of non violent students singing childish songs. A makeshift toilet was in one corner and a bicycle with a music machine created an impromptu disco. Google map apps showed them where the police were and twitter hashes day3x and demo2010 helped keep the boredom at bay. Apart from bursts of anarchy, it was mostly very dull.
Fireworks were occasionally let off and crowds swarmed towards anyone attempting to break something or confront a police officer. When the protesters, mostly wearing masks, attempted to go through the front door of the Treasury, swarms of police lined up to fight off the missiles and jostling. Around the side some protesters broke in but were confronted with police inside who halted their progress. In the room above where fun was made because the police inside could not open the window, a large camera filmed the activities.
The big media outlets were filming too. I chatted to the BBC, ITV and an Italian network who were talking to a number of Italian students, one of the bigger groups of students causing trouble. It soon became clear the police were not tackling the mindless violence because having the world's media broadcasting violent scenes would help their efforts to bag a few rioters when we were all photographed individually by the police later on, and provide ammunition to the politicians that these students were all thugs and demos should be banned completely.
It was like this for 5 hours. Big Ben's clock beamed down on us and the cold started to bite hard. After a spade was used to break a window in an attempt to appropriate a christmas tree, we were then herded into the Westminster Bridge corner ready to be dispersed. That is what we thought.
There were hundreds of police, some on horses, and theirnvans were used as make shift walls. We waited for 30 minutes. We sang we want to go home and nothing happened. And then 2-3000 of us were shepherded on to Westminster bridge. We then stopped for a long time. We were tightly packed, cold, hungry and tired from standing up. Occasionally it was hard to breathe and with the helicopters above shining their lights onto us cattle, thoughts of Brooklyn Bridge and Hillsborough made it very uncomfortable. The police refused to move and with thousands pushing from behind, being at the front I was jostled by aggressive batons and shields with screams of move back. To where? The river Thames perhaps?
It was then the police plan became apparent. We were being lined up to have our photographs taken.
Student breaking and failing to enter the Treasury:
Police beating the ground at fleeing students (film contains violence)