A day of demos

March 27 2011

As part of my ongoing attempt to push myself as a journalist and try new things, yesterday I followed the UK Uncut demonstration with the specific objective of waving my press card around and finding out what photos I could take under pressure. It was interesting, to say the least, and I can see why those who cover these events full time do it, I need to think a bit about what I learned before deciding what to do next time.

I am going to work up a photofilm of the day when I get a moment. In the meantime there’s tons of pics over on Flickr and also Demotix.

I didn’t want to cover the larger TUC march, mainly because I knew there’d be more journalists there (the NUJ had a large presence just as demonstrators). Also, it was clear that Uncut would be taking part in direct action protests, and therefore would be the story most discussed the following day – regardless of who was speaking in Hyde Park. I’ve haven’t been on many marches in the past, and was curious to see with independent eyes what really happened yesterday.

Brighton Uncut, the local chapter of UK Uncut, announced on their website that they’d be meeting up at Brighton Station at 8.30 in the morning, so I figured I’d tag along with them. Come 8.30, though, the only people getting on a London train were a group of students called Climate Carnival, themselves a splinter group from Climate Camp, apparently. It’s all a bit ‘Judean People’s Front’, but they were sort of affiliated with Uncut too, so I followed them to their assembly point outside the National Theatre.

A lovely group of people they were – mostly drama students I think. I caught up with them later outside TopShop (an hour after the paint bombs were thrown) where they were enacting a piece of mask work about the death of social services.

Brighton Uncut, though, were supposed to be meeting at Kennington Park at 11am. So I wandered against the flow of people pouring out of TUC-affiliated buses which were dropping off hundreds of workers and families all the way from Waterloo Bridge to Lambeth North.

At Kennington, though, there was no sign of Uncut – instead it turned out to be a confusing mix of slightly further left wing groups like Socialist Worker, headed by the ‘TUC Armed Wing’ and its spokesperson, Chris Knight – he who lost his job as a university professor by (joking) called for bankers to be hung on Twitter.

I think one of the purposes of this feeder march – and almost certainly of the Armed Wing – was to provide as much of a disrtraction as possible and tie up police resources. They started off by marching the wrong way, then diverted from the planned route at Lambeth North to meet the main march at Westminster, confusing the police trying to manage traffic around Westminster Bridge Road.

Later, the Armed Wing would drop its giant sackcloth Trojan Horse outside the gates to Downing Street and several other buildings in Whitehall, drawing in a phalanx of police and photographers before picking it up and moving off.

Next stop was Trafalgar Square, where Knight set off an air raid alarm and promised ‘the revolution would start at eleven minutes past two’. Actually, all that started was a couple of fireworks – which almost set fire to the horse – but given the timing I assume this was planned to try and divert police away from Oxford Street, where Uncut or its anarchist contingent were – apparently – beginning to paint bomb TopShop.

After this I stopped following the Armed Wing, although apparently they did burn the horse later on in Oxford Circus – again, I think this was part of a distraction while Uncut entered Fortnums.

At no point, I should add, throughout the day did I see the Armed Wing actually start real trouble or cause any damage beyond staying in Oxford Circus longer than anyone else. Part of the problem with coverage of yesterday is, to me, the definition of ‘violence’. I saw a few paint bombs thrown and one person get too close to police with a handheld flare, but personally I wouldn’t describe that as violence. Intimidating, maybe, and messy.

//update – What I’ve actually learned from this video is that the group I was following flanked a police line which was holding the main body of the protestors away from the back door of Fortnums. What’s odd is that it does look intimidating on screen, but actually from where I was (I appear around 8 minutes, standing next to the police line) things really didn’t feel out of hand. Yes, there was chanting, and one paint bomb was thrown, but a lot of the people near the police were actually journalists, and as you can see in the first part of the video, there wasn’t actually any fighting between the protesters and police. Just everyone doing their job. //

Certainly at this point the throng of shoppers and tourists didn’t look especially worried (a bit pissed off maybe). I’m not sure I’d consider lighting a fire in Picadilly ‘violence’ either. When I passed through there just before the barricade went up (around 5pm), it was just a throbbing mass of people. You couldn’t tell who were protesters, who were shoppers and even the police just stood in the middle of the mass looking a bit confused.

But I digress. Before this I’d been milling around Oxford Circus, waiting to see what Uncut’s bug 3.30 action would be (this is when I saw the Brighton Climate Carnival actors). The Circus was completely occupied and – I understand – had been for a couple of hours since the main march passed through.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that although the Hyde Park rally had begun, parts of the main march were still passing Trafalgar Square – further confusing some of the news reports about which streets were closed by ‘bands of anarchists’ and which were closed as part of the TUC demo. I saw a lot of people give up and start going home at this point

Back to Oxford Circus, though, and a people seemed to be just standing around not doing much. I wandered down Regent’s Street, which seemed to be the general direction the crowd was moving in, as a line of riot police ran in front of the Apple Store – only to defend it from a group of children dressed as Robin Hood, who apologised profusely for knocking over a shopper’s bike as they danced around the cops.

What strick me as odd here was that there were no problems at the Apple Store until the police arrived – then a few of the ‘black bloc’ protesters – the ones that wear masks – who’d been on the Special Brew started shouting abuse and a single paint bomb. I asked them why, and was told that they were ‘the calm before the storm’, trying to spread police resources as thinly as before the ‘main event’.

This was when the pace picked up a bit. I followed a bike-mounted sound system which seemed to be leading a group of around a hundred or so students mixed with black blockers and black and red flag waving anarchists. What I should make clear here is that, unlike the main march in which groups were clearly delineated by colours and placards, this group could have been anyone. Clearly the police weren’t expecting them – two regular officers and three riot police were running as fast as I was to keep up.

Again, I’m sure the purpose of this group was distraction. They headed out to Hannover Square, passed through the main march on Maddox Street (or it might have been Conduit Street) then broke off south again, before doubling back to Fortnums. As we arrived at Fortnums, protesters were already inside and riot police were running to block off the back door.

A black and red flag came out of a first floor window, and a cheer went up.

Now, the reason I’m going into this detail is because – as I mentioned – it was impossible to identify which group was which during the whole movement towards Fortnums. UK Uncut has said it is only interested in peaceful protest, and the media blame anarchists for starting the violence. Two things are apparent: masked protesters and people with anarchist flags were among the first to get to Fortnums, and were helping to distract the police. This may have been unplanned, I don’t know. Secondly – I really didn’t see any ‘violence’. From what I understand little damage was done inside Fortnums, and many of the ‘occupiers’ were genial retirees. The problems such as they were came later, and judging by the state of the crowd as I left around 6pm were more to do with daytime drinking than anything political motive.

Plus, it’s worth mentioning that some people on Twitter claim to have evidence that Sky News were offering bribes to protesters who’d throw rocks.

I left Fortnum’s earlier than I should have done I think, passing through Picadilly then onto Trafalgar Square, before I left to catch the train home (hey, I’ve got a four year old I had to get up with this morning).

Three things strike me though. First off, the police that I saw – with the exception of one officer outside Fortnums – behaved impeccably, and were very hands off for most of the day. Second, there was little or no organisation of what happened after Fortnums. Those that were left really seemed quite aimless. Third, ‘violence’ really is the wrong term to describe most of what happened yesterday. With the exception of what happened in Trafalgar Square in the evening – which I wasn’t there for – I saw literally less than a dozen people acting aggressively, and nothing which couldn’t equally be described as ‘peaceful protest’, albeit one whose tactics not everyone will agree with.

The only personal opinion I’d add is that in hindsight, I’m not so sure UK Uncut should have organised their event on the same day the TUC’s march was happening. Even though it’s arguable scenes like these would have had no effect on their own:

The half a million people involved deserved a chance to try.

Other things I learned:

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