March 26th 2011 : Pointless violence in the name of protest?

Five months after the Coalition’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the student fees actions, and a plethora of minor cuts demos, came the much billed major one by the TUC. After the impact and opportunity of the violence transacted in the name of student fees protest, it was inevitable that this event would be seized upon for some newsworthy stunts.

The estimates for the numbers that may join the protest were in the many hundreds of thousands, and whilst it is difficult to judge, the numbers were significant and impressive. This was not a demographically narrow mix of people – it was all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, professions, trades – it was without doubt a statistically representative proportion and spread of the population; particularly of those of who it was most likely to affect ( and of those who had not recognised, yet, how much it would affect them). Perhaps one may argue it was a true proportional representation!

There was an aspiration that there would be one demonstration but over time, the opportunity for feeder marches developed from all sides of London, all making their way into the centre. The area around Embankment, Houses of Parliament ( for which there was zero access), Whitehall and Downing Street, was one major people jam, with no scope to do anything than to move forwards with the crowd. At one point, a massive Trojan Horse which fed up from South London, loomed through Parliament Square and waited menancingly outside Downing Street. Nervousness and anticipation flowed through the police, demonstrators, and media – was this to be the first major flare-up today. A few smoke bombs got the mood going, but with little interruption to proceedings.

The march practically ground to a halt. Elsewhere in Oxford Street, the anarchist / UKUncut groupings started to make their prescence felt with occupations, paint bombs, and random violence to business properties and banks. Initially, for me, I was chasing the police helicopter, like one of the Wise men following the Star of Bethlehem – hoping and expecting that it was taking us to the seat of the action. It did not fail us – at the branch of HSBC on Shaftesbury Avenue. The miniscule police prescence allowed the anarchists to run amok through the Soho district causing some fairly aggressive acts of violence. Quite why they attacked Ann Summers is unclear – perhaps the anarchists are prudish and hold Victorian Christian values?

Later on the Ritz Hotel came under seige for a short period with windows being smashed, bangers being released and general mayhem. I am sure for the people inside this would have been terrifying – at least for us outside we could see it, hear it, smell it….and avoid it….or decide to join it.

Some level of calm pervaded the capital for a short while…that is, until 3.30pm when UKUncut occupied Fortnum and Mason. Is this because they serve the rich? Is it because of some unannounced tax avoidance scheme – or,as I’ve subsequently read, the charitable donations that they make. A police prescence formed outside the store, although they were complicit in allowing protestors on to the entrance canopy – a potentially fragile structure. It was this point that the police actions, and prescence started to step up a gear. They progressively became less tolerant – the riot gear came out, they rushed, pushed, shoved, beat up, as they felt fit. The anarchists were concerned about being kettled – this was an inevitability, as more resources were brought in.

The Police had fuelled a situation similar to letting kids loose in a sweet shop – “where do I turn next, and no one is stopping us doing it”- another window to smash, another wall to daub with paint, another handful of police to shout at. Violence exacerbated by unconstrained excitement and virtual consent. This may have been a police tactic, and it is certain that the more “containment” there is, the worse it gets.

As darkness fell, the Battle of Picadilly continued – small pockets of anarchists confronted the police, and further damage was caused, fires lit, and an air of intimidation was felt throughout the area. Shoppers were trapped inside shops – people ran from the gym on Regent Street, shocked and surprised as they entered a war zone – blazing bonfires, lines of police, and photographers, hard hats, “weaponry”, bottles smashing onto the road, and light acrid fumes in the air.

The dwindling numbers of anarchists leaked variously through the police lines and made their way to Trafalgar Square ( to be “Tahrir Square”). Nelson was looking down into darkness, with small pockets of warmth from the communal fires, music and drink – a late night rave. I wandered through the area, the atmosphere was convivial, almost celebratory, end of the day, the point had been made, the police were leaving them to it. I felt that this was time to leave, no light, no good pictures…I checked the time, admired the shiny new 2012 Olympic Clock, and made my way to the Tube station. After being on my feet for 12 hours+, carrying a huge weight on my body, the tiredness seduced me into making the fatal mistake of photojournalism, which I have always tried to avoid in the past – leaving too early.

The call came through to me at 9.43pm from Trafalgar Square, as I was sitting in the hotel bar, relaxing, enjoying a beer, and the rest – “Russ, its all kicking off down here, its fucking mental”.

The following day as I walked through Trafalgar Square, I reflected on the images that I had seen on the TV the previous night, the range of things that I had witnessed during the day and my emotions on seeing them….and also the decision I had made not to return to the Square the previous night.

I also reflected on the argument that I had had with a protestor on Picadilly as I tried to get through the Police lines with my Press card, and get out of the kettle; he berated me for trying to leave early, ” You’re alright, now you’ve got your photographs, you’ll leave us here, and get your pictures in The Sun…you should stay here and stick it out”. I did point out that I had been kettled many times before….so he backed off.

When I had sat in the bar drinking my beer, feeling good about the selectionof images that I had taken during the day, deciding that, for me, the day was over – for many others, including some of my fellow photographers, the night was still young. The story was still unfolding, the violence, pain, and discomfort was continuing….and eventually, their opportunity for choice, stopped continuing.

On reflection, for me, the violence wasn’t pointless, because that’s exactly why I was there….and the fact that I had missed some of it was due to a choice I had made, which I now regretted. The anarchist was right – I should have stuck it out; such is life in the “grey zone”.

Complete portfolio of photographs from the day HERE

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