A couple of days ago I, along with some other photographers, travelled to central London to document an unplanned protest following the recent re-election of a conservative Prime Minister.
I knew that there was going to be a considerable level of tension and anger present during the demonstration as many across the nation have been infuriated by what many consider to be an injustice in the voting system. However, we found nothing in the way of open aggression and violence when we first caught up with the moving crowd of protesters heading towards parliament square, many were smiling and happy…a very positive atmosphere allowing peaceful protesters to express their voice as one people.
The crowd reached parliament and had a small rest on the grass in front of the iconic building, I photographed a beautiful Staffordshire bull-pup and witnessed yet more positivity and peaceful protest. Of course there were many elements to the protest that were less than tasteful such as multiple signs using questionable language and many chants such as ‘Tory tory tory, scum scum scum’ and ‘David Cameron fuck off back to Eton’. Though these may not help to defeat the stereotypes linked to protesters, you have to accept that the public here have good reason to feel that certain words are the only means of expression that can give their feelings true justice. The crowd then moved onto Westminster bridge and back again before heading onto Downing Street, all the time maintaining the peace and ensuring the safety of everyone present.
Once we reached the gates of Downing Street, the protesters were met by rows of police behind metal barricades alongside riot vans waiting in preparation for what inevitably was to come next. The chants continued and protesters held their signs of disgust up high. Shouts of anger and frustration aimed at number 10 were spat from all sides yet still no one lifted a finger to harm anyone. We continued to take photographs of peaceful protest and laughed at some of the comical signs held, my personal favourites were the more minimalist ones displaying simple messages such as ‘Bull Shit’ and ‘Fuck You’. Though the frustration and anger was clear to all, there was still no attempt at violence from the crowd.
I was standing at the front with my camera when the fighting broke out. From what I could see, police officers were being too harsh and forceful with those closest to the barricades. I myself was shouted at and commanded by an officer to back away from the barrier, the officer also shoved me hard in the chest back into the crowd. From what I could tell, this unnecessary aggressive and forceful behaviour from the police helped to ignite and aggravate the already angry crowd, they reacted and pushed back. Objects and signs were seized and dragged away by officers of the law, then so were people. Officers ran around the barriers and started to drag protesters to the floor whilst threatening innocent protesters around them to stay back. I had a safe vantage point after I moved back away from the violence where I could see some of the arrests that happened during the first few moments of the outbreak. One woman, wearing a mask, was verbally challenging officers for their sudden aggression to which they responded by dragging her out of the crowd and pushing her into the barrier. Once she realised that she was being arrested she simply stood still and peacefully allowed them to restrain her with handcuffs, she was not fighting back or resisting in anyway yet the officer holding her forcefully tore her mask off of her face, forced her throat into the barrier, dragged her to the other side and proceeded to violently push her face down onto the concrete ground. Many people around me shouted out at this, warning the officers that they had seen this brutal treatment of innocent men and women. To this, the officers only responded with yet more threats, forcing us all to move back by brandishing batons and threatening to attack if we did not move. Smoke bombs flew from the crowd and into the police, objects were thrown from angry protesters, the air was filled with the chanting of ‘Shame on you! Shame on you!’.
I didn’t see many more of the arrests, the street was too consumed in green smoke to see much farther ahead but I did witness another officer threaten a foreign cyclist with what sounded like almost murderous intent. Obviously I doubt he actually meant what he said but an officer of the law should not be threatening people so brutally. Again, a nearby protester heard this and informed the officer as such. Though the media would have you believe that the fighting was controlled and ceased by the valiant and brave riot police, the reality is that the fighting stopped because a number of the protesters were rounding everybody back to the front and pleading with them to ‘keep the peace’. From my frontline perspective, the Police started the violence and the protesters ended it.
By this point, officers in riot gear had lined up in front of the gates to Downing Street and also further up the street towards Trafalgar Square. The protesters had been split and the riot officers were attempting to keep it that way. We moved further up the street to get away from officers driving us all back from Downing Street still brandishing batons in a threatening manner. On our way up I spotted and photographed the words ‘Fuck Tory Scum’ sprayed onto a war memorial, I knew at that instant that the right wing press would have exactly what they need to paint the protest in the worst possible light…that the rest of this highly peaceful protest was all for nothing. Slowly, the two formations of officers closed in on the group of protesters we were with and ‘kettled’ us. For those who don’t know, this is where riot squads surround a group of protesters and detain them in order to break apart and control a larger crowd.
Before the kettle was complete, I asked officers which was the best way out if there was still time, I was told by two officers to try the opposite side as we may still have time to leave. We found no luck, we tried an officer towards the side closest to Trafalgar. This man was the single most rude person I have ever encountered. I calmly asked if there was still time for us to leave to which he replied in a very aggressive tone ‘No! Back away! You’ve been given plenty of warning to get out, you’re being detained by the police for disturbing the peace!’. I explained to the officer that I was a neutral photographer, I was not part of the protest and I was simply documenting it, I had done nothing wrong and there was no need for him to speak to me like that. He continued to speak to me aggressively accusing me of biased coverage, that I wouldn’t have photographed the graffiti on the war memorial. I told him that I had…he told me to grow up. At that moment I realised why violence broke out, officers like this man have no patience and clearly believe that protests are their time to shine, as though they’re on the set of Hot Fuzz. It’s the brash and undisciplined nature of these brutish thugs in the Police service that aggravate crowds in the first place and their inability to remain calm is what keeps the fires burning. In all fairness to the police however, there were examples of officers who did try to remain calm and try so desperately hard to maintain the peace. Some officers shared laughs with the detained and answered any and all questions asked of them with a calm and supportive nature. It’s a shame they weren’t all so friendly, maybe violence wouldn’t have been the answer in which case.
During our detainment was when I witnessed first hand the power of media during times of social division, how the right wing press work in conservative favour to batter the representation of working classes. We were detained for a total of three hours, this is a long time for anyone to be held by intimidating riot police in one small space with a large crowd of unfamiliar people. To help raise spirits, many of the protesters in the kettle started playing instruments, others danced, some told jokes and put smiles on all faces including that of a girl who couldn’t have been older than thirteen. When we grew hungry and thirsty, people shared what food and water they had with everyone present. They were peaceful, happy and full of joy. Yet not one lens belonging to the mainstream media camera crews up and down the street was filming it, not one. We sat and watched as they filmed what very little fighting was taking place further down the street knowing that would be our representation later that night on the news. This is why I grabbed my camera again and started to photograph the positivity and sharing nature our small group was displaying, I knew the media would completely fail to share our example with the rest of the world so I had to do something to combat this.
Eventually, after three long hours, we were informed that we were allowed to leave. The Police formed a human corridor at one side of the kettle and allowed us to leave two at a time, it was a very surreal experience to walk down a corridor of riot gear officers…reminded me of the Matrix, soulless and menacing. Once we were out, we headed home. I turned on the TV to see what coverage had been on the news and of course, as predicted, the media focused on nothing but the graffiti on the memorial, one small element of a mostly peaceful march. Nothing was shown of the rest of the day, nothing was shown of the peace, the singing, the dancing. Only what little violence occurred and the war memorial. I was disgusted.
To those who believe the media, wake up…don’t believe everything you hear from Murdoch’s biased coverage. Take it from a man who was there, those who chose to express their voice that day did so peacefully with no intention of violence. The law enforcers enforced too heavily and brutally. The media focused only on what was negative and not on the music and sharing. They didn’t show a woman being needlessly dragged to the floor face first, they didn’t show a young teenage girl detained by riot police. They show only what they want you to see. It’s up to you to look further than your TV screens and the photographs they print in right wing papers.
I documented the day from start to finish, please view the day from an unbiased perspective. My lens tells no lies and hides no secrets. See the side you ought to see, not just what Murdoch fools you into believing is true.