My experience of 26th March
March 31, 2011 4 Comments
I said I’d write about it on Sunday, and every day since, but I’ve been really too busy to. Busy with a social life and busy with trying to catch up with all of the news coverage of the protest and events that happened on Saturday. I still am not satisfied with what I’ve seen, because I still can’t really see exactly how it was portrayed – but I gather it was all in a negative context (we all know that bad news is better than good news!)
My day started very pleasantly, with breakfast near Russell Square with a small group of friends from Twitter. Our plan was to meet people in the education bloc, the parent bloc, then go to UK Uncut, then Trafalgar Square. We joined the march at about 11am, and were all in good spirits, talking about what the day might be like, what we might achieve… As we got to Embankment, the crowd slowed down and ground to a halt. We had lost half of our group, and were standing in the middle of a crowd of people with scarves covering their faces – mainstream media will have these labelled as ‘anarchists’ but this assumption makes me uneasy. FIT officers were on railings filming the crowd. We chatted with various people around us – most of whom were covered up – and we heard someone say that they’d seen one of the FIT officers before and didn’t like him. Conversation turned to frustration at not being able to move, and consensus was reached that stalling marches like this will only make people angry. The crowd eventually started moving off, albeit very slowly, and we were eager to get ahead. Standing around in the street somehow feels futile. So we made our way through the crowd along Embankment.
At Trafalgar Square we headed off towards Soho Square, to meet fellow UK Uncutters to go to a ‘comedy gig’ at 2pm. We found a fair few people in Soho Square, including UK Uncut supporters and comedians Chris Coltrane and Mark Thomas. We were told to go to a certain place, and groups headed off. As we followed people in front and crowds merged, it soon became clear we’d lost UK Uncut and were now with the black bloc. We decided that we should just stay with them – nobody felt unsafe or threatened – until we could figure out what else to do. As we were walking along a couple of people decided to move some huge green wheelie bins, and some of the crowd responded “Fuck the bins!” “The bins are to blame for this mess!” etc. I don’t think anyone really thought it was appropriate or necessary to move the bins.
Outside the Palace Theatre, we saw a HSBC suddenly get spray painted and hit with paint balls (I was splashed with a small amount of paint too), and then people started to hit the windows with whatever they could. As far as I can remember, there were a handful of police around, dozens of photographers and a small amount of people actually doing the damage. After about ten minutes of this, when the black bloc had decided to move on, riot police moved in. This caused interest, and people went back to see what was going on. One man in riot gear not only pushed back people, but ran after one person (over a small distance) to hit him with a baton. This is on video, just about.
Eventually after a few clashes with the police when a couple of riot vans turned up (they were spray-painted and hit with sticks, predictably) – people decided to move on. I don’t quite remember what happened next, but we headed to Oxford Circus to try and take part in the UK Uncut ‘secret location’ sit-in. We waited at Oxford Circus for ‘the signal’ and as there were hundreds of people there who weren’t involved in UK Uncut this was pretty difficult. We got word, somehow, that it was at Fortnum & Mason. So we made our way there. On arrival, police were attempting to block the doors to prevent anyone from getting in (it must be said that this was the one point I could say the police were not being too aggressive – it was clear they were being told to be restrained in their approach), but the crowd kept pushing and pushing, and me and another friend were pretty much pushed in. There were about a dozen police officers inside, and a couple of hundred (maybe? Not good at estimating numbers) protesters. Many were sitting down eating their sandwiches that they’d brought with them. Some of them had put up banners and written ‘Pay your tax’ on price labels. Someone had brought a beachball with them that was thrown across the huge round balcony section, until it fell to the basement floor level – and nobody went to get it. We were in there for 30-45 minutes at a guess, and after we found some other friends, we decided to head out. It had turned particularly nasty outside and police lines were there waiting for protesters to come out – we were shoved out of the way by them even though we were going in the opposite direction.
We left F&M and went up the road to try and find other friends; we ended up on a side street just off the main road which was clearly causing a headache for the police. I don’t know how long we were there but it must have been a while and there were small skirmishes with police as they stood their ground, then formed a line (for very little reason that we could see? But we were on the wrong side anyway – looking in) and then started beating people back. Part of the problem started when police started gathering barricades on the side of the street. I was stood very near them, and what I can only figure (though I don’t know if it was or not) as a petrol bomb came flying past me, almost hit me, landed on the pavement right in front of the police and set one of their boots on fire before spreading up the pavement a little. Luckily no one was hurt, although it seemed extremely close to me particularly (hard to tell because crowd was sparse but from what I remember I was the closest) and it was the one part of the day where I would say I was genuinely scared I might get hurt. But only momentarily. What followed was an attempt by the police at blocking the road off, hitting back anyone who wanted to move through the line to get to their friends. When the line of police turned round as if to begin kettling us, we left as soon as we could.
After a quick dinner, as we hadn’t eaten all day, we headed down to Trafalgar Square and found a noisy, but peaceful, crowd of a couple of hundred people. Some were huddled around fires for warmth, some were dancing, some were chanting, but not one of them was causing any issues that I could see. We stayed for a while but as it got colder went to the pub, and came back later. When we returned, we saw police starting to move in at the steps near the national gallery (ie down into the square) and police forming lines at the bottom. In other words, beginning to set in to squeeze the protesters into a kettle. The protesters at the bottom, facing those police on the stairs, panicked and picked up barriers and threw them at the police. Things were getting nasty, I’m sure, but I couldn’t really see much other than barricades going over peoples’ heads. We moved to the top of the square, near the stairs, and as we realised police were shutting the stair exits off, we shouted at frantic protesters – some may have even been passersby, encouraged by the earlier noise – to climb up the walls where we were. Soon, half a dozen of us were helping people scale the walls to escape being kettled. Some that were inside specifically didn’t want to leave, and just shrugged. The situation turned really nasty and we could tell that fights were going to break out, as they had done earlier, so we left.
That’s my honest and full (perhaps too wordy?) account of what happened on Saturday. I spoke to Julia Hartley-Brewer, a presenter on LBC 97.3 on Monday – and I’ll explain about that in another post, analysing the response to what happened (as in, what people have been arguing with ME about, what the general media narrative was and what I think about it, and policing tactics etc).
Congratulations if you made it this far, and thanks for reading. I know it’s been a long one. There are loads of other, probably better, blogs out there. But I wanted to record my experience.