Reporting the protests

In the wake of the student protest earlier this month there have been journalists left and right (quite literally) condemning, agreeing with, or just analysing the student movement.

A post on New Left Project (NLP) about left-wing journalists potentially undermining the movement got me thinking. It is important for people to understand about why the protests are going ahead, and there will clearly be divides in how it is reported (as well as divisions threatening the development of the movement itself – but that’s another issue for another day). The main point of the argument set out in the post above was that in attempting to “add an extra layer of horror” to the actions of the police, left-wing press classifying the protestors as ‘kids’ suggests that they are naive as to what they are protesting about – lending more power to right-wing groups who dismiss protests as juvenile and borne out of boredom, not political awareness.

It’s a point well-made, and one I happen to agree with, although I couldn’t offer a satisfactory solution. What we’re seeing is that reporting of protests is being polarised into two factions. Firstly, to the left, who portray protestors as children – in the sense that it is emboldening and indicative of the times that people so young are now beginning to care – and then the right, who portray protestors as children who have no idea of why they are protesting, are politically illiterate and just out to cause trouble.

More left-wing journalists tended to take the approach of embedding themselves in the protest – most notably New Statesman writer Laurie Penny – whereas other not-so-left journalists chose to stand outside the kettling area and remark on what they could see from the edges. Hardly in-depth and thorough. It’s worth noting here that core members of the movement do not feel helpless or voiceless in the slightest – they are busy writing blog entries, networking on twitter, getting other groups involved. But they lack the audience that mainstream press can automatically count on.

However, in seeking to tell the protestors’ story in a way directly opposed to traditional press who have turned a blind eye or railed against the students, Penny perhaps risks infantalising them (although of course the term ‘children’ or ‘kids’ was used in an observational sense – children are taking part in protests; it’s a surprising and powerful thing to see) as the NLP article argues so articulately.

There are limitations and dangers as a journalist, of assuming that just because you have been there you know the ins and outs of the movement and can accurately pinpoint and describe the feelings behind it. I myself attempted this earlier, as a supporter of the movement and as a journalist – it’s extremely difficult to gauge motives of thousands of people, and speak for them all without pigeon-holing and patronising them by assuming that you understand their motives. Journalists have the greatest freedom of being able to weave in and out of organisations; to try and get to the ‘bottom of things’ and report backĀ  on what they’ve seen – but it’s important to remember that they are ultimately outsiders. Even those who share the same beliefs as core members of movements will likely be left out of some of the proceedings, or treated with suspicion, lest they attempt to discredit the movement or interpret things entirely differently.

Of course, this shouldn’t deter journalists from attempting to discover motives and meanings of these events. After all, the demonstrators cannot do it so effectively to a broad audience themselves – though access to twitter, facebook and collective blogs is gradually changing that. However, activists still rely a large amount on journalists’ interpretations of a movement they are removed from – however close they perceive themselves to be – and whilst it can add authenticity and a credible voice, it has the potential to be the undoing of a movement.

Dayx3: The Protest

I leave home quite early, in time to get to the UCL Occupation (lest they leave without me!) The room is packed, and protestors are being briefed about what they can expect on the day. Everyone writes two numbers on their arm – one is the number of a lawyer, and the other is the number of someone from a handful of people who will be manning HQ at UCL. If we get lost, ring someone at UCL. If we get arrested, ring the lawyer. I’m emboldened by the fact that there is a great support network, though slightly worried I may get entangled in an argument with police and end up being lead off and handcuffed. Being arrested would be somewhat of an inconvenience given that I need to be at a dinner in Bournemouth in the evening!

We leave the UCL quad jubilant and positive about the march ahead. A, who I met on Wednesday, manages to find me amongst the crowd, much to my delight – at least I won’t be alone! We follow the march around the corner to ULU, where the Socialists’ Worker’s are handing out placards with “Bring Down the Government” written on them. I spot a group of students banging plastic milk bottles, Rose tins and anything else they could get their hands on, in an attempt to bring a rhythm to the chanting. It’s a fun, exciting crowd.

Protestors bring objects to hit during the march

Protestors bring objects to use as instruments during the march

We walk further along and settle in the crowd near two older women. They are both studying. One, 63 years old, who studies art at London Metropolitan University says to me: “This whole agenda is about capitalism, and the more we do to get rid of it the better. This is just the beginning.”

Behind us, a 63 year old man stands alone, holding a banner stating: “You KNOW it’s wrong. Vote principles, not party.” He tells me: “I think education should be free, like it was for me when I was younger. I’m here fighting against the cuts and in support of students.” They are not the only non-students there. To my left I can see a young family. The parents are concerned about the future of their child.

We get word that police officers may be attempting to kettle us here. In the confusion, we are not sure what is happening, but we warn a lady in a motorised wheelchair to move out of the crowd and onto the pavement. A man around 60 holds a megaphone and is talking as he walks through the crowd. He turns to the police on the sidewalk: “A word of advice for you. It’s not good to be on the wrong side of a revolution.”

Parliament looks alight due to fires being burnt

Fires burn in front of Parliament

We make our way through the crowd in time to see some speakers on the corner of Malet Street. The speakers make the crowd roar with the end of every sentence. Suddenly, a student grabs the microphone: “Enough talk! Let’s march!” a roar of approval goes up from the audience, but we are told: “We need to wait for more people. We need to have as many people as possible and we will march as one.”

Clare Solomon takes to the microphone. Clare is a well-known supporter of direct action, and as far as I can tell, people in the crowd know and respect her. “We will NOT be contained, detained, or kettled again!” she says, to a delighted crowd:

Finally, we march! It’s all very uneventful, with various chants going up, until we reach Leicester Square. I notice that the police officers are quickly walking through the crowd in one line, and I’m suspicious and eager to get to the front. Eventually, A and I break into a run, causing other protestors to run, and then the police. It’s clear they are intent on breaking up groups, preventing us from getting to Parliament. Thankfully, A and I outrun the police, as does Laurie Penny, who I can see just in front of me. I turn around and find a line of policemen hitting protestors with batons. There’s no logical reason for this that I can figure out.

Eventually the crowd breaks through the line and we go off into a side street. Again, the police start walking quickly up the sides. Twice, I get pushed by a police officer shouting “MOVE!” People notice the police creeping up the sides and as a group, we break into a run. By this time I’m too tired and I give up. Some protestors are still running ahead of me, shouting angrily, as they suspect that the police have contained us in this small side street. Have we been kettled? Nobody is sure. But people are livid and screaming about their right to protest. A chant of “Whose streets?! Our streets!” goes up. Somehow, after the confusion, we are allowed to continue on through the back streets of Covent Garden.

Protestors leave a smouldering placard

Protestors leave smouldering placards and signs

We get to Trafalgar Square and meet another surge of protestors from the main route. There’s a huge crowd here and the march has slowed. We’re not sure why until we reach the edges – there is a line of mounted police blocking off Whitehall. Undeterred, the movement moves around the edges down Pall Mall.

At this point, we see FIT officers, and A turns to me: “I have a spare scarf. You need to use it. FIT are here” I don the scarf, looking like I’m about to mug someone’s gran, but nonetheless hopeful that I am less likely to end up being photographed by police and arrested, simply for being at a protest. Before I read FITwatch I had no idea why protestors covered their faces in scarves unless they were criminals – and now I fully understand. They don’t want to be arrested or incriminated for doing nothing wrong.

We arrive at Parliament and suddenly no one seems to know what to do. A few fires are lit, and placards are burnt, but largely there’s a big sense of “Now what?” We walk towards Whitehall and find 10-15 police holding riot gear helmets. I find the man whose photo I took at the November 10th demonstration. He’s campaigning for his 15-year-old grandson. I check twitter and find that someone has tweeted something about the police being “too quiet”, and they’re right – it’s suspicious, given their behaviour earlier on in the day.

Riot vans line up along Whitehall

Riot vans line up along Whitehall

After quite a while of hanging about, we watch two sets of police running from different directions. We suspect they are moving in to kettle protestors – though there is no clear purpose to us – and we are luckily on the other side.

By this time it was time for me to leave for Bournemouth. As I walk down Whitehall to find a tube station, I spot 13 riot vans along Whitehall, all containing about 6 police officers. Protestors are being encouraged to flow into Whitehall but I’m worried that they will be greeted with heavy-handed police.

Tired, with sore feet and a heavy heart, I leave. I check twitter as often as my phone and the network will allow, and I keep hearing reports of horrendous things going on.

Sadly I had to leave early. Over the last few days, a lot of new information has come out about what happened on Thursday. Serving members of the police have mocked protestors and called for the use of water cannons in future protests. Journalists have been hurt. A protestor required emergency brain surgery. A protestor in a wheelchair was allegedly dragged out of it by the police.

But I don’t think even all this controversy is enough to deter protestors. As many people said to me during the protest, and afterwards – “This is just the beginning.”


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