G20: The strong arm of the law
As witnesses to the way they mishandled today's protests in the City of London, we hold the police responsible for the violence
Rowenna Davis and Sunny Hundal | April 1, 2009
There's little doubt that today's and tomorrow's news coverage will prominently feature the G20 protests and the violence that broke out. We think a broader perspective is needed, because when the mainstream media is so ready to take the police's side, it is too easy to brand the protestors as the only troublemakers.
Four of us were Twittering today for the Guardian, trying to get a sense of the protests right from the heart of the City. The protests were, in the morning, very light-hearted and friendly. There were brass bands, lots of singing, chanting and dancing. There were people handing out fake bank notes, flyers to the "alternative G20 summit" and expounding their own theories on what went wrong with the world.
At around 12:15, Rowenna and I ran into each other and decided to head towards the Climate Camp gathering at Bishopsgate. We slowly made our way out from the front of the Bank of England, down Threadneedle Street, before we were stopped by a wide police cordon. This is when things started to turn nasty. By 12:30, no one was allowed to leave the protest, and no explanation was given. When we asked a policeman why, he said it was simply an order to prevent "a breach of the peace". We said we were journalists trying to cover the protests, but it made no difference. We were stuck.
People were feeling claustrophobic, hungry and aggressive. One woman sat down because she was feeling faint. A few others had just come to see all the fuss, and weren't protesting, but were not allowed to leave either.
It's worth stressing that the police decision to form a cordon and not allow people free movement started becoming a focus point for their annoyance. For a while the chanting was their only form of protest. But we felt like we were in a pressure cooker. By about 1pm, people kept pushing against the police cordon and chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" A few bits of food and the some paint started getting chucked at the police.
We were at the front line of the police cordon because we wanted to leave, but there was no way to get out. The crowd pushed us forward, the police pushed us back – sometimes quite brutally by using batons against people and hitting some. The police were rattled by the crowd and seemed to have little idea of what their plan or position was – other than to contain us.
With so much anger, other protesters started gathering to see what the fuss was about. When they felt they couldn't leave, they started pushing. The four horses from the protests gathered at the lines ready to charge. They had found a focus point for their anger and started surging forward in waves. When they still couldn't get through, more bottles began to get hurled, gas was released and individuals pushed through more heavily.
Any resentment to do with the financial crisis was now being added to by a sense of injustice towards the police – at one point, it felt the reason we were there had been swallowed altogether. The police, in short, were making things worse.
We've seen this problem time and time again. The police seem confused about their role. They are not there to control the protesters – they are there to manage and safeguard them.
Protesters may also have something to learn. After we escaped the firing line in Threadneedle Street, we headed to the Climate Camp around the corner. Their approach couldn't have been more different. Real turf was being rolled out on the concrete pavements and people were having tea parties and setting up tents. Games were played; there was music and dancing and meditation. These activists were deliberately making the point that while this was a radical protest, it did not have to be remotely violent or aggressive. The atmosphere was completely different.
After our visit to the Climate Camp, we went back to the Bank of England. The situation had calmed down considerably, but several thousand people were still hemmed in around Bank station. They weren't being allowed to leave. When would they be allowed to go to, I asked a policeman. "Not until we've photographed and gotten details of every single one of them," he said. "You won't see some of them until midnight," he added. We were just glad we had managed to cross over the police lines earlier during the pushing and shoving, otherwise we'd still be there.
It's unlikely the media coverage will focus on the peaceful Climate Camp activities. It's also very likely the police will be allowed to blame troublemakers without having to explain why they deliberately hemmed people in and would not allow them to leave – aggravating the crowds. With more free movement, we doubt there would have been any tension to boil over. But protestors are easy targets for the media to stereotype, and today will be no different.