Saturday, 4 April 2009

Panic on the Streets of London... Part 3

I didn't sleep well, compounded by somebody switching on the lights at 4am yelling the police were trying to break in. An energy swept through the room and previously slumbering protesters leapt out of their sleeping bags and hurriedly packed. We could hear banging on the door downstairs and shouting police and blue lights flickered on the windows. Another regular squatter appeared a minute later telling us not to worry; "they do it every night". Everyone bedded down again, though fully clothed this time I noticed.

I eventually woke again at about 10am. The sleeping room had thinned out and people were quietly talking about the police blockade set up outside. I didn't know anybody by now but a few were about to leave so I tagged along with them. A veteran anarchist was manning the front door and listening closely to what was going on outside. When he thought it was clear he opened the door and ushered us out. Looking left and right, either end of the street was awash with police (no riot gear). There was no option but to put up with the inevitable stop and search. I lifted my scarf above my face so they couldn't photograph me. I got hauled aside by a policeman who said he was going to search me under Section 60, looking for dangerous weapons.

I was told to uncover my face in accordance with that particular law. He asked me my name. I refused. I didn't have to give it under Section 60 (1). But then he said under a Section 50 (2) I had to give my details or face arrest. A second policeman stood at my side and pulled out his handcuffs "Let's warm them up shall we?" I was getting confused. I knew under a Section 50 he could arrest me, but he originally said I was being searched under a Section 60, could they apply both laws? By now a third cop with a huge camera contraption was in my face. I was tired and couldn't be bothered with the hassle so told them my name and address to the camera. I glanced to my right and saw another protester, whom I’d overheard discussing stop and search powers in the squat, offer his hands for an arrest, calling their bluff. He eventually relented and gave them his details too; perhaps they can use both laws? After they pulled everything out of my bag, I was handed a slip with details of my search and told to be on my way.

Now I was on my own and determined to get to the Excel centre for the protests against the G20 itself. I walked the short journey to Liverpool St Station and at the ticket machines bumped into yet more protesters, two anarchists; M and his girlfriend, K. M had messy, pink hair, with a pen through his ear and a white climbing helmet hanging from his bag. They said they were on their way to the centre too and invited me along. We jumped on the DLR and headed East. Along the way, M and I chatted about our beliefs. He was an anarchist and member of the Socialist Workers Party who'd opted out of society to live in a squat in West London. They'd been at the Bank of England the previous day but avoided all the trouble, before staying in the Earl St squat that night. He listened, with great interest, to me question the possibility of a truely anarchist society and explained how he personally believes it's something that can only be achieved over the very long term; very far removed from the mainstream media depictions of anarchists as violent, chaotic hoodlums.

We arrived at Canning Town and headed for the station exit. A polite British Transport cop asked us if we were heading to the protests. He recommended we take the train to the next stop to save us a bit of a walk. Surprised by his friendliness we turned around and headed back up the escalators. At the top, more Transport Police stopped us, this time less friendly. They asked where we were going and I said the protests, so they asked why we were heading back onto the train. Bemused, I told them their colleague recommended so. They kept probing and making us stumble over our words about where exactly we were going, taking the Excel centre and the protest to be two separate things. Behind me, a towering officer who just looked like a dick, spotted M's helmet, grabbed it from him and hauled him aside to search him. M carried the helmet in case things got violent with the police, to protect his head. Fair enough, but a little bit stupid as it ultimately begs the question: "Are you expecting things to get violent?"

Another officer asked me to step aside and searched me too. I handed over the previous search slip and just let him get on with it, again, he was looking for an offensive weapon under a Section 60. Despite me and M being searched, K was left untouched. Because there were no WPCs, she couldn't be searched, which makes the whole stop and search powers laughable - she could be carrying, knives, guns, grenades, explosives, the entire Woolwich Arsenal, and she'd be able to walk right through.

When they finished, they told us if we wanted to go to the protest then we had to walk from Canning Town. Was the original 'helpful' Transport cop just trying to waste our time? Isn't that a criminal offence punishable by up six months in jail if you do it to a policeman? I didn't dwell on it and simply headed out into the sun.

By now, a straggle of other protesters had joined us in the station, including a Czech guy in a Boston Celtics vest and a pop-up tent on his back, and a couple of Australians who lived in London. As we left, a nervous looking guy in a suit approached us. "Are you going to the Excel?" We chuckled and asked if he was one of 'them'. He laughed as well and introduced himself as Shlomo, an Israeli living in London who'd been out of work for four months and had donned the suit out of protest. We invited him along.

Close to the protest site, a five minute walk from the station, we were stopped again by the police. I managed to convince them to let us through without yet another stop and search, but M wasn't so lucky. "Don't I recognise you?" said an officer. M shrugged. "Climate rush on Parliament? And at the Smash-EDO protests in Brighton? Come here, I want a word..."

M got hauled aside, again. K was lamenting on why he had to be so recognisable with his helmet and pink hair ("He never learns"). I was more interested in the police officer. He wore a Met uniform, yet he'd been policing a protest in Brighton? M was eventually let through and we walked to the small protest area cordoned off by police, not even within sight of the Excel centre. There were about five hundred people there, but most of them seemed to be media. There was a large contingent of Ethiopian protesters, a few Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity, as well as a couple of climate change campaigners. We'd walked by a lot of protesters heading back to the station, dismayed by the size of the protest and its location. Many seemed more interested in the memorial rally being held for Ian Tomlinson at Bank.

The Czech guy, I never got his name, pitched his pop-up tent and M and K sat inside with myself and the Czech on the outside. The media loved it. Photographers gathered round taking pictures and somebody from Time magazine came and recorded a video interview with M, though judging by the quality of his answers I doubt they'll have used it. Not long after, Al-Jazeera (Arabic) brought their huge camera over to interview M too, provoking more photographers to picture us, and for some reason, the Ethiopians came for a group photo with us, possibly seeing the media opportunity the tent afforded.

It soon became apparent that this protest really wasn't going to get off the ground, so we decided to up sticks and head to Bank. Again, at Canning Town we were stopped and searched. In the case of the Czech guy, at both the bottom and the top of the escalators. Paty met up with us on the platform, aghast at how the police dealt with us, but we put it behind us and moved on. By now, the sleep deprivation and lack of food and drink was catching up with me but I was determined to at least check out the rally.

When we arrived, a small, silent group of protesters had gathered in the triangle opposite the Bank of England's entrance, encircled by a police line which at that point was still letting people in and out. M, K and the Czech guy went through but Paty and I refrained; it was blatantly obvious that a kettle was imminent. On the other roads, other protesters, spectators and workers were slowly gathering to watch or were simply trying to get through the crowds. All was going well until the police line appeared to close up around the central bunch to form a kettle.

Soon after some of the most horrifying and stomach churning police vehicles I've ever seen drove through the square and surrounded the protesters. These huge, black armoured behemoths look like something from Robocop. American-style SUVs with blacked out windows and covered in armour, they don't even look European never mind English and only served to antagonise the hitherto peaceful protest.
A few missiles were thrown at the police line and a couple of people tried to break through. Police pushed and shoved back and refused to let people out of the kettle, to cries of "Shame on you!" and "Fascists!". Familiar scenes. When the tanks moved on, seemingly serving no other purpose than to flex police muscles and intimidate protesters, police horses soon followed behind to disperse the few people in the street and allow a couple of red buses through, but many of the horses seemed nervous and jittery and needed controlling by the police; not a good thing in a febrile atmosphere such as this.
Things remained tense for another half-hour or so, the protest locked in a kettle and the police trying to keep people off the street to let traffic move freely, but then for no apparent reason, black clad riot police (minus the shields and batons) kettled the protesters and spectators opposite the main demonstration. People who tried to get out were violently shoved back into the kettle and a little old lady, heading blissfully unaware into the sqaure, was manhandled out of the way by the police. This caused more anger, shouts and screams and a few people tried to force their way out of the kettle only to be shoved back. I saw the police making their move and pulled Paty out of the way before the kettle closed. I didn't fancy being stuck there for five hours like the protesters the previous day.

It turned out the police just intended to move people on though, and forced the kettle down Prince Street, away from the main square. Again, more pushing and shoving from the police and absolutely no communication. It's the lack of communication that annoys people the most. The police just take it upon themselves to move everybody on. Pleas to be released from innocent pedestrians caught in the crowds are ignored as the police go about their business in the most offensive way possible.
The kettle was slowly moved behind the railings and down the road. One officer padded and armoured up to the eyeballs was shouting threateningly at people outside of the kettle to get out of the street. I overheard one person shout back something about it being the most disrespectful way to remember the life of Ian Tomlinson and I couldn't agree more. As the kettle moved down, the police fanned out and blocked Prince St, making it impossible to use that route to get to the Bank. When the kettle got to the junction, one end opened out and the police reinforced their lines, also blocking off access to Lothbury. By now it was mid-afternoon and clearly apparent that the police had no intention of letting anybody protest at the Bank that day. Slightly deflated, certainly sleep deprived but inspired by the collective actions of thousands of climate campers, I decided to call it a day. And went in search of ice cream.

1/ Section 60 Criminal Justic Act - entitled to search for offensive weapons and dangerous instruments. If s60 order is in place, police can require you to remove any item reasonably believed used wholly or mainly for purpose of concealing identity or to seize any item reasonably believe you intend to wear wholly or mainly for that purpose. Can arrest you if you refuse.

2/ Section 50 Police Reform Act - Police have the power to arrest you if you don't give them your name and address when asked, if suspected of anti-social behaviour (reasonable grounds to suspect have caused, or are likely to, cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry, it's the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994