On the ground at the G20 protests

I took some photos of the G20 protests around RBS and the Bank of England today. I had a quiet afternoon after a meeting in Soho, so decided to head to Bank to take a look at the square mile and see what was afoot with the much discussed G20 protests. It ended up being anything but quiet.

Arriving at St Pauls (I’d already heard that Bank tube station was closed), I overheard various police officers informing people of the best ways to avoid Bank, saying that much of the area was closed off due the protests. Deciding I’d just get as close as I safely could, take some photos and then go home, I started walking towards the Bank of England.

I soon realised that the officer’s advice was sound. There were police blockades on every single street leading in to the Bank of England.

Many streets had not just one line of police but two, with a gap in between them, essentially keeping a safe distance between two crowds. Skirting around the cordons in busy side streets, I got as close as I could get.

Plenty of flag-waving, singing, cheering and jeering. It seemed peaceful and good-natured and I found the police to be largely friendly and helpful. People were having fun.

The guy on the right was being interviewed by Radio 4. When asked why he was dressed as Satan, and which group he was represented, he thought for a moment and said, “RBS”. The interviewer couldn’t help but grin.

2:20 – Note the gap between the two crowds in the photo above. Looking in from the outside, I could come and go as I pleased, as long as I didn’t want to get any closer to the central area filled with protesters. Equally, the people on the inside couldn’t get out. They were hemmed in by the police on all sides.

2:40 – Just as I’m getting a bit bored and thinking about heading back to the office, the central crowd starts pushing and shoving the line of police which is penning them in. Scarily (for me), within a couple of minutes they had managed to break through the line, and were surging in my direction. I moved back a few paces, fearing a stampede, but all that really happened was that two bits of the crowd (the inner bit, and my outer bit) had joined up.

2:41 – But… the police had pulled back and regrouped, forming two new lines, one on either side of me. I ask nicely about leaving.

– “Excuse me officer” (I’m nothing if not polite). “I think I’d actually like to be on that side of you…”
– “Sorry mate, not happening.”
– “Really? I just…”
– “No. No-one gets in, no-one gets out. Those are my orders”.

I’ve suddenly gone from being an outside observer to being one of 2000 people (not all of whom were protesters, I can assure you) trapped in the middle of the square mile.

2:50 – After the surge, things were pretty peaceful. I started checking with officers at the various (9?) blocked streets and alleys that they really were not letting anyone out, and was slightly horrified to learn they didn’t even have any idea of when they would start letting us leave. Frustrated, but trying to go with the flow, I a) rang my wife and b) started looking around at the stuff I couldn’t previously get to. There were no groups shoving at the police now. In fact, perhaps because there was more room, everyone seemed pretty relaxed.

3:00 – It felt pretty much like a carnival really. Singing, dancing, sound systems blasting 3 different sorts of music, lots of friendly, people being happy.

3:10 – Bloody hell, they’ve smashed RBS. This must have happened a while ago. Before I arrived, even? There are mounted police here, and the atmosphere is different here, on Threadneedle Street. There’s still a lot of anger focused here. I don’t like it.


4:00 – Heading back in the other direction, I find some shade and sit in a shop doorway, pull out my 3G dongle and check my email. People ask if there’s any news. When are we getting out? No idea. The news doesn’t know. The police blocking us in don’t know, so why should the news?

4:30 – Hot and tired. Annoyed. Thirsty. Bored. Restless.

4:45 – The general mood seems to be shifting and worsening. I’m not alone in wondering when those of us who don’t want to be here will be allowed to leave. Portaloos have arrived, which is certainly a good idea, but what about food? And water? This part of the city is pretty handy if you need a cash machine, but there’s certainly nowhere open in here to spend any of it.

The police line starts moving people back down Queen Victoria Street (past HSBC) back towards the centre. Once it starts, it happens quite quickly, and in quite an ugly way. BBC News 24 captures the confrontations, while I stay well back from the shoving.

Some protesters were throwing bottles, and I saw one flaming newspaper hurled. A handful of the scary hardcore anarchist-protester-types just stood there, squaring off with the police, intent on being forced back rather than just retreating. From the police’s side, the violence mainly involved shoving people along the street with their riot shields, but I did see the batons did get used a few times. This was the ugliest part of the day. (That I saw). The crowd went wild with shouts of “shame on you! shame on you!” whenever any sort of police violence was seen.

I’m still not sure why it was considered a good idea to compress the crowd back in to a smaller area. It certainly did the police no favours in the eyes of the more neutral observers.

5:30 – Free at last. I finally got out by showing my BBC ID card to a police officer (who I think probably assumed I was press). I was told “Ok. You can go this way to Cannon Street, but you won’t be able to get back in”. I don’t want to get back in. I want to go home. Except that I felt very bad for everyone else still penned in there, and seeing Pete Blakemore’s increasingly worrying updates (and the fact he was in there for at least a further three hours) made me even more glad to be back, but also even more uneasy and a little angry.


Yet more pictures…

Update: the Guardian has a great video and story which sums up the day, plus a balanced look at various videos springing up on YouTube after the event.

24 replies on “On the ground at the G20 protests”

  1. Thank you. Actually, I was just watching this video and wondering why, between 1:05 and 1:20 he’s saying “…although they haven’t raised their batons yet” while we’re actually watching them being used. Edited in a hurry I guess.

    I’ve been careful to be as honest and complete as possible here, though there are a thousand other things I could have said. I think that’s why I took so many photos. I wish I’d taken an MP3 recorder and talked to some people. It was only after I got out that I realised how lucky I was (not that I always felt that way at the time) to have been there.

  2. Excellent – I was at the quiet end, Trafalgar Square, moved down the Mall and stood with the welcoming crowds at Canada Gate to see Obama’s Motorcade – quite the contrast in philosophy, priorities and dare I say it, class.

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  4. Wow Roo! Seems like there wasn’t much planning for crowd control! I can’t imagine pinning people in…..you wouldn’t get away with that in the US for sure…..glad you are safe.

    I guess if you had a different work badge (no names mentioned) you would have to stay the entire time! (SMILES)

  5. > wouldn’t get away with that in the US

    Guess you haven’t heard about the indisciminate sweeps at the RNC that resulted in lots of people (including bystanders) being held for 24 hours in dangerous conditions at Pier 57 then?

  6. It’s a pretty depressing experience, isn’t it? I couldn’t make it down yesterday, but I’ve been on countless similar demos (mostly anti-war, some environmental), and in my experience Police tactics have been getting more and more confrontational in recent years.

    I have a lot of respect for the Police most of the time, but rarely at demos. They now seem to think their role is not to police protests, but to prevent them. I’m not sure how this happened, but it needs to be changed, and the right to peaceful, legitimate protest returned to us.

    There are also, sadly, a small number of policeman who are actively violent. A good friend of mine – a teacher – was beaten and dragged over broken glass at the Climate Camp last night, for the “crime” of sitting down on the pavement – having been told to do so by other officers.

    I’m glad you were there though, and thank you for documenting it. The more people who do, the more we can expose the faults in the system and get it working right again.

  7. I missed you, I managed to walk in and out of the cordon, just near Poultry. the bank smashing did happen before you arrived.

    The hemming in a tactic used by police in Britain a lot, I was aware of it before I went down.

  8. Great post.

    The containment tactic seems like it can only be counter productive if the aim is to keep the protesters peaceful and happy. Also it seems like if people know that this tactic is going to be used it would act as an active discouragement from exercising ones right to protest. If you have children to collect from school or work commitments or whatever then being trapped in central London for an unspecified length of time is not an option.

  9. @Tom – Exactly. I’m on crutches at the moment, and while I’m pretty nimble on them, I knew that with the tactics the police use in these situations, it was going to be pretty much impossible for me to take part. That’s an extreme case, but as you say, the tactics are aimed at making protest as difficult as possible.

  10. The containment tactics are deliberate, and have been developed and honed at a lot of previous demonstrations and events (as James said). Largely, the reason for them is that containing protestors cuts down on the potential for small groups breaking away and causing trouble in multiple spots, allowing a relatively small group of police to control a situation more easily.

    It would be intereting to see a test case brought to see if it amounts to arbitrary detention, which is illegal (due to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act AKA PACE). My suspicion is that it is, and I think the provision of Portaloos (ironically) confirms that. By planning to provide toilet facilities, it shows that the police deliberately planned to detain people, rather than having to “lock down” part of the protest for tactical reasons (in response to its actions).

    Having said that, the police tactics have improved a lot over the years – compared to the era of the Miner’s Strike (which I saw a bit of as a young radical) or the Bean Field the police now are very, very professional.

  11. This combined with all the Orwellian cameras in London makes me think the grand architect is vertically or somehow otherwise challenged. I think my dream holiday in UK is sliding down my priority list at the same rate the paranoia goes up there.

  12. Kyb: which way is it being thrown?

    Only joking. That’s pretty ugly isn’t it? As ever, there’s a small minority of people looking for a clash with the police. The figures I’m seeing 2,000 people penned in to the square mile yesterday, and others citing 4,000 protesters, all miss the point that there are different levels of ‘protest’. The vast majority of people I saw had no interest in hurting anyone (or getting hurt) and the violent minority was just that. And generally surrounded by journalists. In fact, this guy sums up the situation quite nicely.

  13. Didn’t mean to imply that that was the norm. I just mentioned it because I thought it was an excellent shot.

    I saw the video of the police at one end of the climate camp, and it looked very nasty and very disproportionate. And of course you hear the stories of people with diabetes dying because the police won’t let them out of a cordoned area.

    I understand that these tactics have been very effective in stopping roaming gangs of vandals destroying shops etc. (interesting to see the man in the picture smashing the RBS window was surrounded by media. I can’t believe that they were trying to calm him down and get him to stop…), but there’s no doubt at all these kinds of tactics and levels of police response significantly reduce normal peoples inclination to get involved in public displays of politics. Our society can’t help but be the worse for it.

  14. “On the ground at the G20 protests”

    Were you actually protesting ? If so how about a discussion of the topics you feel strongly about.

    I got the impression you were just looking for pretty/interesting pictures much like the rest of the media, and moaning about how long it took you to get home for tea, which I am sure it did.

  15. No, ‘right said’, I wasn’t protesting. I was an interested observer, and pretty much neutral. I certainly didn’t consider my role there to be part of ‘the media’ though. I think I’ve made it pretty clear above that I was essentially sightseeing.

    There’s a bit more to it though. As it happens, the issue that I feel strongest about, before and especially after the day depicted here, is actually the deterioration of our right to protest at, and even just attend and photograph, public demonstrations. I wasn’t protesting myself, but I do think it’s important that these rights are not eroded by anti-terror legislation. I don’t expect i was alone in being just as interested in keeping a watchful eye on the way the event policed as in the protests themselves.

    I wanted to tell a neutral and balanced story rather than the sensationalist depictions the news seems to often produce. I wanted to see (and document) how the thing actually felt. If anything, I wish I’d spent longer photographing the peaceful and non-violent elements which made up the majority of the ‘protest’.

    This was my first time. It won’t be the last. I hope you’ll agree that there’s always a useful role for neutral and balanced observers, who care about the rights of protesters. Even in protests they don’t necessarily even agree with or care very much about.

  16. “I do think it’s important that these rights are not eroded by anti-terror legislation”
    Why not be more explicit, and discuss the related laws and recent changes then ? Do you even know what they are ?

    “I hope you’ll agree that there’s always a useful role for neutral and balanced observers, who care about the rights of protesters. Even in protests they don’t necessarily even agree with or care very much about.”

    No I completely disagree. There are far too many neutral, middle class observers, taking pretty pics without the gumption to think/talk/act-upon underlying issues within society.

    So you don’t really care about the issues raised by the protest ? Great some more apathy, and to be frank I find that slightly weird. You care about the right to protest but don’t feel strongly enough to actually protest about anything ?

  17. You’d rather neutral observers got stuck in? Understood. (Personally, I think that the quiet action of documenting and photographing police actions is something you’d want as many people as possible to be interested in, not least because it potentially protects activists’ rights). Somehow I don’t think your approach to winning recruits by anonymously browbeating them is going to help though.

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