On the Frontline with the Black Bloc

Sunday 27 March 2011

There was a carnival atmosphere in London’s Trafalgar Square early yesterday afternoon, but it didn’t last for long. As part of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) organised anti-cuts demonstration in the capital, thousands had gathered to ‘March for the Alternative’. Children were dancing to the sound of samba drums and policemen were smiling and chatting among themselves. Not all groups, however, came for what the TUC had billed as a ‘family event’.

As a crowd of between 250,000 to 400,000 moved slowly from the Victoria Embankment towards Hyde Park, a large splinter demonstration broke off in another direction. It was a group made up of those usually cast in the media as ‘anarchists’ or the 'Black Bloc' – rule breakers with little interest in establishment approved methods of protest. Carrying red and black flags, they walked through the streets with no predefined destination or plan. Some armed with smoke bombs and paint balls, their main intention seemed to be to outsmart the police at any and every opportunity.

It started out as a game of cat and mouse. Running from street to street, chanting and generally causing a spectacle. Tourists and shoppers looked bewildered on Oxford Street as the group, many with their faces covered, some wearing yellow helmets, marched down the road chanting about “Tory scum” and “class war”. The police tried to keep up, but the anarchists managed to stay one step ahead by shifting direction at times almost spontaneously. Their leaderless structure seemed to confuse the police who, at least early in the day, appeared to have been caught entirely off guard.

What started as a game, though, quickly became much more serious. The first sign that things were about to get ugly was at around 3pm, when there was a scuffle between protesters and a police Further Intelligence Team, who were trying to film for surveillance purposes. Moments later a riot van was attacked and spraypainted and events quickly began to spiral. The women’s lingerie shop Ann Summers had its window smashed and was left daubed with graffiti saying “fight sexism”. A member of the shop’s staff stood outside, inspecting the damage. Her face was pale with shock.

What followed was a series of events that ended in several violent confrontations with the police. Banks accused of tax-avoidance, Lloyds TSB and Santander, were paintbombed and had their windows smashed. Then, not long after the group had been chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, escalate the class war”, the five-star Ritz Hotel had metal poles thrown through its windows. Like the poll tax riot of 1990, the wealthy had themselves become an explicit target. Running through prosperous Mayfair with police helicopters hovering above, a Porsche garage had its windows broken. At one point an affluent looking gentleman hauled his children inside his townhouse and slammed the door shut. Neither he nor his children’s safety was at risk, but the fact that he seemed to feel threatened spoke volumes.

Somewhere on Davies Street in Mayfair, a policeman named Inspector Wood was trailing one of the splinter groups while speaking to a colleague on his radio. “They've had a pop at us already,” he said, “so we're well up for it." It wasn’t long before he got his opportunity. In several chaotic incidents between Oxford Circus and Piccadilly, police became increasingly aggressive. Using their shields as weapons, they forced back anyone who got in their way. One middle-aged woman was hit across the face at force with an officer’s shield and I was dealt a blow in the chest as I tried to record a video. Attempting to show my press card I was shoved backwards and tripped over the pavement, held upright only by the crowds behind me. “I don’t care!” one of the officers shouted back in my direction.

The worst was still to come. As darkness fell, there was an air of lethargy among the protestors, who had now convened at Piccadilly Circus. Marshmallows were being toasted on burning placards and there were a few drunks dancing round the fire. Eventually there was movement. A group shuffled down towards Regent Street and others sharply followed. Suddenly there was a confrontation with the police. Black-clad riot officers wielding shields and batons emerged and objects were thrown towards them. The police had blocked off Regent Street and this caused animosity. “Whose streets? Our streets!” the protesters chanted.

The police tried to push people back. It wasn’t just the anarchists now, but various other stragglers including some who appeared to have just tagged along to see what the noise was all about. I was forced down a dark side street as the police attempted to form a kettle and immediately sensed danger. Several of the riot police, who had their faces covered with black masks, could be seen lashing out with their batons. There was an occasional yelp of pain as the police lunged forward and shouted in unison, “MOVE!” I noticed couples in a nearby restaurant looking out at the scene over a glass of wine, watching as if it was all some kind of twisted reality television show.

Suddenly, and without warning, the police charged forward into a sprint. I tried to pull myself into a doorway in the hope that they would run right past me – but I never made it in time. Before I knew it a line of police were right behind me and swinging their truncheons. I glanced back just in time to catch the eyes of one of them, his face hidden by his mask, truncheon held in the air. There was a moment of sheer panic and total fear. I turned again to run and felt a thud and a sharp pain ripple across my back – then again … and again … and again. A young woman was on the ground and people were scrambling over the top of her to escape from the police. I was trying to run but couldn’t move because of the crowds. Eventually I managed to get away, sprinting until I was clear of the police. At the top of the street I fell to my knees, my whole body shaking, my back throbbing with pain.

I spoke to others, many of whom had also been beaten as they tried to flee. One girl in her early twenties lay crying against a concrete pillar in a state of shock. I checked the street for CCTV cameras – there was none in sight. I tried to question police about the incident, but was fobbed off. None of them claimed to have seen what happened and even told me they doubted my version of events. “Take it to the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission],” I was told dismissively.

Today, like after the student protests last year, the focus and the debate has been on the trouble and the troublemakers. The scenes at Regent Street later spread to Trafalgar Square, and the natural impulse of most people has been to jump to the defence of police officers. They have a hard job, ultimately, and when people are smashing up banks and throwing paint and other projectiles all day, surely a few baton charges here and there is to be expected. In reality it is far more complicated.

From what I seen yesterday, police tactics seemed to directly antagonise protesters and inflame violence. The rigid dichotomy between police and protesters (particularly 'anarchists') is a false one. There are protesters who are trouble just as there are also policemen who are trouble. Like Inspector Wood, whom I overheard telling a colleague he was “up for it”, there are officers who like a scuffle; they enjoy the thrill of chasing protesters through the streets and they may even be exhilarated by the prospect of violence.

If a policeman hammers a woman across the face with his shield, it is likely some protesters will react by throwing a few objects in retaliation. If an innocent, law-abiding person is battered across the back and legs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he or she will begin to question the legitimacy of police authority. Until the police and the wider public realise this and respond accordingly, we will continue to see scenes like we did yesterday at every single large demonstration.

Many of this morning’s newspapers are unsurprisingly filled with moral indignation at yesterday’s scenes. The Telegraph describes “mobs of masked thugs” and Scotland Yard Commander Bob Broadhurst is widely quoted condemning “mindless yobbery”. But this lacks balance and misrepresents the perpetrators. The targeted acts of disruption and property damage were carried out and cheered on by large numbers of (predominantly) young people who appear to be both politically engaged and intelligent. However you judge their actions, bear in mind first that they are responding in such a way because they feel detached, alienated and disenfranchised from a society and a political system that to them appears unjust, unequal, broken and hopeless.

When the police attack protesters, it only reinforces this sense of isolation and injustice. For every baton charge, for every shield across the face, the anger deepens. What I observed on the streets of London yesterday reaffirms a belief I have held since I witnessed similar scenes in Edinburgh during the G8 protests six years ago: that there is simply not enough independent scrutiny of police tactics and the mainstream media are far too quick to uncritically adopt the perspective of the authorities.

In the months ahead there will no doubt be more unrest on the streets of London. The anger is yet to peak – youth unemployment is at its highest ever recorded level and the cuts are still to fully bite. Unless the police are subject to the same criticism and scrutiny as are the protesters, next time there is a similar protest more windows will be broken and the police will continue to issue out indiscriminate beatings down dark side streets when they think no one is watching. This is something that should give us all cause for concern. We must remember, after all, that it is the role of the police in any democratic society to serve, not to subjugate.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/baton-charged-by-police-on-frontline-with-black-bloc