Wednesday, April 1, 2009
The Battle of London
For those of you who watch or read the news, you may know that this week London is hosting the G20 Summit. The G20 Summit is a meeting of the leaders of the world's twenty largest economies. President Obama and nineteen other heads of government are in London today and tomorrow to try and make sense of the current recession. As would be expected, this event has sparked lots of media attention and outrage from people who feel betrayed by banks and governments. Today, London's financial district was subject to a large-scale riot. I was fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough) to be there.
I arrived outside the Bank of England at approximately 2:30pm and joined a mostly peaceful protest. At the point that I arrived, the windows had already been smashed out of a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one the main culprits behind Britain's economic crash. But that had happened two blocks up the road and the protest I joined was more like a party. The police had separated the protesters into two groups, one in front of the Bank of England, and one across the intersection where I was, as you can see in the photo. Fifteen minutes or so after I got there, the two groups grew tired of being manhandled by the police, and in a matter of seconds, both crowds crashed through the police lines, joining up in the middle. This left lots of very scared police officers isolated in the middle of the protesters, and they proceeded to punch their way out of the crowd.
At this point, the protesters had ejected all police out of a three block stretch of Queen Victoria Street leading up to the Bank of England. The ordinary police officers quickly donned riot gear and began to systematically cordon of the area so that no protesters could enter or leave. The east end of Queen Victoria Street was a full blown street party with music blaring and joints being passed. The west end, however, was fast turning into a battle zone as protesters tried to force their way through a police cordon in order to join up with another group of protesters. On the north side of the street is a branch of HSBC, a bank. All the bankers were trapped up in the building for fear that if they came out, they would be beaten by the mob. At one point, a group of bankers was watching the protest from the roof, and the crowd began to chant, 'Jump! Jump!' At one point during this stage, I took a photograph of a (I believe) very scared police officer.
After this went on for a few minutes, the riot police began to force us back up Queen Victoria towards the Bank of England. I believe they did this for two reasons, with the first being to separate us from the protesters on the outside of the cordon, and the second reason being that they wanted to clear us out from in front of HSBC so the bankers could leave in safety. Clad in full riot gear with shields and batons the police crashed into the protesters and steadily began to push us back up the street. At one point during this process, some protesters took a garbage bin and threw it over my head, crashing onto the helmets and shields of the riot police right in front of me. The police then reacted by charging the crowd and bloodying a few random people with their retractable batons. In retrospect, I can identify this as the point that the protest became violent and turned into a riot. The police kept pushing us, and we put up scattered resistance, but we were no match for their shields and batons.
The police pushed us back several hundred yards until we were in an intersection in front of the Bank of England. We were confined to an area maybe two hundred yards across. The area, shown in the first picture, consisted of a large seven-way intersection and a courtyard in front of the Bank of England. I tried to find a way out, not wanting to be trapped by the police, but every exit was blockaded by police in riot gear, as shown in the photo. I tried to talk a police officer into letting me and my friend Dani out, but to no avail We were trapped with an estimated 5,000 protesters.
There was sporadic clashing for the next few minutes, and as the violence waned, a carnival atmosphere took over. People began to dance in the street and play loud music, all the while vandalizing the sides of the banks exposed to us. Basically, the police held a cordon, and within that, anything was fair game. After being trapped in this smallish area for an hour and a half or two hours, the protesters grew quite restless.
On the south side of the Bank of England, a line of riot police held us up, and just a few yards behind them, another line of riot police held up another group of protesters. Both groups tried to break the police lines in order to join up, as had been done earlier in the day, but the police realized they would be in great danger if this happened, and became very violent in an effort to move us apart. I was near the front lines taking photos of police clashing with protesters when I heard several long whistle blasts from behind the police line. The riot police charged into us, beating people with their batons. As this happened, 8 to 10 officers on horses gallopped up behind the police line. Fearing I was about to be on the losing end of a cavalry charge, I and about a thousand other people ran like hell.
Realizing this line of riot police was not going to be defeated, the mob moved to the next exit, clashing with police there. I was standing near the front line again, as rioters began to move past me in pairs or threes, carrying 6 foot long metal barriers over there heads. Realizing what was about to happen, I put my camera away and tried to back up, but couldn't for the density of the crowd, so all I could do was mutter 'Oh fuck,' to my friend Dani. The rioters lined up just across from the police and proceeded to throw these heavy metal barricades into the police lines, no doubt causing some injuries to the police force. Naturally, the police responded in kind, launching the fiercest charge I had seen to this point. Dani and I turned to run with the crowd, but we were obstructed by some large debris on the ground. Dani began to fall, but I caught her underneath the elbows, keeping her from being stampeded. For the next couple seconds, we stumbled awkardly, trying our hardest not to fall. I looked over my shoulder for a brief second to see the police charging up my ass, beating the living shit out of anyone the could get their hands on. I was genuinely terrified at this point. Immediately following that, I snapped this picture of a guy who couldn't manage to get out of the way of the police charge.
After this episode, I went to a police officer on one of the lines, and made small talk with him. It turns out he's been to Tennessee several times and is quite interested in college football. He could tell I was a bit nervous, and I asked him kindly if Dani and I could leave, but he said he had orders (best excuse ever for treating other humans like shit) and that no one was allowed to leave. He told me the safest place to go was the middle of the courtyard in front of the Bank of England, seeing as this was as far from the police cordons as we could get.
Dani and I went and sat down in the middle of the courtyard. We were tired and began to look at photos I had taken so far. No sooner had we done this than the police launched a charge right into the courtyard, right where the officer had told me I'd be safe. Scrambling to our feet, we ran and climbed up onto an elevated flower bed, with the police closing in right behind us. To my surprise, the police proceeded to close in on us from all sides, closing all of the protesters into an impossibly small space in the intersection. A very tall police officer in riot gear told me to 'Go!' and I said 'Where the hell am I supposed to go? There's no room?' And he pointed at me, made a walking motion with his index and middle finger, then pointed over my shoulder. Stunned at this ridiculous gesture, I showed him one of my fingers, followed by a very polite 'Fuck you.'
As I made my way across the intersection, I saw a group of protesters burning a couple of mannequins dressed as bankers. I would have thought this was funny four hours ago, but at this point I was too tired and pissed off to care, not to mention the burning plastic smelled terrible. As I walked away from this scene, I saw some protesters begin to throw large pieces of flaming debris into the police lines. At this point, I was sitting on the street smoking a cigarette, wondering how long the police were going to hold us.
Around 8:30 pm, I was released after 6 hours. They released us five at a time to prevent us from regrouping and attacking the police from behind. I began the long walk home as the Tube was shut down in that part of town. As I sit and watch the news right now, I have just seen that a dead man was found outside of the Bank of England. I can only assume that he was a victim of one of the stampedes caused by the police charges. I don't really know how to wrap this up. All I can say is that the G20 will fail to produce any real solutions. Governments and financial institutions will continue to take advantage of other humans, and humans will continue to act violently towards one another. I saw things today that I won't forget for a long time. I'm glad I made it out with only couple bruises, particularly after hearing that a man died right where we were. I hope you guys find this interesting.