In the week or so since the G20 demos, report after report of police brutality have emerged, both at the big demo on the Wednesday and at the squats and smaller Bank of England demo on Thursday. The mainstream media is gradually catching up with what’s been up on Indymedia, Libcom and other radical websites for days. The police violently attack the Climate Camp, the police pointed Tasers at non-threatening people on the floor of the squatted convergence centre, the police did lots of bad things and the IPCC is investigating.
However, one element I haven’t yet seen in print is the question of whether the police deliberately set things up to try to cause a riot. Think about it, if there had actually been a full-on riot, the police wouldn’t sound as pathetic blaming “pushing” by demonstrators or a small woman shouting at them as “incitement”. Burning cars on the street, Greek-style street battles with petrol bombs flying one way and tear-gas flying the other. The cops could, literally, have gotten away with murder if there had actually been sustained and extreme violence from demonstrators. The problem for them was – there wasn’t.
This might sound a little bit conspiratorial – OK, it sounds a lot conspiratorial, but I think the police in London tried very hard to start a riot and their plans and tactics were built around the riot that never happened. I was at the Bank on Wednesday; I arrived with a colleague doing some filming with the red horseman of the apocalypse. From the beginning, police tactics seemed designed to annoy and frustrate demonstrators.
The whole idea of G20 Meltdown was convergence of the four themes, represented by the four horsemen, in the area in front of the Royal Exchange steps beside Bank station. The cops, from the very start, didn’t seem to want all the groups coming together and set up a very thin line on Threadneedle Street, to the side of the Exchange to prevent the convergence. A single line of yellow-clad cops with hundreds of demonstrators on one side and well over a thousand on the other – tactically idiotic and potentially dangerous. After much pushing and shoving, the police decided it was strategic to withdraw; scrambling rather ridiculously up a side wall.
Convergence achieved, the mood lightened, annoyance receded and a party atmosphere started to take hold – for a while. Police lines started to appear around the edges – shutting down the side streets. After a while, the most clearly anarchist contingent (black-clad with quite a few masks along with the four horsemen) decided to move towards the apparently unprotected and strangely not boarded windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland down Threadneedle Street.
This time, the police line was somewhat more substantial – at least three deep, though, situated as it was further down Threadneedle Street, there was no convenient low wall to the side. This line seemed determined to stay, even as a large part of the demonstration started to pile onto the street behind between the anarchist front-line. Within a short time, the police were trying to hold the line against at least a thousand people and the pushing started again. Then demonstrators started to fill in on the other side of the police lines, leaving the police once again trapped between pushing protesters on either side determined to break their line.
Then violence broke out. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see who hit who first, but it was clear that some of the demonstrators had turned banner poles into weapons and were striking into the police lines, while the police had pulled out their telescopic batons. The situation deteriorated as the entire police line, including their medics, started to lash out with batons and solid truncheons, while plastic bottles, cans, flour and at least one smoke bomb rained down on them. At least one policeman’s helmet was removed and thrown back into the crowd. The temperature was rising and rising as blood started to flow.
And then the police withdrew to the side and hundreds of demonstrators, accompanied by a very large number of camera carrying media, flowed down the road to the RBS. This was where it got very strange – despite the police lines visible beyond the RBS, there were only a few officers at the bank’s doors and nothing beside the windows. The protester then found that police were lined up at the end of the road on the other side of the RBS. In effect, very solid police lines were lined up to contain the now angry protest beside the RBS windows.
The inevitable and sadly predictable happened. Surrounded by cameras eager for some action shots, a handful of demonstrators started to smash the windows. No police response. Some people climbed in the windows and started throwing computers and office equipment out and setting a few fires. The police response came slowly. Then the riot police moved in and cleared the bank and gradually pushed the demonstrators back up Threadneedle Street.
Before that happened, my colleague and I decided to move back a bit and see if we could get around the back of the police lines. No go, the police wouldn’t let anyone in around the back of the riot police lines – citing the fact that there had been a disturbance of the peace. Press cards meant nothing, the only part of the now obvious “kettle” around the whole of the area that allowed journalists through was at the end furthest away from the action at the RBS. Once outside, no-one was allowed back in at any point, not demonstrators or journalists.
What this meant in practice was that, other than the important media people who had sorted out vantage points over the crowd, the only people who could record the riot police push were those in its path, mostly trying to get out of the way. No journalist was allowed to take up safe position behind it.
In effect, the police gave carte blanche to angry protestors to attack the RBS in front of the media’s cameras creating the violence necessary to unleash the riot police, complete with horses and dogs. Why didn’t the riot police just set themselves up in front of the bank to protect the windows and make it clear that this line wasn’t going to break?
The police restricted the ability of the press to cover their response, a tactic that continued for the rest of the day as this response became more and more extreme. They responded to a riot that never happened. After the RBS windows were broken, the whole thing chilled out again. Music played, people danced and the police over-reacted. At one point, having accidentally managed to get back inside the kettle (a police line disintegrated in front of us as a new one formed behind us), my colleague and I were standing in front of a riot police line on Threadneedle Street.
After a bit of filming of the solid police line, complete with horses, we started talking to some people beside us. We were clearly media. On the ground beside us were some young people lying down and enjoying the sun. Further across, there was a group of young Italian anarchists, one of whom was dancing in front of the police. In other words, it was a chilled out, unthreatening and definitely non-violent group of people. So we were shocked when we heard the yell “RUN” as the police lines started to push forward with absolutely no warning. It was hard to tell in the craziness if the kids on the ground had managed to get up in time. Completely unprovoked and unnecessary.
It could have been very different. The police could have defended the Bank; in fact, someone with some foresight could have boarded up the windows like so many other businesses in the area. The police could legitimately have restrained the demonstration to a specific area and allowed the peaceful carnival atmosphere to rule the day. They could have let people go home when they wanted; they could have fulfilled their official function to maintain peace and order. Instead, they tried and failed to incite a riot and acted as if they had.