Before I begin, I should explain my own experiences with fees and student debt. When I was 17, I took a Foundation course in photo-journalism with my A levels. On passing this, I applied for and secured a place on the next stage, the Pre-entry NCTJ Photo-Journalism course. However, when I was told this good news, I was also informed that I’d have to fund the course fees of £2000 myself. Being far from wealthy, this actually forced me away from the course and I moved on to pursue music. Eight years later, the European Union began to cover the fees for those accepted and I managed to get a position once more. Without that financial assistance, I would never have completed the course so I can thoroughly understand how some can say that £9000 of fees will be enough to dissuade them from attending University. Fees are bad, mmkay?
Having managed to time my days off with all of the three previous student tuition fee protests, the fourth demo became my first full day of revolting students. With other photographers having already experienced the fun and games involved, many were already complaining about the long day ahead before it had even started. Not a good sign.
Speaking of signs, a group holding oversized model textbooks gathered at the front of the march before it set off, making quite a nice frame. It only dawned on me later in the day that it was a “novel” (snigger) way to disguise your riot shield.
The march from the University of London to the Houses of Parliament went smoothly enough with a few kids at the front running ahead and taking a different route but eventually regrouping with the main body of protestors. When they finally reached the arranged destination, it quickly became clear how odd a decision it is to march on Parliament; the square is one giant containment area surrounded by buildings with bomb and bullet-proof windows. Basically, the march led itself into the kettle.
While the people filed in, all was calm enough but within a short period, a handful of protestors began to kick off with the odd missile being thrown at the police, barriers being pushed down and statues being vandalised. While the majority of the crowd were happy to just be there and make their presence speak for itself, it was clear that others had come to cause trouble. It didn’t take long for it to begin.
At the junction of Victoria Street and Parliament Square, a flashpoint soon became apparent with the police line being consistently tested by surging crowds. For those that have never been in this kind of situation, allow me to give my take on how the stories of police brutality against innocent youngsters occur. Firstly, Mr. or Mrs. “FightThePower” gets to the front line and starts kicking off and pushing the police around. Once it’s started to get loud and aggressive, others come over to see what’s happening. The initial troublemakers take a step back from the front line, allowing the less-aggressive protestors to slip to the front. Once they’re safely away from the danger, the incredibly brave soldiers of anarchy begin throwing sticks and rocks at the police line while surging forwards, pushing the ones at the front into the police. The police respond by pushing back and inevitably someone gets hurt.
Throughout the day, you could clearly see that the majority of the masked kids that were shouting for people to target the horses and throwing broken chunks of concrete were conveniently never on the front line. Way to go, tough guys.
It was around this time when the first photographer casualties occurred with colleagues James Vasey and Luke McGregor both suffering cuts during crowd surges. With the crush becoming more severe, a number of photographers were pushed to the floor under fencing with two of them saying that they thought that it could be about to get REALLY serious.
With the police horses now out to hold the line, a few small groups in the crowd started to take out their frustration on what was to hand with construction fencing and a security shed being targeted.
Before long, the fencing was being used against the police back at the flashpoint. It was so clear how this was going to end up by this point. If you try to force a large metal section of fencing at police and they start wrestling it back at you, who’s going to come out worse; the police dressed in body armour and helmets or the guys on the front line with nice soft heads?
As the sun went down, the fires began with benches and the previously mentioned shed getting the lighter treatment. With all this happening, I have to restate that the vast majority of the people in Parliament Square were chatting, chanting and remaining calm. From what I saw, there is very obviously a smaller element that are just there to break things, or in their words, “fuck things up”. A man mentioned to me that he’d asked one of the masked protestors if he’d heard when the vote to decide if the fee increase would be going through in Parliament. The masked man responded by asking him what vote he was talking about.
By 4pm, the police decided to close the area of, effectively forming the “kettle”. From this point on, only accredited media or those with medical emergencies could pass out of parliament Square. By now, the marchers had been in the square for around 3-4 hours with at least a few more hours in containment ahead of them. A small area in the centre of the grassed area became an impromptu toilet with a definite “festival” feel to the mud around that corner of the square.
As it got colder and people got hungry and tired, more of the demonstrators headed towards the exit but found the “kettle” still in place with nobody allowed to leave. With nowhere to go, the flashpoint moved to Whitehall with huge numbers funnelling into the closed off road.
This time, I decided to get right into the thick of it and managed to both lose my protective headgear and have a flashgun smashed. Whoopee. Still, it resulted in me having to shoot catch-flash instead which, thanks to an abundance of photographers in the area, was pretty easy with some decent results. Like most of the protests and demonstrations that happen now, the media is there in the front line with agency, newspaper, freelance and amateur photographers scrambling for positions. A number of times in the evening, there were similarities with the clashes at the G20 demonstration in central London where I was half expecting a PR to come along and start handing out press releases to the rows and rows of media.
By now, word had come through of THE incident of the day with Matt Dunham of AP managing to be at just the the right place at just the right time to capture the moment that a breakaway group of protestors attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Now when something like that happens, it’s game over. Everyone very quickly realises that with an image like that on the wire, there’s no point in even thinking of another angle. Sure enough, Matt secured nearly every front page in the UK the next day and very probably in countries all over the world. Up to that point, Ki Price had been the man of the day with his picture of a guy swinging on a Union flag, suspended from the Cenotaph war memorial. Thankfully, he also managed to get his day of front pages the day after Matt, when it was discovered that the boy in question was the son of Pink Floyd‘s Dave Gilmour. Despite him being a history student at an exclusive University, he claimed to have no idea what the Cenotaph was. With today’s news that he’s been arrested, I guess he’s going to be learning something for free after all.
After smashing a few windows on the Treasury building and the Supreme Court, the Police managed to push the group back and after holding them for a little longer, the containment was slowly opened along a secured route, allowing the remaining group to slowly make their way over Westminster bridge and home. With this being the final protest scheduled for 2010, the new year promises to hold more demonstrations, despite the bill passing through Parliament. With neither side appearing to want to back down on their opinions, it looks like this story is set to rumble on for some time. Looks like I might need to get that hard hat replaced…