Millbank & Misrepresentation

 © 2010, Peter Marshall

I’ve just posted my pictures from last Wednesday’s higher education march on My London Diary. The pictures I took tell a very different story from that which filled the news broadcasts and papers on Wednesday evening and throughout the next day or two. But of course most of those who pontificate about it weren’t there, and even those of us who were could only get a partial view. But I’ve talked to a number of others, read eyewitness accounts, watched the videos and seen the photographs taken by others as well.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
NUS President Aaron Porter passes Big Ben

The account I just uploaded to my web site – and this story here – both differ in some respects from what I wrote for Demotix on Wednesday night, because of what I’ve heard since from others who were there, but it was clear on the day that many published accounts were frankly sensationalism rather than based on fact. Even today the BBC continues to talk about the ‘storming’ of the building which just isn’t what happened. They are simply telling a lie on behalf of the political establishment and the government.

It wasn’t just the Met who got it wrong for the student protest on Wednesday; the journalists and photographers in particular did as well, which is why the editors and politicians got quite such an easy ride in making up their lies about what happened.

As the march came down Whitehall and we stopped to photograph it going through Parliament Square we’d talked about the possibility of trouble. And although one of the best-known anarchists had earlier told me “There’ll be plenty for you to photograph” I didn’t take the hint, or at least failed to understand it, though I doubt if he knew the details of what would happen.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
Sit-down in Parliament Square

I’d thought that the glass-fronted Millbank offices outside which I photographed in May had only been taken over by the Conservatives as their temporary election HQ, and didn’t realise they were still there six months later. Had I known that – and if I was the officer in charge of the policing I would have known it – I might have followed the front of the march down just in case rather than keep on taking pictures in Parliament Square. But probably not, as there had been little indication that there was likely to be anything special to photograph. Certainly there had been no organised bloc that looked like causing trouble – though many obviously angry students – and I’d seen few of those that I’ve photographed at previous events who might be expected to cause trouble. Several photographers commented to me that it didn’t look likely that things would take off.

So I was a little surprised when I heard (thanks to a tweet read by one of the students I was photographing) what was going on. I’d stayed on in Parliament Square as I thought there would be a few things of interest there (and there were) while quite a few of the other photographers had continued down towards Tate Britain, outside which the rally was being held.

But few if any of them were actually there when the first group of students walked into the offices and occupied them – more or less non-violently. There are some people taking pictures on the short and fairly amateur video I’ve seen, but I didn’t recognise any of them as professionals. Rather more of the press were there when the police made their second big mistake, which was to try and forcibly remove the protesters when they had too few officers to do the job sensibly.

The photographers who were there at that point tell me that there was a great deal of indiscriminate violence by the police, much of it against protesters offering no resistance – and some photographers also have the bruises from the batons and riot shields to prove it. The said the effect of this attack was to enrage many of those who until then had been onlookers and produce an angry mob, which was the start the real battle that took place, with the breaking of windows and a fair amount of indiscriminate violence, in a second wave of occupation.  Had the police reacted more calmly and sensibly, waiting until they had the resources to properly protect the building there might have been only minimal damage.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

By the time I heard about what was going on it hardly seemed worth rushing to get there  – I thought I would have missed everything. So I continued taking pictures for quite a while around Parliament, and then decided to make my way home by a route that took me along Millbank.

I ignored the NUS/UCU stewards who where by this time turning away protesters coming down Millbank at the Lambeth Bridge roundabout, telling people that the protest was all over and walked down towards the Millbank Tower. As I arrived a group of riot police got out of several vans and ran past me and into the crowded area; I tried to follow them but soon found my way blocked by a crowd of onlookers, so I went back and round into the courtyard which was slightly less packed with people, some standing around a couple of small fires.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
Not a riot!

Over their heads I could see a line of riot police facing the crowd with a small gap between. I pushed through the crowd and eventually got to the front and found myself with a number of other photographers, most of whom I knew, taking pictures.

By that time there wasn’t a great deal happening, and the police were adopting a low-key policy, at least outside the building, forming a line to prevent any further ingress. A few people in the crowd were still throwing the occasional piece of card or stick towards the police, and a number fell short on the photographers and crowd, and a number of those at the front occasionally shouted at the police. Generally it was almost good-natured – more a game than any serious attack by this time. The police certainly weren’t in any great danger and though a few looked a little stressed, many seemed to be quite enjoying it.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

A couple of fire-extinguishers were let off from the crowd, as well as from the roof and I got rather wet, and then covered with powder. Neither healthy for cameras. I wasn’t there when an empty extinguisher was thrown down from the roof, but on the video it’s clear that it caused an immediate angry chant from the crowd below as a stupidly irresponsible act. Someone – and and given the way it was lobbed it could have have been a protester rather than police – could easily have been killed,  was just luck that it missed everyone.

There didn’t seem to be a great deal of point in staying – there were hordes of photographers and videographers there and any pictures I got would be unlikely to add much to the coverage or even get used. Unlike some of the other photographers there I refuse to carry a helmet or hard hat, and this was a situation where I would have been happier with one on. So having taken a few pictures I left and walked across Vauxhall Bridge for a train home.

More detail about the event and more pictures on My London Diary.

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