Riot Girls?

© 2010, Peter Marshall
Schoolgirls join hands to peacefully stop attacks on a police van during student protests in London

Wednesday’s student fees demonstration in London had its interesting moments, but it wasn’t easy to photograph, partly because it was pretty chaotic. I got very much crushed in the crowd a number of times and it was fortunate that most of those there were friendly to the press – and when I went flying in the crush hands came out immediately to help me up.

I think together with most of the press who were actually there I was very clear that the police were determined to stop the students and try to discredit them, and that their tactics were designed to encourage the kind of mindless extremism that would give the protesters a bad name. The police took a lot of flak over their failure protect the Conservative HQ during the march on October 10 and were determined not to be caught with their pants down again.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
The start of the student march

Before they confined the large numbers of demonstrators in a small space in Whitehall the protest had shown its anger in the chants and placards, but had remained good-natured and entirely peaceful, at least so far as we could see.

Once prevented from the peaceful protest by kettling, things got a little more confused, but the great majority of those present were simply standing around looking confused. A few small bands of mainly young men who were masked up started to light small bonfires of placards in the middle of the street, and to push their way through the police, but gained little support.

In what everyone present was convinced was a deliberate police ploy, one rather old and rusty police van – its tyre treads worn almost smooth, had been left in the middle of the area where the protesters were confined. Later I was told it was due to be decommissioned the following day, but was unable to confirm this. Stewards and others warned everyone not to be taken in by this trap and provide images that would be splashed over the right-wing press and TV of “violent disorder” that would be used to discredit the demonstration by smashing it up, but a dozen or two masked protesters took no notice, pushing those who tried to stop them out of the way.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
A young woman argues with masked protesters who want to smash in the van windows

I was threatened while taking pictures like this one that I had better move away or they would smash my camera. I had my suspicions that at least one of this group might be an agent provocateur, one of a number of student and ex-student protesters in the pay of the police. There is at least one such young man who I regularly see at protests, but I couldn’t see him. Another who had deceived all his friends for years and encouraged vandalism and illegal acts at a number of protests was unmasked a couple of months ago, and there are almost certainly others still in most activist groups.

By now a number of young women on the protest had begun to surround the vehicle, and I took a number of pictures, one of which – at the head of this post was used in a couple of newspapers, and particularly in a piece headlined ‘Student protests: the riot girls’, although the caption accurately records ‘Schoolgirls join hands to peacefully stop attacks on a police van during student protests in London’.

Today, Sky News published a video taken shortly before the demonstration was kettled which shows the van already abandoned and the entirely peaceful atmosphere on Whitehall shortly  before police imposed the kettle. Although it describes the suggestion that the van was deliberately left there as a ‘conspiracy theory’, at least it is beginning to ask some of the right questions.

Later there were some more violent scenes as students tried a little half-heartedly to push their way through the police lines and escape the kettle. I was watching from one on top of one of the tank traps, and it was clear that a determined group would have pushed through them with little trouble in the ten or fifteen minutes before reinforcements arrived. But most people who got to the front of the crowd simply stood there and watched the police, not wanting to get involved in anything other than a peaceful demonstration.

A few light sticks and placards and the odd mainly empty plastic bottle were thrown at the police, many falling short on the crowd. One officer clearly lost it at one point and lay into some of the demonstrators around the side of one of the barriers wildly with his baton, but his colleagues restrained him. At another barrier an officer in riot gear obviously decided he wasn’t going to miss the chance of a bit of mindless violence and launched himself into the crowd, but had to retreat when none of his colleagues followed his lead.

Soon people gave up and drifted away towards a longer police line blocking the way to Downing St – where I followed but it was too crowded too get near. I pushed my way back out of the mass and made my way round to the side and then managed to get in just in front of the police line, but by then nothing was happening.

Unlike some kettles in past years, the police at this point where little was happening let those with press cards through the line. They were also letting a few demonstrators – mainly younger girls – out so long as they promised to go away and not come back. I did not see any young men being allowed out in the ten minutes or so I was around there.

It was clear that the kettle was going to keep going for some hours, keeping protesters confined largely without food, water or any toilet facilities on one of the coldest days of the year, but there seemed unlikely to be much more to report. I went home to file my story around 4pm and it was not until 10pm that police reported the area as clear, around 8 hours after they had confined the protesters there.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

On my way home I’d seen a group of 12 mounted police, and had thought “On No!” but decided I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. It was several hours later before they made a charge into the protesters. The Met at first denied that this had happened, but although most of the press had gone home by the time it happened, it was still caught on video. More recently police have tried to diminish its significance by claiming that the horses were only “trotting”, but the difference if you are a protester in a dark and confused area is hardly significant.

The press were slow to pick up on the story – but the video had been on YouTube for some time finally appeared on the Guardian site. Next morning I heard it mentioned on the BBC Today programme which simply interviewed a police spokesman advertising how useful police horses were in public order situations rather than looking at the actual incident.

4 Responses to “Riot Girls?”

  1. makhnovite says:

    “one rather old and rusty police van”

    The same age as most of the Met’s vans, and rather less rusty than the norm.

  2. Did you examine it carefully on the spot, or are you simply taking a quick look at the pictures? Or you have some inside knowledge?

    And is it normal for police vans to have virtually no tread on the tires? The one I looked at closely seemed to be less than the 1.6mm minimum, though I didn’t actually measure.

  3. Verichrome says:

    1st shot’s great.

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