Student Protests & the Photograph as Evidence 1

© 2010, Peter Marshall

What exactly does the photograph above – which I took on Wednesday – show?

I think I know, because I was there and saw what happened before and what happened after the moment when I took this picture (its one of around a dozen frames, some blurred, of the incident.) But even as a sequence the pictures don’t tell the story. Yesterday I watched two rather poor quality videos of a similar incident in which a policeman punched a protester, and despite the lack of definition, they gave a much clearer idea of what was happening.

There were perhaps a couple of thousand protesters, mainly students, apparently marching without any particular direction through the major streets of central London. I think the police were equally unclear about their aims – but basically they were staying with the students in case there was any trouble, and groups of them were moving along the sides of the march towards the front. As they went along they were pushing people from the edges of the march back into the middle, out of their way and also away from oncoming but very slow-moving traffic on the adjoining roadway.

I got pushed aside rather roughly several times – and as usual there was the odd guy – perhaps one in twenty – in these police lines who was obviously enjoying throwing his weight around, using a totally unnecessary amount of force. Most officers manage to be firm and some even polite as they move people out of the way, but protesters of course sometimes complain or argue about their treatment.

I don’t know exactly how this particular incident started; I first saw the grey-hooded student being held by the officer – a police medic – who the pushed him back inside the march. Then the officer appeared to loose his temper and punched the guy several times before grabbing him around the head; other protesters tried to separate the two and pull the student away from the officer; one of the legal observers on the march who tried to get between them was grabbed by other officers, pushed away and held briefly against the bus behind.

© 2010, Peter Marshall

The other police present – including an inspector, standing just behind the medic – make no attempt to stop the violent attack.

It was a short incident, over in a few seconds, and everyone involved disappeared. My last frame of it shows the medic being hurried away by the other officers.  So far as I’m aware there were no arrests and no complaint made against the Police medic – whose number is clearly visible.

Although the demonstration was one against education cuts and the huge rise in tuition fees, the form that it took – on both the part of the students and police – was very much a reaction to the police’s “kettling” of the protest in Whitehall the previous week, part of a battle over the control of the streets, expressed in the loud chants by the students “Whose streets? OUR streets.” This incident was just one of many minor skirmishes in that turf war.

Had I been shooting video, the evidence would have been far clearer, but the still photograph I think provides a greater drama.

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