June 11th, 2013
Soho, London – 05:30 AM
My Alarm goes off. Cursing the gods that I don’t believe in, I drag myself off my mattress of roll matt and cardboard and survey my surroundings in the dawn grey light. Around me are the slumbering forms of about 50 young anti-capitalists from across Europe. Echoing German snores reverberated off the ceiling. Mutterings in French from the couple bedded down in the corner. We had a truly international mix, all packed into the gutted, 2nd floor room of the squatted police academy that the Stop G8 network had made its headquarters. Most of the other empty rooms were being similarly employed to house the hundreds of new arrivals from outside London.
Most of them had arrived the day before, fresh from Heathrow, stomping around in hiking rucksacks so laden they would make an Squaddie wince, inquiring in excellent but heavily accented English for the location of the running water, the sleeping spaces, the media team and everything else under the sun. I had already given a crash legal briefing to a young couple from Barcelona, explaining the basics of British Policing and criminal law, whilst burnt scraps of paper fluttered down from the upper gantries as affinity groups burnt their maps and action plans.
The previous day had been hectic as hell, but also interspersed with joyful reunions of old friends from all over the world randomly encountering each other in briefings, sleeping areas and in one case, a chemical toilet. However as the evening drew in, the police began to make arrests of activists in the streets around the squat. The first time round, three officers pulled up in a squad car and with no warning, tried to arrest one activist right outside the building, jumping on him and grabbing his arms. With quick shouts of “de-arrest!” everyone else outside piled in and the arrest failed. From behind the relative security of the rails blocking access to the basement entrance the police were ruthlessly mocked as they sheepishly spluttered into their radios.
However no sooner had this occurred, the police nabbed a French lad around the corner, applying pressure points to his wrist in the process. Throughout the previous day the police had been inactive. However this shift on the run up to the demonstration prompted me to get up at such a horrifically early hour alongside a similarly concerned and/or massively paranoid mate. After a scrounged cup of coffee and a meagre breakfast, we slipped out of our Soho squat at about 5:45, moving away through the narrow streets to minimise being spotted. We whiled away the hours with a bit of recce, and then slept in Hyde Park until 11.
The demonstration was due to start at 12, so I had an hour to find and meet up with my affinity group before the action started. The plan that had been laid out the day before was to meet up in Oxford and Piccadilly Circus, and to follow the banner bearers to the front of the demonstration, trying to pass and target as many big capitalists / corporations / wretched hives of scum and villainy as possible. My affinity group had chosen a small park off Oxford Street for our initial rendezvous point, but as the hour drew closer the police presence began to increase. First it was a few regular looking officers patrolling up and down; all too quickly it was a helicopter circling overhead and multiple Territorial Support Group carriers slowly crawling up and down Oxford Street scrutinizing everybody. By the time I had mobbed up with my affinity group, the park was being circled by police vans. Other activists who were using the space to meet up were being harassed and searched by officers in riot overalls. I began to get calls and texts from people still inside the squat, saying that a Police raid was developing, and asking for help. However the rough consensus was to continue with the demonstration for the time being.
By the time we made it to the demonstration start point at Oxford Circus, every tube exit was covered by Transport police and whole herds of TSG carriers parked further down the road. Numbers of demonstrators were way down on what we expected and by then I was beginning to realise how much damage the raid on the squat had done to the group. A significant amount of people were still inside, and remained trapped there throughout the day. We got started at about 12:15, not with any clear signal, but instead with a lot of shuffling as people constantly tried to edge away from the police, who would then follow them. It was the most awfully British demo start ever, since to protest you have to step outside that bubble of “normal acceptable” behaviour and do something different, and nobody wanted to be the first person to stop badly pretending to be innocent shoppers, and thus the dance couldn’t begin. Genoa 2001 this was not.
Finally a samba band decked out in pink arrived, along with a group of people bearing two man horizontal plywood shields and a clutch of black and red flags. The initial size of our demonstration couldn’t have been more than 200 people, followed by vastly more police. Their aims so far had been to keep us off the road, and only by moving off Oxford Street onto Regent Street could we get enough breathing space to get off the pavement onto the road. Finally the waiting and faking was fucking over and the cards were on the table. My heart began to beat faster as the familiar old rhythm of the samba picked up, mixing in with the low level whockwhockwhock of the helo rotors and the crackle of police radios all melding together to form the unified roar of the protest. A cabbie, his taxi blocked by the demonstration, wound down his window and raised his fist. “I am Greek!” he cried, over and over whilst he pumped his clenched fist in the air. People stared slack-jawed at this mob of people in weird and wonderful clothing marching down Regent Street, followed by twice their number by Police and journalists, swooping and mobbing us like vultures to get the perfect picture of something dramatic looking that they could sell on and edit to look like a horde of looters. The cops had already tried to search some people in black bloc gear, resulting in mad scrums of feds, their targets and their buddies clinging on to them for dear life and the snapping journalists, holding up their cameras over their heads. As the march pushed further down Regent Street the cops successfully forced us back onto the pavement and executed more searches, splitting the demo and smothering us with Evidence Gathering teams and Police “liaison” Officers. This was not well received. I buckled on my crash helmet and shook out my legs, getting ready to run for my sorry behind whilst trying to keep alongside my buddy, keep in the middle of the demonstration and watch hundreds of police all at once.
I don’t know how it started exactly. Either the cops grabbed someone, or tried to, and their target resisted. We were at a junction and people started to run, and they chased us. People were being grabbed and tackled to the ground left right and centre. The cries of “de-arrest!” went up – I heard that word a lot that day. People tried to perform de-arrests, but as they tried to snatch people from the arms of the police more ran around behind them and began to claw at them as well. The batons never came out; they just came at people with their massive black gloved hands. I legged it, narrowly avoiding collisions with the photo snappers as we tried to get ahead of the 5-0. A teenager came up to us filming on his phone, bewildered and scared, and asked what was going on. I just had time to splutter something about police brutality and we had to run again. We arrived at Piccadilly – somebody at the front had decided to link up with the people there, what with our numbers being so low – and I arrived just before the main bloc from Oxford Street. As the two groups tried to join together, the police drove their vehicles between the two groups to form a wall blocking our path. I sidled around their line with my buddy – we had been separated from our affinity group pretty quickly – and tried to find the space with the least police. A family of tourists approached us and the dad asked what was going on, and if the area was safe. I tried to quickly outline what the G8 was up to and advised him to avoid the boys in blue. They were everywhere – Liaison officers, Met, TSG, City of London Officers and everything in between. We even spotted two officers in civilian clothes with florescent police jackets over the top, who were later identified as PSNI, over from Northern Ireland to identify people who might go the G8 site in Ireland to continue protesting there.
After a considerable delay in Piccadilly Circus, dwarfed by the gargantum advert screens, we began to push down Piccadilly Road, preceded and followed by carriers full of TSG. We hadn’t gone more than 100 meters until that road was kettled and multiple people were searched and arrested, stopping the demonstration in its tracks. I felt really reluctant to stay in one place and had to constantly watch the small streets to keep my escape routes open as we were increasingly swarmed by walls of florescent jackets, slab jawed white faces and shiny metal. When the Samba band was reduced to trying to sneak past the sides of the line blocking Piccadilly, I decided that the demonstration had been compromised beyond hope of recovery.
By now an increasing amount of people were discussing the squat raid, and we heard that the police were beginning to break in to the building. I headed back to the squat with my buddy, only to find the surrounding streets thoroughly shut down by TSG. It was difficult to get a visual sighting on the squat, never mind get near it. Office workers and tourists looked on confused and orange women in towering heels blathered about how the police were taking too long and how they should “just get them out” A Police Dog Unit vehicle parked around the corner filled the streets with the sound of angry barks and the constant sound of the low flying police helos felt ever more heavy and oppressive. We eventually managed to circle back around the police to Gold Square, the closest we could get to the squat. Red London buses, driven by TfL drivers, were backing into the street to take out those arrested inside the squat. This produced a furious reaction from the demonstrators around Gold Square, who roundly berated them for working with the police. The buses reversed into the street, followed by an Ambulance, which parked with its medical bay facing towards the police line. Two paramedics dismounted and wheeled a gurney past us. A sick feeling began to bubble in my stomach. People began to shout “have you killed again?” to the police. The paramedics returned bearing a casualty on the gurney. His face was unrecognisable as it was covered in blood. He was strapped to the gurney and his hands were zip tied together, yet his whole body was shaking like he was having a seizure. Later on I watched the video of Met Police climbing teams on the roof of the squat, dive tackling him to the ground and splitting his head open as he made a break for the scaffolding of the adjacent building. Kay Burley of Sky News was the first to run this story as an attempted suicide, with the police bravely saving his life – a line which was quickly picked up by the majority of the big media outlets. This then meant that our media team – a small scratch group of volunteers – had to spend the next few days countering the bizarre narrative of protestors as suicidal lemmings. But that was the least of our concerns at that moment.
Until then people had been pissed off. Now they were furious. Cries of “shame on you!” went up, growing to a roar. One of the climbing team officers had walked beyond the police line, and he received a kick in the back for his troubles. The police line began their routine of shoves with their short shields and shouted mono-syllable commands to move back. I began to hear the barking of dogs again. One affinity group decided to back out – I watched one member turn and move away from the police whilst yelling “cake”, with the other members smartly responding to the shout-response drill by also shouting and moving back in unison. The cop line pushed us straight down the street, leading to most people jumping over the fence into the relative safety of Gold Square. The next thing to walk into view was a unit of police dog teams, snarling and drooling Alsatians barely being restrained by burley officers. Gold Square was violently cleared, injuring at least one woman in the process. Backing away from the snapping jaws, we managed to avoid the batons and bites, and sat down in a doorway a safe distance from the filth.
I imagined by then that it was all over and was resigned to an evening of dismal post-match analysis. So imagine my surprise when I saw hundreds of demonstrators, banners flying and sound systems booming, marching around the corner. To this day I don’t know where they came from – I suppose people who had been dispersed from the demo at Piccadilly had all regrouped around the squat, and having seen the treatment of the people inside they were now spitting mad. The chants echoed from the high buildings. Once we got onto Regent Street there were less police and we broke out into a run once we got onto Oxford Road. Two absolute heroes had sound systems built into massive rucksacks, and were providing some centre for the dispersed group of protesters. God knows how they could keep up. This was a real wild demo; fast, spontaneous and constantly changing direction. The police drove right through us with their carriers and tried to use them to make a wall to block us in, but the demo flowed around them before they could close the street, and they were left looking very stupid, sealing off an empty street. For the first time that day, the streets were ours. I skipped and dived between baffled tourists, linking up with a big mob at the Hyde Park end of Oxford Street, but I had barely began to get my breath back before we had to run, pursued by sirens and TSG carriers. This went on for some time before the numbers got too low and we finally had to disperse. Trudging back to the squat I picked up an Evening Standard to see we had made the front page, although the Standard seemed more concerned that the poor officer workers had been locked in around Gold Square.
By that evening, the police were moving out of the area and a private security team had come in. Plywood was being installed across the broken front door. The police had entered the building with nothing more than a search warrant. Yet now the building was evicted and being secured. The squatters had followed the legal processes, putting up a Section 6 on the door. However this counted for nothing. Total Policing does not seem to take legal formalities into account. It took hours of waiting, legal wrangling, two legal observers and at least one solicitor over the phone to gain access to the building to get our stuff back. The main stairwell looked like a warzone. After attempts to negotiate predictably failed, the people inside had resisted. My boots crunched over the remnants of paint bombs, broken glass and ceramic shards, the latter from the urinals the fighters hurled at the advancing police from the higher levels. With no cameras on them, the police had been brutal, brandishing the axle grinder they had used to break in, firing Taser or painting people with its laser sight. Everything had been ransacked. When I got to my own kit, my rucksack’s draw-string had been slashed, making it impossible to close, the back support had been beaten out of shape, an act impossible without serious effort with a truncheon, and my picture of me and my girlfriend had been ripped in half. This really shocked me. I know it shouldn’t have done, this wasn’t my first protest, I know what the police are like, but I still fail to understand the mind set of somebody who will slash a rucksack, hit it several times with a stick and then rip up a photo.
The following week saw a host of actions and demonstrations, but in my opinion the police clampdown on the first day ripped the mobilisation’s heart out. The cold fact is that to demonstrate in Britain, be you a flower toting pacifist or a brick throwing anarchist, you need to make action and contingency plans in forensic detail. I’ve carried a crash helmet to demonstrations since Alfie Meadows nearly died, but it’s only been more recently that I’ve realised that going on a demonstration is running a whole heap of different risks that you can only try to alleviate. A few years back I’d be the guy dancing in front of the sound system, having a laugh and enjoying myself. Now I’m more likely to be the one climbing up the traffic light to look for a third potential escape route. Paranoid, moi? But the important thing in the light of these crack downs is simply that we keep demonstrating. Keep protesting. Keep buggering on. As bad as the situation may be, if the sound of marching feet dies out, then we are truly in trouble.