DSEI Protests: A Photojournalist's perspective on the day
Article by Martyn Wills, Wednesday 10th September 2003.
(Originally posted on the urban75 bulletin boards)
9a.m. Wednesday 10th September loomed cloudy and threatening rain as I arrived at Custom House to cover the day's events.
Emerging beside an already established line of London Transport and Metropolitan Police I found the road much as I had left it the previous day; both pavements were lined with crowd barriers and opposite the DLR entrance a lone Oriental musician sat gently banging her Cymbal.
By 9.30am there were very few protesters in evidence; the media were outnumbered only by the Police. Many of the regulars were there and we all roamed around looking for an interesting angle on the scene.
There wasn't much to be had and by 10am the local greasy spoon contained tables of cameras that must have been worth twice as much as the building itself.
Just outside I met up with xxxx of xxxxxx xxxxxxx as he received the media's first bit of pointless hassle of the day from an overeager Police officer who was convinced that xxxxx's battered cycling helmet was an indicator of some kind of troublesome tree-climbing anarchist (Most of us carry cycling helmets for when things start getting thrown).
xxxx co-operated at first, but quickly became irritated at the officer's attitude – the guy plainly didn't want to hear reason and completely ignored xxxxx's Press card and even his pass into the DSEI exhibition itself!
We left the greasy spoon and as things still weren't happening at Custom House we decided to head down to the Connaught Bridge; another photographer had just called from there and it sounded a bit more promising.
We walked down the main road, several young protesters in suits ahead of us, and up onto the roundabout above the Eastern Underpass entrance to the Excel Centre. Most of the media were bitching about how fluffy the day was going to be; there's nothing like the media for cynicism! We are the original 'glass is half-empty' bunch.
Standing above the underpass we suddenly noticed our first sign of direct action, about 200 metres away a car had suddenly swerved across the road and blocked traffic.
As several of us raced over a swarm of police vans and Motorbikes flew past us and by the time we arrived (all of thirty seconds later) they had all of the vehicles occupants out, the car pushed off of the road and the first of the day's highly dubious uses of section 44 stop and searches underway.
The police seemed to struggle for a while with one of the car's occupants – a female police officer was half in/ half out of the vehicle and seemed to be performing a highly immoral act. It eventually emerged that one of the protesters had D-Locked herself inside the car and had to be searched in situ.
After this incident the police swarmed all over the area and as tempers started to rise several more stop and searches were performed at the roundabout beside the failed car roadblock.
It was at this point that we began to realise that despite their vastly superior numbers the Police were going to be constantly outmanoeuvred by a small but tactically superior force of activists; As the police tried to hem them in the protesters simply split into smaller groups and scattered in all directions.
We thought about which group to follow but in the end decided to return to the underpass where we could see a banner-wielding group of about 70 protesters arriving.
This site was to be the main starting point for the day's direct confrontation as police numbers swelled to try and block the underpass into Excel. This was like a red rag to the protesters, who charged at the line in a single wave.
The Police struggled to hold the line before a senior officer pointed out that they should let them through as there was a larger line of police about 50 metres behind the first. This they did and the protesters burst through.
The police then tried to form up behind them and box them into the underpass, but once again the activists were well aware of what was going on and a scattered retreat took place before Police could get into position.
This standoff continued for about an hour; the protesters had certainly succeeded in part as they had forced the dual carriageway to shut in both directions. However there didn't appear to be a way around the Police
Unbelievably a few 'old men in suits' furtively attempted to reach Excel through the protesters and the Police were forced to rush out and help them as they entered.
Eventually about thirty protesters tired of the standoff and piled up over an embankment to the North of the underpass. Scattered pursuit by the Police resulted in one arrest and one stop and search before the protesters once again emerged on one of the roundabout slip roads above the underpass.
A spontaneous sit-down roadblock began, but there were very few vehicles coming up to this point and after about ten minutes they set off back in the direction of Custom House DLR station.
About halfway there we ran into a larger group who had marched down from Canning Town station, Samba Band in tow, and as the two groups met chaos erupted; protesters hurled the crowd barriers at the feet of onrushing police and a number of quite violent arrests were made. Another Press photographer was grabbed just for being there and it took a swarm of angry media to get him free.
While the Police tried to deal with traffic and contain everyone at a junction we had an angry exchange with a group of Police Officers who weren't even aware of what a Press Card looks like and clearly weren't interested in being co-operative.
Eventually the protesters decided to head north from the junction towards the A13. Local people had begun to emerge and seemed to almost unanimously side with the protesters in what is clearly a community area with poor Police relations.
The protesters scattered and reformed continuously and eventually the bulk of them arrived on the A13 where Police were clearly at a loss as to how to manage the situation; protesters were streaming in and around traffic and roadworks (in fact someone was run over later on the A13 while doing this) Police tried to corral the protesters on the northern verge of the A13, but a sustained crowd surge broke through this and running fights ensued, with a number of arrests being made in exchange for the loss of two police batons.
They eventually managed to corral about 50 protesters and held them for about 45 minutes of detain & disperse. Again the few media inside were unable to leave for some time before a senior officer allowed those who wished to vacate.
I remained behind to see what would happen. As did a local drunk who had been on his way to buy a can of beer and had somehow got swept up in the detain and disperse. He entertained the police for about twenty minutes with 'Pig jokes' before they threw him out for being too annoying.
Eventually a senior officer decided to march everyone about four hundred metres up the road before dispersing them in twos so that ' ..My fit young officers can start chasing you somewhere else'.
By 3pm I had returned to the back streets around Custom House and Prince Regent where there were ongoing blockades and street chases. The police again corralled a group of protesters but were forced back when local youths decided to air their own grievances with the police by pelting them with stones and bricks. A wonderful piece of mutual loathing.
The street encounters continued for several more hours, though many of the media had been forced to leave to cover the Pensions march in Central London. I however realised at four O'clock that I had lost the keys to my motorbike somewhere in the day's chaos and spent four hours trying to get home to edit and send my photos! Bugger!
The Day's summary
o There were fewer protesters than we expected
o Despite their huge numbers the Police tactics were not only ineffective but also had a negative effect on their relations:
- Journalists were annoyed with them (this largely contributed to the venom of C4 news report on Wednesday evening)
- Locals were annoyed at them
- Taxpayers were annoyed at the huge bill for policing a few hundred democratic protesters
o Despite the low numbers protesters were able to cause considerable disruption to the external workings of the exhibition.
o Column inches on the protests were over double most predictions.
LIST OF MEDIA GRIEVANCES (aware of course that the following is minor compared to the treatment of some protesters)
o Freelance photog. Accused of being 'Tree Climbing Anarchist'
o Agency photog. Pushed over backwards and her laptop smashed
o UK staff photog. Punched and almost 'grabbed'
o C4 cameraman pushed and punched
o Agency photog. Pushed flying into fence
o Freelance photog. Batoned in face and attempt made to smash camera
o Generally poor attitude of police co-operation and understanding
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