Eyewitness: 'Brutal G20 demo police put us through hell'
Cecilia Anesi for The-Latest.com
Desperate to escapeApril 1 morning, at 9 am, three friends of mine and I, all freelance photographers, were already walking around the City of London in order to check the situation and understand police positions and strongholds.
However, from Moorgate to Liverpool Street Station and Bank there were only photographers, filmmakers and policemen around.
Not even one protester. At one point we even thought about asking police where the protesters were. But I had information that four different processions, represented by different coloured horses of the Apocalypse, would converge on the Bank of England. I knew from the Rampart social centre newsletter that they would join the Housing March (black horse procession) and since I have been following some of their activities I thought it could be an interesting event to document with my camera.
We all quickly moved down to Cannon Street and waited until 11 am. People started gathering in front of the tube station even if, in the beginning, it did not look like there were more than 100 protesters present. We were told they were hiding and would jump out from their bolt holes at the very last minute. We wondered if they would do that from the underground, like the Vietcong, but suddenly what sounded like a silly joke became an assemblage of at least another 100 people.
Some minutes after 11 the first clash with the police took place. We rushed to the spot. Apparently what happened was that some protesters were to keen to start marching, breaching an agreement with police that the march would start at 11.30 am. It was a minor incident, but the aggressiveness of police and the shouting of hyped up officers was well anticipated.
In fact as soon as the marching began, police started pushing and running against the tail of the procession. People started running in response and there were a few very tense moments. It was said on the broadcast news that the Black Horse procession was the one most targeted by police. I guess this was because it had among its members a bunch of young people dressed in black with their faces covered by scarves.
These were the people who the media defined as the anarchists, and possibly among them there were some of those who now famously broke the window of the Royal Bank of Scotland branch in the City. Certainly among them were some of the people photographed bleeding after clashing with riot police.
But police started targeting the Housing March well before any violence was perpetrated by protesters. Officers ran along the procession and screamed orders and physically forced people to quickly change the direction of the procession from one street to another. After some 10 minutes walking, the Housing March reached the front of the Bank of England, where both the white and the red horse demonstrators were waiting.
Despite a massive number of people, among whom were many photographers and journalists and lots of police, the protest seemed to be a happy one. It was sunny and warm and people seemed to rather enjoy themselves. There were the Socialists Workers Party members shouting defiant slogans like "We won't pay for your crisis" against capitalism and inviting the bosses of the Bank of England to take a jump.
But the whole thing did not seem violent at all. All the entrances and /exits of the square, at the junctions of Threadneedle Street, Cornhill, King William Street, Queen Victory Street, Poultry and Prince’s Street, were by now blocked by the police. But they were not the riot type and the officers were smiling rather than menacing. At one point there was a scuffle with some officers on Threadneedle Street frontier and supposedly a bunch of anarchists starting throwing objects at some officers, the helmet of one policeman fly in the air.
But officers seemed determined not to answer back with force even though they had to retreat a little and thus people moved down Threadneedle Street as far as the other police blockage would allow them to. They stopped people way before the Royal Bank of Scotland branch. My friends and I, like many others, wanted to move forward to the 'climate camp', and thus we climbed up some barriers to check the situation from a higher point than the road.
What we saw was a large crowd interrupted by yellow shiny lines of officers in fluorescent uniform: the police cordons. We had not yet realised that we, the people who had entered the square first, were no longer allowed out, while thousand of other people were prevented from entering at the same time.
The whole of Queen Victoria Street and Poultry Street were, at that time, was full of people who wanted to belong to the same demonstration. But the police cordon separating them in half was set much before the beginning of the two streets, right after the tube station exit. Now we were like mice in a trap.
We tried to politely ask police to let us out at every exit but the answer was always the same: "if you don't have a press pass you can't leave". Was this denial of free movement legal, because no violence had happened yet, at least not none from protesters? Police said that demonstrators had breached the peace and officers were therefore allowed to keep us under a sort of collective arrest as long as they saw fit.
We started to get nervous. We wanted to get out and go to the 'climate camp'. At one point however, while standing again on barriers, we saw a mass crowd of people moving slowly, slowly down Threadneedle Street and we thought police had opened an exit. We pushed in the crowd, following some Italian Rai television operators who we had met before, and after some minutes we reached the junction with Bartholomew’s Lane, where the RBS branch is located.
It became immediately clear that police had no intention of freeing us. Suddenly we heard some shouts and then the sound of glass breaking. We were squeezed like sardines and the only way of understanding what was going on was by me lifting my camera and then have a look at the high up shots I took. A helicopter started descending, and at one point it really felt close. We could see its large reflection on the glass walls of the RBS.
There were two riot police with blue helmets standing at the side of the bank, while more riot police were beating up people in front of us in Threadneedle Street. We could hear shouting. After the line of so-called anarchists, there were all the big media journalists reporting the scene of mayhem. But some of the media people were penned in away from the action like us.
I was with a CNN camera operator and we seemed to have the same expression of astonishment on our faces. We did not understand what was going on. It was not clear whether we soon would be charged by riot police so we thought about running. But we eventually reasoned against that because it would have resulted in a slaughter since there was no room to even turn, let alone run. I began getting worried that police might have shot tearing gas in our direction.
It became clear the "breach of the peace" claim was a police excuse not to let us out of the square. We were trapped. And police cordons of the fluorescent yellow jackets were replaced by mean-looking riot police in black. We sat down for about an hour in the sun, some people trying to relax and enjoy themselves. Others, like me, stood up at regular intervals to check out the situation by climbing up the gate of one of the Bank tube station exits.
I saw that police on horses had come in to support the riot police in Threadneedle Street and crowds of people had gathered in front of the police cordons begging to be allowed to leave. People had began getting tense, scared and tired. There were many young people, but there were also kids and old people, who had probably not expected the situation to turn this insane.
But the worse had to come. I started walking around for a better view of what was going on, since lots of people were still pushing the police line from the Poultry and Queen Victoria Street direction. Police there were trapped as well, in a game of pull and push, with one group of people wanting to get out and the other that wanted to walk in.
People were getting beaten by riot police. But injured people who belonged to the internal crowd in the square were not carried to hospital or to an ambulance, but rather left to walk back into ‘our circle’. I saw a young boy – allegedly an anarchist, who had goggled eyes, as if he had seen something scary and blood was running down his head and face. I thought about taking a shot of him but I got distracted by the sound of shouting behind me. Police were beating up and arresting people.
Meanwhile there was a big crowd that had gathered behind the police cordon in Cornhill Street, pushing to get in. Friends who were being kept out, told me they spent hours walking around to try and get in. We spent hours walking in a circle to try and get out. When I had literally given up, and thought we would stay there till night descended, the two crowds of people in Queen Victoria Street and Poultry managed to break the police line and a flood of people made contact with us at last.
That allowed us to walk down Queen Victoria Street, go inside a shopping centre and exit from the opposite entrance on Poultry Street, behind the police line. It was 4pm. What followed I can only tell you from the reports of friends who were still trapped in the square and others whom, not aware of what we had just run away from, wanted to access the sealed area.
At around 4.30pm police had opened a gate and let some people out and others in. However, not all of the people who had been trapped for hours had managed to get out. Police decided those who had remained were there because they were "determined to cause damage". But that clearly wasn't the case, not least because many of them were photographers or journalists.
Others people who were unlucky enough not to have reached the exit. We could easily have been among them. At around 5pm police started charging from all sides in the square and there were people running all over the place in order to escape their batons. Most people gathered in the centre of the square thinking they would be safer there rather than milling around. But police started closing the circle around them, tighter and tighter.
Many people standing in the front of the circle got beaten and again, there was no way out. I spoke to a freelance photographer at 7pm and he told me that riot officers had just locked them in this circle and surrounded the crowd with police horses and dogs. Four friends managed to escape at 8pm just by sneaking between the officers while they were distracted. They told me that people were being randomly beaten by the police.
Some people remained trapped there until 9 pm. Already at 7pm people had to urinate in the position they were, in the middle of this circle, women included. Food and water had run out. Some, maybe many of the people, had been kept there since 11 in the morning. At around 7.30 pm a man collapsed and died. The circumstances are still unclear but Francesco Stelitano, a freelance photographer, told me: “Anybody who was trapped there from 5pm witnessed how mad it was. It's like they really wanted somebody to die to make a point about the consequences of the public claiming the streets through protest."
He added: "You cannot keep people hostages for eight hours without providing them with even their most basic needs like them being able to go to the loo, have some sugar or other basic food and liquids. People were stranded."
While a man was dying, other riot police had attacked the extremely peaceful 'climate camp', settled in front of the European Climate Exchange.
When we passed by, at around 5pm, there were only a few non-riot officers there. According to people who escaped from it and gathered at The Foundry, in Old Street, riot police arrived very silently and started surrounding the camp. After a while police started closing the circle, pushing violently against tents. People created a line of bicycles but police began beating them for no apparent reason.
People who escaped were very distressed. It was only at 9pm that the "hostages" of the Bank of England protest were let out, one by one, escorted by police officers. Yet, most of the headlines in newspapers shouted that anarchists occupied the City and banks were assaulted. Apart from on The-Latest, the siege was not mentioned.
Yes, a minority of people broke into the RBS branch, and caused damaged. But a building can be easily fixed. Who is going to bring back to life the dead man and repair the physical and psychological scars of those protesters and journalists who were trapped for hours in a Medieval siege? Questions need answering about why the police turned a peaceful protest by members of the public into a battle for survival.
* Photography: Cecilia Anesi and Deborah Hobson