For much of May 1st there was a lovely carnival atmosphere in Parliament Square and Whitehall. The Parliament Square gardening event was a success: bright blooms, a couple of sadly doomed treelets and no cars. Carlessness is always a fine thing, too rarely seen in London (as in so much of the world)
This is one of several monuments brightened up with flowers on the day. He is Field Marshall Viscount Slim, Governor General and Commander in Chief in Australia, 1953-1960,
Doesn't he look adorable?
Traditional May-Day celebrations...
'This sort of thing cannot be allowed to happen again!' - Tony Blair.
At around two thirty, to nobody's surprise, the McDonalds' (which had been sitting there seemingly unprotected with its wide expanse of inviting sheet glass when I walked past it first, half an hour or so earlier) was smashed up. The police, who must have expected exactly this to happen, took this as their cue to bring on ten vans full of riot police and force everyone out of Whitehall. Here we see a line consisting almost entirely of photographers. They are about to be charged.
The police line advanced progressively but very slowly throughout most of the afternoon. Miniature charges alternated with long periods of just standing around trying not to get into conversation with anyone. The police had had all their leave cancelled in order to make this 'the biggest police presence mustered in recent times' as the Standard put it - 5,500 officers with 9,000 in reserve. As suggested by this photo, this allowed them to surround Trafalgar Square and still have several spare lines of police standing around in the background... just in case. They also had a number of mounted police on display, but I didn't see these actually do anything. Just visible at the left of this shot, a fairy is giving the police a telling-off, which is why they look a tiny bit disgruntled if you look close enough. They are also being hit by occasional missiles, but these don't obviously bother them much. They are all well-armoured. Also, most of the missiles are just plastic bottles anyway and the majority miss entirely. Occasionally a member of the crowd is hit, as always happens at these times.
At this point there was a comic interlude lasting several minutes, in which two oriental guys had a gargantuan sauce-fight. They had an impressive armoury of condiments, from ketchup to soy sauce.
How we laughed!
Anyway. Soon, the police had closed off all the exits to Trafalgar Square, where around a thousand or so protesters were revelling gently. Trapped, we sat around in the sunshine at the foot of Nelson's Column, many skinning up, and got on with having a nice time in the sunshine. This lasted for an hour or two, but it was obviously not the result the police were really looking for so they continued to close in, a yard or two at a time. After a while they blocked off all the good pissing-corners, and made the ice cream vans drive off. It became clear that they had decided to take the 'get the protestors as riled as possible' approach.
At about four thirty this plan reached a sort of climax as the police decided to take Nelson's Column, presumably so that we had nowhere to sit. People put up various degrees of resistance. I saw one man having a riot shield forced into his throat as he tried to keep his place on the monument, while a superior officer shouted at the shield-pusher to stop. Apparently he wasn't shouting loud enough though, or maybe the riot helmets make it hard to hear anything, because this went on for some time. No-one really felt much like having a proper battle though, and it wasn't all that long to before the only pockets of resistace were up on lions.
Eventually it became clear that they were actually letting us out in dribs and drabs, as if the collosal police presence would be overloaded if they allowed more than three people to be walking in the street outside their circle at any one time. Every now and then a couple of police would suddenly seize someone from the crowd and drag them off without explanation.
At around six o'clock I was finally allowed out of the Square. Hungry, tired, dehydrated, fevered and toilet-deprived for some hours, I set off to find a way to get home. However, I arrived at Charing Cross to find the tube station shut; so I then I walked to the Embankment, also shut. I thought I'd see if the police might be able to tell me how to get back, but they appeared to take some pleasure in informing me they had no idea. 'Fantastic,' I thought, 'what a way to disperse a riot.' Or, more accurately, a non-riot, since what it really was up to this point was a big, mainly peaceful demonstration with two shop-smashings, a couple of isolated fights and some graffiti.
Running out of transport options and finding myself blocked by police lines everywhere I turned, I decided to try crossing Waterloo Bridge to see if I could find a South London station. As I was crossing, some guy with a plank (presumably in a bad mood after being trapped by police for five hours with nothing to eat and nowhere to piss) was inexpertly smashing car windows. He was using the plank like a slapstick, failing to smash one windscreen and then moving on to the next, but I read afterwards that he had smashed half a dozen. As I arrived at the other end of the bridge, it looked like I was about to reach a main road with buses running but before I could reach it the police sealed off the way in front of me. This at least allowed me to stop walking for a bit and sit on a wall watching the Waterloo sunset, but after a painfully brief period they started us moving again, shuffling haltingly through South London at an incredibly slow pace. It took us a couple of hours at this speed to make it as far as Kennington Police Station, where we stopped and sat around for about another hour with no explanation as the evening grew cold. Finally they started letting people go in ones and twos, searching us and photographing us, and I got free some time after ten.
Next morning I saw The Mirror describe those of us who had been arbitrarily trapped in this fashion as 'about two hundred hardcore protestors.' Hardcore, presumably, in that we had not yet passed out from the combination of dehydration, hunger and fatigue. Perhaps it never even occurred to the Mirror reporters that people might be herded like this just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. With tragicomic irony, the paper then saw fit talk about the importance of the right to peaceful protest, whilst roundly denouncing even the most peaceful of the protestors and heaping praise on a police operation which really didn't even bother to pay lip service to this 'right.'
The Ballad of May-Day 2000
Squall's pictures from the day
To pictures and reports from the Festival of Ganja in Brockwell Park on May 6th, which was much bigger - but also much nicer, and therefore almost completely ignored by the media.
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