“Up,” he said in English, “out.”
The police were closing down the stadium and everyone inside was being thrown out in accordance with the agreement between the stadium owner and the authorities, leaving all demonstrators with no place to sleep or gather to organise protest.
Not that I minded. I had spent the night sleeping in a tent, erected by the Russian military, and the main central post of the tent had been hammered through the top of a large ants nest. At 4am, after a sing-a-long with Ukrainian and Russian activists, you don’t notice such things. But when you are rudely awakened by a Russian police officer and you feel the inside of your sleeping bag moving independently, and sudden realise how much your entire body itches, then you begin to wonder, is this some kind of sick joke? Was this the product, a trap devised by the minds of a few bored recruits? Knowing full well protestors would be sleeping there, they deliberately put a tent directly over an ants nest and left the stadium giggling to themselves as swarms of increasingly aggressive soldier ants filled the tent seeking revenge.
I was still itching as I caught the tube into the city centre with the Estonians and two Russian activists. Ants crawled out my bag and down my back biting my bites.
It was Sunday 16 July, the main day of actions. The streets of St. Petersburg were as normal. People shopped and headed to McDonalds for their lunch. Others sunned themselves at café tables in the street. Even a few homeless people had crept back on to the streets and started begging again, despite the Putin plan to remove all the homeless from sight until the G8 greedhead gathering was over and left the shores of Nevskaya Guba.
The only difference I could see was the amount of visible police and military in the streets. One of the Russian activists told me there were always a lot of police in the streets, but nothing like this.
Still, nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. The streets looked everyday. Not a protestor in sight, apart from our group of seven that looked like what we were. A bunch of scruffy, slightly smelly and tired evictees from the Kirov stadium convergence centre.
We ducked into the Journalist Café on Nevskiy Prospekt and immediately decided to make this our base. The food was cheap. The beer too. And there was an endless supply of coffee. I called my contact in Russia AP to find out what was going on, as I had heard nothing from my UK contacts. He said the National Bolsheviks set fire to tyres in the street and were brutally beaten and arrested. No one had seen them since. And on Nevskiy Prospekt a group of international activists just tried to blockade the delegate’s hotel.
“Yes, a few minutes ago,” said my contact, “Why? Where are you Oscar?”
“Nevskiy Prospect, Journalist café.”
“You’re right next to them. It’s all over now.”
The protestors had lasted seconds according to my contact. Police jumped the protestors, ruffed them up and arrested everyone, including one AP cameraman. I had been waiting on a call or text from the UK group to let me know. The previous day my last text to them said, “Give me an hour to get there”.
Five minutes after the call I received a text message from an unknown phone. “Been arrested,” it said. “In prison now. Not my phone. Contact UK Consul now.”
I figured it was from my contact in the UK activists. There I was, not 300 metres from the delegates hotel as the UK anarchists attempted to block the road, and I was sat tucking into a cheese omelette, drinking coffee and beer, waiting for the bar woman to bring me my camera back once it had fully charged behind the bar.
We headed out into the streets to see what else was going on. But the scene that greeted me made me understand perfectly that this gig was now doomed. Nevskiy Prospekt disappeared into the distance in both directions. And that was just one street in St. Petersburg. This city was huge. And the Indymedia UK team consisted of one cameraman, with little to no Internet access, who was now surrounded by half-drunk Estonian anarchists determined to get involved in anything going down.
We strolled along Nevskiy Prospekt and circled the delegate’s hotel several times. Police and military lined the roads, stopping people, performing searches and demanding to see identification. Yet, our group of obvious opposers received no such treatment. Not even when a heavily protected convoy of 4x4s, police cars and black limousines passed us and I began filming. Russian police just watched us at a distance. Several of the Estonians ducked into a toilet and removed their anarchy badges just to be sure though.
Around 6pm I received a call from AP. Go to Malaya Sadovaya Ultisa my contact told me. There was talk of a musical concert against the G8. We were there in minutes only to find several street buskers and a group of Russian punks and Goths drinking in a square with music coming from a huge sound system strapped into the back of a battered car.
We hung around for an hour, positioning ourselves in a cheap roadside bar. Immediately several men started questioning us. Who we were, why were we at the square, were we anti-globalists? We said nothing and just drank beer. The men went off and met several others that drew up in an official-looking car with tinted windows and began discussing us. The looks we received were tough and threatening from all. We decided to leave quick.
This was not the first time that had happened either. On the previous day as I followed the Estonian anarchists from Kirov stadium an odd-looking gentlemen confronted us in the park. He wore blue and red summer shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and was carrying a plastic bag full of food. He started to walk with us, talking to the Estonians, asking them if they were against the G8 and if they were anarchists.
He looked at me, asking them who I was. I said in Russian, English, journalist. He asked if I was Indymedia. The Estonians looked at me. I did nothing but they seemed to know.
“No,” they told him, “there is no Indymedia here.”
The man said he knew of Indymedia because he saw it on the Internet. We said we had to go and he finally left us after tailing behind for some five minutes. Then I watched him walk over to a uniformed police officer and being a conversation.
Back at Malaya Sadovaya Ultisa we crossed the park and turned the corner, right into a small crowd of obvious activists, police officers and a muddle of police cars, vans and buses.
Already on the buses sat other demonstrators. Police officers leaned over them and they sat quietly awaiting their outcome. This was the courthouse an English medic told me.
“They are convicting everyone from today,” she said. “It’s a closed court and no one is allowed legal access.”
Despite warnings from the other activists that I would be arrested if I filmed the police, I switched on my camera. The police pulled a bus in front of the other bus outside the court and led a single man on to the bus. It was impossible to see inside as all windows were covered in curtains.
After ten minutes two police officers reappeared from the bus with the young man, who now staggered and seemed concussed. The police led him to the first bus where other demonstrators sat and the bus drove off, taking the arrestees to one of the many holding cells set up across St. Petersburg.
A black car pulled up and someone yelled, “Oscar.”
It was a Russian man. I recognised him but could not remember from where.
“There’s an action on the bridge at 10,” he said. “You want to come?”
I eyed him and the others in the car, a serious-looking driver and a woman in the passenger seat.
“You’re AP, right?” I asked.
They said yes, so I jumped in the car and we sped towards the bridge near the Winter Palace, pulling up near a group of police officers. We jumped out and set up our cameras. A police car pulled up and ordered our car to leave. Police watched us, neglecting the four National Bolsheviks that had appeared on the bridge and were beginning to unravel a red banner.
First they placed the banner, twisted and up-side-down. But due to the police attention being diverted by the arrival of the mainstream and several independent media it allowed one of the activists time to return, unravel the banner and place it the right way up and leave. The banner read in Russian something along the lines of “Welcome to the G8 carnival”.
But as the banner revealed itself, and the shores of the river were swamped in tourists, the famous dancing fountains erupted into the air on queue. But no one was looking at the fountains, or listening to the music. No, they were now concentrating on the three police officers struggling to remove the banner and screw it up into as smaller ball as possible to avoid anyone seeing the message. Simple, but effective.
I tried to get closer to the baffled police but a young recruit pushed me back yelling something in Russian.
“English, journalist,” I said in Russian. The AP cameraman grabbed my shirt collar and pulled me backwards, telling me that it was very dangerous to get that close to the police.
Embarrassed police stopped groups of people on the bridge trying to find the culprit, but only ended in hassling tourists, especially one wearing an “FBI” T-shirt.
“So, what now?” asked one Estonian.
“We don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight?”
It was 10.30pm, seemed like 7pm. He was right. Nowhere to sleep. We could not go back to the stadium. The police would jump us. Probably beat us to death, especially if they were drunk again. But we were saved, a bolt from the blue, when we bumped into animal rights activist. She offered to put us all up in her parent’s home.
We headed to the Metro to travel to the south of the city and into one of the many ghettos of St. Petersburg. But we were stopped on the way, surrounded by ten police officers. They questioned me. They did not like the fact my camera was out.
“English, journalist,” I said in Russian.
I showed my press card. One officer grabbed it, took my name and ordered me to put my camera away. I got one of the Russian girls to translate that I was entitled to carry my camera as I had official G8 press credentials. The officer got mean, told me again to put the camera away or face arrest. I did as he said. The police officer told the Russians I was not to get my camera out in the street or I would be arrested.
We travelled south, dejected and burned. There was no way to protest. No way to cover the protest. The authorities had every angle wrapped up and closed down before anything could materialise.