scuffles on the steps
effigy in flames
despite the miserable grey and wet weather, the rumours that the area was being cordoned off by police, the threats on millwall football forums that thugs were going to attack the celebrations, the massive media and establishment attempt at revisionist history and eulogism, and the presence of an army of anonymous private security guards and police, by 6pm yesterday evening there were already hundreds of people congregating in trafalgar square under a giant huddle of umbrellas.
there had already been one small incident on the south side where some 'edl' types had a drunken clash, ending in an arrest and someone treated for broken glass injuries to their head and face, but the square itself was peaceful and celebratory despite increasing numbers.
police showed a zero tolerance approach to bye-laws, by snatching booze from party-goers and emptying it down drains. there was no attempt to fulfil the legal requirement to inform people about the bye-law and show it in writing before any attempt at enforcement, and so these actions had the effect of causing the occasional spat and winding people up.
there were around a dozen police protest liaison officers around in their baby-blue tabards, (collective noun "an intrusion"), but they seemed to be more overtly observing, spotting and acting as intelligence officers rather than their usual pretence of friendly interaction.
soon after 6pm there was a huge roar of support and appreciation as a group of miners arrived with a huge 12' x 8' marching banner, historically proclaiming the fight for the right to work, on behalf of the north east area of the NUM. they stopped for photo-calls on the steps and then entered the square and gave various press interviews.
the area around the plinth and lions at the base of nelson's column was guarded by men (and a couple of women) dressed in black with yellow tabards, but no identification - police too patrolled the area.
the security guards had not been told the legal basis on which they were preventing people into the area, but said they had been told not to display their SIS authentication badges! turns out they all work for private company, servoca.
a senior heritage warden failed to provide any legal basis, and the head of the heritage wardens, dean eardley, couldn't come up with any law (but given his past history that wasn't a surprise - http://london.indymedia.org/videos/11961). finally a police inspector came up with the generic "sterile area" nonsense which doesn't have any known lawful basis, but is regularly quoted and physically enforced by police.
a group of artistic party people arrived with a coffin bearing a wreath with the word 'society', and others had made a large puppet effigy. in front of this, a pro-thatcher football fan gave a press interview expounding his views. despite his attempts at provocation he seemed genuinely surprised that no-one attacked or threatened him - that sort of behaviour seemed confined to right-wingers. during the evening i saw several incidents of unprovoked attacks by (presumably) the millwall folk. on these occasions, credit due, the police generally acted swiftly to remove the assailant and some arrests were made while others warned off.
at around 7.15 a bike sound system was wheeled into the middle of the square, but in an again over-eager application of bye-laws it was quickly surrounded by police. predictably this became the first serious flashpoint, and soon the cops were surrounded by a crowd chanting "who's kettled now?". in response, a heavy-handed line of police pushed through the crowd, joined the others, and then started shoving outwards, while also starting to move the sound system off towards the south side of the square. at one point, someone either fell, or tried to lie, in front of the wheels. they were violently dragged away, and as the crowd became angrier and the police lashed out, the incident was beginning to look like an excuse to ramp up policing and provoke battle. however, once the system was outside the bye-law jurisdiction area, things calmed down.
by around 8, numbers were at their largest (several thousand by now), with the square pretty much full, a small sound system smuggled in for a while, and the upper area in front of the national gallery also overflowing. a small samba band played there, and a couple of people managed to climb up and perform some flamenco-style dancing above the crowd before a woman performed an amazing high-diving escape by jumping over the heads of the lined cops and into the safety of revellers' waiting arms.
soon after 9 was the next major incident. possibly initiated by the appearance of some graffiti on the eastern wall of the steps, a line of around twenty police marched right across the square and attempted to ascend the steps by that wall. the crowd was not best pleased at this sudden and unexplained invasion, and actively obstructed the police advance up the steps. as a result, police started pushing, shoving, and even punching to climb the stairs, but were met with robust resistance.
as the incident grew more violent, the police withdrew down the stairs, a large double-line of cops formed on the east side of the square and some scuffles continued as people thought a kettle was forming.
a chief inspector came to the front of the crowd and announced that the line would retreat, finally diffusing the situation. in my opinion, at that point it seemed that the overall police strategy was a strange mixture of a provocative zero tolerance re bye-laws, but no direct attempt to manipulate and provoke the crowd into violence and kettling.
after 10, numbers were beginning to decrease, and the party was centering more and more on the upper area where a loud sound system (outside the square bye-law powers) was banging out jungle and techno beats, some protestors burnt a copy of thatcher's 'downing street years' memoirs, and the large puppet effigy was also set alight.
during the course of the evening i had seen a wide range of people ( http://twitter.yfrog.com/j3pyijtbafsxcqrjbtcvtwquz), but now it seemed a younger crowd, many of whom feel directly affected by the continuation of thatcherite policies through the blair years and into the current administration.
as i left, near midnight, the smaller party raged on, fuelled by loud music and not a little alcohol, and it was soon after that a crowd made a break for the roads and some spontaneous marching, which turned into running scuffles with police and finally a kettle near downing street.
for the media waiting for trouble, this of course provided the images they sought, but it was truly a small number of quite drunk revellers having their perhaps misjudged moment of 'right to protest' action, rather than the 'poll tax riot enactment society' that had been predicted in some quarters.
the total of 16 arrests included quite a few of the millwall trouble-makers, with 8 'drunk and disorderly' and 2 'breach of peace' included in this number.