London. The protest weekend. The first time in over a year I’d travelled overnight, the first time since August that I’d been out of my provincial hometown.
Day one was to begin at noon, outside BBC broadcasting house. Walking up from my hotel off Parliament Square, through a London summer morning that seemed to have been lifted from a Wodehouse novel or an advert fir tourist, I arrived with the stalls setting out – unions, newspapers, collectives. From the stacks of signs outside Oxford Circus tube station all the way to the marquees and banners appearing outside Broadcasting House and on the steps of All-Souls at Langham Place, the whole setup stretched a long way. Carnival atmosphere prevailed.
People arrived. The stacks of signs found hands to bear them. A stage had been erected opposite Broadcasting House itself. Flags and banners bore the names of groups and parties I’d only heard of from history books and 80s comedy routines, and their carriers were getting themselves arranged as the stewards briefing was held on the church steps. The span of groups – socialists, communists, environmentalists, Palestinian solidarity, those against the current policing bill, and those against the government generally (often the same person) – a lot of people had turned out for a weekend of action.
Then the speeches. I forget who exactly. About the government, black lives, Palestine, austerity, the NHS, the working class, the ruling class – a flavour, given in words, as to how the march would look, and of how many groups it was made up.
Then they got formed up. I took pictures of the head of the parade as the stewards wrangled the press. And soon enough we were off.
The parade – long and multicoloured – if you stood still it would simply wash over you, each section with its own chants, its own music, its own flavour. Palestine chants – the one’s you’ve heard if you’ve been near one of these demonstrations- “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” etc etc. They go past, and there’s the balloons and banners, and Kill The Bill, and shortly after that you get the sensory overload from the XR Samba band – that tribal noise that old parts of my brain remember soaking through the flags of Birdcage Walk and into the soles of my feet back in Autumn of 2019. I’d see them again later in the weekend.
It kept moving – down through Oxford circus where over two years ago I’d stood next to XR’s pink yacht. It’s a reasonable way to Parliament Square, and through it all the yelling and the chanting, was like walking with the banners of a medieval warband.
When we got to Parliament square things gelled a little. The stage set up on the back of an articulated truck with the Abbey as a backdrop. Speakers began. I headed off to get the big camera. So many speakers, so many signs and groups, and when the guy next to me asked if “I was with their cause” I wasn’t being funny when I asked which one. When a speaker wrapped up, it turned out to have been Jeremy Corbyn. I’d missed the intro. What I was noticing was the police. Nothing unusual to see them at a protest, but I’d usually seen them in florescent tabards – the riot coveralls with helmets on their belts was different. Then again, this wasn’t an XR demo. This was a lot of different groups. Police vans parked around the edges of the square, and police walking in pairs, or gathered in knots around the bases of the statues.
There was something different about the atmosphere in the few minutes I’d been away.
It was about then that I noticed the green smoke of a flare hanging over Westmister bridge. This is why you shouldn’t have big cameras in these situations – for the first time in my photographic life, I saw something interesting and had to move the other way – back to the hotel to get rid of it, the tripod and the other junk. But as I headed back to the square, this other protest came to meet me.
This one was composed of those wanting an end to lockdown, those refusing the vaccine, those protesting the idea of vaccinating children – I’ve heard them called freedom marches, although this was the first I’d seen in the flesh, and frankly you don’t hear much about them on the news.
The “freedom” protest was a more mixed group then I’d have expected – people of all ages, a lot of them with kids. There were signs, there were banners – there were chants designed to wind up the police (“paedophile protectors” was one I heard a lot). And there were a lot of police in evidence now. I tracked one freedom group (and they were fragmenting quickly) – there were double files of police in public order gear, vans zooming up and down the closed roads. The atmosphere here was different – small groups of people, some marching, some yelling, some angry. An older lady asked on who’s behalf I was filming. I said my own, and I don’t think she believed me. With the mask and cameras I think she took me for an undercover cop.
When I headed back to Parliament Square the speeches had ended, and the mix of protestors had changed. More anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination signs in evidence, and the other Corbyn brother had put in an appearance. Whitehall was crowded, with the thickest concentration of protestors outside the gates of Downing Street. I walked the length of Whitehall back to Trafalgar Square, most of which was sealed behind security fencing that’s creating a fan zone for the Euros. Those who were congregating were corralled onto the roundabout where Whitehall leads into the square. I’ve said the feel of the morning march and the afternoon protest were different, and they were. For one thing, everyone I’d seen earlier had looked sober, and that had changed now. In Trafalgar square I waited for things to spark as police corralled people.
In the event nothing happened. When I walked back down Whitehall the group in front of Downing Street was down to a few, who were informing the police that they (the police) were scumbag traitors who were all going to be hung (pretty much a direct quote).
The biggest surprise I got was back at the hotel, when I turned on the BBC news. Huge protests in London. Marches, demonstrations, parades, smoke flares, from the doors of broadcasting house to the gates of downing street. Sounds. like something that’d get news coverage. Right? Right?!
Nope. Wall to wall coverage of the resignation of the health secretary. Further news on the building collapse in Miami. But the protests – not a whisper. When I went onto the BBC news website there was a a single item under the England heading – nothing on the front page.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I think that’s half the reason I write these things (that and because it’s fun, obviously).
Easy commute. I was in Parliament Square for 11:30, when people began to congregate. I wanted to be there early – XR protests generally have a very good class of banners to photograph.
Crowds swelled. People arrived, all ages, all costumes, passing out flags and getting themselves organised. The stewards met for a bit of a consult. People were greeting each other – I got the impression that there were friends meeting in person for the first time in a long while.
The two groups that stick in my mind….
Well there were the rats. Rats in business suits, carrying briefcases and placards. Hilarious, if only because they never broke character – always saying something evil and corporate in appropriately verminous tones, while moving around at a rapid scurry.
And the heads.
The frankly demonic looking heads of the four billionaires who the protest signs informed me were controlling the lion’s share of press and newspapers. Flanked by banners, and often accompanied by the gent disguised as Boris Johnson, who spent most every pause on the march kowtowing in front of the effigy of Rupert Murdoch.
Speeches. I can’t give you an exhaustive list, but they included at least one from Black Lives Matter. Zack Polanski – XR arrestee and London Assembly member (Green Party), and one gent from Hacked Off – the group set up to oppose perceived malpractice and lack of press regulation during and following the phone hacking scandal back in 2011. I was up on the raised area, behind the statues of Gandhi, Mandella and Pankhurst, which was where the speeches were being made. As these wrapped up and people began to form parade ranks I moved down to the Mandella end, and was standing on his plinth to photograph the head of the parade moving off.
I photographed while people got themselves organised, and the samba band started hammering out a rhythm.
The parade moved around two corners of the square before heading off over Westminster bridge.
Traffic on the bridge was stopped. I was mildly pleased to see a Tesla at the front of the queue of stopped traffic – maybe a sign that this whole thing was working. Of course, three cars back from that was a Mercedes-Brabus G-Wagen (for the non car-folks – it’s a tank sized black luxury SUV, lifted into the air on big suspension and massive tyres) which rather undid the illusion (I mean it’s very cool to see one of those because they’re awesome, but if it’s not powering through axle deep mud with jerricans and spare tyres strapped to the roof rack then what on Earth is the point of it?! How many deserts, swamps or mountain passes does one encounter in the middle of London? If that particular vehicle had ever seen mud, I will be the most surprised man in Western Europe.)
After we crossed that the march headed East, passing Waterloo station. Everywhere you looked there was another banner, another group, someone in a different costume or another sign to read through. New chants – they’d been putting a few together in the square before the speeches began in earnest. (Rupert Murdoch we’re coming for you – guess what? We’ve got more bamboo). Every so often the march would stop, people would sit down in the road.
More chants. More cars sounding their horns. More speeches. More dancing. Somewhere along the way there was a speech from a representative of the Roma peoples – Kill The Bill (opposing the police, crime and sentencing bill, which among other things would place limits on protest, and criminalise trespass) had been a big part of yesterday’s parade, and XR is hardly going to be in favour of anything that cuts down its protest capabilities. For the other groups, the argument that the police couldn’t be trusted with the powers they already have – I’d heard the same thing in the speeches in the square this morning, and the historic examples of police overreach and collusion to hide their wrongdoings. Hillsborough. Orgreave.
New items on the agenda aside, the vibe was a lot more mellow than it had been the day before. That familiar XR street party. Again, it was a long parade. Banners at the front, followed by the giant heads, then the samba band. Then marchers, costumes, signs. Some way behind that was another band, playing some kind of dixieland jazz funeral program. Then more banners. Stewards. Loudspeakers. First aiders. Everything you need for a really good march.
Thus did things continue. The main thing on the route which sticks in my mind was the part where we passed under a rail bridge. Before that the samba band had been merely very loud. Surrounded on all sides by walls and roof, it became biblical. The kind of noise and force that you feel could move mountains. A rhythm that will make your heart run a little faster. The kind of noise which – as had been pointed out earlier – could well be illegal under the new proposals to limit the volume of protests or demonstrations.
Things continued, and the parade moved out onto Borough High Street. With the shard as a landmark I’d had a vague idea of which way we’d been going (London’s not my town) but now we turned left and walked past the entrance of Borough Market and on up toward London Bridge. Again the traffic stopped, the bands played. As with everywhere else, people stopped to watch, pulled out their phones to record. I’d seen that all the way along the route – people appearing on doorsteps or balconies, and bringing their kids to the windows to see this thing go past.
Up Borough High Street, then a right turn toward London Bridge Station and we had arrived at our destination – the HQ of News UK, the UK arm of the Murdoch publishing empire, purveyors of The Times and The Sun.
Things got crowded. The main group, speakers included, was packing into the area between the main entrance to London Bridge underground, and the area in front of the New UK office. In anticipation of our arrival, the bollards around that area had been connected using tape, behind which the police were waiting.
Things seemed to settle. People took the weight of their feet, and I drifted around the edges of the crowd, listening to a few speeches on the press and their perceived refusal to publish to true facts relating to climate change.
The crowd was thick. Thick enough that on the edge of it, I was only aware of the graffiti stencilling when the speaker on the microphone mentioned it (although I’d photograph it later when the crowd thinned).
I moved around to the side where the crowd was thinner, and it was only then that I saw that arrests had been made – presumably any noise hadn’t been evident over the amplified speeches. But there it was – billionaires heads piled up like cannibal trophies.
I fixed the long lens to picture them, and was in time to snap another protestor being brought out of the crowd and into the bubble the police had established in front of the office, accompanied by chants of “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”.
I think they had three billionaires heads at that point – off to my right, and in the direction of the speakers, I could still see the Murdoch effigy moving. The police may have tried to grab him – I certainly heard someone in the crowd yell to “be careful with him – he’s your boss!”.
I was still standing at the police line a few minutes later and waiting to see what would happen next when I saw one of them look off to the side and move toward something happening off to my right, and a second later I saw why. Murdoch was now closer to me than he had been, Murdoch was falling, and from what I heard (including a few things said after the fact, including bystanders talking to the nearest Sergeant – I didn’t see this myself) he appeared to have been grabbed or pushed by one of the police – presumably they thought he was moving toward the tape with the intent of getting through it. Whatever caused it he was heading to the ground now, and while he’d been a little way from me, a twelve foot tall person falling toward you can be some distance off and still make an impact…
I got out of the way, mostly. The head clipped the peak of the baseball cap I was wearing hard enough for me to feel the papier-mache deform. It ended with the head and its wearer literally sprawled at my feet, and what really annoyed me was that with the long lens mounted I couldn’t photograph the whole scene.
Independent photographer almost crushed by giant Rupert Murdoch – I’m sure there’s a moral in there somewhere (and if anyone got it on tape let me know – I expect to be dining out on that one for a while).
There was real aggravation about that – people felt the police had overstepped themselves – and a copper with three stripes came out to survey the damage.
The man in question was fine – got himself back into his Murdoch costume – and a little after that a squad of police ducked under the tape, grabbed him and the costume, and took the whole lot back inside the cordon.
Whether they grabbed him because they thought he might do something, or because he’d been involved in the spray painting earlier, I couldn’t tell you, but it caused some aggravation.
A few minutes after that, a large amount of yellow paint hit the News UK windows, and there was another arrest.
I don’t recall anything else too dramatic. The speeches were over. People were drifting away. With fewer people I got the pictures of the graffiti that I needed for the full story. And then I walked between the two policemen standing at the top of escalator down into the tube, and headed off. Conveniently, Westminster is just a few stops up the Jubilee line from London Bridge.
I was not prepared for what I’d find when I got there.
While I was off walking from Parliament Square to London Bridge, Save Our Scene (a group highlighting the effect of lockdown on live music) had started in Oxford Circus (that’s what the police told me at any rate) and with several truckloads (and a literal bendy-bus) of speakers, turntables and etc had been holding a rolling party. By the time it reached Westminster at the same time as I did, the street was full of drunk and happy people partying and dancing like they hadn’t been allowed out in a year.
Which makes sense if you think about it. People and police everywhere, and I walked up Whitehall over a literal carpet of beer cans, broken glass, plastic cups and hundreds of those little silver bottles which I’m assuming had held nitrous oxide (at least I’m guessing it wasn’t helium they were all inhaling out of balloons). A working party from Westminster council were following at the rear of the parade sweeping it all up. I’d been astonished the night before at how fast the debris of the protest on Whitehall had been cleared up, although on Sunday I still found chalked messages attacking Matt Hancock – funny how much changes in a day. The party ended a little after that.
That was about it. I headed back to the hotel, and again there was nothing on the news about any of it.
So that was the weekend. I’d seen two marches for a dozen causes. Walked through a protest in Parliament Square, and a party on Whitehall. Shared a plinth with Nelson Mandela, and almost been crushed by Rupert Murdoch.
The takeaway from all this, is that I’m back to real documentary photography.
The above is a factual description of events that I witnessed between the 26th and the 27th of June 2021. Where I am quoting others or relying on other sources I have said so. Conversations are based on my memory, which is of course fallible. To the best of my knowledge, the details I have provided are accurate.
The description is based on and supported by time stamped digital photographs, which I have used to establish chronology and timings. Correlation between text and events should not necessarily be inferred unless specifically stated.
All images used in this article are my own work, and I retain full copyright to them.