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Eye-witness account of London Gaza Protest 10th Jan '09.

Sally Hicks | 11.01.2009 17:26 | Palestine | World

As ever, there has been no accurate reporting of yesterdays Gaza protest in central London. The main news channels are reporting the police estimates for numbers of between 15,000 and 20,000 or simply claiming there were tens of thousands, with violence being caused by a small minority.Stop the War estimated there to have been 100,000 people present. Most mainstream news channels are also reporting the 3 police injuries sustained but so far I have seen no reports of protester injuries of which I know there were many- some, from an eye-witness perspective, seeming serious and caused by violent policing. So here is my account. I kept notes throughout the day so the timings are pretty accurate.

Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, met in Hyde Park in the bitterly cold morning of Jan 10th. Cold and good humoured, spirits were high and so was the strength of feeling about the ongoing massacre of the people of Gaza.
At around 2pm the demo moved at pace through Hyde Park. The crowd was a very diverse lot including young and old and people of all races. There was a vibrant party atmosphere with people changing loudly. Young children marched proudly with their plackards held high to the sound of the samba drums up ahead.
After not too long we came across what was believed to be the back gate to the Israeli Embassy. A crowd gathered and some people were sitting on top of the fence and gate. The crowd were happy and angry. A loud cheer erupted as a US flag was set alight. Anger at the US's continued politicial and military support for Israel has never been stronger as the US ambassador to the UN abstained from voting on the ceasefire resolution.
At around 3pm there were 2 loud bangs from behind the gate. There was some panic and confusion in the crowd as most were unsure what was happening. The crowd was pushed back by police and there was smoke coming from behind the embassy gates. People were confused as to whether it was tear gas or not. Chants of 'Shame on You' rang out from the front. The majority of the crowd were milling around in confusion. Some were passing by slowly to continue the march. The police pushed the crowd back again causing more panic. There was more smoke which many believed could have been tear gas. There was little police or steward presence where we were, near the back of the crowd. One small group of stewards, obviously also confused as to what was going on, left the area, claiming that the crowd was at the gates of the Russian Embassy! The crowd was pushed back several more times and there were several more loud bangs. Possibly the sound of fireworks going off. Just before we located our lost friends and moved off, along with others separated from friends, the whole crowd was engulfed in smoke that stung the throat- definitely some form of police crowd dispersal. Booing rang out from those trying to escape the gas in panic.
We moved on.
The walk from this gate to the front of the Embassy on Kensington High Street was fast moving with noticeably low police and steward presence. We shared stories of what we had just seen to try to make sense of it and to put all this in the context of what was happening in Gaza, where around 800 people were killed in the last two weeks.
As we walked, we passed a Starbucks with a cracked window. Some shouted 'Shame on You' as they went. The owner of Starbucks, Howard Shultz, is known to be an active supporter of the Zionist cause. Reportedly honoured for his work in building close relations between Israel and the US.
We turned the corner on to Kensington High Street at around quarter to 4.The crowd was very slow moving, tightly packed, friendly and waiting patiently to move towards the embassy. Drums played, chants rang out and as we got closer to the gate I could see at least one person on top of it waving the Palestinian flag high. As we slowly progressed down the road, more and more people climbed on the gates of the Embassy and the barriers in front of it. The mass of the crowd were good humoured, chanting loudly and feeling a little squashed. Some were moving past to get to the officially organised rally in the park the other side of the embassy but all movement was very slow. Some fire works were let off and there was some smoke coming from behind the embassy gates.
At around quarter to 5 more officers with cameras appeared on the balcony to the left of the embassy gates. Shortly after, mass panic broke out as police pushed the crowd, causing those already densly packed to be crushed. People all over were crying out in pain and desperation. It became very difficult to breath. Some became hysterical with panic. There was no way out. The crowd around me started to shout 'Back Off' in desperation. I soon realised that if I carried on shouting I would have passed out. There was no air. Riot police stood behind the barrier on the pavement doing nothing. Suddenly the barriers at the edge of the road gave way. People tripped and fell. It became apparent that people were trapped under the barriers. The Guardian reported that masked youths pushed over protest barriers whilst mentioning nothing of this highly dangerous police tactic in which may were injured. The crowd became very distressed, confused and angry-unsuprisingly. I saw two police carrying away at least 1 injured protester.
The police cleared the section of Kensington High Street directly in front of the embassy, splitting the demonstration in 3. We, as part of a group of several hundred were pushed aggressively down narrrow Kensington Court. The crowd were not moving willingly. Many concerned about friends they had been seperated from, what had happened to those trapped under the barrier and those in the other sections of the demonstration. We could hear the thud of others being beaten back with shields and truncheons as we too were treated to the same. I could hear the sound of thuds and cracks as people were forcible shoved backwards on to shop windows. There was a group of teenage girls huddled in the corner very frightened and trapped. People at the back of the group reported that the end of the passageway was partially blocked with police vans. People paniced at the thought of there being no way out of this tiny dimly lit road. The crowd moved back slowly with some scuffles at the front.
By ten past 5 we had been pushed to the end of the road and squeezed through the police vans. The line of riot police had stopped pushing forward but were holding their line. Dazed and shocked people hung around behind the police vans. Some were in obvious distress. People were calling out to try to find others lost in the crush. We talked together. Many had seen injuries; people crushed including a report of an elderly man. There was no police medical assistance where we were and people were calling out for help from any medics in the crowd, whilst the line of riot police stood and watched. The mass moved off.
We moved round the back streets and rejoined the march at the end which had already passed the embassy. Riot police were pushing the crowd back here too. Not long after we arrived the crowd panicked and ran as the police ran forward with battons raised
The crowd were understandably panicked and angry. Some began moving barriers into the road between themselves and the police line. There were several hundred people milling around. The mood was one of confusion and it seemed to me that a lot of people were staying out of concern for others in the crowd- whether they knew them or not.
At 5.30 3 riot vans arrived at the rear of the crowd. Police got out and walked towards the embassy. Not long afterwards the vans drove at speed towards the makeshift barricades. The crowd panicked and many ran round the corner but people did not disperse in large numbers. There were a number of local people who lived in the area seemingly going about their daily business, passing through the crowd with no trouble. There were several panicked rushes but the crowd didn't disperse. I could hear the sound of barriers being moved.
As we stood just down the side road, a group of teenage girls struggled their way out of the crowd, carrying their injured friend. They were obviously distressed, angry at police actions and resolute. There was a stand off between the police and protesters before police pushed the crowd back down the High Street, away from the embassy.
At around quarter past 7 we received a call from a friend who was still being detained in a massive group that could have numbered into the thousands, outside the front of the embassy. Police had let women and children leave but were holding all of the men, only letting them out one by one after they each gave their details.
At quarter to 8 we saw a series of men been escorted one by one out of a police cordon and away from the embassy. 2 officers per person.
At 8, it was difficult to see how many were still being detained as police were not allowing anyone near those being detained, but from where we were I would say there were several hundred. I don't know how long they were held there for.
This is my eye-witness account of how events unfolded throughout the day- a completely different picture to that being shown in the mainstream media. The strength of people's anger is understandable in light of the continuing massacre in Gaza and intensified by the violent and dangerous actions of the police.

Sally Hicks


another eye witness acount, more on the confrontations

11.01.2009 18:49

This is my 'eye witness account', it has some things not in the other (skip the first three paragraphs if you dont want to read too much repitition!) so hope its of interest.

The first confrontations took place outside the entrance to kensington palace gardens(or the rusian embassy depending on who you ask - i won't claim to know the geography of the area wellenough to say), the police failed to disperse people dispite charges and attacking those sitting down with batons. The confrontation eventually subsided with the majority of people continuing past, this after shouting by the SWC stewards, and some others shouting that help was needed at the front of the embassy.

Other than that the march was so far peaceful, until a little later outside the embassy.
At this point people were moving slowly and at a near stand still due to the bottle neck created by police lines and security barricades.

Then, with confrontations between protesters and the police lines in front of the embassy, the police decided to escalate matters by charging forward pushing the protesters back. However due to the huge crush of people this meant the whole crowd got shoved back with people crashing into and falling over/knocking over the barriers on the opposite side of the street to the embassy. Since most of those affected by the charge were acting peacefully this just led to more support for those taunting the police or throwing placards.

At this point the police acted with the apparent duel purpose of preventing further access to the embassy (by forcing the march back and down a side street) and forcing people at the embassy away toward the front of the protest perhaps into a small manageable kettle.

However the strength of the crowd and the density of the people was vastly underestimated, as was the determination of people to reach or remain at, the embassy. The tactics of the met (who are used to this sort of thing by now surely) seemed to fall apart at this point, the police line spread across the whole street but had protesters on each side. Then the line broke. Unfortunately for the police it broke at the side closest to the embassy pushing them away from it, they then formed a semi circle in front of two shops (actually reminded me of 300 what with the circle shields and 'turtling').*1
Then the police used what is apparently their favorite tactic for these situations,the baton charge, against what was largely a peaceful crowd (altho bits of banars and sticks were being thrown at this point, i did not see any police from this group taken away or injured, and the throwing was discouraged since some fellow protesters were being hit). However, this charge was extremely poorly executed and while the police did manage to push the crowd back somewhat and hit a few of us in the back with batons (nice), they lost cohesion and ground. They were pushed back even further by protesters walking forward or pushing barriers and eventually retreated into a side steet. Again the police efforts had largely affected peaceful protesters, and indirectly in the crush to retreat affected some children and elderly protesters.

At this point to prevent further baton charges and protect the vulnerable amongst the protest barriers were erected around the police by arab and anarchis groups. Some anti-violence protesters attempted to prevent the moving of the barriers, however as we pointed out we were using them defensively*2.

This was the sidestreet protesters had been moving down so the police were now effectively cordoned in. I would just like to say, on behalf of those i was with:
**we were prepared to let the riot police out of the protester cordon in small groups if they agreed to be photographed and not return to the area today!**
Many of the police were obviously angry and frustrated at this point (one even hitting a lamp off of the corner shop with his baton), they couldnt advance on the protest however, but reinforcements ran in to help shore up the line. It around this time the police seemed to go to 'plan B', which was push from the front of the march drive us all back from the embassy and create a kettle along the stretch of road after the corner before the embassy, so i ran to what had previously been the front of the march.

Police had already formed up and started baton charges, it was obvious that leaving this way would have been near impossible and very violent, so the best that could be done is to try and keep as much ground as possible to avoid being pushed into a smaller space and to keep the protest at the embassy gates.
After a couple of failed police charges (congrats to everyone who stood their ground) the police called in the cavalry, literally. some people panicked, some ran and barriers were being dragged across the street but didn't extend far enough across it to be an affective defense. It was at this point that a dozen or so people including the anarchists (i couldn't tell you who the others were since the only flags left at the front by now were the black/red) called for people to sit down, about 20 did, including one exceptionally brave person that ended up inches away from the hooves of the advancing horses to crys of "get the hell out the way" from the cops trying to drag them to the side.
The sit down was successful and the cavalry was halted, giving those that had retreated time to complete their barrier. non-mounted riot police moved in again to clear the sit down protest, however it fell back to an area about 10 feet in front of the protester manned barriers and reformed in a line across the street. The riot police line stopped a few feet in front of it, some looking ready to charge again and some unclipping their handcuffs. However after a stand off of about 30 minutes a van with loud speakers announced we were all being detained in our current location and should wait patiently to be subject to a "controlled dispersal".
So that was it, the police had succeeded in taking back starbucks (which sucked, since it was our only access to the toilet!) but had decided they couldnt move us away from the embassy. at this point some stewards and what i can only describe as a coaltion of everyone wearing a high-vis jacket formed a chain across the road facing the police, this would've been great earlier with the threat of charges, at this point it seemed more of a PR stunt / action to prevent protesters trying to break the police cordon.

Then the tedious conclusion - hours in a police cordon in sub zero tempretures, pacifists, eldery and children a like, together with one confused man who politely asked a police officer which way to go to get out. Followed by some unnessacary searches for (official line the police told us) "weapons". Despite none being seen or used on the day (because they wernt there) and the fact that surely if you had a razor or some such (they searched my wallet so what else could they be looking for?) you would've opted to dump it (down a drain perhaps) rather than attempt to carry it through police lines.

*1 on a side note, apologies to the shop owners (one was the food hall) who's property's got inadvertently caught in police/protester cross fire. The only shops i saw deliberately targeted were starbucks and american top gun, with reports of M&S being targeted aswell.

*2 there were some thrown earlier but not at this point (with the exception of the guy who had one held over his head, i don't know what he did with it altho there were attempts by others to pull it back down to the ground)

my perspective