Britain’s enraged students

December 11, 2010

By Andrew Winning

There have been a series of increasingly angry protests in the run up to Britain’s coalition government’s plan to increase the maximum that UK universities can charge UK resident students in tuition fees. The issue has divided the Liberal Democrats, smaller of the two parties in the coalition government, which campaigned heavily in university towns and promised they would not raise tuition fees. Most of the students’ anger has been directed at the Lib Dems, and the issue is their biggest test of unity and the first real test of the coalition agreement on which Britain’s government hinges.

Thursday was the day the legislation was to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons, and perhaps the climax of the protests. The police, who had initially badly underestimated the number of protesters and their anger (then been over zealous in their tactics) had turned Westminster into a fortress with sandbagged barriers and lines of officers in full riot kit, with horses waiting a block away in case things got out of hand. Protesters congregated in Trafalgar Square close by and marched in from University College London down the Strand, and the stage was set.


Police officers stand in Parliament Square, before a student protest, in central London December 9, 2010.

My job was to join three other colleagues in offering, as complete as possible, a report on the protest, which often gets distilled to only a few key moments, to symbolize the days’ events in the collective consciousness. I parked west of Westminster. I was carrying two cameras and a bare minimum of equipment. I walked to Parliament Square, as my desk asked me for a few early scene setters. I photographed the police lines in front of Parliament, and filed the pictures straight from my camera using an on-camera wireless router and a MiFi 3G device.

I then made my way to the Strand and joined several thousand students as they marched towards Trafalgar Square, then through Admiralty Arch onto the Mall, where they swung left along the southern fringe of St. James’ Park. The march was in good spirits, moving fast; sometimes breaking into a run as they progressed towards the Treasury building. Some of the marchers tried to evade a channel of police officers funneling them towards Parliament Square. But the demonstration poured into the square and the majority of people flowed into the corral the police had set up to contain them.


Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a student protest, in central London December 9, 2010.

British police choose to contain demonstrators in one place when they become unruly; a tactic known as kettling. This was unlike many other places I have covered protest and civil unrest, where the aim of the law enforcement agencies is to disperse the crowds and not allow them strength in numbers using tear gas and baton charges. The British police prefer to physically contain protesters, and wear them out by holding them in the same location until the elements and tiredness make them submissive. All the while their spotters are documenting and photographing every act of violence or vandalism as they compile the evidence they will need for prosecution in a court room.

As the protest filed into Parliament Square, their natural objective was behind rows of sand bagged barriers and riot police. There followed an impasse of around half an hour. However, it did not take long for the more determined protesters to seize the initiative as they began to break up fencing around the grassy center of Parliament Square (which was there to protect it after it was ruined earlier in the year by several other protests).


Demonstrators clash with police during a protest in Westminster in central London December 9, 2010.

The demonstrators surged toward the barriers immediately next to Parliament as they sought a weak point. I forced my way through the crush to photograph the exchanges as demonstrators were beaten back. The protesters used broken fencing as weapons against the rows of police, and at one point tried to use them to build a bridge over the barriers. I worked with a wide angle lens and slightly cursed the most beautifully bright sunny day in weeks. The sunny day washed out the background of the Palace of Westminster, as the low winter sun meant the skirmishes were now in the shade.

In these close quarter situations it helps to strike a dialogue with both police officers and protesters, because as a photographer, you are in both their ways. I shot pictures as the skirmishes continued, checking to see if I had a useable 3G signal on my MiFi. No such luck.


Demonstrators clash with police during a protest in Westminster in central London December 9, 2010.

I found a perch on the barriers, occasionally helping those who lost their footing in the crush, or passing dangerous debris over to the police. A truncheon cracked against my elbow as I used my forearm to protect my head as fences came over towards the police. I had a numb arm for a while. The skirmishes began to die down as the demonstrators realized they were not going to get through. The situation relaxed as the most determined protesters were looking for a new point in the cordon to probe. I moved away from the barriers and towards a large fire that had been set in the middle of Parliament Square. There were crowds of photographers (and it is almost more of a challenge to negotiate your way through the clouds of cameras as it is through the swarms of demonstrators).


An injured protester is led away by a police officer during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London December 9, 2010.

I shot a scene where protesters had built a bonfire from park benches. It was framed nicely with Parliament in the background. The fire compensated well enough for the difference in light on the landmark building and the shadow to balance out. I checked my MiFi again. I would have loved to get this frame out but again, no such luck. I never carry my laptop on my back in these protests, as the crush is such that it would impede my movement, and the mobile phone 3G signal I’d use to file with was utterly saturated anyway.


Demonstrators jump off burning park benches during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London December 9, 2010.

I moved towards Victoria Street where the mounted police had been charging the protesters who had at one point managed to break the police line. I would later hear that a Reuters colleague received a stone on the head and face, which left his eye bleeding profusely and he had to travel to hospital in an ambulance. I’d missed the most fluid moment of the charge but several more followed. I photographed injured police officers and protesters in the faltering light until the situation was brought into relative control and the police managed to contain the protest within the confines of Parliament Square.

It was around 4pm and two Reuters colleagues peeled off to file their images. I held on to keep an eye on things until one of them returned, allowing me to send my take on the events so far. As darkness fell, the protesters decided to make a bonfire out of a tourist information booth from the forecourt of Westminster Abbey. I took pictures in darkness, as the plastic cabin burned fiercely, sending a plume of noxious smoke into the air. It had been several hours and I sensed the demonstrators still had some fight left. But there was a lull and I was told I could now duck out and file, as my colleague was on his way back.


Demonstrators gather around a burning information booth during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London December 9, 2010.

I rushed back to my car to grab my laptop. I set myself up in a nearby cafe, to edit and file my material as I devoured a coffee and a toasted sandwich – the first food in 10 hours. I sent just over 20 pictures to my colleagues on the London pictures desk. I asked about my injured colleague and was told he’d seen better days, but he was ok. I then headed back towards Parliament Square. In my absence the demonstrators had attacked the Treasury building and my aim was to get there as soon as I could.

The police had locked the whole area down. I walked the whole perimeter until finally at my last possible entry point a friendly police inspector granted me access. I soon saw why. Things had calmed down and the protest was beginning to wane. My desk had asked me for scene setter of the damage to the Treasury building. I shot police officers silhouetted behind shattered windows and I was able to get these to them using the MiFi and the on-camera wireless transmitter.


A police officer stands inside the Treasury building during a protest in Westminster, central London December 9, 2010.

I heard that half a mile away, a group of protesters had attacked Prince Charles and Camilla’s Royal Rolls Royce as they made their way to a public engagement, and there were photos capturing the moment. It was clear that this would be seen as the key moment of the day, and would eclipse every moment of collective anger directed at the Houses of Commons and the politicians inside.

As my desk gave me the all clear to head home, I began to feel the day’s aches and pains from the day’s crushes and knocks.

I looked over the day’s work from my home, comparing online news sources. Although the headlines were obviously dominated by an image from a respected colleague who by a combination of luck and initiative managed to capture the Charles and Camilla moment, I took stock in the fact that a great deal of the material my colleagues, including the one who was hurt, were being widely used in slideshows all over the world.

The beauty of the internet – when it comes to the production and consumption of current affairs content – is that more is more, and quality content will always be seen. People will always want to go beyond the simple headline and the front page picture which distills the story for them, for more detail, more angles and a fuller explanation. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work to produce this content. My hope is that over time a balance can be struck between an appetite for news and the resources to have it covered professionally, without bias and with care, to allow us to carry on trying to offer as full a picture of events as possible.

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