The crowd were all facing the same way but nobody was moving. I strained my neck to try and get a better view, but apart from the general chatter of the thousands of people around me and the police and news helicopters circling above, I was still none the wiser of what was going on. Up ahead there was some sort of commotion at the corner of Bartholomew Lane and 62/63 Threadneedle Street in the City of London Financial District. I knew I had to get down there.
Lifting my camera over my head and sucking in my stomach, I started to squeeze my way through the tightly-packed melee towards the front of what now appeared to be an audience at a live gig. Coming from the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire (home of the manic annual Shrovetide Football) I was used to being crushed between arses and elbows, and I reached my destination in a matter of minutes. I was not the only photographer there.
What awaited me was a sight I’d never seen before. Despite an energy in the air that suggested anarchy (there were plenty of those flags being waved around), nothing had happened yet. But of course, that soon changed.
The first rock – wherever it came from – made contact with the window and a loud cheer went up. More flying objects followed, including a bin, a metal pole, and a crash helmet. People started kicking the glass and, soon enough, large cracks were appearing all over the windows of Royal Bank of Scotland’s offices. This was a revolt.
The collapse of the global bank Lehman Brothers back in September 2008 had almost brought down the world’s financial systems. More and more people were facing unemployment and a life without security. Businesses were going bust every day and the tax payer was baling out many of the guilty suspects in the banking industry. So it was no surprise when bankers came to work that day dressed in casual clothes instead of their usual suits. ‘Blend in with the crowd’ was the message given to them on Wednesday, April 1st 2009 – exactly five years ago today.
Back inside RBS, riot police from the Met were standing guard, fully equipped with masks and helmets, shields, and video cameras. No action was taken to calm or quell the mob – that came later – so the vandalism continued until a hole appeared in the glass.
I wondered whether the men and women in suits were at all bothered by what was going on. Earlier I had seen them waving £10 and £20 notes out of their office windows as we marched through the financial district. Although I was only there to document the protest, I couldn’t help but feel slightly angry myself. It was almost as if they were sitting on their thrones of power, looking down at us mere peasants. They were happy to goad us, it seemed.
Eventually a small group of people stormed the building and the vandalism continued inside. The line of police outside intensified, as did the chants and throng of protesters. Video cameras and and SLRs grew in number just above head height and flashes were popping left right and centre. When the first man to be dragged away flashed the peace sign whilst sitting quietly on the ground, the media moved in. Minute by minute, the tension worsened and tempers flared on both sides.
I spent the rest of the day ‘kettled’ inside the financial district, as police refused passage to anyone trying to get in or out. The tube stations Bank, St. Paul’s and Mansion House were all closed and the stairwells were cluttered with litter and smelt of piss. With nowhere to go for a toilet break, people were forced to go behind a bush or wherever they could. And it wasn’t just to urinate, either. The smell was rancid.
I saw all sorts of behaviour that day and have to admit that I enjoyed the experience. Being trapped in a tinderbox all day was tiring and stressful and I’d messed up big time by not bringing any food or drink with me. People with a press pass were aloud to leave, but unfortunately I was not one of them. So I made my escape by climbing a dodgy wall around a building that was being renovated. It felt like crossing some sort of No Man’s Land, as the ground between the two lines of police was covered with glass bottles and other objects that had been thrown at the cops.
And speaking of the law, they were heavily criticised of their handling of the whole event. At the time I felt a bit sorry for them. I’m sure most were decent men and women just doing their jobs, but I did see a lot of unnecessary behaviour from them. When it emerged that shopkeeper Ian Tomlinson died from a heart attack as a direct result of being unlawfully struck by an officer, I started to wonder about the Force and their use of it.
I’m not sure whether anything has been learnt from what went on that day. Keeping thousands of innocent people trapped like that is surely an abuse of Human Rights. How many other people just like me were present and not causing any kind of trouble, or doing a normal day’s work and not able to return home? Ridiculous.
I’ve since had many scrapes with the law when taking pictures. It’s usually the combination of a long lens and huge camera body that draws their attention, and often all I’ve been photographing is the front of a building. I’ve even had senior officers from Derbyshire Constabulary try to catch me out with false laws that they make up on the spot to try and frighten me away. That’s clearly an abuse of power, and if it wasn’t for my knowledge of Photographic Law acquired from the NCTJ, I could just be another member of the public getting shafted by the police.
I have learnt one thing, though. Next time I get called out to a riot in a major city, I’m taking some sandwiches with me. And a bottle of pop.