The Battle for Princes Street

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From the front line of the Edinburgh G8 demonstrations, part one of eyewitness reports from Jason N. Parkinson exposes brutal policing at the Carnival of Full Enjoyment.

By Monday evening in Edinburgh, 4 July, as I sat in a back street pub, avoiding the riot that had just erupted onto St. Andrews Square from Rose Street, I realised how the rest of the G8 protests across Scotland would play out.

30 minutes earlier, as I tried to get an Indymedia journalist to the bus station without being seized by the police under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, we walked straight into a crowd several hundred on the corner of Rose Street.

I forced my way through the agitated mass to the front where three lines of London Metropolitan riot police, backed up with a brigade of mounted police, blocked the road.

Senior officers yelled out frantic orders and demanded that the crowd move back. Every officer already had batons in hand and were lashing out with their shields at anyone who got too close.

They were faced not by international anti-G8 protestors, nor even the violent anarchist group Black Bloc. Instead I found several hundred Scottish accents screaming “get off our streets” to the Met riot squad.

No one attempted to storm the police blockade or attack them. For now it was all verbal. But the anger and hatred towards the earlier Met police response to peaceful protests was about to blow.

Without warning the riot police rushed forwards. People fell in the panic, others ran. The Sky news cameraman next to me fell and disappeared under the riot police. I went down too, but someone pulled me out of the oncoming wall of black, Perspex and raised batons.

As I looked back I saw the batons lashing out indiscriminately at anything in range. People screamed, some shouted, others bled.

I caught a glimpse of several people, men and women, hammering out cobblestones and decided to leave quickly. I knew the stones would soon be in the air, hurtling down on police helmets, retaliation to this latest attack. Then the police would storm the crowd again, hit out and arrest anyone in their way, with no respect for press credentials or television cameras, as had been the case all day.

I arrived on Princes Street about midday, just as the police moved in on various groups of demonstrators. Yellow-coat officers locked arms and blocked the way, rows of blue and yellow police vans lowered their riot grills in preparation to what was about to explode on the hot and sunny streets of Edinburgh.

“Stay back,” yelled panicked officers at the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), who earlier had been listed as a possible violent activist group. They were surrounded and searched for weapons. None were found and no one was arrested. The clowns made the most of their detainment by playing a game of cards, talking in high-pitched voices and tickling officers with feather dusters.

In the crowd on Princes Street I spotted two older men discussing the police blockade.

“I’m bored of this,” said one.

“I’ll get the group to push them forwards,” said the other.

They disappeared into the crowd. A few minutes later several masked demonstrators encouraged the protestors to move forward and break the police line. The crowd slowly pushed forwards. Police officers screamed at them to stay back, but it was no good. The police line broke and the chaos started.

Protestors tried to sit down in the street. They were pulled and dragged out the way and pushed back with force. A masked demonstrator flipped the handle on the back of a riot van. The door swung open exposing riot shields and batons. Officers, fearing the worst, rushed forwards knocking everyone out the way and secured the van. Firecrackers and other fireworks exploded on the reforming and re-enforced police line.

From atop a bus shelter another black-clad masked protestor called the protestors to turn round and head north along Charlotte Street. The protestors walked, but it soon turned to running, right into a wall of mounted officers with batons already drawn.

From behind them appeared a three-man FIT photographic squad. They were Met. I had seen them before in the London demonstrations over the last three years. And they knew me. On Saturday the photographer even winked in acknowledgement after he took my photograph.

One of the bodyguards of the photographer, a short mean-faced officer with grey hair, I had spotted on the previous Saturday, as Black Bloc were surrounded in the University grounds. He was openly aggressive then, even to reporters. Now he was confronted with several hundred uncontrollable demonstrators.

A protestor in a black balaclava approached the FIT team slowly, his arm outstretched. The FIT bodyguard lashed out with his baton, a swipe to the legs. The demonstrator jumped back, the blow missed.

Another masked demonstrator turned his black flag upside down and used the thick handle to smash the camera from the officer’s hands. He missed, striking the officer on the arm. The mean-faced cop attacked, but the protestor was gone before the officer’s baton could make contact.

The FIT squad retreated behind the mounted police and reappeared minutes later in full riot gear, the mean-faced officer striking out at anyone who dared enter his range.

The protest moved on, travelling east along George Street, then south down Frederick Street. As the protestors reappeared on Princes Street, on the other side of the heavily enforced police blockade, cheers rang out.

This demonstration was now led by a group of thirty or more black-clad masked demonstrators, carrying large black and red banners. They all counted down from 10, the other protestors joining in. On “one” they ran along Princes Street, right into another wall of yellow-coats with batons drawn. Within minutes reinforcements of mounted police and riot squads moved in.

Police vans drove through the mass of protestors without stopping, sirens blaring. Several people bounced off the front on the vans as they refused to stop, despite the road being blocked by protestors.

“I was standing making my protest,” said one Edinburgh man: “I never got asked to move. A police van ran straight into my back while I was facing the opposite way.”

“Stay back from the horses,” shouted the mounted officers, as they rode their horses straight into the front line of demonstrators.

As I jumped the metal roadside barrier to prevent being trampled by a horse, a masked demonstrator threw a large piece of wood at the officer yelling at me. The wood struck him square in the chest. Two policemen jumped the barrier and chased the attacker, but again he was gone.

These random attacks I witnessed were precise and instigated with military precision. The masked protestors would pick a single target in the police lines and strike, in and out in seconds.

From front and behind the riot police moved in, barging everyone towards West Princes Street Gardens. In front of me I could see police officers striking arms, legs and heads with batons and telescopic truncheons. Flowers and potted plants flew through the air.

A man with a bicycle fell out of the main gates, a yellow-coat officer charging at him, his baton hitting the man several times.

“I didn’t do anything,” screamed the man.

“Get back,” yelled the officer.

The riot police continued forwards, crushing all the demonstrators, forcing them into the park. But the gate was not wide enough to fit all of them. People began climbing the fences around the park to avoid being beaten.

I was one of the last to go over. With no other way into the park I was forced to climb the fence with its six-inch spikes.

As I turned I got two hard jolts in my back: “Journalist,” I yelled, but no one listened. My foot was caught between the spikes, I couldn’t move. A masked protestor grabbed my arm and pulled me over. I felt riot shields pushing me over the fence and expected the short sharp whack of a baton across my back and legs at any minute.

Inside the park police, masked protestors and local youths, fought hard. All around demonstrators were bleeding from their heads.

Several people, including one young Edinburgh girl who had nothing to with the protest, had skewered their feet going over the spiked fence. The girl lay on a bench, bleeding heavily from her left foot and crying for over 30 minutes, until my arguing with riot police got them to call a medical team.

As the park was locked down the violence calmed on all sides. The protestors were surrounded and so was the entire park.

Everyone trying to leave, including local people caught up in the riot, were stopped and searched under Section 60. No one was getting in or out without giving up their names and addresses.

I waited a while then jumped a wall and escaped back to the Indymedia centre above the Forrest Café on Bristo Road, battered and beaten with pain ringing down my spine.

Back at the pub that evening we were locked up and blocked in. The police had set up regiments of riot police on both exits of West Register Street. There was no way out.

Inside the pub sat two women, Spike and Lindy. They too had escaped the riot and were consoling themselves over a cold pint and assessing their injuries.

Spike had been hit in the chest with a riot shield. The police officer then used the edge of the shield to choke her. She was coughing blood and was suffering some chest pains when breathing.

“Within fifteen minutes of the start of the full enjoyment march police were pushing people back for no reason whatsoever,” said Lindy: “The people did nothing, it was like a carnival, people dancing and playing drums.”

“I’m a peaceful person. But when police behave like this you can understand why people fight back. A year ago I would have been fighting too.”

“They didn’t ask us to move,” added Spike: “They just surged forward.”

“The police action there today was just to cause aggravation and get as many arrests as possible to stop people demonstrating outside the G8 summit on Wednesday.”