Around 100-120k people marched yesterday. We were briefed that the public order branch expected, and had been told the plan had been arranged for around 15-20k, despite it being all over the media and sites like Indymedia that around 100k were due to turn up. The estimates on numbers are usually somewhere between the Police ones (invariably considerably less than there actually are) and the organisers who seriously ramp up the turn out. On this occasion however, the front of the march reached the embassy as the back had not long left Hyde Park, a distance of just under 1.5 miles, and it was packed, literally building line to building line across 4 lanes of road. We were told (at around 3pm) the official Police estimate was 20-25k, which was complete and utter bollocks. There were a hell of a lot of people, at the front end were families and old people, at the back were mostly young males.
As usual we had been told that our role was to facilitate the lawful demonstration and that we were effectively 'community Policing' unless the situation changed and things became violent. Crucially, we were told that despite the fact that nearly every march relating to the Gaza/Israel situation had experienced violence, this was not sufficient evidence to suggest that THIS march would become violent. As such, because the senior officers are so afraid of offending the wrong people, we were NOT in possession of riot helmets or shields which were left on the carriers, although we all were in our protective gear and coveralls under the yellow jackets. We were wearing our normal everyday beat helmets and to say some were not happy about that would be a slight understatement.
Unlike at football matches where fixtures are given categories to judge the expected level of violence based on previous experience (A = virtually nil, C+ something like Millwall v Chelsea, Rangers v Celtic etc) these aren't used at demos, which is why we have FIT - forward intelligence teams - who identify specific individuals based on known previous history, in order to judge the expected level of hostility.
My serial was one of the several dozen at the front of the march. The organisers had loads of volunteer stewards whose job was supposed to be to facilitate the movement of the march although they were all as emotionally involved with the march as everyone else there. They were organised at the front in three separate ranks, with the 'celeb' marchers in between the 1st and 2nd, and the rest of the march behind the 3rd. Not long after we set off a group of about a hundred young males broke through their own stewards and sprinted off towards the Police serials at the head of the march. After some negotiation with the stewards, they agreed (eventually) to rejoin the march behind the stewards and celebs. Our serials at the front were stretched out along the sides of the march, with a couple of officers every 50-10o meters or so.
Things were pretty peaceful for the whole length of the Bayswater Road and although very emotive, there was quite a bit of banter between the Police officers and the demonstrators and things stayed that way despite the massive numbers until the head of the march got to the North Gate of Kensington Gardens. Inside were a couple of PSU's on the other side of the gate, and as we passed there was nothing more than a bit of shoe throwing and jeering. We carried on down towards the front entrance to the Embassy and our end stayed pretty much the same. All of a sudden we heard calls from one of our other serials that dozens of people tried to break through the gates to get to the embassy and were climbing the fencing, throwing anything to hand, throwing burning flags at the gate and that they needed more units to help out. Within seconds we heard the call that no police officer wants to hear "more units now, urgent assistance, we're under attack, officer down"
What had started as a several dozen turned into a hundred or so and the officers were being attacked with missiles including glass bottles, balloons filled with paint, scaffolding clips and metal poles, and a couple had been dragged into the crowd and were beaten to the floor. One officer was knocked unconscious by a scaffolding pole, two received really bad facial injuries and the other officers (male and female) were kicked and punched repeatedly until a couple of PSU's managed to get to them. At the time we were not allowed to wear our protective helmets and were still marching towards the Embassy.
Not long after we got to the Embassy gates the crowd stopped to shout and jeer at the gates (as they can't get close to the Embassy itself) and there was a bit of banner and shoe throwing. From where we were the crowd couldn't see the gates and all they knew was that they had stopped. Immediately they blamed us and lots of people were asking us "why have you stopped us marching?" It's a simple fact of numbers, 100,000 people won't fit down a street at the best of times, let alone when the head of the group has stopped because they wanted to demonstrate, we hadn't blocked anyone in at that point.
Within a couple of minutes we received the order to get our shields and helmets from the carriers after the extent of the attack and injuries received by the officers at the North Gate was fed back to the commanders. Because of the scale of the march, at least half the demonstrators hadn't seen any Police presence and to see a few of us here and there trying to get our kit gave them more than enough opportunity to shout abuse and thrown coins, cans, bottles etc as we tried to make our way through. The RVP point for the vans was changed because of the hostility we were getting to make it easier to get kitted up without having to walk half a mile or so up the road through a predominately (at that point) hostile crowd.
We got back to our posts near the front of the march to be told that a couple of shops opposite the embassy had been attacked and ransacked and that protestors had been seen stealing bottles and knives which were distributed through the crowd and subsequently thrown at the officers at the front gate. We were then informed by a serial at the gate that they had had several bottles of accelerant thrown at them which failed to ignite. At that point PSU's were brought in to contain the crowd which did effectively block them in, the hope being that they would dissipate out the other end. The confrontation became even more violent, demonstrators destroyed the fencing that was keeping the pavements clear for the shops and emergency evac units, and some of the fencing was used as a barricade to stop the Police PSU's from getting into the crowd to arrest people, specifically those from last weeks demo who had been recognised by the intelligence teams.
We then used filter cordons to try and dissipate the crowds to get the vast majority of people out of the area, this consists of a couple of ranks of officers with people still able to pass through. The people responsible for destroying the shops and throwing the missiles/accelerants were still in the crowd outside the embassy so they were contained. When information about the cordons started feeding back into the crowd a number of demonstrators tried to break out and were using anything and everything to attack the officers on the cordons, including the barriers themselves.
As the violence increased, our escalation increased, and for the first time in almost 8 years (in the Met) full deployment of longshield units was authorised, it was probably around 8pm at that point. Short of watercannon, rubber bullets and teargas, this is the highest state of force we can use in a public order situation and the decision to authorise it was not taken lightly, because it is so obviously aggressive.
Over the next several hours we had to use more cordons to force back crowds that had gathered on all sides to dissipate them as some (but not all by a long shot as there were a lot of normal demonstrators mixed in with them) of the group contained in the embassy continued attacking officers, vehicles, property, horses etc. We kept the cordons in as the protestors were taken out of the embassy cordon section individually where they were videoed for evidential purposes (to check against CCTV later) and searched for any items taken from the stores, they were then allowed to leave. As the number of people in the contained area shrunk we were able to move the cordons in further which released more officers to assist in searching so the whole group could dissipate quicker. Our cordons and teams were eventually taken down around half ten, having been in place from around four when it first started kicking off outside the embassy.
Here are a couple of vids already on youtube, make of them what you will.
The march along Bayswater Road and then Kensington High Street, just down from the embassy after we were ordered to get our full protective gear and shields.
At the gates of the embassy, note the bloke singing "all Police are pigs, lets kill coppers" which was pretty much the order of the day from the majority of the people attacking officers.
missiles being thrown and fencing used as barricades.