Marching with Anonymous in London

As the Million Mask March in London began in Trafalgar Square, a police public address system blared out over the crowd, asking people to please not climb statues, light fireworks or play loud music.

In time with each request, masked participants clambered onto surrounding statues, began to shoot fireworks into the sky and cheered as music played.

The Anonymous march, organised every November 5 to protest against austerity, human rights infringements and general abuses of power, has seen varied coverage in the media. Some declared it an all-out anarchistic war between police and rioters, others simply focused on Russell Brand’s fleeting appearance, and yet more just highlighted the general feeling of pointlessness many feel about such protests.

The reality, as it so often is, is much more nuanced.

The event, which saw thousands of people wearing the V for Vendetta mask synonymous with Anonymous, drew marchers from all sorts of backgrounds. While the majority were younger men, there were no small amount of older men and women and even small children. Most wore the mask, some balaclavas, one was dressed as Jesus.

  • Anonymous Protest London 2014

They gathered in unity, although as is characteristic with Anonymous’ leaderless organisation, many had different views on what should be done, from freeing Palestine to taking police pensions. All did, however, manage to agree on the popular chants “One solution: Revolution”, “Whose streets? Our streets” and “Fuck the Police.”

A police officer told me: “we are here to facilitate a peaceful protest, and will only get involved if there are problems,” as an unmasked woman behind him began to smoke marijuana and shout “I’ve got a doobie, so what? Our job is to fuck you off.” The officer pretended not to hear her and walked away.

A host of Anonymous UK Radio explained to me: “Most of us come with intentions of peace, but then the police provoke us. So many police, riot police, are on standby. For what – a peaceful protest? Why turn up with violence in mind? We don’t need a licence to walk down the street.”

Of course, Anonymous has been holding this annual march since 2011, and the system has yet to have been overthrown.

With that in mind, I asked what the purpose of the march was: “The goal to achieve here is to let everyone know that there are people who care. As long as other people who do not know what’s going on have noticed that something’s going on, and it is a protest [where] people actually care about the problems and want to do something, then it’s a win.”

Disillusioned

Another Anonymous protester told me that it takes the “momentum and build-up over years, maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will grow until somebody will have to do something about it. This little snowball will roll and roll, and it will knock the government and the rich [off] their feet and they’ll be down here with the little people. That’s what we want to do.”

At this point the marchers began to walk to the Palace of Westminster, so I chatted to the riot policemen who walked on the edge of the protesters.

“There’s a lot of disenfranchised, disillusioned people here,” one said. “The [things they are protesting about] are just as irritating to me as to them. Unless you have rich parents, or a top job, the chance of you getting a place you own in central London is the same as it is for me. No chance. But what can you do, what’s the solution?”

The protester turned to me, lifted his mask and said “I just threw a bottle of piss at the police,” before winking and running off into the crowd.

As we came up to Westminster, the police broke off mid-sentence, serious looks on their faces, and rushed to join a group of colleagues. Marchers had surrounded Parliament Square, which was barricaded by short, sturdy metal defences, behind which riot police stood, batons out.

A small area of grass, Parliament Square looks onto the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and is therefore often used for protests. But as Anonymous never officially requested a protest, access was denied – a fact that began to rile some attendees.

After half an hour of simply shouting at the police, things began to get a bit more agitated. Riot police hit at the hands of people trying to drag the barricades away, prompting projectiles to be thrown at them – mainly traffic cones and bottles, but later the barricades themselves.

As Big Ben chimed 7.30pm, a firework was launched at an officer, but he seemed unhurt as it bounced off him and exploded in the square.

I asked one of the more aggressive protesters why he was here; he had a glass bottle in his hand. “To fuck the police!” he shouted, before throwing the bottle at the police. Cap off, it mainly fountained liquid over the head of other Anonymous members, but also police, before smashing on a riot officer’s visor accompanied by a crowd chanting “you’re a pedo cunt”.

The protester turned to me, lifted his mask and said “I just threw a bottle of piss at the police,” before winking and running off into the crowd.

By 8pm people decided to move on to Buckingham Palace, an idea that a small contingent of police disagreed with. Forming a line, they tried to block the road, but no-one even paused for a second and ran straight through them. Suddenly surrounded on all sides, the police huddled together holding each other’s arms, kept their heads down and walked to a side street. “You have no control,” someone shouted.

Panicking and pushing

Elsewhere, other pockets of police looked equally lost and forlorn. “We’ll stop them at the junction,” a senior officer commanded, but by the time they arrived, it was hopelessly overrun. Two police officers studied a maps app on an iPhone, before rushing off to join someone they spotted in the distance.

It was a theme I encountered through much of the night – confused police, stuck in the wrong place, guarding the wrong route, getting separated and then panicking and pushing people. Even police vans that would get stuck trying to pass each other in opposite directions.

Luckily for them, most of the marchers ignored the police when they weren’t in their way, but there were some things thrown and fireworks shot.

“None of us want violence,” a police officer told me as we reached Buckingham Palace. “But there’s escalation, those guys do something stupid, then maybe we do something stupid back, and it spirals. It escalates.”

As he said this, a firework scored a direct hit on the Victoria Memorial in front of the Palace, but caused no visible damage, while a smoke bomb turned the sky brown. A woman said to me: “They protect statues, not the people. That’s the truth, that’s the tragedy.”

  • Anonymous Protest London 2014

After a short while outside Buckingham Palace, the crowd decided to go marching through Green Park and the streets of London, thousands walking in the middle of the road, causing chaos for traffic while shopkeepers locked their stores and restaurant owners and waiters stood guard outside.

At a bus stop, an elderly lady told me that she’d been waiting for a bus since the beginning of the march, and just wanted to get home. Above her, standing on the roof of the stop, a young woman waved an anarchist flag to accompanying cheers.

Elsewhere, an ambulance dawdled, stuck in gridlocked traffic.

I came across a black cab driver sullenly looking at the back of his cab, its window smashed in. “One of them [points to crowd] just smashed it. I wasn’t even looking.” He had only begun his shift a few hours earlier. Later, another cabbie told me that he “had agreed with the marchers” until one screamed at him.

As I continued down the street, I saw a pair of masked protesters tip over some bins and set them alight. But they were chased off by a larger group who shouted at them such things as “You are not Anonymous” and “We don’t need this again”. This group then stamped out the flames.

I followed the trouble-making duo for a while as they ineffectually tipped over more bins and then homed in on a Santander. Picking up a bin, they rammed it against the glass doors a few times, before, yet again, other Anonymous members tried to stop them.

An old man with a pipe in his mouth stood in front of the bank, held his arms out and shouted “Peaceful” at the top of his lungs. Others joined him and diffused the situation, but not before some of the more radical elements declared them “fucking traitors”.

Anonymous Protest London 2014

As we continued along Regent Street, things began to calm down, and I started to relax. Unfortunately, it was at this very point that a flash bang of sorts decided to detonate right beside me, causing a painful ringing in my ears for several hours.

Not long later, a firework glanced off a building and came tumbling down towards me. Mesmerised by the pretty sparkles I stood still until thankfully one of our photojournalists, Joshua Hayes, dragged me out of the way just as it exploded around us.

A little later as I tried to talk to a police officer, a speeding glass bottle smashed on my leg leaving glass shards on my shoes, but luckily no damage. Less fortunate was one of Artefact’s photojournalists who was hit in the head by a two-litre bottle and was treated in hospital for minor concussion (she is now better).

As we drew up to the BBC Broadcasting House, projectiles finally decided to stop targeting us, and the crowd reverted to shouting at the police who blocked the entrance.

Two Anonymous members walked forward, speaking simultaneously. One, an older gentleman, said “Let’s get something straight, we’re not about violence, practice what you preach,” the other, a visibly drunk teenager, shouted “You want some? You want some? Step out of the ring and come at me.” In the background, someone spray painted ACAB on a wall (All Cops Are Bastards).

After the obligatory “BBC loves paedophiles” chants, the crowd surrounded some more unprepared police before resuming their march, and eventually arrived back at Parliament.

By this time most of the energy had gone, much of the crowd had dispersed and the momentum had petered out. In the middle of the street a drug dealer sold marijuana to a young man. The march was coming to an end.

With all the bangs, smoke bombs, constant firework explosions, and clashes with the police, it isn’t hard to see why some of the hyperbolic media have likened it to a war zone. In reality, it was a mostly sedate affair.

The vast majority of those in attendance were only guilty of being a noise nuisance, not a threat to public safety. While some had clearly turned up with destruction on their minds, and others were drunk, the majority were peaceful in intention. Of thousands, ten were arrested.

With that in mind, the police’s response was rather worrying. Not because they were overly violent (in fact they were rather restrained), but because they were often helpless, outflanked repeatedly by a leaderless mob, surrounded and hemmed in again and again. If the march had truly been one aimed at violent anarchy, their defences would’ve been utterly inadequate.

  • Anonymous Protest London 2014

Photography by Tom Tapolczay