"I'm a journalist, I'm allowed to be here"

IssueOctober 2005
Feature by Jason Parkinson

Being an Indymedia cameraman is becoming a hectic pastime in these, the last days of freedom in the UK. The DSEi weapons convention was a damn fine example of the increasing crackdown on free speech. Independent journalists and activists alike are now on the same level as terror suspects, all rights removed.

Saturday 10 September started peacefully . A hundred pr otesters took to the str eets ar ound Beckton, surr ounded by police, informing residents of the impending weapons convention.

As the Street Party for Peace broke up, a group of protesters headed across Barking Road bridge, towar ds All Saints convergence centre, dancing in the road. In seconds police vans roared up from behind, officers leering and shouting out of the open side doors.

Protesters were pushed off the road; several were arrested. "They're beating him," I heard someone shout. I spotted a lone demonstrator in the central reservation. He was face down on the floor with four officers kneeling on top of him.

A hand grabbed and for ced my DV camera from my hand, only the neck strap stopping it from smashing on the floor. "What the hell are you doing?" I yelled, "What are you trying to hide?" "Go home," replied the grey-haired officer. Minutes later that same officer was pointing a Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) in my direction.

"They're after you"

By the time I arrived at Custom House on the Wednesday morning it was all over. Police were cuffing one demonstrator on the footbridge.

As Critical Mass cyclists arrived a legal observer noticed a FIT squad very interested in one of us. "Either it's me they want or you," he said. I walked to the end of the demonstration to get some low angle shots. I looked up and found the FIT squad standing right next to me. They checked a photo sheet, observed me and conversed quietly between themselves.

Their radios squawked, distracting them for a moment. I strolled behind them, checking over their shoulders at the photo sheet. Second down on the right - was that me? I couldn't be sure. I headed back to the legal observer. "They are after you," he said, "They followed you right after you left." "I think I'm on their photo sheet," I said. The observer laughed: "Oh dear. What have you been up to?"

As the demonstration arrived on the opposite side of the river to the ExCel centre a demonstrator was arrested for allegedly touching a FIT squad camera. I filmed the arrest. One mean-faced officer in yellow sunglasses walked up to me: "You not got anything else better to be doing? Move along," he said. "I'm a journalist, I'm allowed to be here," I said. "I don't care. Move along," he replied, pushing me away.

Defending the indefensible

Thursday evening outside the Dorchester Hotel, where DSEi delegates gathered for a banquet, people were already being stopped and searched, including another Indymedia cameraman who was apprehended on suspicion of going to cause criminal damage.

As the demonstration grew, separated by police, an interesting thing happened. The police officers began complaining that they had to protect "this lot" in the hotel. As Critical Mass arrived outside the Ballroom entrance of the Dorchester, I asked the same officers whether I'd be arrested if I broke the police cordon to get some shots of the protest. All three officers looked at their superior who was otherwise engaged. "If you go through, you're on your own," said one.

I stepped into the road. No one stopped me. It was obvious to this reporter that these officers resented their time being taken up with the protection of international arms dealers.

Drink the beer!

As night fell and the demonstration broke up, a group of international anarchists grouped up for a meeting. Within minutes two men on bicycles appeared claiming to be sympathisers of the movement.

Several in the group accused them of being under cover cops. I tried to intervene. The cyclists protested, saying they had a four-pack of beer, so they could not possibly be police, not unless the Met had a secret strategy to issue officers with cans of lager.

I asked them to prove it: "Drink the beer," I said. One did. He did not look happy about it, but he drank.

Later, after the anarchists had disappeared, I saw the two cyclists again. "That's him," said one. I panicked, fearing a severe beating from undercover cops in some back-street as I made my way home. But before I knew it I was on my way back to the far reaches of north-west London, wondering how the hell the viewfinder on my camera had filled with cigarette ash.

Topics: Reportage, Media