The way it was…the way it has become…

Anti-Vietnam War demonstration, Grosvenor Square, London 1968. The way it was. A picture that reflected the mood of the police and protestors before the attempted storming of the US Embassy. © Rob Walls

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy..
.” Street Fighting Man, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Watching the creeping prohibitions on photography in Britain prompted me to go to the archive for these pictures. I made them on Sunday, 17th March 1968, almost exactly 42 years ago. They are from the anti-Vietnam protest in London’s Grosvenor Square that became known as The Battle of Grosvenor Square.  It was the inspiration for The Rolling Stones“Street Fighting Man”. Grosvenor Square was the target of the march because this was the address of the United States Embassy.

With the crowd squeezed into the relatively confined area of the square, it was hard to estimate the number of demonstrators but reports at the time claimed they numbered between 6,000 and 10,000. At first the police handled the protest with a certain amount good-will and calm. Up until the point that is, where the protestors tried to storm the embassy.

I had forgotten how fierce the conflict between police and protestors had been until I revisited the video news coverage online.

Even without the benefit of modern riot gear it can be seen that the lads of the Met were not reluctant to put the boot in. According to the Friends of the Metropolitan Police, an organisation dedicated to recording the history of the Met, “on that day There were 86 demonstrators treated by St Johns Ambulance, and 117 officers injured, with 45 protesters and 4 officers hospitalised (vide Hansard). Of those arrested, 246 were charged with various public order offences. Thirteen windows in the Embassy were broken.”

As a journalist, I would think the disparity between police and demonstrator injuries questionable. I’m not saying that there were no police hurt. I witnessed injuries on both sides. But with the prospect of time off or other compensation members of the force would have had something to gain from reporting injured.  On the other hand protesters injured in the melee would have been more likely to write off their contusions to the “revolution” and experience.

Ironically, before he became one of the ruling class, the former head of Britian’s security agency MI6,  Sir John Scarlett, was one of the demonstrators on that day. He was quoted as saying of the riot:

“I twice saw policemen charge quite strongly at very few demonstrators who were doing absolutely nothing and both times people were heavily clubbed over the head while one of my friends saw a girl being viciously clubbed for no reason at all.”

The way it became. Police arrest demonstrators outside the US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London 1968

For some balance, Peter Hitchen’s Daily Mail report on the 40th anniversary of the riot is worth reading. However, in 1968, much as they would have liked to, the Metropolitan Police weren’t quite ready to prevent photojournalists from doing their job. But back then the official NUJ press card still carried some weight. Producing it would usually ensure their grudging co-operation.

Not so today! More and more photojournalists are being harassed by police using the stop-and-search powers available to them under anti-terrorist legislation. According to The Guardian newspaper, the use of these powers has grown fourfold, from 33,177 times in 2004 to more than 117,200 in 2008.

On the 14th January, 2010, the weekly journal, Police Professional, under the headline Section 44 ‘breaches human rights’ quotes solicitor advocate, Simon McKay as saying that Section 44 “…has failed on legal certainty and proportionality grounds. It is ambiguous and its use was, and is always going to be, vulnerable to the indiscriminate exercise of discretion by police officers; not necessarily deliberately, but through a process of natural evolution. It is the equivalent of the erosion of rights by osmosis.”

In January this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the arbitrary use of Section 44 stop-and-search powers are illegal. The UK Home Office is set to appeal against the ruling.  More here. (opens in new window)

Could it happen here? There are signs that it may. For the sake of a free press it is imperative that we in Australia remain vigilant against any erosion of our right to document our society.

Now; in the mood for a little music? Then you could do worse than spend a few toe-tapping minutes of your day with this Big Brother re-mix of Talking Heads, Born Under Punches-The Heat Goes on. It would be funny…if the accompanying video was not so chillingly relevant: [blip.tv ?posts_id=3343778&dest=-1]

As it says: “1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual”

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2 Comments

Filed under documentary photography, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

2 responses to “The way it was…the way it has become…

  1. Great new blog and shots yet again Rob .

    • Thank you Irene…I don’t think photographers can be too vigilant when it comes to fighting for the right to document society. Now the threat is from proposed legislation related to a citizen’s imagined right to privacy under the Data Protection legislation.

      I really had forgotten how violent that demonstration became. I remember dodging out of the way of mounted police and getting a few bruises when trapped between police and demonstrators but the trade-off was in adrenaline.

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