Screengrab from The Battle of Parliament Square

Film: The Battle of Parliament Square

A student documentary film casts fresh light on the December 9 2010 protest in which Alfie Meadows was critically injured by police. Tom W looks back at the BBC’s coverage of the day and argues Ryan Powell’s new film provides a much-needed rejoinder to the official narrative.

The Battle Of Parliament Square (Ryan Powell, 2012) was published in full on YouTube. We have embedded it directly for you to stream. 

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“They smashed windows, they injured police. [Police] were there in their hundreds to protect the commons, as MPs voted on tuition fees just yards down the road. [...] The commons produced a debate of real passion and quality today, but tonight Winston Churchill’s statue surveys a scene of extra-parliamentary violence, destruction and anger.”
Nick Robinson, BBC News at Ten, Thursday 9 December 2010

It’s rare for police and activists’ accounts of what happens on a demonstration to match. Recent revelations about the Hillsborough tragedy and the murder of Mark Duggan exemplify the police’s propensity for rewriting history.

When it came to the student protests of 2010, things were no different.¬†However, in Ryan Powell’s new film, the police side is represented not by a media-trained spokesperson, but by the raw footage from the Met’s own video cameras. Juxtaposed with the first-hand testimony of students who took part in the protest the reality of police aggression emerges with crystal clarity.

The footage, never before released to the public, speaks volumes about the police behaviour that day.

From behind police lines we see the distraught, terrified faces of some of the thousands of students who were hemmed in on Westminster Bridge late into the night, as the vote to raise tuition fees took place in Parliament. Other footage shows officers lashing out at students with the baton strikes that injured many and caused Alfie Meadows to suffer a brain haemorrhage.

We see footage from a police helicopter which bears an unsettling resemblance to Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder video. In common with many battles, this was a conflict between ordinary people who only wanted to assert their rights and a state-backed force which used technology and overwhelming force to suppress them. As one of the film’s subjects remarks, it’s amazing no one got killed that day. There may not have been bullets involved but when the ferocity of the policing is made clear, it is difficult to demur from the academic who argues the British police acted like a paramilitary force.

BBC footage shows protesters smashing a window at the Treasury

Mainstream media focussed on ‘violent protestors’

The film is also a rejoinder to the mainstream media account of events that day. The attack on Prince Charles and Camilla’s car took the headlines, but the media still found time to rewrite the events in Parliament Square, even as thousands were still being kettled on Westminster Bridge. Nick Robinson was given top billing on the BBC News at Ten (archived, academic login required) in which to editorialise. “Democracy is not meant to work like this,” he intoned drily above pictures of protesters smashing a window at the Treasury. “Today’s vote was accompanied once again by the invasion of Westminster, by thousands laying siege to Parliament.”

We hear college students describe themselves as “from the slums of London”. This clip was used to great effect in Paul Mason’s report of the same day on Newsnight but here – on the programme often watched by ten times as many people as Newsnight – reporter Tom Symonds disparagingly refers to them as “volatile younger groups”. Only after more than twelve minutes of ‘reporting’ in this vein do we hear the voice of a protester recounting the police violence, and kettling receives a brief mention.

The events of December 9 2010 will be pored over in court once again next week, when Alfie Meadows faces retrial on a charge of violent disorder.

The Battle of Parliament Square is an important contribution to the historical record of a day that will be only too familiar to those who suffered at the hands of the authorities.

The Battle of Parliament Square
Dir: Ryan Powell, 20 mins
Youtube

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