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In The Thick Of The G20 Protests

(AP Photo/PA)
Thank goodness for plastic bottles. There would have been a lot of bloodied heads today in the streets around the Bank of England, if water were still sold in glass ones.

Today's London demonstrations began in the usual way, hundreds of young excited people, in jolly t-shirts, carrying slogans and banners, screaming messages about profligate bankers, untrustworthy politicians and authoritarian policing. There were pleas to save the planet and demands about the squanderous use of its natural resources. It was light-hearted and the rare warm sunshine helped a lot. There were supposed to be tens of thousands protesting, in the event perhaps 4,000 turned up.

But by the time the core of the demonstrators reached the narrow streets of London's Financial centre, near the Bank of England, seen by millions as financial meltdown HQ, the temperature had risen, the attitude of protestors had changed and there was a low level buzz of violence in the air.

The Bank of England is often referred to as the 'Old Lady of Threadneedle Street', that's its official address, but by noon today there were no old ladies to be seen. Heavy police cordons had been established, demonstrators were being corralled into smaller sections and had become a series of angry mobs. They didn't like being managed and they fought back. Plastic bottles, raw eggs and bags of flour arced from group to group. A policeman was hit on the head by a protester with a big stick. There was blood and a bandage and you felt bad things could be about to happen. There was a big, strong, defiant bald man with blood pouring out of three clear wounds on his head, down his face and on to his naked shoulders. He was angry and abusive and the wounds looked nasty, but he also looked as if he was about to cry. Embarrassingly, I couldn't help thinking he looked like an extra from one of Shakespeare's history plays.

None of this is to belittle the real sense of potential danger today. At ground level, on the front line of one of those police cordons there was deep hatred and simmering violence. Luckily, it never quite boiled over. The police pushed the front row of protesters, including the CBS crew, back into a crowd of perhaps 500 more demonstrators. They in turn pushed back too. Then the whole crowd began to sway in a clumsy pattern. Going forward, you fall forward, because your feet have nowhere to go. So held up only by the line of police, which doesn't like the contact, they push back even harder and going backwards you begin to trip over the toes of the feet behind you. It's no win: both directions you fall, both directions you are pushed back. A heaving mass of angry humanity on the brink of real physical danger – if one person falls, hundreds trip and can trample across the body. Those in front tread on the feet behind, which stops your feet moving, so you begin to fall again. And while this is happening, behind you there are angrier and angrier slogans and in front increasingly angry policemen and women.

Then the agents-provocateurs appear. They came from behind, from nowhere. Pushing violently, pushing selectively at the weak points, here, there, then gone. But the effect is to send small rivers of people falling forwards towards the police lines, like attackers they never intended to be. The police don't like that. There were certainly two kinds of provocateur today. Those with the demonstrators who were tough and ragged and could have been found on the front lines of demonstrations anywhere in Europe; then there were the others. No speculation who they were but they were neat, well fed and one I stared at froze for a moment and slipped away. A guilty face who had perhaps left his helmet at home. It would be wrong to speculate, but I've seen them in other cities and they have a real smell of authority about them.

At those front lines there is clearly a plan and when the next stage of that plan arrived in the form of Riot Police with shields and helmets, specific demonstrators were targeted and removed. It must be terrifying to be removed by them, it's bad enough being pushed aside by 30, armor squeaking, baton banging, six foot, belligerent Brits.

The protesters could see their time was up when a dozen massive mounted police arrived. Black, white and brown horses, with leather armor on their ankles and snorting like mythic beasts. Their hooves and stomping haunches struck fear into everyone of us nearby. There was, however, a strange moment when two protesters carrying flimsy paper horses heads approached and struck brief fear into the real creatures, who reared up and staggered backwards. Even the mighty can feel fear.

The corralling, the movement, the calculated pushing, the horses and the men in the riot gear did finish the job. The few protesters, a core, who had messages to send without violence stayed on into the dusk, a perfect time to burn the bankers in effigy and make the point many had travelled far to deliver. That they are angry, feel cheated, ignored, sidelined and that the way the world's financial and employment policies are being handled has to change. They delivered that message, and the only person to get egg on his face was the CBS cameraman.

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