student protest

None of the Above (2009)

An account of what I saw and what I documented on the 3rd November 2010 in Dublin City.

An estimated 40,000 students, workers and sympathisers took to the Street today in Dublin city to protest the 10% decrease in maintenance grants, a doubling in the price of registration fees in colleges and a general opposition to the cutbacks in the education sector and other areas.

To begin to just account the events of the day; I can just say that it was a long day, and though they were minor in relation to other such incidents that have occurred in other countries they made a strong message I think to everyone in this country, or at least they should.

At about half eleven I got on a bus with what was left of the late risers who were going to the protest, among them were members of the IADT student union, IADT being my college. There was about twenty of us on the bus. I was informed that a number of other buses had left since half ten and there were already large numbers people in the city. On the bus we were informed that the numbers that had been steadily arriving all numbers had already made the protest the biggest student gathering since the 1960s. We were all in high spirits and ready to make our case.

We were wearing the yellow t-shirts that had been provided by USI, with our individual colleges written on the back, and we decided a bit of war paint was necessary. Black and yellow was applied to our faces and on arrival in the city we were ready to go.

We were dropped off on Pearse Street and made our way up to Parnell Square where the march was due to start from. On the way up the scale of the event became apparent. On a rainy day in Dublin city tens of thousands of people had shown up from all over the county to have their voices heard. It had all the feeling of a fantastic moment in and the buzz was electrifying.

We marched down O’Connell Street, across the bridge and onto D’Olier Street. We found friends from colleges across Ireland along the way, and as we made our way around college green the question began to circulate as to exactly where we were going. Were we heading to the front gates of Dail Eireann on Kildare Street? Or were we in fact headed, as people were suggesting, to Merrion Square where speeches would be said and we would all go separate ways with the feeling we’d made our point. Our sheer numbers seemed to suggest this, however our sheer numbers also suggested that perhaps more could be accomplished, this was definitely the feeling I had. I felt standing at the back door and listening to a few words from members of USI just wasn’t worth all these people.

When we approached Kildare Street the separation began, the main bulk of the people continued down Nassau Street towards Merrion Square. A group of a little under a thousand made their way down Kildare Street bound for the Dail; it was in this group that myself and two others of my friends who weren’t immediately redirected by USI representatives found ourselves. Camera in hand I set about documenting everything I saw. I made way through the crowd taking photos of the signs and people as I went. When I returned to where my friend had been, I found the crowd had swelled slightly and they were no longer in the immediate vicinity. I took up a position at the front of the gates to Leinster house among a couple of photographers who were documenting everything for various media outlets.

This was the first time I became aware of the “war paint” I adorned myself with at the start of the day, and not for the last time, among these professionals I felt out of place. I continued to photograph as the protesters became increasingly rowdy and began hurling things across the fence into the grounds. Initially this brought a smile to face, the smile of the people standing up to the people in power.

However as the aim of these projectiles became more erratic and the crowd began to be hit more than the gates a question slowly began to grow in me. This question was where was USI, where were the people who had taken responsibility for this protest. This crowd needed some form of leadership and as the gang mentality took hold things looked like they were about to get out of hand. With one girl receiving a nasty knock to the head from a Garda traffic cone. However word reached us that the speeches and therefore the protest had ended at Merrion Square and the crowd began to disperse.

I made my way round towards Merrion Square in hope of reuniting with my friends. As I headed down Merrion Street I became aware of a protest being carried outside the finance building. Being watched vigilantly by a number of Garda mounted units. I noticed banners belonging to the socialist workers party, and a considerable lack of yellow t-shirts. In complete ignorance to the situation I sat with the protesters outside the door to the building and began to take photos as well as ask questions about what building this was and general hi, how are you stuff.

At this point I noticed the heavy Garda presence at the entrance as well as the fact there were a number of people inside the building itself. The thought occurred to me here how great it would be if I managed to get in and take a few pictures, the guards were allowing people to leave who were in there as well as allowing the odd press photographers to take a few photos from the doorway. I considered standing but once again I became conscientious of my bright yellow t-shirt and my now heavily smeared face paint.

Little did I know that I know I soon would be within the confines of the building, and not only that, I would be unable to get out.

The socialists had been getting the crowd going and getting some catchy chants on the go, and I had found myself clapping along and enjoying the excellent points being made by the speakers but also the heavily militant nature of these people and they’re infinite anger.

After about five minutes of sitting quietly deciding that conversation wasn’t necessary, I had settled to taking photos and trying to find some nice framings. While I busied myself with this a young man, perhaps, stood into the middle of the circle. He was dressed in black and had a black scarf around his face; I had seen him speaking with some of the socialists earlier but had passed him by as another one of the more militant protesters.

This man yelled at the top of his voice something along the lines of “They can’t stop us, storm the building!” I had time to jump and drag up the girl beside me before the crowd surged and I found myself lifted off my feet. I was trapped for a moment unable to move between the Gardai on the door and the surging protestors. I tried to get my camera up to take photos of the crowd behind me but I could move save for my finger on the shutter. Before I knew it I was inside the finance building and had found a place to the side as the crowd continued to surge.

It was at this point I immediately reacted to the thought that the face paint had to go. I took out my scarf and began wiping my face when another group of people broke through the lines and I found an egg hurled straight at my face. the Gardai pushed the protesters back and a group of 25 or so people found themselves inside this building. I moved to a spot by a window to clean egg from my face and my camera. There were a few yellow t-shirts within the lobby but the prevalent colour was the red of the socialist flags. I commented to a nearby female Garda about my odds of being able to get out of here, she laughed and replied that they were slim.

I began to analyse my situation, decided that when the guards moved in I could probably hold my hands up, surrender and explain my situation, and the fact that they probably wouldn’t persist to press charges (these being the thoughts of the inexperienced and generally out of depth in this situation). I relaxed myself and set about taking photos with in the building as well as out of the egg covered windows to the Street outside. It was at this point I noticed that the majority of the people from the doorway who were egging on (excuse the pun) the protesters to storm the building had managed to remain outside. As the atmosphere became more and more violent, with a number of scuffles breaking out in the area where we had being sitting eventually leaving ten of so member of the gardai barring the way in, and the way out. I made an attempt to reason with one those guards as to me being able to leave, he commented saying I was to “stay exactly where I was.” Defeated, I returned to my place by the window. I briefly considered fully joining the protestors in their chants and slogans. But when someone screamed “Joe Higgins for Taoiseach” I decided it wasn’t my crowd and reserved myself once again to taking photos.

I was in the building for about twenty minutes according to the times on my photos. When I saw a man and what looked to be his girlfriend getting out by way of a more reasonable a Garda. I quickly approached the same man and asked to leave he obliged, though with a passing smart comment which I smiled sarcastically at as I walked through. Another guard shouted at me something like “you fought long enough to get in!” to which I replied “no I fucking didn’t.”

I will note a point that was raised to me later, never once did a member of An Garda Siochana ask me or any of the people within the finance building to leave. They wouldn’t let people in and they were very reluctant to let people out. But they never asked or even ordered anyone to vacate the premises while I was present.

Upon exiting I was immediately taken aback by the number of people that had gathered, from inside it didn’t seem to be in such large numbers as there were; I later heard reports that there were over two thousand people gathered there. I then noticed that the line of Garda mounted units and been joined by 3 or 4 Garda vans.

I was forcibly guided by a guard around them and behind them where there the street was nearly clear of people, with perhaps 50 or 60 onlookers gathered. Here I found my friends received reports from the speeches and relayed what I had seen. At this point, there was a large cheer from the crowd and I turned around to see a number of riot police exiting the vans. I rushed forward to get more photos.

Trying to get around the riot police proved difficult as they had a man posted behind the line keeping people back. The situation as I saw it was this: there was a large number of students sitting in the middle of the Street outside the finance building; a couple of feet away from them were the Garda mounted units, behind them, were the riot police. At some point though I can’t quite place where the gates to the finance building were slammed shut after trouble had erupted inside. A few hours later I learned from a person who had been inside that the Gardai had charged in and forcibly removed the protesters.

The reaction to the mounted units was a docile one. One protester even stood up and began petting the horses. At another point, I observed a young woman holding her hands up towards the Gardai. She then passed this along and it became the general signal the protesters were giving the guards. Hands up, a peaceful gesture, though their seated position showed their intention that they would not move. I moved around the mounted units and found a good vantage point for the moment when the riot police moved in. They surrounded the protestors along one side. And had very quickly set up an enclosing perimeter around them. The protesters continued to hold their hands up in peace as the Gardai began to shove them with their shields. Some protesters reacted aggressively towards this and attempts were made verbally to restrain them by their fellow protesters.

What I observed next was something that made me sick to my stomach and extremely angry to the point where I began to respond very viciously towards the members of the Gardai who were attempting to stop me photographing the situation.

The Gardai pushed in. The riot police began to forcibly and violently attempting to remove the students. The uniformed officers them moved forward dragging people out of the fray by their arms, legs, hair, necks and anything else they could grab. The protesters of course resisted but it was useless as they were met by a force they could not rival. One by one they were dragged out. The dwindling number of students still holding their hands up in peace.

The people were dispersed and the police turned their attention towards the crowds going all the way

down to Stephen’s green. It was at this point I left; unable to watch anymore.

We made our way down Clare Street then onto Nassau Street. We had heard rumours that another protest had erupted outside the Dail on Kildare Street. Being furious at both the Gardai for their disgraceful display of force and the socialists for their incitement of the violence I was itching to see what would happen next, as well as play my part in it. What I would discover on Kildare Street would delight me and elate me beyond belief.

We arrived outside Leinster House we found three to four hundred people sitting down listening to Queen’s “we are the Champions” be led in chants by a man in fancy dress sitting in the middle of the street in a wheelchair chained to a dumpster. People were relaxed and engaged in the idea of fighting fees and cutbacks, not towards fighting.

We sat down and began to join in, and reflect on what had just happened. After ten minutes or so a group of people a recognised as a member of the socialist workers party from the protests earlier and from their protests on O’Connell Street beside Henry Street. I would like to way that in the past I have been very sympathetic to the socialists and their policies, their actions today had very much angered me. And I saw them as directly responsible for instigating the violence that had erupted today.

When they arrived they began directly ordering us to get up and stand our ground against the oncoming police who had begun to make their way towards us. They were met with shouts and chants demanding they sit down and take part in peaceful protest. Despite constant attempts to rile and agitate the crowd they were met with demands for peace and non-violent protest.

A few people who had moved on from Merrion Street joined us and sat down, with the majority of the socialists remaining standing; insulting and jibing us to no avail. When the Gardai arrived they would have observed a very divided scene with protesters sitting in the Street loudly and in unison chanting phrases such “we are votes.” And “no way, we won’t pay.” And a much smaller group looking on us in disgust.

A Garda made his way through, unchallenged to the centre of the crowd where he announced if we would sit peacefully; they would not intervene. A point which I saw as an attempt by Gardai to make up for their shameful actions on Merrion Street. This was met with a round of applause. The riot police were nowhere to be seen. Though a line of mounted units had assembled fifty to one hundred metres away down Molesworth Street. They held position and made no attempt to move closer.

After another couple of rounds of chanting the leader of the group made it clear he intended that we should head on our way and that our point had been made. He then actually thanked the Gardai for their restraint in this instance. This was followed by a round of applause I begrudgingly took part in. A few outspoken members of the socialist crowd who had megaphones started to berate him but were met by insults and chants insisting on a peaceful protest. The sit-down was drawn to a close and the people moved off.

Soon after departing Kildare Street we began to think of a homeward motion, however, we then learned of a protest taking part at Pearse Street Garda Station. I took my camera into my hand and looked at a friend who then said “well I guess we’re going to Pearse Street” After a brief stop for sustenance and a much-needed toilet break, we made away across.

There we found the same group of people who had been berating us on Kildare Street leading a small protest demanding the release of “student prisoners”. The speakers were once again making excellent points about the government, and the state of our nation. I found myself unable to applaud them as the rest were because of the fact that I recognised them from earlier that day. The group consisted of people who were inside the Finance Building as well as those clever enough to instigate the crowd yet not get pushed into the building themselves, whether by design or accident, I have my opinions but do not know for sure on that matter.

As I have said their arguments and points were very right, however, this was coupled by lies. At one point they said that the Gardai struck first with violence against the protesters, which led me to shout at them quite uncontrollably that I was there and I saw them instigate and force the first violent acts. My cries were drowned out by traffic and a megaphone. The megaphone was being passed around to anyone who wished to speak. I considered having my say but decided it would be a pointless act and settled myself to informing passers-by of what I had seen. At this point, I decided that I would write this piece.

I left Pearse Street angry, disappointed and without hope for this nation. The final words echoing in my head. “November 27th we will take to the streets” and generally apathetic to the mayhem that will more than likely ensue on that day.

After the events of yesterday. I found myself seriously examining the media coverage of what happened as well as picking other stories and accounts of what other people saw. Mt first stop this morning was my local newsstand as I hungrily read the newspaper stories on the protest. The general stories were short, and while they were on the front page they were very much played down. In one or two newspapers the violence was attributed to “left-wing agitators”, others made no attempt to explain or even give an account of events. In fact, their lack coverage seemed to suggest that the whole event was not even worthy news. With republicans getting more seats than democrats in the congress in American garnering a larger article.

The newspapers attempted to tell an unbiased telling of events but really they just didn’t give any detail as to what exactly happened. And television news was just re-runs of guards swinging at protestors. God forbid context became an important part of telling, or even understanding, a story.

But again, trying to set emotion aside I will tell you this is as true an account as I could tell from my point of view. Other people could tell different stories, but this one was mine. And from my side, there was no one to agree with. No movement or Authority behaved as they should have, only as they wanted to.

So when I look to my voting card, and seek a box to put my number one in, I am tempted to draw another box, and place my tick there. None of the above.