THAT was extraordinary. I’ve just got back from Whitechapel Road in the East End of London. This afternoon, after lunch and the snow showing sings of stopping, I thought it would be fun to watch the Olympic torch relay pass by. Whitechapel Road, is after all, just the other side of Brick Lane, so it wouldn’t take long to get there. Anticipating there to be huge crowds, I set off with plenty of time to spare. I used the official press release to help gauge when to leave.
Turned out, I had arrived early. And it was still cold, even though it had stopped snowing. At least this would give me a chance to stake out a good place opposite the nearby East London Mosque.
There weren’t many other people there. But there was a sizeable contingent of police. And gradually, a small crowd gathered. But it was cold, so I just hoped the show would get a move on.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long. Some booming music, the distant sight of blue flashing lights and a big red open top bus with flags happily waving was spotted in the distance. The scene was that of celebration. I hope they enjoyed it while they could.
But sadly, we had to wait. For whatever reason, the red open top bus and the loud music pulled in, some distance away. And proceeded to wait there. For about quarter of an hour. While we shivered in the cold. This was my view for a good length of time.
As we waited, things around me started to become energised. The police went into crowd control mode in front of us. And there was a growing bunch of people standing around me.
Finally, things started to move. Namely, the police started to move. Here’s a picture of some police motorcycles. The Met Police force had clearly thrown all their people into this operation.
At last, the open-top double deck bus passes by. There’s some people on the top deck waving. I have no idea who they are. Politely, I wave back.
But things had changed from the carnival atmosphere when the bus entered into view. Now people had started booing and shouting slogans like “Free Tibet” and “Shame on China” and “Shame on the Torch”. These slogans would follow me, and the torch itself, for the rest of the outing.
Following the bus was a float. Mysterious addition this one. Presumably the hip-hop music and sexy dancers would have looked right if it was sunny and no one was protesting. But here, hours after the snows, in the freezing cold and among the protests; it was entirely out of place. Especially as the float drove right in front of the huge East London Mosque.
After the float with the dancers, there was a gap. Which was quickly filled by lots more police passing. Here’s some of them.
They were swiftly followed by more official and support vehicles. Here’s an official looking people carrier.
Which was followed by numerous support buses. Some of which had water for the runners; which evidently included the platoon of police and Chinese officials. Other buses were filled with Chinese officials in their tracksuits. All of which were greeted with passionate boos and a variety of slogans.
It looked like everything would pass smoothly. There wasn’t much disruption and everyone behaved themselves. Albeit, not verbally. After a Free Tibet protester passed with a banner on a trailer pulled by his bicycle, it looked like the drama was all over.
The media truck, carrying all the cameras was a sign that it wasn’t all over.
Excitement and atmosphere was electric by this point. Suddenly, the torch itself arrived into view. Well almost. If you look hard enough, you might see it behind the layers of police and Chinese officials.
As it goes by, at a fast-jogging pace, the booing, Free Tibet slogans and protest goes into overdrive. Pretty much where I was standing, the nature changed from the celebration and into the protest.
Hearing some others deciding the run along with the torch, I decide “what the heck”, and run. The new plan is to follow the protest, to photo the torch as it goes by, then repeat until I run out of breath.
So I start running. Something made easier by everyone else running with me. This is tremendously exciting. As I run along hearing the protest, some people throw things. The barrier on the kerb where I had been standing runs out. And I hear one of the police officers shout “End of cordon”, trying to get his colleagues to cover the gap. But their too late. The protestors run out in front of the torch.
Although the police manage to keep most out of the way, I see one of the protestors with a banner running directly in front of the torch bearer. Rapidly followed by a police officer tackling him, pushing him to the ground and pulling him out of the way. Amazing. This is a real protest now. And I’m all caught up in it.
I do catch the occasional glimpse of the runner herself, but I don’t recognise her. Also, the police aren’t able to keep the runner in the open for long. It’s never more than a few moments before another person tries to leap out in front of it all.
Sadly, my archaic camera phone is struggling to keep up.
All memory of the promised carnival-like celebrations are forgotten. Until we all stumble upon them. People dressed up, or operating a mechanical dragon. All very impressive. Although they look to be unsure about what exactly is going on. I quickly snap a couple of bad shots, before dashing off to catch up with the torch and the protest.
Around this time, I start seeing sign of Chinese supporters. Here’s one of many who were carrying Chinese flags.
I’m quite out of breath now. And things are changing. The torch bearer and the masses of people have stopped. Are they bundling the torch bearer and the Chinese officials into the support buses? I think they are.
The buses go past, each to very loud protest. Every slogan, plus a few more are directed at the people inside the buses.
The buses speed off. I’m much to unfit to continue pursuit by foot. And my camera clearly isn’t up to the job either. So I call it quits, and start the walk by home.
Enroute I pass more protestors. These people were carrying a Free Tibet banner between them. Although I’m at the wrong angle for you to read it. Well I was thoroughly exhausted by this time.
On the walk back, I was able to see a few more aspects to the protest. There were people from the Left List party. People campaigning for human rights from Amnesty International. There was even a fur trade placard in the hands of someone else. It was like everyone with a grievance was voicing it here. And come to think of it, some of the slogans didn’t even make sense.
The official banners strung-up by Tower Hamlets hint at what the torch relay could have been. Those plans look extremely optimistic now.
There are still a lot of people milling around. Here’s someone from Bangla TV doing their piece to camera.
Walking back along Whitechapel, and Brick Lane to return home, I’m pleased to have see it all. That experience was extraordinary. The atmosphere was incredible. The rush of chasing the torch and watching the passionate protestors. Even if some of them didn’t know what it was they were protesting about.
Well done to the police for dealing with things largely professionally. Although I did see some people with cameras getting pushed around by some officers.
What do you think about the Olympics and it’s ideals? Well it got me running. Even if not in the way the organisers would have hoped. Chasing the action this afternoon is the most exercise I’ve had in a long time. And it’s all down to the Olympics, and their capacity to ignore human rights abuses when it suits them.