So, I was at today's NHS demo. Somebody had to be - I was shocked by how many people weren't there. The streets were full of people who weren't there. And there was a pretty standard demo pitched up on the pavement outside the Department of Health at Richmond House, 97 Whitehall. Speeches. Depression. Workers' Liberty tried to sell me a paper. The last time I met that lot, they wanted to explain why the lesson of the Paris Commune was that you needed to be nastier to the Muslims. Anyway.
After a while some people from Occupy London and a couple of other orgs turned up to join in. Not long after this there was some sort of interaction with the police (I heard later that they asked us to leave the pavement), and as a result the demo moved onto the street and formed a block across it. Very quickly, a couple of carriers appeared from the Parliament Square side with TSG cops aboard (one of whom, presumably in charge, was out and about talking to the ordinary bill). After some parley - I don't know the details - they suddenly moved off towards Parliament Square. I expected them to re-appear behind us, but it didn't happen. Instead, traffic was diverted at each end of Whitehall.
So we stood and sat there, singing our songs and waving our banners. There was more police coming and going, but no real change. Occupy started to work through their standard occupying procedure of holding a meeting and getting a human microphone going.
About 1530, a police carrier appeared from the direction of Trafalgar Square and delivered a slack dozen TSG men, who formed a line across Whitehall between the levels of Richmond House and Downing Street. The demo, which had been facing towards Westminster, swung around to face them. At this point I was seriously worried that the next move would be a line moving up from Westminster to form a kettle. The police deployment was quite thin and extended, whether because this lot were the first to arrive or because they deliberately wanted to filter people through the line.
At 1536, I tweeted (so probably a little earlier), the demo started moving towards Trafalgar Square, partly pushing forwards and mostly moving around the flanks of the police line. (This is a fair characterisation, I think, as is this.) The police moved back towards Downing Street and then towards the Women's Monument, and there was some sort of outbreak of shouting on the Downing St side in front of the Cabinet Office, where a lot of people were trying to get by between the police line and the buildings. I passed by on the other side close to Alanbrooke's statue (my twitter feed says this was 1600). This is the widest point of Whitehall, and the police line now had demonstrators on both sides.
From this point on, the demo moved fairly quickly up Whitehall. Ahead, I saw a police 4x4, possibly a senior officer's vehicle, parked in the middle of the road, which suddenly moved off with squealing tyres. That sounds dramatic, but in truth the pace was little more than a brisk walk, and nothing violent had happened so far.
Approaching the top of Whitehall, a choke point where the street narrows before entering Trafalgar Square, I looked back and saw that beyond the demo, and the police, and the demonstrators who were on the other side of the police, many more police had arrived. I think I saw between five and eight carriers.
At the top of Whitehall, the demo started to pass into Trafalgar Square. I was one of the first in the retreat at this point. Due to the demo, and to an "event" in the Square, there was very heavy traffic on all the streets around it. As we emerged from Whitehall, the next vehicle to move forwards from the direction of the Strand and Northumberland Avenue was a police van, specifically one of the red Transit minibuses used by Met Diplomatic Protection and anti-terrorist branch units. (Wail Qasim identified them as such at 1606.) It was, for the record, in the traffic jam rather than parked off the street, and everyone was inside with the doors and windows shut.
One of the Occupiers immediately lay down in front of the van, I think to stop it or any traffic blocking the exit from Whitehall. Other demonstrators gathered around it. There was a hiatus as they realised that they had kettled the cops, and the cops realised that something unusual was going on. Then, one of them got out of the vehicle, with his H&K rifle slung, apparently intending to talk to the people. It can only have been at this point that the now-famous photo was taken. Like everyone else, as far as I can make out, my first thought was "Er, armed police?" (as my Twitter feed records at 1604).
Nothing very much happened. I was one carriageway from the van, and I don't remember that anyone raised their voice between the police or the protestors around their van. However, I presume they radioed for help, as the first TSG unit now caught up in a real hurry, eventually forming a line (very tight and concentrated this time) in front of the van.
People now began to gather on the mini-roundabout facing them, which seemed to me to practically invite the creation of a kettle around it as more and more police were still appearing. As a result, this didn't last and the demo moved on across the Square and into the Strand. By the level of Charing Cross, I had the impression that the demonstration had melted away, which struck me as a smart move. In fact, according to Twitter, some of us pressed on up Aldwych and encountered quite rough treatment from the police.
So that was my experience. Everyone seems to be furious that armed police were seen on the demo. I'm not sure that they were used, and I wouldn't want this to detract from getting after, for example, this bloke or this one.
However, I think the real reason for this is that the Met usually has a group of armed officers and their vans based at Charing Cross nick, as it's close to various ministries, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and some embassies that get armed police protection. The van could have either been coming from Charing Cross to start a shift, or perhaps on the way back via Northumberland Avenue. They didn't seem to be particularly aware something unusual was going on, and they were sitting in a van in a traffic jam rather than being deployed in any tactical fashion. My twitter feed records this view at 1608, as do some others.