In the last week and a half, thousands of Congolese men, women, and children have been out on the streets of London to protest against their country's recent election results. The protesters claim Étienne Tshisekedi was cheated from power by the incumbent Jospeh Kabila, feared to be a Western puppet who'll cheerily wave through countries like our own as they rape the Republic of its natural resources. The dispute has seen the streets of Kinshasa—Congo's capital—plagued with violence for weeks. Not like it ever went away; an estimated five to eight million people have died in the DRC in the last thirteen years.
On Saturday we joined the crowd on Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. Within the first few minutes I was threatened, told my camera would be smashed up, and shoved by a guy who had just jumped off a traffic light. It wasn't very chill. Moments later, a group of men and women were asking me if worked for the BBC (I don't). This became a common theme.
We explored this in greater detail in our VICE Guide to Congo, but the perpetual conflict there is largely due to the country's massive stock of minerals such as coltan, a key ingredient in smartphones and laptops. The computer/mobile phone you're reading this on? Well done for funding the militias, you child soldier sponsorer.
The members of the Congolese diaspora who've been protesting in London are pissed off about the lack of press coverage their plight has been getting. They attempted to right this wrong by carrying around pictures of some of the atrocious things that have happened in their homeland. If you want to see graphic images of dismembered bodies, a Congolese demonstration is definitely the place to go.
Amidst crying, shouting, singing, dancing, and scuffles with the police, one man asked me, “Do you know why we are here? We want everyone to know why we are here, we want them to know what is going on in our country.” He had tears in his eyes.
Oxford Circus train station was shut on Thursday. That was the protesters setting off the alarm and angrily letting London commuters know that children are still being raped in the Congo—and that their 3G upgrade is partly to blame. On Saturday night, groups ran around the West End engaging—and often intimidating—theater goers. I got kettled in with a hundred or so of them and after several hours of standing around getting cold I watched them all get systematically arrested. The Met filed 139 arrests that night, many are still being held. They also reported criminal damage to shop fronts and cars—this I did not see.
While in the kettle, I spoke to a guy [not pictured] who had family in the Congo. “We have done nothing wrong, we just want people to listen. The BBC, the media they just don't care. If people back home knew I was here today, my family back home would be dead. I mean they would be dead today. That is what it is like there…” He paused and looked at me hard. "We've done nothing wrong, we don't deserve this." I don't think he was talking about the Met police containment we were in.
As the last few protesters were being arrested on Saturday, a Sky reporter arrived—the first TV crew I'd seen all day. A woman approached him and asked the question I had been earlier, “Do you know why we are here?” “No,” said the reporter, shaking his head. “I've no idea really.”
After a smaller demonstration at BBC television center on Monday, we rejoined the Congolese on Wednesday. The plan was to march from the DRC embassy on Great Portland Street to a demonstration at Downing Street. There were a lot of kids, protest stewards in full paramilitary gear, songs in Lingala and French and more pictures of dead bodies.
We set off around 1.30PM, walking through the city. Generally shoppers engaged well with the crowd. At one point the employees of Jack Wolfskin, for some unknown reason, took beef with the demonstrators, shouting at them from the windows above their shop on Regent Street. The response from the Congolese was emphatic:
The Apple store received an equally warm welcome, with bat-shit mental screams of “Coltan kills!” The Geniuses decided it was best to shut up shop for the day.
When we reached the rally point, the crowd met a significant police presence. The dogs were out, the camera wielding Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) were getting hard every time someone shouted at the police and the mainstream media were still, over a week since these protests started, nowhere to be seen.
Some guys chucked some fireworks at the police when they were told they would have to leave at 6PM. If my home country had been getting fucked as hard as the DRC has in recent years I don't think I would be impressed by a lone policeman with a bullhorn telling me what time to go to bed.
We spoke to some people about why they were protesting:
The desperation of the Congolese people to be recognized led a Congolese journalist we spoke to to claim that, if these protests and the violence in Congo continue to be ignored, the diaspora will be forced into more violent means to be heard.
Shortly after the 6PM deadline, part of the protest broke off and headed towards Trafalgar Square, much like on Saturday. However, this time the police managed to split the group up more. There were some confrontations, throwing contrast between the Met's growing arrogance during public order policing and the severity of the grievances the Congolese people harbor.
We ended up kettled again, this time opposite Charing Cross station, which confused a lot of Pizza Express diners who were momentarily pinned in. The total policing tactics of throwing a fuck-load of cops at a situation and keeping everyone in one place long enough until they're bored and want to go home were being deployed. This time, rather than arrest them, the Met opted for Plan B and simply semi-harassed, searched, and profiled everyone.
This week Time magazine named their person of the year “The Protestor.” Clearly there's a global surge in activism, whether it be revolutions in the Arab world, Occupy camp sites, students, urban rioting or even movements like the EDL. This week the Congolese communities of the UK, Belgium, France, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere took a chunk out of that pie.
The ongoing conflict in the DRC is the deadliest since WWII. We heard stories of people being forced to watch their family shot and mothers raped in front of their children. These weren't distant media anecdotes, they were the personal stories of people we spoke to living in the UK. Despite what the few scant reports from last Saturday would have you believe, a few scared tourists in the West End is not the real story here. The reality of the situation is on the placards of thousands of disillusioned Congolese protesters.
WORDS: JOSHUA HADDOW
IMAGES & VIDEO: HENRY LANGSTON, JOSHUA HADDOW