Westfield, West London, was the scene of a rowdy protest yesterday, as activists managed to overpower security and hold a "die in" in the shopping centre. The event was held in protest at the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer involved in the killing of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black American father of six who repeatedly said "I can't breathe" as he was chokeholded to death by NYPD cops.
The die-in was organised by political group the London Black Revolutionaries (or Black Revs), who a fortnight ago held a protest outside the American embassy for murdered teenager Michael Brown. Die-ins are where protesters lie down and play dead to make a statement. There have been a lot of them in the US recently following a string of high profile killings of black people by police.
As we arrived at Westfield, security was tight. If the guards thought you looked too much like a protester, they wouldn't let you in, leaving some people standing outside with placards looking miffed.
After a while, a critical mass of protesters was left chanting at the gates and nobody at all was allowed in. Westfield is the size of a provincial town centre, so there was a slightly sinister aspect to such a large, ostensibly public space in the city being declared out of bounds to any politics so that people could shop undisturbed. To be fair though, you should have seen the faces of people who wanted to shop but were turned away. They were livid.
Those left outside decided to take matters into their own hands, marching around Shepherd's Bush and dying-in on the streets as friendly coppers tried to convince them it would be better not to.
At this point I was inside the centre, where protesters who had managed to get in were wandering around trying to be inconspicuous as they waited for the protest to begin. To the naked eye, nothing out of the ordinary was on the cards, but I spotted agitated looking security guards rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, eyeballing anyone with a Palestine badge or a Keffiyeh.
After a while, hundreds of protesters were able to congregate and die-in. Before long they were chanting, "Black lives matter!", "I can't breathe!", and "Hands up, don't shoot!" They were surprisingly lively for pretend corpses, but anyway, point made. The chants sat uncomfortably with the Christmas-sy lounge music permeating the air to lubricate people's shopping experiences.
After a few marches up and down the shopping centre, most of the protesters headed off to hear speeches on the corner of Shepherd's Bush Common. The topics at hand were the number of people who have been killed by police over the years and the lack of accountability for those killings.
The crowd was really young and, unsurprisingly, largely black. I asked a guy named Kojo why he was there. "Not all cops are cunts," he told me, "but the majority are. That needs to get sorted. It's not just Michael Brown. Look at Mark Duggan. Most cops are pricks."
With the speeches winding down, things seemed to be over. But rather than going home, everyone marched back to Westfield. This time, those who had been blocked first time round weren't going to be denied. Hastily erected security fences tumbled and cops and security guards standing in the way had to submit to the sheer wave of people flooding up the stairs.
With security overcome, people flooded in, singing and chanting as they went. It felt a bit like Black Friday, except with people chanting "One solution, revolution!" rather than fighting over TVs.
The march snaked up and down escalators, people chanting, "Back up, back up / we want freedom, freedom / we don't need these racists-ass cops / we don't need them!"
Eventually gaining the upper hand in the French farce the event had become, the police managed to herd the protesters into one section of the shopping centre.
So the protesters held another die-in.
I asked a girl why she was here. "It's ridiculous how black men and women are targeted by the police," she told me. "It's ridiculous how the colour of our skin could get us killed now. History keeps repeating itself and everyone needs to understand what's going on in the world... the police have a picture – like a prototype of who they're supposed to stop – and that's a black man. Our skin colour automatically makes us criminals."
After a while, a group of protesters broke their way through police lines and left the shopping centre, fearing another kettle. Everything seemed pretty much over.
Those who remained milled about by a flyover. They probably should have got out of dodge. In a final twist, the police kettled those who hadn't already left the scene, before arresting them. In total, 76 were arrested on public order offences (one person was arrested for suspected assault).
The protest was supposed to show solidarity with those on the receiving end of police racism and brutality in the States, and to make links with those issues in the UK. Obviously, it's not the same as killing someone in cold blood, but arresting some people en masse for getting a little bit rowdy in a shopping centre during a protest, when everything was fizzling and people were about to go home anyway, will win the police no friends but the most ideologically zealous of Christmas shoppers.