Reagan in Dublin

Dublin at the beginning of June 1984 was warm and sunny. ‘Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back’ was playing in Dublin cinemas and ironically Ronald Reagan who named his country’s defence system after the sci-fi film was in town. He did not receive a warm welcome from his ancestral home.

The protests against his visit were country-wide and brought together a diverse alliance of people who might not normally join forces. Left groups marched alongside nuns and priests. What united them was Reagan’s foreign policies, mainly those in Central and South America.

I photographed the Dublin protests — the march of over 10,000 people to the Dáil and a picket on the US embassy — and I have two regrets about the photographs I took or rather didn’t take that day. Instead of going to the night-time vigil when thousands of people surrounded Dublin Castle where Reagan was being feted and dined by the powers-that-be, I was persuaded by my partner of that time to do a spot of baby-sitting for him. So, while protesters formed a chain around the castle, beating drums and cat-calling to the president into the night, I was sat at home. Obviously, my feminist sensibilities required some honing at that stage…

That same night something else was happening outside the US ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park. This brings me to my second regret which is deeper than the first.
A group, Women for Disarmament, had set up a camp in the Park days before just yards from the entrance to the residence. The women were part of the international anti-war movement and comprised upwards of seventy women who camped out in expectation of Reagan’s arrival. They were not breaking any laws but the police, under pressure from the US Secret Service, twice gathered them into police vans and drove them into the city. The women, of course, regrouped and returned to their camp.

I was a political snob then and I have to admit I found the WFD group irritating but nevertheless, in the days before, I, along with other women, prepared pots of stew in the Women’s Centre on Dame Street and brought them to the women in the Park. What I did not bring was my camera and so did not capture any images of their circular camp which was both good-humoured and earnest. And I bitterly regret this for these women suffered for their protest.

On the night of the Dublin Castle vigil, they painted their hands red and imprinted them on the ambassador’s gates. The Secret Service were incensed. Pressure was exerted and the local police arrived in greater numbers than before and formally arrested the protesters. The women were brutally removed. One disabled woman was dragged away by the heels.

They were imprisoned in the Bridewell Garda Station, illegally as it emerged, for between one and two nights in crowded, dirty cells. They remained there until Airforce 1 rose into the air taking the president back from whence he had come.
The empire knew how to strike back!

Rose Comiskey

Rose Comiskey — Reagan Protest Dublin 1984, available here


Brian David Stevens—the Theatre of Protest

From about 1999-2006 I used to photograph a lot of protests on the streets of London, I was never much interested in the cause of the protests more the act of ‘protest’ itself. It was its own kind of street theatre, with its own cast of characters and roles to be played out.
Mayday in London had been a flashpoint for the last couple of years and in 2001 the police penned a couple of thousand protestors in Oxford Circus; one of the first examples of ‘kettling’. The day had started quite slowly, the standard march, the standard slogans, the standard photographs, the standard rain, however at Oxford Circus things changed, the police sealed off the four exits holding the protestors in the middle of the road junction.

“You are being detained here to prevent a breach of the peace and criminal damage to property. You will be released in due course.” was the police line. The ‘kettle’ was in place, the ‘normal’ police blocking the exits were replaced by those in their full riot gear. Any attempt to leave the cordon was met by shields and batons.

The rain continued to fall, by now my equipment was getting a real soaking, my cheap flashgun gave up the ghost and the Nikon F4 got water in the body resulting in only half rewinding a film, ruining some pictures when the back was opened. Luckily the old Leica M4-P had no electrics to go wrong, so soldiered on.

I had not been in London long and was still finding my feet as a photographer, going back through contact sheets and dusty negatives I found that I’d spent a lot of the time photographing the police rather than the protestors or the protests themselves. It was the first time I’d really seen riot police in their storm-trooper uniforms (quite strange if you’d been brought up in a place when the police’s most high-tech piece of kit was a Mini Metro), and quickly became fascinated by the only section of them that was visible, through the visor of their riot helmet. It seemed that I had spent the whole day concentrating on this little window of humanity. Once I’d found this angle I started to work, at the same time watching the game of chess between the police and protestors unfold, the clashes, the insults, the boredom.

At this point in time I did not have a press pass, I shot really just for myself and the camera gave me an excuse to witness events I was interested in, so when I saw press photographers showing passes and being able to leave the kettle I felt a pang of jealousy but at the same time felt determined to stick it out. I was finally released from the kettle at around 6/7pm. At least the rain had stopped.

Images and text ©Brian David Stevens 2015

Brian David Stevens (B 1970) is a photographer based in London UK. He has been published and exhibited worldwide. His current exhibition of portraits of war veterans is on show at the Royal Armouries Leeds until Feb 2015.  The show moves to Fort Nelson, Portsmouth in March.

Café Royal Books have published four books by Brian David Stevens:
Tyburn Hemp
Notting Hill Sound Systems
Billy Childish

sound system box-set now available