So yesterday evening got interesting. After I got home from work I had some quick dinner and then grabbed my gym bag and my camera. The plan had been to take a couple quick pictures around town and then head to the gym. When I was walking toward the Prefecture, I saw a bunch of police and then heard a crowd gathering by the Arc de Triomphe. Confused why the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest movement) would be out on a Tuesday night and excited at the prospect of some cool pics, I went to investigate. Turns out that in fact this Tuesday was Mardi Gras / Carnaval, and a crowd in disguises with torches and drums were marching down the street.
This was even better, photographically, than a protest! I got ahead of the crowd and followed them down the street, taking photos of the various eccentric characters. Took some video as well as they were dancing, drumming, singing, and burning an effigy. After about 30 minutes, I felt like I had gotten most of the shots that I could, so I thought I’d head to the gym. But the riot police were blocking the top and bottom of the street. I tried the side street, but they were blocking that too. Indeed, it seemed we were surrounded by police on all sides and not permitted to leave.
I assumed a that short while later after the celebrations calmed down that they would open the line, so I went back to taking pictures. Eventually, though, some anarchist-type guy came up to me and said not to take pictures of people’s faces that that I should put my camera away and get out of there myself while I’m at it. I mumbled something about how I wouldn’t take pictures of him and his friends, but the threatening tone took a second to dawn on me. I didn’t put my camera away, but I turned the other way and stopped taking pictures for a while. After a few minutes, realizing that he was still watching me, I thought I would head up the hill to the other police line as to not be near them when I eventually left.
As I was walking up the hill, I saw a few people peeing through the fence in disguises with interesting lighting. I snapped a quick pick and then this lady starts walking next to me asking if I’m a journalist. I explained that no, photography is just a hobby, but she just stared blankly at me. I thought she didn’t understand my French, but then she goes on about how taking a quick pic like that is what a journalist would do. I then realized that she was with the group of the guy who threatened me before and then have been following me up the street!
Getting a little nervous, I eventually put away my camera, but not before discretely pulling out my SD card and putting it in the watch pocket of my jeans in case I got jumped while leaving. The camera is replaceable, but if that were to happen I would want the photos, in particular to identify the assailants.
After waiting a while longer, people were coming up and asking the riot police when we could get through. They said it was open at the bottom, but none of us were convinced as for the last two hours they had all been saying to try another way when all of them were closed off. However, a few of the people said they would try and be back if it wasn’t open. After about ten or fifteen minutes when they didn’t come back, I braved another run in with my harassers and descended down the hill.
When I finally to got to the bottom, there was a crowd on one side where they were slowly letting people out. Relieved, I waited with the rest thinking that soon we would be free. Except the stream exiting was in face a one-by-one trickle as they were checking the ID, frisking, and fully searching the bags of each person. I don’t know if the female officers were less thorough or if there were more of them, but they called three or four women to leave for every one guy (prompting one ‘women and children first!’ joke to be shouted by one of the crowd). When I finally made it through, I had to fully empty my pockets and get frisked as they searched my bag, then wait as the officer had seemingly lost my ID in his vest pocket for five minutes. But three hours after heading out for some quick pics before the gym, I was free to go home.
From an experience perspective, I have never before been penned up in a public space and not been allowed to leave. I didn’t feel in danger, per se, but I did keep my camera out longer than I would have in case a clash broke out. More so, if I had just been walking on the street and stopped by to look, but had somewhere to be like a date or even the hospital, that would have been a big problem. (Or if I had eaten something I shouldn’t have for dinner and needed to find a bathroom ASAP.) I’m not sure what the laws are but I feel like that isn’t allowed in the US. I’m sure my lawyer friends could correct me, but my guess is that either you would be allowed to leave the public area or they would need to detain you, but I’ve never heard of a large group completely surrounded on the street and not allowed to leave. Either way it was quite the photographic adventure!