How London’s police helped to engineer a riot
Yesterday I attended the demonstration in London against the government’s plan to raise university tuition fees to £9,000 a year (a near trebling of the current figure), which took place outside parliament while the measure was being debated and voted on inside. It was a rude awakening for someone who had wrongly assumed that Britain was a country that respected freedom of assembly.
There were in fact two demonstrations; one organised by student activists that began at noon at Malet Street and marched to Parliament Square, and a ‘candlelit vigil’ organised by the National Union of Students and University College Union that began at 3pm nearby on Victoria Embankment, kept separate from the first march with the apparent intention of appearing respectable in the eyes of Daily Mail editorial writers. I was on the first demo, but assumed I’d be able to wander over to the second one at some point.
However, after the demonstration reached Parliament Square, the police blocked off all exits from the square, so people were not able to go in or out. The policemen were all helmeted and armoured, and it felt like the mostly peaceful demonstrators were a priori being treated as troublemakers and confronted. Those who arrived later were not allowed to join, and in practice, the demonstration was broken up into at least two groups. It was freezing cold, and people burned scrap wood and at least one park bench to keep warm. People stood like this for hours; there were no toilets and no possibility of going off to buy food or coffee. At one corner of the square opposite Westminster Abbey, mounted policemen were deployed and a confrontation broke out with some of the demonstrators; I couldn’t see who started it. A couple of people tried unsuccessfully to smash a reinforced window in one of the government buildings on the other side of the square. But the overwhelming majority of the people gathered were peaceful. They were mostly students, but some were actual schoolchildren.
At about 4pm, I thought I’d wander over to the NUS/UCU demo down the road, but this was impossible as the police were not allowing anyone to leave the square. A lot of people wanted to leave by then, and were getting very frustrated about being prevented, and a chant went up, ‘Let us leave !’, which the police ignored. At some time before 5pm, the crowd I was in facing the police at the exit onto Parliament Street became fed up, began to push, and succeeded in pushing its way through the police line. There were large trenches in the road where roadwork was being carried out, and as I was pushed along by the crowd, I briefly thought I might fall in; a policeman helped to pull me and the man in front of me safely past. However, the crowd had simply succeeded in breaking into another kettle, and there was still no possibility of leaving. I had wanted to stay until the parliamentary vote at 5.30pm, but others wanted to leave; a frightened looking girl who looked about eighteen asked me what was happeneing, and whether we would be allowed to leave, but I didn’t know.
I do not know why the police wanted to keep the two groups of demonstrators separate, or why they kept people kettled who wanted to go home, but the strategy seemed almost designed to make the demostrators angry and frustrated. Then, at a certain point, the police for some reason began lining up vans inside the kettle, and some demonstrators stood in front of the vans to prevent them from moving forward. A group of police in riot gear, with shields, confronted the demonstrators at the vans, and fighting broke out. Exactly what the police were trying to achieve by aggressively confronting bottled up demonstrators was completely unclear. Of course, there was a minority of troublemakers among the demonstrators who were out for a fight, but most of us were just trapped and confused about what was happening.
Demonstrators by the vans pelted the police with missiles, then began to hurl metal fences against the riot shields. The police then advanced against the demonstrators on both sides of the kettle, beating them with batons and crushing the crowd together. ‘Where are we supposed to go ?’, one girl shouted. Some of us clambered over the low wall separating the road and the pavement to escape the advancing police and the fighting. I then climbed onto a raised platform at the edge of the pavement, and watched the fighting. The police hit people with batons. Eventually, the fighting subsided and the police allowed people to leave.
At one level, I was grateful it was the UK rather than, say, Italy or Russia, as individual officers showed a lot of discipline and restraint; things would have been a lot worse if individual officers had lashed out indiscriminately on their own initiative, as police in such circumstances have been known to do. But that is a tribute to the ordinary policeman – not the strategy of the police command, which put its own officers in harm’s way.
The police strategy did not serve to protect people or property from violence; on the contrary. Although there was a minority among the demonstrators that was actively seeking violence, the police strategy of keeping people ketted for hours in the cold, and preventing them from going home, appeared guaranteed to ensure that a riot would take place, and that even some demonstrators who hadn’t been out for trouble would be drawn into it. The strategy of not only keeping people kettled, but then inserting a phalanx of armed police into the kettle was sheer lunacy – what did they think would happen ? The moderate, peaceful majority was lumped together with the minority and treated as dangerous deviants, instead of what they were – citizens exercising their democratic right to protest. Those of us who wanted to move to the second demonstration were prevented from doing so – a violation of the right of freedom of assembly.
I attended the great anti-poll-tax demonstration in March 1990 – rioting broke out there too, but on the march itself, the police treated the demonstrators a lot better. I have been on many demonstrations in London, but I’ve never seen anything like this: the police treating peaceful demonstrators as troublemakers, then pursuing a strategy guaranteed to ensure trouble would occur. And one couldn’t help but suspect that by making the experience of demonstrating as unpleasant as possible, the covert intention was to deter people from exercising their right to freedom of protest in the future.
Hat tip for the video: Oliver.
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