Alfie Meadows was on trial yesterday, charged with violent disorder at a protest in which he had been hospitalised with brain damage after being beaten by the police. This move seems heavy handed at best, sinister and cynical at worst. However it also seems strikingly ill-conceived. The move has won the Met widespread condemnation at a time when their reputation and good will among the public are already diminished.
The Police have undermined claims of fairness and proportionality through dark hints of increased violence if the Government did not protect them from the cuts facing the rest of the public sector. The excessive and provocative violence witnessed at the demos at the end of 2010 will inevitably be viewed in this context.
On a more practical level, given the reduced resources available for policing both within the community and at major events, the police must rely more and more on the consent and cooperation of the public. The reservoir of good will on which these factors depend is greatly depleted by the prosecution of a man the Police themselves hospitalised.
Finally the move is a strategic misstep which has succeeded in producing a galvanised and united coalition intent on monitoring police behaviour and holding officers to account. Meadows and fellow protestor Bryan Simpson have set up the umbrella organisation ‘Defend the Right to Protest’ which protested outside the court on Thursday. Jody Macintyre the activist who was prominently dragged from his wheelchair in front of the cameras has also become involved as have UKUncut, members of which were arrested after being deliberately misled on the 26th March TUC demonstration.
The overall impression is of a vindictive and petty force intent on penalising those who inflict upon it unwelcome scrutiny. Even if the logic of the Met’s action is to dissuade others from protest or dissent, it seems to have scored a stunning own goal succeeding only in creating a new cause celebre and brand new movement to do just that.
The police operation to curtail protests at today’s wedding has increasingly come to resemble the actions of an authoritarian regime trying to scrub out any image of dissent before a major event draws the focus of the world upon them.
The raids and arrests at five addresses across London early yesterday morning were the first evidence of the promised crack-down. The Met claims that the raids were merely an attempt to gather evidence about disorder at the TUC march last month. However the targets and timing suggest otherwise and there are reports of other raids across London last night.
But the police have not just been raiding squats looking for ‘anarchists’. Charlie Veitch, a well known video activist who has only ever conducted peaceful protest, was arrested yesterday. An email from his girlfriend reveals he was arrested for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Veitch had told the police of his intention to protest at the wedding peacefully, and was imprisoned for his courtesy.
Meanwhile, the organisers of a large-scale peaceful protest planned to take place along the route of the wedding were warned that any form of mass protest would be illegal inside the security zone around Westminster.
The group’s statement on Facebook is a lesson in careful wording, designed to encourage protest without falling foul of the legal prohibitions in place today. Nonetheless, individual attempts to get anywhere near the route of the wedding with the intention of protesting will be made very difficult by the huge cordon of private security around Westminster and St James’ Park.
That the wedding should be heavily stage managed is no surprise, all national events are. However the tactics that have surrounded this wedding are more troubling. There seems to be a studious and organised attempt to curtail expressions of public feeling that don’t fit within the framework of patriotic celebration and affirmation of the status quo. Miles away from the Royal Wedding the only open expression of dissent was permitted, a republican street party was licensed in Red Lion Square Holborn, safely away from cameras that might broadcast this minor interruption of the Monarchist narrative.
The wedding has apparently been saved from any embarrassing displays of dissent by heavy-handed tactics and pre-emptive strikes reminiscent of China’s careful stage-managing of the Olympics in 2008. If the government is prepared to go to such great lengths to keep protest out of the limelight for a royal wedding, what will they do next year when London hosts its own Olympics? Despite the paroxysm of patriotism expressed by rightist commentators, one wonders how the event can legitimately be viewed as an expression of national unity and celebration when such aggressive incursions upon civil liberties where required to maintain the facade.
The news that the Metropolitan police have decided to press charges against (among others) 20 year old student Alfie Meadows for violent disorder has caused outrage. Meadows was hospitalised and had to receive major surgery for bleeding on the brain following a violent assault with a police baton during the third student demo on the 9th of December 2010. As well as displaying a callous disregard for the consequences of their own heavy handed actions this forms a pattern of police persecution and partisanship which is deeply troubling in a democracy.
Alfie Meadows has been named as one of thirteen individuals to be tried for violent disorder and criminal damage. The move has aroused suspicion that the Met are attempting to discredit a key witness in the IPCC investigation into their actions on that day. It also can’t have escaped the attention of commentators that this move falls shortly after damning evidence of violence and dishonesty from the police relating of the death of Ian Tomlinson in April 2009. The reputation of the police force in general and the Met in particular is at a distinctly low-ebb among much of the public following a series of protests in which they have been seen to act in an extremely violent and provocative manner, charging teenagers on horseback, sending protestors to hospital (or rather refusing to send them) with brain damage, kettling schoolchildren for hours in sub-zero conditions and dragging young men out of their wheelchairs and across the ground, all the while engaging in acts of breath-taking deceit.
It is natural for an individual or institution facing such this kind of damage to attempt to protect and improve their reputation. However, for a group which is granted the overwhelming monopoly on use of coercive force – both physical and legal – to engage in cynical tactics and gross dishonesty belies the very reputation it seeks to maintain. If a group is allowed to beat civilians round the head, detain them for hours on end, snatch them from their homes and put them at risk of long term incarceration it doesn’t seem too much to expect them to be a little whiter than white in deploying such powers. In fact no one expects the Met to be perfect, but we do at least expect them to behave honourably and honestly when their mistakes and misdemeanours are investigated.
These actions are troubling enough, for those concerned with civil liberties and the right to protest. However, in the last few years the Met has also demonstrated an alarming, openly political edge to its repression. The policing of pro-Palestine marches for instance, have witnessed extremely brutal repression on the day. Often those who attended were subsequently snatched in dawn raids months later in a move that seemed deliberately designed to deter young Muslim citizens from engaging in their democratic right to protest; this tactic was then taken up by the judiciary, who meted out disproportionately harsh sentencing to the accused. Similarly, infiltration of environmental groups and others that employ direct action, all of which have been classified and treated as “extremists”, and the arrest, last month of UKUncut activists who had been assured they could go free. All of these examples imply the Met considers its remit to extend far beyond maintenance of order and facilitation of peaceful protest, and now includes the active defence of the status quo against those who seek to challenge or change it.
Last week’s high court decision that Police tactics at 2009’s climate camp were illegal has been hailed as a victory for civil rights campaigners and the protest movement in general. Yet the significance of the judgement could be overplayed. The court’s decision did not go as far as civil liberties groups would like, passing up the opportunity to engage in a truly radical shake-up of policing and settling instead to allow the police to carry on much as before, though perhaps a little nicer and with an extra eye on for regulations.
The court has held back from declaring the use of kettling itself to be illegal and the Met have subsequently reaffirmed their commitment to the use of the tactic where they consider it necessary. This judgement of course only applies to the policing of the 2009 climate camp protest. Nonetheless, it has inevitably been interpreted in the light of the student protests that convulsed the capital at the end of 2010, which saw the highly controversial tactic deployed for hours at a time, often in dangerous situations and in icy conditions.
Though the Met have defiantly vowed to continue to deploy kettling where they see fit the recent anti-cuts demo notably did not witness large scale kettles deployed. Merely the threat of its use was sufficient to dramatically raise the temperature of the protest however, as Liberty – who provided legal observers and stewards on the day – concluded in a recent report.
This isn’t the final word on kettling. The tactic is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. But until a decision is reached the police will continue to use it. With this in mind, the court must be considered to have missed a valuable opportunity to effect more radical change in policing. Despite paying lip service to the civil right to protest, the Met has regularly shown itself willing to employ extremely coercive and violent means to control protests in the two years since the climate camp incident. The knowledge that they retain the prerogative to employ this hugely resource-hungry, expensive and provocative tactic will continue to greatly raise the temperature of future protests at a time when tempers are already running high due to economic insecurity and government austerity. It seems likely this will lead to more frequent, more violent clashes between protesters and the police which will be used in turn to justify more aggressive, more restrictive crowd control tactics. In allowing the police to retain the right to kettle, but rebuking them for excessive use of force the Court has essentially handed the met a stick and asked them to play nicely with it. A truly progressive move would have been to take the stick away altogether.
Photos by Kris Sime
Police and press are failing to discriminate between those up for violence and protesters who just wanted to do more than march.
Yesterday’s March for the Alternative, organised by the TUC, will inevitably be remembered for the pitched battles in Trafalgar Square. Images of chaosand the resulting desolation around Nelson’s column meant the cameras were unlikely to focus on anything else. Much of the press will follow the police and government line that is always wheeled out when things turn nasty. A peaceful demonstration was spoiled by a small minority. There was a huge contrast between events on the march and rally which attracted up to 500,000 people and the flashpoints around central London: violence and sit-ins, occupations and criminal damage, but a simple dichotomy is misleading.
For once, when the press refer to the instigators of the trouble as anarchists, they are probably right. For perhaps the first time since the G20, escalation was initiated by a recognizable group of organised anarchists – known as the Black Bloc. Around 300 people, dressed for the most part in the cameraman’s dream of black hoodies with covered faces, split off from the main march at around one PM. Once at Topshop, they began pelting the building, and press, security and police with rocks, paint grenades and smoke bombs. At the same time UKUNcut activists were staging coordinated sit-ins, but such peaceful direct action is unlikely to ever attract the same coverage as masked men throwing things. It was this Black Bloc, rather than UKUncut, who would form the core of the violence throughout the rest of the day.
Yet this group were only a few hundred strong at any one point. What mainstream coverage is failing to pick up on is the large contingent of peaceful protesters, mainly young, who decided not to merely follow the path to Hyde Park for an orderly rally. Instead they decided to occupy Oxford Circus, stage strange artistic displays, support those occupying buildings such as Fortnum and Masons on Picadilly, and generally cause disruption without violence.
Sometime after seven PM, when Piccadilly had calmed down and Trafalgar Square had yet to blow up, the police began arresting the around 100 UKUncut protesters who had remained occupying Fortnum and Masons. They are thought to have been arrested for aggravated trespass (fair enough) but also criminal damage. Reports from inside say one display was accidentally knocked over – and given UKUncut’s record of peaceful protest it seems unlikely any malicious damage was caused. Yet these arrests will likely end up being a significant proportion of the total punished for their role in yesterday’s chaos. This shows a failure to discriminate between those peacefully making a point, and those making a point of being violent.
There were people amongst the crowds yesterday that were up for a fight from the start, and who revelled in launching attacks on the police and causing often indiscriminate damage to property. Many of these people will never face arrest because they could so easily disappear into the crowd. In contrast, those who openly made their point by occupying a high-profile building, and waiting there until the police arrived, are currently sitting in cells across London (there were so many the police used a coach to transport them).
There were thousands yesterday who didn’t believe merely marching sufficient to oppose government policies they fear will wreak havoc on UK society. However a simple narrative will class all those who took action in central London as a violent minority spoiling it for the rest. In fact, many are using time-honoured peaceful methods of protest that are respectable, and many more simply felt that by marching where they weren’t meant to would show slightly more defiance. There were hundreds who gathered in Trafalgar Square in the evening for a party preliminary to a 24 hour sleep-in, with no intention of engaging in a riot. These people shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as those who went hoping for violence, but it seems unlikely that the after image of riots in Trafalgar Square will allow such a careful analysis.
Saturday the 26th is the date of the long awaited Trade Unions Council (TUC) “March for an Alternative”. Projected turn out is well over 100,000 and more optimistic union organisers have talked about more than 1m protesters taking to the streets. Given recent conflict between police and demonstrators at protests over the last few months, there is unsurprisingly much speculation over whether we will see similar scenes next Saturday. Yet the TUC’s preparation for the protest suggests greater concern for boosting its bargaining power than mounting a wide-ranging challenge to the government.
Despite the tough talk from many of the unions, the TUC has shown it wants to do its best to avoid any disorder. The council has agreed not merely to cooperate with the police during the demonstration, but actively to assist them in controlling protesters. The police will have input into who will be considered eligible to steward the demo, and union stewards will share information – including opening their walkie-talkies up to the police monitors. If any stewards witness unauthorised protest, sit downs etc, they are to immediately inform the police who have promised a tough response.
Given these stunning concessions that the TUC has granted the police, it seems likely that the intention is not merely to facilitate an expression of public dissatisfaction with government policy. Rather, it is focused on increasing its bargaining power by proving mass support, without causing much upset. Spontaneous and unauthorised actions outside of the TUC’s control simply do not fit this plan.
The TUC’s motivation may be noble, and may view the approach as merely pragmatic strategy to limit the impact of unpopular government policy. But it is also an example of the organisation’s inclination to impose centralised control that drove so many activists to abandon trade unions, and the organised left, in favour of less hierarchical, if often chaotic, forms of protest. It is not likely to go down well with either the student protesters, or the members of UKUncut, who have so far put the unions to shame with their dedication to making their point on the streets.
The prospect of the police marching against cuts has provoked considerable excitement among the activist community. At least one commentator has suggested that the public surround the police and kettle them for a prolonged period. The Third Estate.net has advocated supporting the police protest despite the turbulent – to say the least – history of activist relations with the force. UKUncut have historically made a point of informing the officers attendant at their protests that should they chose to take action, the organisation will support them.
It would be a tactical error for them not to do so. Most of UKUncut’s rhetoric focuses upon the devastating impact of cuts to the full gamut of public services, it would be petty to only protest cuts to the services they get along with, though their website has yet to comment on the prospect of the police taking to the streets in protest. Given the inclusive nature of the group, they are likely to offer their support even if individual members have seen the sharp end of police action
The wider left activist movement remains divided. Many have argued that the police represent the physical force of the capitalist state and therefore place themselves outside of the bounds of solidarity offered to doctors, nurses, teachers etc. While understandable, this is short sighted and runs counter to the ethos of the movement. If the capitalist state and its functionaries is the focus of your objections then there are very good reasons to apply the same restrictions to doctors, nurses and teachers. Doctors and nurses both perform vital maintenance on the individual parts of the capitalist machine, keeping workers healthy enough to provide labour to exploit. Teachers surely must be the most nefarious of all groups – committed to indoctrinating workers from childhood into subservience
People are not making these arguments of course and for good reason. Firstly none of these groups has the capacity for the legal use of physical force; the police do and have frequently used it, provoking quite justified resentment among activists. Secondly, there is a division made between the role a given group is considered to play within a system – the medical or teaching profession for example – and the motivations and values of the individual professionals. Most people would be happy to accept that doctors and teachers chose their professions out of largely altruistic reasons and that that this renders such professions a degree of nobility whatever your feelings about the capitalist system that both groups support. The police tend to benefit from no such generosity. The hard left consider them thugs hired by the ruling classes to protect their property; a physical and often brutal manifestation of the state’s power over its own citizens. They ignore the other side of police; to provide some measure of protection for often deprived communities and vulnerable to crime and violence.
From a more pragmatic perspective, even if you see the police simply as a manifestation of state power, it would be very short-sighted to miss the subversive potential of this manifestation marching in protest against the government. At last year’s student protests the police represented the physical authority of government. They physically demarcated the limits of ‘legitimate’ protest. As soon as the students were perceived to have exceeded this, threatening to undermine the government’s authority, the police acted violently to force them back within those limits. The bleeding skulls and activists dragged from wheelchairs represented the physical imposition of state authority played out on the body of the protester. Given this dynamic; imagine how it would upset this symbolic system when the arms of the state turn against it and march themselves. Even if the protests do not become violent the mere fact that police will have to be drafted in to police a group of protesting police officers raises profound questions about the operations of the state and the functioning of its agents. If nothing else we must ask who the state can turn to as its agency of last resort if even their physical arm is on the streets chanting “Fight, Fight, Fight back!”
The Labour Party’s attempt yesterday to save the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) prompted thousands of students take the streets to march through London. However the violence and disorder that marked last year’s student protest were notably absent.
Actions took place on Tuesday across the country and yesterday hundreds of students gathered to protest in the capital. Instead of angry physical confrontations with the police, protestors played music and handed out home-made biscuits. At the same time Labour attempted to derail government plans with a vote in the commons, but the attempt was defeated by a government majority of 59.
The failure of the vote and associated demonstration marks a turning point. This was one of the last times for a while that an issue directly affecting students and school pupils will be subject to a parliamentary vote . Up till now this process has been the focal point of a revitalised protest movement, but it now remains to be seen whether their previous enthusiasm for active protest be maintained independently, and whether they can extend their enthusiasm for activism to broader and less personal causes.
Last night’s protest against police tactics was attended by only a handful of protesters. Yet the police had thousands of officers on standby. Once again the Met has demonstrated its inability to keep track of the protest movement. A demonstration focusing on Alfie Meadows, the 20-year-old student who was operated on for bleeding on the brain after being struck with by a police baton, was unlikely to become violent. The display of numbers by the police is testament to how spooked the Met have been by the past few weeks. By now you would have expected that intelligence gathering about protests would have become a little more robust, unless the intention was an overwhelming display of force. Either case represents a misstep.
Perhaps the Met command was too busy preparing ill-chosen words for public statements to cast a critical eye over their intelligence.
Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson has said he cannot rule out asking Home Secretary Theresa May to ban further student marches. He can’t ban all demonstrations, but marches can be prohibited, giving police the power to stop demonstrators from moving on anywhere en masse.
The police have already effectively used this power by stopping students taking agreed routes through central London in previous marches, so a request for a ban seems extraneous. All Stephenson’s statement will do is garner more support for the student movement by reinforcing the perception that the Met is more concerned with crushing protest than facilitating it. In addition, the Met’s recent refusal to rule out the use of water cannon on the streets of London leads one to conclude they need to take a hard look at their PR team.
The fact is that many in the UK still see the student movement as unthinkingly violent and selfish, largely as a result of increasingly hysterical portrayals of the protests in the media. But every time Stephenson or anyone else in authority talks about taking unprecedented steps to suppress protest, he strengthens the student cause.
It may be inaccurate to describe the disturbances of the last month as the nation’s first televised riots. Nonetheless they have been defined by stark imagery in a manner which previous events, to which they have been compared, were not. Riots like those against Poll Tax or the Criminal Justice act were not definitively captured to the same extent, and more recently neither did the race riots that hit Oldham, Bradford and Burnley at the turn of the century. Footage from the student demos has dominated the media and defined the way the cuts agenda will be remembered.
The first demo produced this stark image . On November 10 the NUS and ULU (University of London Students Union) brought 52,000 people onto the streets of London. This caught even the NUS and famously the Met unprepared. Establishing what would become a motif for reports of future demos, much comment focused on how the small violent minority distorted the aims of a larger, peaceful protest. Even just a month later the panic of the police evident in the film is shocking. The image of helpless officers standing by while youths smash the windows of Millbank tower provides a vivid contrast to the image of the police received from later protests. It also reminds us that, though police tactics have frequently been extremely aggressive, occasionally dangerously so, this was a reaction to student escalation in the first instance. Students and pupils are, of course, ill-matched to engage the TSG in serious violence, and police action has been directed at both peaceful and violent demonstrators alike. However, while one should not be naive about the actions of the Met, especially considering their track record, one must also remain clear eyed about the behaviour of the crowd.
At the second demonstration on 24 November, attention focused upon police heavy-handedness. In particular the use of kettling in Parliament Square drew criticism. Perhaps the most powerful image however, came from further up Whitehall. An old riot van was left abandoned, causing some to suspect the Met of baiting protesters in order to justify later actions. Whether or not this was the case, the van was set upon by the crowd. The day was also notable for rumours – initially denied – that mounted police charged the, largely teenage, crowd as the demo wore into the evening. It is telling that the pace of these demos has been so great that footage like this, which might ordinarily spark scandal, has simply been subsumed into the wider narrative of the protests and overtaken by later events.
The third and latest protest witnessed further escalation in terms of both student and police violence. Of course the defining image became this one. The shocked faces of the royal couple as protesters yelled “Off with their heads” made almost every front page in the country. Once again, discussion was of a violent minority undermining the good intentions of the rest. However, largely over looked by the press but not by twitter, was this almost comical footage of a police man falling off his own horse. What makes the imagery notable is that it directly contradicts a claim made by the Prime Minister that the officer was dragged from his horse and beaten. More than either of the others, day 3 was marked by tales of violence. Protesters tore down barriers and attempted to use them as weapons against the police. The police, for their part were accused of savage behaviour, at least one journalist was hospitalised, one protester suffered bleeding on the brain, and the account of one young girl at the demo came to be viewed as symptomatic of police attitudes to the student demonstrators more generally.
Despite small numbers turning out to demos in London on Saturday, protests are expected to continue. The use of water cannon has been discussed and there are rumours of the use of military to quell unrest in the future. It seems the British public, till now accustomed to seeing this imagery reported from protests on the continent, will have to become acclimatised to witnessing such reports from their own streets.
Reporting of yesterday’s riots has been, unsurprisingly, dominated by images of the Royal Rolls Royce being covered in paint, prompting panic from both Charles and Camilla. There has been condemnation from politicians police and press and some say the incident will deal a blow to the student movement by overshadowing the message of the demonstrations.
A single image was always going to dominate the coverage of the yesterday’s anti-fees protest, and it was always liable to be labelled a “distraction”. To condemn those who attacked the royal roller for providing one is to express considerable naivety as to how the press works in Britain.
There have been iconic moments at each of the protests over the last three weeks, either lone students kicking in the window to Millbank tower or of hundreds of students kettled at the South end of Whitehall. Now it is the tabloid-friendly image of the frightened Prince of Wales and his wife. Each time the event depicted has fed into a narrative of rising anger among students and pupils, as well as massive resistance to cuts from a supposedly apathetic and supine public.
That is not to say the image, and attendant story has not had an impact. It has diverted attention from the damage wrecked during a spontaneous attack on Topshop. Protesters split away from the main branch and trashed the store, reputedly while shouting “Pay Your Taxes!” a reference to the complex tax avoidance operated by Topshop owner Sir Phillip Green.
There are fears that this violence will undermine the fees protest. Untargeted violence is certainly unhelpful. The accusation of thuggery has already been thrown at yesterday’s protesters. Arguably, the news that one student suffered bleeding on the brain after being struck by riot police undermines Sir Paul Stephenson’s accusation somewhat. Nonetheless it is a charge to which any demo which features the use of force is open.
This reaction would be unfortunate; however it is important to remember that while non-violent action is a valuable tool, it is not the only one. The action directed against Topshop was better targeted than that against the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall. The royals have not participated in or openly supported the cuts and fee rises which is fuelling anger amongst protesters.
In many ways this incident is symptomatic of the current wave of protests. Boundaries between issues have become blurred and the cuts and fee rises are now a leitmotif that runs through formally disparate causes. If Phillip Green paid his taxes, possibly these teenagers wouldn’t be facing £9000 a year in debt. This is an argument that is already being made by UKUncut.
This coherence enhances the impact of spontaneous eruptions of anger such as the one yesterday. They enforce the impression that public opposition to the cuts and anger over lax tax collection is real and deeply felt. Vitally, it demonstrates that opposition is not simply focussed on narrow issues or self-interest but on the whole program of the governing party. This is damaging to the mandate for future government action and particularly so for a coalition, where neither party has the kind of authority that an overall majority would have bestowed.
One should not overstate the case; such protests erupted under Thatcher, but she was elected time and again. Nonetheless, this disturbance is becoming definitive of the coalition rule. It can only impede the government’s agenda, even if it does not stop it.
Parliament Square turned into a war zone today as protesters and police clashed just meters from where MPs were passing the tuition fees bill. The protest, which was marked by tension and sporadic violence throughout, reached boiling point as news that the bill had been passed by a slender majority filtered through the crowd. Little more than an hour later, hundreds of police were forming a line of shields and batons to defend the battered treasury building as fires burned across the square.
The police will have difficulty blaming today’s disturbance on a small minority of agitators. The tone of the day’s protest was set early. Once again mounted police charged, crushing students and school children against the railings opposite Westminster Abbey, and the aggression left the crowd in the mood for serious confrontation. There were many hundreds of protesters venting their anger at the police.
There were many who were clearly prepared to start trouble, though they weren’t the anarchists continually referenced by the press. Instead of long black coats and jeans, they were dressed in the tracksuits and hoodies often associated with the deprived inner city. These are the kids who are most disenfranchised by the current government. They are the ones who will suffer most from the withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – a frequently overlooked but facet of the bill, and will likely be most put off by the prospect of huge debts. It was this group, mainly teenagers with covered faces that started the assault on the treasury.
The school kids were the instigators of the attack but they had the support of much of the crowd. It was a mainstream of students and pupils who had pushed against police horses and riot officers, and who used the barricades previously barring the public from parliament square to force back the Territorial Support Group. Later, when a couple of masked youngsters gave up trying to puncture the bomb-proof glass of the treasury windows, the cry to “carry on” came from hundreds of what would be considered mainstream protesters.
On previous demonstrations, attempts to break into a government department using force would have been met with disapproval from the majority. Today, there was little condemnation from the thousands watching the assault.
Already the talk is of a battle lost, but a war still to fight. One 16 year-old girl told me that this was just the beginning. If today is anything to go by, the government has a broad and volatile movement on its hands that it will struggle to control or dismiss.
The Evening Standard today ran a front page story repeating police warnings about troublemakers preparing to “hijack” the protests against tuition fee rises tomorrow. Yet to anyone who’s been at these protests, it is obvious that the anger that has made these them so volatile is far more widespread.
Of course there have been, and will be, groups of anarchists and self-proclaimed revolutionaries at the student protests. But these are the same faces that crop up at pretty much every demonstration going. These protests are different precisely because they are not made up of the usual suspects.
Where once you would expect to see masked figures with more than a passing knowledge of 20th century political theory, many of those out in recent weeks campaigning are not doing so from a carefully constructed political standpoint. They just don’t think increased fees combined with education cuts across the board are fair.
Even the exceptionally politically literate campaigners at occupations across the country are far from partisan, something few sections of the media have caught on to. Their arguments aren’t constrained by an overarching theory, but instead are based on a very practical analysis of what they see as an attack on both the education system they are part of, and the wider society they are set to join.
But just because they don’t identify with any of the traditional movements that the police and press have long associated with chaos on mayday, doesn’t mean these protesters are not angry.
Many are teenagers from backgrounds not normally associated with protest movements, who are only just coming to terms with how limited their futures will be in a world of tiered fees, unemployment and budget cuts. At recent tuition fees protests, these kids have often been the most angry and confrontational. It is easy to see why.
For the student protest movement, talk of hijacking reinforces the feeling that the government do not want to engage with their arguments. Worse, it makes many suspect the police are merely looking for an excuse to crack down tomorrow. Either way, it isn’t going to make tomorrow any more peaceful.
Tuesday’s demonstration saw two or three thousand protesters take to the streets despite sub-freezing conditions and thick snowfall. In the third student protest in under a month, demonstrators once again dispersed throughout central London, and the Met once again face charges of employing excessive measures in response to protest.
Eager not to lose momentum, organisers called this third protest less than a week since the previous, which saw hundreds of protesters kettled in Parliament Square for nine hours. While the serious violence and public disorder that marked last week’s demo was not repeated the day still resulted in the arrests of more than 150 students and school children following disturbances around Trafalgar Square.
The event was characterised by a widespread fear of kettling. The initial march down Whitehall broke into disarray when protesters dispersed fearing that the lines of police and portable barriers were intent on containing them before any disturbance occurred. The Met have subsequently denied this allegation which, if true could have broken the law governing the way police deals with protests. Kettling is understood to be a tactic of last resort to contain violence and disorder. If it becomes common practice for the police to employ it pre-emptively, it undermines their commitment to the facilitation of the democratic right to protest.
The return of heavy handed tactics at rallies and demonstrations has not gone unnoticed and questions must soon be asked as to the efficacy as well as the legitimacy of such actions. Whether or not the Met intended to kettle the students and school children today, their actions resulted in a mass of several thousand protesters splitting up and spreading out across a wide area of central London from Whitehall to the Strand, Victoria and even up to Holborn station. Police were, once again, left chasing after numerous groups with no clear idea of their location. Regardless of what actions the crowd subsequently committed, this cannot be seen as a public order victory.
The students however, have successfully maintained their momentum despite the weather. They have also succeeded in defining much of the cuts agenda and its opposition, and may have convinced Vince Cable to support his Lib Dem colleagues in abstaining from his own reforms. Occupations continue in universities around the country and demos took place in numerous other cities as well. Campaigns such as UKUncut are widening the scope of their actions and citing the student protests as their inspiration. All that remains to be seen is whether unions such as Unite can follow through with their undertaking to cooperate with the student protest in forging a wider resistance to the cuts agenda, or whether resistance will be left to teenagers and undergraduates.
The tactics employed by police at yesterday’s student demonstration in central London will have come as a very nasty shock to many of those teenagers caught in a kettle for hours on Whitehall. But for those whose experience of protest in the capital extends back beyond the G20 kettling, baton charges and snatch squads will have been all too familiar. The invasion of Millbank two weeks ago has given the Metropolitan Police licence to return to the heavy-handed crowd-control tactics that once seemed to be on their way out.
It was the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in April 2009 that led to a change in tactics at the Met. Coverage of Tomlinson’s death threw a spotlight on how police in London deal with large crowds, and especially the actions of the Territorial Support Group (TSG), a unit specialising in public disorder and counter terrorism operations. A member of the TSG struck Tomlinson minutes before he collapsed from internal bleeding, and many of those present at yesterday’s protest will have been introduced to these crowd-control experts via the thwack of a baton.
Following the G20, politicians, the press and much of the public called for a new approach to demonstrations which facilitated peaceful protest instead of turning it into a closely controlled riot. To its credit, the Met responded by taking a far more measured approach to demonstrations. Closer coordination with organisers and smaller, less visible contingents of officers suggested a new way of managing protests that was far less likely to cause violent confrontation.
But the events at Millbank appear to have made the Met abandon this new approach. Days before the student’s took to the streets for the second time, there was a large march against the war in Afghanistan from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. The march was peaceful and ordered, yet the TSG’s distinctive Silver Mercedes vans shadowing the protest where a continual reminder that the Met was geared up for trouble.
Police statements ahead of yesterday’s protests were robust to say the least, with the Met insisting it would not be caught out again. Commander Bob Broadhurst, the same officer in charge of policing the G20, was announced as the man overseeing the student protest.
The previous student demo had attracted 52,000 to central London, but there had been only 250 police, none of whom were in riot gear. Yesterday, with only around 5,000 protesters, many of them still at school, there were at least 800 police and armoured members of the TSG took centre stage. Former Met Police Commissioner Brian Paddick told Sky News that police would “throw the kitchen sink” at protesters, and that is exactly what they did.
So the familiar lines of riot police with shields in hand, many with a U on their lapels marking them out as TSG, were used to coral and batter thousands of teenagers and university students. Once again the police deliberately stood in the way of what was meant to be a peaceful march, and the protesters reacted with inevitable anger. The use of mounted police charges to push protesters down Whitehall was new, but the confrontational attitude was not.
It appears the lessons learned from the G20 have been forgotten, and protests in central London will once again be met with maximum force. With the rolling demonstrations and marches expected in coming months, not only from students but also trade unions and countless thousands angry at government cuts, violent clashes between the public and police are set to become a fixture of our TV screens.
The Met may still wish to bear in mind one lesson from the G20. They might have been unlucky when one of their number hit an unhealthy old man, and students and school kids tend to bounce back more readily from the smack of a baton or a mild trampling by a police horse. But the sort of tactics on display yesterday increases the risk of more serious injuries and death. When that happens, people will once again question whether the Met is fit to protect the people of London.
Today’s repeat protest against education cuts proved another embarrassment for the Met. After a day of occasionally violent clashes with police in Whitehall a group of protesters escaped containment into Trafalgar Square where they proceeded to cause considerable disturbance around the centre of the city. A crowd predominantly made up of adolescents broke windows of bus stops, upended bins and at one point blocked one lane of The Strand before being forcibly cleared by police with batons raised.
Much of the press has already arrived at the conclusion that today’s protests demonstrated how much more prepared the Met were for the extremist element of the student movement. Certainly the TSG were in attendance but anyone who witnessed the panicked reaction to the group of adolescents who sat down in the road outside Charing Cross Station, or the unsettled faces of the officers jogging along behind the seemingly aimless but vocal mob on Dury Lane would question how today could be marked as a victory for the Police.
In many ways the events of the day were a reaction to the “preparedness” of the Met to respond to the actions of the crowd. Another article will address the tactics deployed in detail so for now it will suffice to describe them as heavy-handed and intimadatory. The crowd reacted at first with panic and later with anger. As a group were kettled by Pizza Express on Duncannon Street the police surrounding them were themselves surrounded by an angry group who shouted abuse and accused the officers of inciting trouble though excessive aggression. It was this group who split of and formed a protest in the middle of The Strand. A line of riot police were then required to enclose this second group and in full view of the public and enumerable photographers officers barged and pushed the group, many of whom were adolescent girls out of the way reacting with raised batons when the on lookers got too close for their comfort.
While buildings were not occupied or windows smashed – barring a bus stop at Trafalgar square – once again the resistance to the Con Dem reforms has been defined by violence and disorder, once again the overriding image of the day will be of riot shield and raised batons. It seems likely that neither the Government nor the Met will be able to escape the tarnish of presiding over not one, but two prominent outbreaks of mass public disorder. One can only wonder how many more will ensue as the cuts begin to bite?
Today’s demonstration against the war in Afghanistan, organised by CND, British Muslim Initiative and the Stop the War Coalition, attracted around 2,000 peaceful demonstrators , but both the police and a certain corporate coffee chain were geared up for a very different event.
The events at Millbank earlier this month made a hardening of police attitudes inevitable. The convoy of silver Mercedes vans containing officers from the Territorial Support Group which shadowed the protest from Speakers Corner to Trafalgar Square, is the first evidence that the police are determined not to be caught out again.
The TSG is the unit responsible for both counter terrorism operations and crowd control at protests – two areas that one can only assume require a similar skill set. The Met has come under fire for failing to anticipate the attack on Tory HQ earlier this month, and it was the slow response of the TSG that left the police completely unable to control the crowd at Millbank. The TSG are better prepared in terms of training, equipment and temperament to repel a crowd. Unlike many of their colleagues, they rarely hesitate to employ their batons and shields, skills they demonstrated aptly at the G20 in April 2009. Their return to relatively small protests suggests that the days of soft touch policing at marches and demonstrations are over.
The march was peaceful, and the TSG’s special skills were never needed. They only left their vans after the main rally, when a smaller group of around 200 set up a camp outside the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall. Even then they merely stood in front of Downing Street as the party carried on over the road. One must assume that next time there is the slightest hint of anything the Met won’t tolerate, the TSG response will be swift.
While the TSG were keeping a watchful eye on the march, some of their colleagues were displaying a level of paranoia that indicates a striking ignorance at the nature of today’s demonstration. A Starbucks on the route of the march at Picadilly was protected by a line of five police. Inside, the staff were authorised by their management to lock the doors, trapping their customers inside as the calm and pretty orderly protest passed. Starbucks has suffered at the hands of protesters in the past, however that has been during specifically anti-capitalist protests. It seems improbable that those marching today were going to vent anger at the UK’s presence in Afghanistan on a coffee shop. Starbucks windows are likely to have a lot more to fear from future marches more focused on economics.
Today’s Troops Out of Afghanistan demo, held jointly between CND, Stop the War and the British Muslim Initiative united a broad cross section of society: old left stalwarts, student activists and Muslim youths, trades unions, religious groups and even veterans and their families. But more impressive than the makeup of the demo was the energising effect of the current controversy over the Con Dem economic measures, an issue which almost every speaker linked to the amounts spent on the continuing conflict in Afghanistan.
It was notable that, today’s protest brought out significantly more of the public onto the streets than might be expected considering the limited publicity it received and the low numbers that have turned out for similar events in the past. Particularly evident was a large infusion of student protesters that swelled the numbers past the 2000 mark – admittedly still less than the 5-10,000 organisors were hoping for.
The student contingent did not go unnoticed by the speakers and many were quick to welcome them and to praise their recent action at Millbank. Direct allusions were drawn to the coming cuts to public services, the dramatic rise in student fees and the cost of the war. “Every penny we can spend on education, is one that cannot be spent on guns, every penny spent on public services cannot be spent on the war”, Labour MP John Macdonald said. Members of the public were also explicit in linking these issues:
“The subjects are inextricably entwined. The obvious link to make is public expenditure. Why spend so much money on bombing poor people when you could be using that money to pay off our debts and make people’s lives better, said Greg Dixon, 39.
This indicates a shift within previous protest movements away from the disparate enervation that characterised much of the previous 13 years toward a more coherent narrative. Arguably this kind of unity is only possible in the face of a government which is perceived to be equally as ideological and coherent. The conflict in Afghanistan began under a Labour government and few in the current opposition have argued against the need for drastic cuts to public services even if they have quibbled with timing and extent. Nonetheless it was the character of the New Labour regime that it appeared so ideologically unmoored and intangible that a coherent and active opposition seemed impossible. How was one to tie subtle undermining of the NHS to complicity in Iraq to support for nuclear weapons? No group successfully managed it. The zeal with which the Con Dems seemed to have embraced a radical reorganisation of the nation has allowed just such an opposition to form and the cuts agenda is the anchor that keeps this narrative attached to everyday concerns. It remains to be seen whether this new found coherence will be sufficient to convince an enthusiastic but largely inexperienced government to change its course.
The news that the Metropolitan Police have closed down Fitwatch – a site dedicated to keeping tabs on the their attempts to photograph pretty much everyone who turns up to protest – is fuelling concerns about anti-democratic police tactics. In a climate of social agitation where confrontation between protesters and police is increasingly likely, the loss of such a prominent monitor of police activity draws suspicion.
The premise for closing Fitwatch was advice given on the website to protesters at last Wednesday’s riots to change their appearance if they were concerned that the police may have footage of them. The site’s managers argued that this was common sense advice and no more significant than a lawyer advising their client to respond “no comment” during an interview.
The use of the Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) that have long been Fitwatch’s target has come under heavy criticism in recent years, as activists suspect that such teams were being deployed to intimidate protesters and inhibit action rather than to catch criminals. The Met is known to be dislike towards the site, which has published the faces, names and badge numbers of police officers it feels have behaved in an unacceptable or intimidating manner. In this context the suspicion that the Met are using the student’s riots as a pretext to remove a thorn in their side is hard to avoid.
These fears feed into a wider set of concerns over the behaviour of the Met and police forces around the UK. Aggressive policing of demonstrations including cases of injury and even death at the hands of officers who were not subsequently prosecuted is only the tip of an iceberg that includes deaths in custody, police harassment of photographers, the intimidating actions of the Forward Intelligence Team and ever present issues around stop and search powers.
There is a growing feeling that police in the UK have lost sight of their obligations to protect and enable the right to protest. While no one is yet arguing that we no longer live in a democracy, defenders of police incursions into liberty often forget that democracy is not the product of a whole range of freedoms, it is a term for those freedoms themselves. The loss of Fitwatch is not worrying simply because it enables the police to carry out serious incursions upon liberty in the future it is a serious incursion on liberty regardless of what the Met may do next.
PS – Within hours of the Met’s decision becoming public the advice that had prompted the clampdown had spread across the net. This was predictable enough; as the Trifigura / Carter Ruck debacle demonstrated nothing arouses interest on the Web like an attempt to withhold info. Fitwatch itself has also apparently managed to find a new host and get up and running again, though for how long remains unclear. The incident still remains a salutary lesson for all involved: for the Met on the unintended consequences of a heavy handed net presence and for the protest scene not to become complacent when it comes to the behaviour of our democratic guardians in blue.
The student protests last Wednesday seem to have had the galvanising affect many at the march (and riot) would have hoped. More student protests are planned for the 24th of November across the country. On the same day UKUncut, the group that targeted Vodafone so successfully, are planning action against a wider range of high street stores. Significantly the Unions have announced their intention to stage joint protests with the students’ movement.
The unions say it was the mass turnout at the peaceful march – somewhere in the region of 52,000 – that has encouraged them to make plans to link up with the emerging anti-tuition fees movement. It seems likely that the scenes of rampant destruction at Tory HQ also provided a spur to action. The contrast certainly showed how timid the UK union movement has been thus far when faced with the most brutal cuts agenda for several generations.
Either way, a coalition between those who are fighting for their jobs, and those who fear how difficult it will be to get one, can only be a good thing for the opposition to the Tory government’s plans. Youthful exuberance is something the unions have been lacking for some time, and the students need to realise that if they want the support of a larger section of the populace it must be clear that their concerns extend beyond student debt. A coalition of citizens with so much to lose may be the only way to stop a coalition government that has it all.
In the wake of Wednesday’s mass protest there has been considerable discussion of the damage that has or has not been done to the student’s cause by the faction that stormed Millbank Towers. While it is clear that the violent minority have drawn attention away from an exponentially larger, peaceful group the unexpected nature of the outburst and the stark imagery it provided has perhaps caused people to exaggerate the extent of the rioting and obscured its real significance.
Within hours of the protest turning physical, condemnation from attendees, bystanders and members of the public was swift. NUS leader Aaron Porter denounced the violence to the press almost immediately and repeated his denunciation in The Guardian the next day. Meanwhile others have expressed sympathy for the frustration the protest expressed and some even congratulated the rioters on displaying a vitality and determination they had believed an X-Factor anaesthetised generation were incapable of. The now famous shot of a black-clad youth kicking down the windows of Millbank towers while a fire blazes in middle distance has made the covers of at least nine newspapers.
A less well known version of that image has begun to circulate however, and a glance at it provides an insight into one of the most significant factors surrounding this event. The youth may be kicking in the window alone but he is surrounded by hundreds – anecdotal evidence suggests the 200 figure is an underestimate – of photographers. That is the real significance of the violence.
The fact that the press ignored 50,000 odd protesters in favour of several hundred rioters will probably not surprise many people though it has caused considerable indignation. The actual riot itself did not reach the levels of violence or destruction that greeted the anti Poll Tax riots (to which it was being compared almost before it took place) or the smaller protests against the Criminal Justice Act. By about half five in the afternoon Westminster council were sending street cleaners into the area despite the fact that the riot police were still present and there were still – small – fires burning. However what it did do was provide a stark image to define the resistance to the Cuts agenda. That this is an image of violence may prove damaging to the NUS’s campaign as it will indeed overshadow much more representative peaceful protest, however it will likely prove just as damaging to the Con Dem’s.
While they may dismiss this group as minority trouble-makers the fact remains, a Government is supposed to keep order; occupied buildings, fires on the street and the deployment of riot police all damage the credibility of the government in power. The perception of deep unpopularity whether justified or not is toxic to the legitimacy of the ruling party and nothing says unpopular government like smashed windows, masked rioters and the batons and shields of the Territorial Support Group.
Protesters gathered in Mallet Street today to demonstrate against the rise of Islamophobia and racism in a march organised by Love Music Hate Racism. The demo set off from outside the University of London building and made its way to Parliament carrying a sound system and the usual banners and placards in its wake. There were several hundred protesters there – not bad for a London demo these days – and the march went off without incident. Though the march did not bring London to a stand still or the EDL to its knees: it is demo’s like these that keep protest groups across the country focused and enthused.
The crowd was the usual collection of trades unionists, SWP activists, assorted fringe movements and a heavy student contingent with the final ‘carnival’ headlined by Jerry Dammers, members of Babyshambles, Flow Dem and Lowkey. The mixed crowd was reflected by in the ideologically unfocussed chanting that swung intermittently from the expected “Nazi Scum Off Our Streets!” to the smaller, anarchist inspired “No Borders, No Nations, Stop Deportations” to the topical but frankly off topic “They say cut back, we say fight back!”.
This ideological incoherence was noticed by several participants. Jokes were made about the pro-cut anti-racist contingent who were potentially alienated by such a stance and there was a feeling that this represented a lazy assumption that one left-wing demo was pretty much another, that no particular issue was at stake beyond generic left-wing bellyaching. These protests often accompanied by concerns about groups like the SWP – big players in the coalition behind Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism – and their tendency to turn up at any action going touting their latest slogan regardless of relevance or even ideological consistency.
Events like this, well organised, weekend events which take place on a well defined and clearly marked route within very strict parameters can give the dispiriting impression of being simply part of the game. The crowd walks along roads from which traffic has long been cleared observed by vaguely interested tourists and frankly bored policeman. On the platform, an excitable but perhaps not hugely charismatic organiser announces their intention to ‘March on Parliament’ neatly skipping over the fact that on a Saturday parliament is not in session and so, devoid of law-makers it functions as little more than a tourist attraction – a fact which drains much of the rabble-rousing glamour.
Despite the rhetoric and some of the more macho chants: “Nazi Scum Here We Come, Nazi Scum You Better Run” very few people attend genuinely expecting a confrontation with either the forces of law or the EDL / BNP. They do not expect the Con-Dem coalition to consider a moderately attended demo ostensibly on another issue to be proof of the impracticability of their public service cuts, and they don’t expect deportations to cease any time soon.
Many protesters on marches like these know they won’t change anything overnight. But their efforts still fulfil an important function. They are intended to help support a broad based community of activists, engaged with all these issues and more and linked by a complex web of political sympathies and intentions. They engender a feeling that individuals and groups are not operating alone but a part of a network that is concerned and prepared to turn out to address these concerns; so that the next time the EDL call a rally people feel confident calling a counter demo and when Union activists want to oppose massive cuts they can rest assured that anti-fascists will march with them. They are, in effect the maintenance work of protest machinery.