Got me on the frontline
As some of you know, I joined yesterday’s march on Parliament to protest against cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance and rises in university tuition fees, on the day MPs were due to vote on the proposals.
The vast majority of yesterday’s protesters were peaceful. For most of the afternoon, we milled around Parliament Square: admiring the creativity of others’ placards, dancing to reggae, funky house and R&B on a soundsystem (playlist soon come!), chatting and socialising and exercising our lawful right to protest. The atmosphere was laid-back, almost like a festival. There were minor scuffles, some of which I witnessed, which were quelled by police quickly and easily.
Similarly, protesters began to be moved out of Parliament Square around 9pm, some time after the main period of ugliness - the attempt to storm the Treasury - had been quelled and dissipated. Non-violent protesters - the vast majority of those who had been kettled, whose role throughout had been either to observe the violence or to busy themselves elsewhere - who had been continually fed misinformation regarding which exit would eventually open were shepherded, without incident, out of the square and on to the bridge. We had been told that we were now free to go. When we were stopped again on the bridge, it came as a total (and demoralising) surprise.
This was not containment of violent protesters - the line disingenuously suggested by Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and run by that a disturbing proportion of an inadequate and cowardly media. It was an unjustifiable and illegal means of punishing wholly non-violent and rather docile protesters - chants included “This is not a riot” and “We are peaceful, what are you?”; protesters put their hands up in unison to signal non-violent intent - in pretty much the coldest, most uncomfortable place possible. It was roughly the sixth hour of the kettling protesters - many of whom, it can’t be restated enough, were children. I understand that the BBC saw fit to focus on a minor attack on the royal car while this was happening.
It seemed more to be motivated by traditional aims of kettling that are rarely stated: to demoralise protesters so much that they are dissuaded from taking part again, and to exhaust them physically so that they go home quietly (not that there was any need for the latter by this stage of the night). While queueing to leave Parliament Square, a woman next to me jokingly told a police officer that if they let us go, she would promise that this would be her last demonstration. The officer replied, “That’s the point.” So far, the Met has not been held accountable for its actions to the point of offering an adequate explanation, let alone an apology.
I suspect they know it was wrong, though. We were kettled for just over an hour, first of all. At 10pm, word went around the crowd that we were on live TV - the 10 o’clock news, I presume. Immediately, we started moving forward. This stopped after 15 minutes or so, and we were then held motionless for another 45 minutes (those of us near the front, anyway; those poor sods at the back had another few hours left in the cold) before finally being freed. Those timings could be coincidental, I guess.
Let’s talk about the ugliness in between, though. The majority of it came after two hours of being kettled in Parliament Square (again, being fed misinformation at every turn) and soon after news of the Commons vote had filtered through. The attempt to storm the Treasury was the centrepiece of this - not wanton violence, as has been portrayed in the media, but a focused attack on a building representing wealth, power and privilege. True, there were thugs who had always intended to cause trouble - but surely these factors imply some sort of causation? When considering outbreaks of violence, it’s immensely myopic to ignore their foundations. “We want our money back,” went the chant outside the Treasury: this was a reaction to what the police and the government were doing.
The strategy of kettling is a borderline-illegal one that does not, empirically, have its stated effect of containing and quelling violence, but rather to inflame and exacerbate it. In actual fact, it is an act of psychological violence against protesters, designed to break their spirits and sap their morale.
I also consider the vote to cut EMA and raise tuition fees to be an act of violence: an attack on children’s and students’ futures. In this context, a few bits of graffiti and smashed windows seem almost like the “restraint” that Charles and Camilla’s security guards were credited with for not killing protesters. Indeed, as I said at the time, it could have been a lot uglier. The main weapons used by protesters were the fences originally set up in Parliament Square and the bricks that had weighted them down. However, there had been nothing preventing anyone from bringing proper weapons to the protest - at no point were we searched, which would have been a near-impossibility anyway. It’s inevitable that something will have clicked in one of the more violence-minded protester’s minds for next time - and there will be a next time; I got the overwhelming feeling that for many in the crowd, this was just the first realisation of how much their MPs held them in contempt, and angry they were entitled to be.
Other things that stick in my mind:
- A teenage boy running up to a policeman (before the violence kicked off), shouting, “Officer! My mum’s on the phone. She says I have to go home now!” and holding out his phone for her to give the policeman a bollocking;
- On my eventual way out, while walking single file through two lines of armed and shielded riot police, one officer said, “As long as you lot keep demonstrating, we’ll still have jobs”;
- In the middle of the attempt to storm the Treasury, a couple of men inside (officials/police) tried to get a window above the main door open to film from above. They couldn’t manage it for about 20 minutes, even when standing on the inside windowsill. Jeering, mockery and a chant of “Jump! Jump!” ensued.
Despite those scenes, what will stick in my mind is how positive the majority of the day was. The light, in particular: from the beautiful, brief red glow of the sunset to the helicopter spotlights illuminating historic architecture and the flashing traffic lights in the square, which continued working throughout, they all added dramatic flair to a day that felt historic.