The police have come under fire lately for their handling of the recent student protests – the tactics that they have used and the level of force utilised. There are at least two sides to every story, we are told, and two differing sides have clearly been portrayed in the protests of late.
On the one side we have the view that the student protests have been mainly violent affairs, with the majority creating havoc and destruction and damaging their own cause. Supporters of this view praise the police for their actions and for showing “restraint” against the rampant “mobs”. On the other side, we have the view that the police have over-reacted and they have been the ones who instigated the violence, with supporters of this view claiming that it is the police who have been acting violently and over-extending their powers, detaining or “kettling” protestors for many hours on end with no access to food, water, toilers or shelter – effectively removing their civil liberties. What doesn’t help either side is the biased media shows that are played out, with many only showing the most sensationalist aspects of the protest, whilst ignoring the peaceful majority.
It is times like these when the people must ask the question: “who do the police really work for?” Are they there to facilitate peaceful protest and work for the people? Or are they there to support the government, with the people coming second? At the Whitehall protest, I asked one officer who was refusing to let us leave: “Do you work for the government, or the people?” He replied: “Well, the government pays me”. In that case, who pays the government?
On Thursday, as Parliament voted to condemn higher education for the masses, students clashed with police officers in the bitter London air. Once again, protestors were kettled for hours on end; not allowed to leave and with no access to food, water, or toilet facilities, students were attacked with batons and the crowds were charged by police on horseback, despite having no real place to run to. There was even a report that a girl had her collar-bone smashed by a trampling horse. At another time, a horse got spooked by a firecracker and allegedly threw its rider off before galloping around, though some media shows have described how the rider was dragged off by angry protestors and then beaten. The police in riot gear and armed with shields and solid batons beat back crowds of protestors with no place to go – in a kettle, you are trapped and usually have hundreds if not thousands of people behind you, therefore you cannot easily move backward. This aggravates the police who shout “MOVE BACK!” before proceeding to hit those in the front row with batons, despite the fact that they cannot move back.
This is not to say that all the protestors are innocent. There is footage of some charging at police with metal fences, throwing concrete blocks, smashing windows, vandalising property… and then you have the “attack” on Prince Charles’ car. However, in a heated situations such as the protests of late, it is difficult to point the blame in one direction or another. From the protests I have attended, however, it must be noted that I could see how the police were instigating the anger and violence, provoking it to happen. Especially the use of “kettling” – human beings do not like to be trapped en masse for prolonged periods of time, much like a herd of animals in a pen. The police argue that this is to “diffuse” any anger or violence, but the truth is that this does the opposite.
On Thursday, more than 50 people were injured, with 33 arrested. One protestor was hit over the head by a police officer, and had bleeding in the brain. The man had to be taken to hospital for three-hours of emergency brain surgery. The worrying thing is that apparently it did not look as bad from the outside, he had no idea how badly injured he was as the bleeding was inside the brain. This could have happened to anyone, and if he had not gone to hospital he could have died.
There are also pictures of a disabled protestor being dragged from his wheelchair by the police*. Where is the justification for this? The police will undoubtably respond: “Well, he shouldn’t have been there”.
One 21-year-old literature student, using the alias raindance77, told the Guardian: “I am a girl of five foot two, I was pushed several times in the face, dragged on the floor and laughed at by police when I told them I had asthma. I asked a policeman where I could go to the toilet; he pointed at the floor by his feet. Another shouted: ‘Move, bitch, or I’ll squash you with my horse.’ ”
This was the attitude of police when I went to the Whitehall protest. Police would laugh and joke in a nasty manner, with no true remorse or compassion for those genuinely suffering. The few that did show remorse would state that they sympathised, but it was up to their superiors. Some even told me that they though the “containment” was wrong and we should be allowed to leave, but they were “waiting” for information from their superiors. The majority, however, seemed more like thugs than police. This is not me being flippant, it genuinely felt that way to me. Perhaps a lot has to be said for the situation – they have to be “tough” in the face of several thousand angry protestors. But this does not excuse the police brutality shown. Over 50 people being injured is not acceptable.
Jacqui Karn, writing for the Guardian, is a criminologist who was in the “kettle” on Thursday, witnessing it first hand. She writes: “I witnessed police on horseback twice charge into a crowd and young people coming out bloodied and shocked.”
One student, Tahmeena Bax, is filing a complaint with the IPCC, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, after she claims she was “beaten unconscious with a police baton and was left without access to an ambulance for almost two hours during an anti-fees protest in central London last week” according to the Guardian.
“The police were trying to say that she should be carried to the front line. They thought we were trying to trick them into coming to help the girl so we could break through the kettle. They were saying that she was just upset and dismissed her” Katie Ganfield, a witness, stated. It took nearly two hours for Bax to reach the hospital. The Guardian write: “At Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital, Bax said, [an] officer debated with her over the merits of tuition fees, telling her she was “narrow minded” and should stop reading the Guardian and read the Telegraph and the Daily Mail more often.” Perhaps a window into the minds of modern police?
Bax said she is now suffering from severe headaches and is unable to read or write properly. She is finding it hard to study for her final exams. She hasalso had to reschedule deadlines and exams. She does not understand why she was attacked by police: “I wasn’t doing anything at the time, I don’t even look harmful. I don’t understand why the police are allowed to do things like this.”
Surprisingly enough, police are now fearing becoming the focus of public anger and tarnishing their reputation. However, it must be noted that the police already have a reputation for policing protests, and it is hardly a positive reputation. Previous protests such as the 1980’s miners’ strike and the G20 protest have left the police with many complaints and calls of “police brutality”. This could perhaps be even more prominent with the recent protests and any upcoming demonstrations as the majority of demonstrators have been students and schoolchildren, many of them under 18. At the Whitehall protest, I was stood at the front-line of officers next to a small 14-year old kid who wasn’t allowed to leave because he “wasn’t in uniform”, despite the fact that we had been kettled for over 7 hours by this point. The police do not seem to be any more lenient towards minors and this is evident by the level of violence shown by officers on Thursday. One cannot justify charging on horseback into a tightly-packed crowd of students with nowhere to run.
Sir Hugh Order, president of the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers), stated that it was crucial that police do not appear to be “an arm of the state” who are being used to allow the government to “impose cuts”. The police appear to be concerned that the public anger against the cuts will be directed towards the police officers, however it is easy to understand how this may be warranted. Recently, the police have been “kettling” protestors before they have reached their destinations – clearly impeding their right to peaceful demonstration. This, coupled with their “heavy-handed” approach to protesting has left many angry at the police – particularly as the cuts will affect the police force as well. On numerous occasions protestors have shouted “We are doing this for you too!” or, “We are protesting for your children’s education too!” at officers, who often laugh or simply do not respond.
These protests are educating the next generation in a different way. Many have never protested or been interested in politics before, more still are too young to vote. Yet the coalition government is alienating the next electorate whilst the police are making enemies with the youth of today. Many have recently received a crash-course in protesting and this is evident by the fact that on Thursday, several protestors “kettled ” a group of police! More still have learnt something from the previous protests and have found ways to escape being “kettled”, either through breaking into “splinter” groups instead of one big mass, or by deviating from the route in some form. These “youngsters” have become both politically active and are becoming adept at protesting whilst the police are being left behind. Their use of force has only alienated the force from the “youth of today” if you will, whose anger at the government’s actions will quickly be directed at the police force aswell. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan police force is facing questions over its recent handling of the protests. The media does not always help present a clear, unbiased picture – often it portrays the protestors as a violent mob, hell-bent on causing chaos and destruction, despite the peaceful majority. Other times, it focuses on the police “brutality”, presenting a warped viewpoint. This makes it difficult to objectively view the whole scenario. However, you will find it difficult to argue with the facts – over 50 protestors were injured on Thursday, with one known individual requiring three-hour brain surgery.
Another aspect that needs to be investigated is the filming/photographing of protestors. This cannot be legal. At both the Whitehall protest, which I was present at, and Thursday’s protest, demonstrators have only been allowed to leave the “kettle” once they are filmed. The right to peaceful protest is part of our civil liberties, why then do the police have the powers to film everyone, even the peaceful ones? You cannot be filmed without your permission, I said to one officer, who replied with a shrug of her shoulders: “You’re filmed by CCTV everyday”. Is this what Britain has become? Yes you’re allowed to demonstrate, but you will be contained much longer than you planned, and we have the right to film you just for showing up. This cannot be allowed to continue. One protestor had his hood over his head upon leaving the kettle, to prevent himself being filmed. A policeman grabbed him, pulled him out of the queue, yanked his hood down exposing his face, and shouted: “HOOD DOWN!”, before practically throwing him back into the queue and into the range of the multiple cameras. Yes, they had multiple cameras set up to film the protestors from all angles. I was told this information by my girlfriend, who was present at the protest, who missed her coach because they kept them kettled late into the evening.
*Update 14/12/10 – Video footage has now surfaced of the disabled protestor being dragged from his wheelchair and along the pavement. I have created a blog post with the Youtube video embedded within it alongside a BBC interview with the man involved, Jody McIntyre.
- Student fees protests: woman claims she was beaten by police (guardian.co.uk)
- Student fees protests: who started the violence? (guardian.co.uk)
- Student protester operated on after being ‘hit with police baton’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Inside the Parliament Square riot (newstatesman.com)
- Police tactics at tuition fees protest questioned after further angry clashes (guardian.co.uk)
- Police watchdog to investigate truncheon blow (independent.co.uk)
- Being kettled was a shocking experience | Jacqui Karn (guardian.co.uk)
- Police must not be seen as arm of the state, warns top officer (guardian.co.uk)