My experience of the #26March protests

This is a tough post to write and even tougher to write succinctly. Capturing such a fluid and changing day of two halves in something as structured as a blog post is a little challenging, but I feel obliged to give it a go.

It also goes without saying (and covered by many elsewhere) that almost 100% of people caused no harm, nor were they anywhere near harm. And yes there were a tiny few who chose to make their point through force. Again these people have been covered to the exclusion of everything else by the mainstream media – many of whom incidentally should hang their heads in shame, the BBC in particular.

This post is intended as a personal reflection on what I saw and, equally importantly, how I felt to be in and around the protest yesterday as both a participant and an objective observer, as much as that is possible when you are in the middle of these things.

I went along yesterday with one intention – to be part of a family of people hurting from the cuts, powerless to stop the loss of public services their communities rely on, keen to make their voices heard and make people understand what they’re going through. A form of national group therapy almost. Most accepted it would change nothing in the short-term, decisions already made, budgets as good as set, listening not exactly the forte of government at the best of times.

And for the first 4 hours of my day that’s exactly what I experienced. A technicolour of flags, faces and families, a sight that took my breath away from the other side of the Thames as the march first came into view passing along Embankment. Whatever your politics, whichever side of the cuts divide you come down on, we should be proud that as a nation we can come together on such a scale to support each other at a time of hardship.

For the first half of the day, we danced, we chatted, we laughed, we made new friends and (amazingly given the size of the crowd) bumped into many familiar faces and friends.

Fortnum and Mason

But for us later in the afternoon there was a marked change in the day for us. Having stopped for lunch and dropped back through the crowd, we happened to arrive at Piccadilly Circus around 4pm at a time when the UKUncut crowd were arriving at Fortnum and Mason. At first we were totally unaware of what was going on, stood watching the efforts of 2 lamppost climbing protesters raising an anti-cuts banner across the width of Piccadilly. Until it soon became obvious something was up.

Out of nowhere, a long line of heavily armoured Metropolitan Police officers filed along the northern pavement of the street, aggressively shoving people out of their way (sometimes to the floor), shouting as they went. Cutting across the street in a fast moving florescent frog march, the mainstream march was stopped in its tracks a little stunned at the sight – and understandably so.

Not long after protesters of whichever denomination (it wasn’t clear from the street) were up on the canopy over the front entrance of F&M, dancing, shouting and scrawling on the walls. Soon they were flanked by Police visible in the windows.

I was struck by just how young many of the group were, not only on the canopy but many with the more daredevil streak (whether peaceful protesters or otherwise). We spent time debating this new generation of protesters, guessing at their motivations from angry students, some of the growing numbers of unemployed youth or others with different motivations entirely.

We were stood very much at the edges of the main group around the building, the vast majority of whom appeared to be people from the main march which was still passing by at this point along the predetermined route of the march. I remember the flags of an east London student union passing by at this point for one. But as we watched we were aware of a change in atmosphere and wondered what would happen next. And no sooner had we raised the fear of kettling (sorry, containment) with one another, we turned to see a huge surge of police officers enter Piccadilly between us and the direction of Hyde Park where the march was heading (slowed a little by the spectacle of F&M).

My first reaction was to rush to escape before the Police has set themselves in place. Having been trapped for many hours in a tight kettle with other peaceful protesters (young girls, families and blokes like me – all equally cold and scared) in an alley just off Parliament Square around the time of the Iraq War, it was not an experience I was keen to re-live.

But I paused immediately as the speed at which the lines of officers had moved meant we were already trapped. A similarly aged bloke ahead of me attempted to make it through a gap, just to be thrown backwards by the police landing heavily on the floor, Police screaming “get back in there” and “stay back everyone, stay back” by this point.

This was the very fringes of the group, as much as there was a group. The very edge. If we had been trouble surely we would have been more central to the group around F&M. Why would we be standing around watching on from afar. What could possibly warrant that sort of treatment, and what kind of reaction did these Police expect? A polite hello and full cooperation? People don’t act that way under stress and fearful for their safety.

I approached the line of huge, padded officers myself and looked to go through it with a few women having just been allowed through. Of course I was prevented from leaving, because I was a man perhaps I asked them. One officer pushed his straight fingered hand into my diaphragm causing me to gasp, stopping me from going anywhere despite me having persuaded his colleague to let me through. Which they eventually did but not without a stressful exchange and only because I happened to be right at the front. Others in my group were left behind I then realized, although they later told me of hiding in a shop doorway as the kettle progressed forward and sneaking out. I then found myself behind a new frontline (again) as second line appeared (*sigh*) but this one was easier than the last to pass through much to my relief (you can see the 2 lines in my photo).

And that was F&M for me. I felt massive sympathy for the people left behind but also have experience of the inability to talk to, let alone reason with, this particular type of police officer. It would be dealt with in its own time. I retired to dinner with friends…

Trafalgar Square

After dinner, we headed past Trafalgar Square on our way home to the tube at Leicester Square. Not only was it on our way home, but we had also heard that a party atmosphere had developed and, well, who’s not up for a party after a day like that? Plus both my parents are journalists, so of course I was curious to see what the remaining crowd was up to. There was no report of trouble at this time, we weren’t looking for trouble, more a good time, and if not an early night.

And as we arrived there still was no trouble. Just a relatively small group (a few hundred) with a couple of small fires and music. The square wasn’t full and there was no trouble (I emphasise again). It was a fun atmosphere.

However stood at the top of the steps looking down onto the square we noticed a scuffle below. It seemed like nothing. A couple of police officers had a hold of someone near the Olympic clock. I’ve since heard the Police accuse protesters of attacking the clock. I couldn’t say, I didn’t see. And I have no reason not to believe the police. But what ensued over the next hour was intense.

A couple of protesters literally grabbed the protester held by the police by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out of the group along the floor away from the Police, the protester scarpering as well he might. Left was a small group of maybe 10-15 protesting the actions of the 2-3 police officers, who were clearly panicked by their situation and were visibly on their radios immediately calling in the situation.

Now I understand why they may have called for support. Feeling surrounded isn’t fun. Feeling threatened by a group causes you to panic. You don’t need to tell the many everyday people on a peaceful protest trapped in a kettle earlier in the day that. But the reaction of the police that ensued was entirely disproportionate, and not an option available to your average kettled protester.

Within what felt like seconds the first police reinforcements arrived in the square. We were ushered away from the balcony above the square, asked to move on, which we dutifully did round to the Charing Cross Road side of the Square, at a safe distance (we thought) mixed in with Saturday party goers streaming up and down the street.

Unless you’ve been in the situation, you will imagine it to be a large riot, encompassing everything. But it isn’t like that. It was contained down in the square (at first) a scuffle. Crossing the road you feel entirely separated from it, watching on. Watching on with (again) just everyday people from every possible background. It was not a square stuffed full of rioting anarchists. At all. The group in the square was in the hundreds, lots of the square was empty, shoppers and clubbers passed by and stopped to watch.

Within minutes tens of police vans arrived at the square, creating a large confrontation where previously it had been a scuffle, perhaps not even that as I personally didn’t see either side touch the other at that stage. It wasn’t clear what the reason was at all at the time. You had to assume it was serious or else why would the police throw what felt like the entire Metropolitan Police force’s riot police at the situation.

Once the square was almost as full with riot police as protesters (99% of whom had been peaceful moments before), the atmosphere switched (familiar story?). The police had provoked a stand off, creating a frontline and a target for people to attack, unsure why the police had arrived in such numbers and keen not to experience the protracted and scary kettling process no doubt.

Soon the square was sealed off with a perimeter of riot police. No longer were we allowed to stand even on the pavement on charing cross road on the opposite side of the square to the trouble as the line of police grew in size and strength and pushed further and further out. Now on the other side of Charing Cross Road, we watched as flaming sticks, barriers, bottles and anything else people trapped in the square had to hand were thrown at the police.

But extending the perimeter only had the effect of pulling in people who I’m certain were not even in and around the square initially. Many looked like passing young people on a night out, challenging police tactics, taking offence at being pushed around. Charing Cross Road became road blocked, a handful of mindless fools threw bottles at buses and broke the odd window. Others took a more lighthearted approach, creating an Egypt style temporary road block to vet passing cars (all good humoured at this stage).

But then the violence spread as the police moved the crowd outwards, extending the size of the cordoned off area. The police again pushed, shoved, shouted and chased at times, causing the more hot headed in the crowd to react, throwing rubbish, bottles and anything else to hand. There was no evidence of these people being anarchists or protesters even, just groups who were in the outer parts of the area dragged in by a widening police cordon.

As a fire was lit in a side road between the square and charing cross station, police pushed out further blocking off St Martin in the Fields Church and the side road. We wandered around the back of the church to get away towards the station. As we passed round the back of the church, we spotted a man lying flat out on the pavement surrounded by police. Again we quickly became aware that it felt like the right conditions for a kettle, again in an instant as we looked to leave we found ourselves being kettled.

This time having spotted a tweet from my friend Denise I asked, politely and with respect, whether as a peaceful observer I could pass through the police line. Twice. And was refused. Despite the policeman acknowledging he was breaking their own protocols. This was followed by a shove down the road. Hard. After a short while working out where to go next, we spotted the tube entrance and headed for it and home.

What I learned

Containment (or kettling) doesn’t work – it just makes things worse. Or should I say it doesn’t work from the point of view of a peaceful protester – I imagine the Police will see it as highly efficient for the exact same reasons I oppose it. It not only scares people rigid, but it also brings out the worst in people, above all the police. It’s scary police state oppressive stuff that doesn’t discriminate between people in the crowd. You’re all trapped, you’re all guilty.

They cast a very wide net trapping as many people within 2-3 roads (in the case of Piccadilly) of an incident. This is ludicrously wide. Just when you think you’re observing from a safe distance you find yourself right in the middle of it, panicking and scared. A civilized society should not have to resort to this most blunt of tactics, bullying and harassing its citizens indiscriminately.

As a young man growing up in Britain, as with pretty much all my male social circle I’ve always been suspicious of the police. Intimidated on numerous occasions, just as I had hoped I’d overcome my feelings towards them, here we are again.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many many wonderful police officers out there doing a fantastic job keeping the country safe, many of whom were at the march protesting to save their jobs too.

But I’m afraid to say again I’m left with a feeling that some just seem to relish a fight. Our riot police are a scary bunch who appear to not give a toss for people they claim to want to protect. They see only the crowd. Only the worst in any given situation. I can hardly blame them. It’s their training, their tactics passed down from on high. They are just there to ‘control’ you whether you warrant controlling or not. You’re there therefore you must be trouble.

Having witnessed their tactics twice in quick succession I have to say that on both occasions, and in Trafalgar Square in particular, the police made matters worse. Their tactics are incendiary and can quickly turn a quiet confrontation into a riot. Had they stepped away rather than into the fight who knows what might have been.

Until the police learn to distinguish between the peaceful many and the disruptive few, and develop more nuanced approaches to crowd control to deal with that, there can never be any hope of building trust between themselves and the people they are supposedly there to protect.

(See my twitpics from the afternoon)

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