Saturday, 18 December 2010

Kettled in Parliament Square

I arrived in Westminster at 12AM whilst the rest of the student from the University of Warwick travelled on towards LSE Students’ Union. The public debate against fees was taking place; I was interested in hearing the reactions from MPs inside the Commons and so entered via the, surprisingly empty, Public Gallery. Many other students with the same intentions soon entered; they wanted to hear the words of those Members of Parliament meant to be protecting the interests of the people.

After Vince Cable rather apprehensively ended his argument, John Denham, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, started to defend students who under the new system would be charged £9,000 a year for tuition fees. For students like myself who only have 9 teaching hours a week, it is a figure that can only be described as ridiculous, not least because such high fees would deter students from low-income families from applying to university. In a week that revealed that only one black student was accepted between twenty-one Oxbridge colleges, the need for drastic change within the education system is clear; this is not it.

As Michael Gove, Education Secretary, was given the chance to ask a question, four students in the Public Gallery stood up and continued to shout “They say cut back, we say fight back” until they were grabbed by stewards and taken out. The Labour MPs below looked rather bemused while the Con-Dems frustrated. Hours still remained until the vote.

I emerged outside the House of Commons to see students, academics, lecturers, graduates and sympathisers brave the cold weather to protest against the cuts being made to education. “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” echoed through the crowds as placards displayed, ‘Higher fees in education only leads to class segregation’ and ‘Save EMA’. The causes were numerous yet protesters seemed to be united.

Betrayal was one of the largest sentiments felt by students at the protests; many had voted in their first elections and felt their vote was stolen from them. At the same time, there were a large number of school students who had missed school to make their own point: if you get rid of EMA, who’s going to pay the bus fare for me to get to school every day?

As Cable rightly said, there was a lot of waste in the EMA system (many received it even though they did not require it) yet the enhanced discretionary learner support fund created as a replacement is not good enough. The yearly budget for EMA was £560m. In comparison, this year’s tame budget of £26m for the new system is lacking in any real depth. Families who cannot support their children through further education will no doubt have to pull them out, a clear indication of these regressive measures.

Talking to protesters from the older generation, I learnt that students had built upon the methods of generations gone. While occupations, sit-its and teach-ins are reminiscent of the 70s, the organisation of students has been unprecedented. At the first national day of action in November, remembered for the violence at Conservative Party HQ in Millbank, over 50,000 turned up to protest. What’s more, occupations and teach-ins have occurred at no less than 15 universities and schools, mostly organised within the space of 24 hours.

The occupation at University College London received the widest media attention and drew the largest crowds, often inviting speakers to give talks to students.

One occupation took place in Oxford after a Conservative Council Leader, Kevin Mitchell, described a group of students as ‘badly-dressed’ and said, “God help us if this is our future.” Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Newcastle, and Warwick are but a few universities where occupations and protests occurred.

However, demonstrations in London have remained the largest. On the second national day of action last Thursday, police introduced kettling techniques so as to ‘avoid embarrassment’ and prevent violence. An empty police van was conveniently left in this area and was attacked before a group of school students surrounded the van to prevent any more vandalism to it.

Yet from my own experience, the heavy-handed techniques of the police must not be forgotten, for I believe that kettling caused much of the violence at the demonstrations.

There were a minority of protestors who had attended with the aim of causing violence and physical harm (regardless of who was the victim). Nonetheless, often not mentioned were the efforts to promote peace within the kettle. In one incident, a young student of around 15 attempted to make a Molotov cocktail using a flaming sock and a bottle of alcohol. As he began his run-up, the majority of people who saw this expected the worst. He threw the bottle and sock towards the police although it hit protesters, bounced off and an explosion was only just avoided. Immediately following this, students surrounded this boy, shouted at him, urged him to calm down and stop using violence. There were even shouts of ‘Give him to the police’. However, soon after being surrounded by his friends, wielding hammers, the peaceful protestors had no choice but to back off.


There are hundreds of pictures of fires burning in Parliament Square trawling the Internet; I know because I must have taken a dozen myself. While these were merely as an act of defiance against police at the beginning, towards the end of the day they were used as a form of heat. Protesters, young and old alike, had been imploring the police for hours to leave and needed a source of warmth to keep them moving.

By 1500, all sides of Parliament Square had been blocked off to anybody entering or leaving; we were stuck, denied basic rights such as food and sanitation (the only source of drink was via a Kettle Café, erected by students from SOAS). Thousands of students were kettled. When contained in an area, it is natural instinct to become worried, to fear the length of your suppression and to, eventually, become agitated.

Students wanted out and were instead pushed further into the Square (after peacefully requesting to leave). Then police started using their batons and forcing people to go further back still. Some students thought of using steel fences as a way to break through lines of riot police but did not succeed in getting far. Horses were then brought in, dispersing the crowd. Footage has also emerged on YouTube, showing policemen dragging journalist Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair and to the side of the road before charging at protesters.

After the vote had passed there was a sombre mood; many wanted to go home yet the police were not having any of it. Rather than allowing these peaceful students to leave the area, they stopped them without explanation. Police then suddenly surged forward (with no warning), pushing peaceful protesters (some were pushed to the floor) and we were squashed. Protesters held up their arms showing two fingers of peace.

In the kettle I was trapped in, police moved us 5 metres and people started pushing back, simply because there was no space to stand or move. Protesters were angry because they could not breathe, not because they were inherently violent creatures that had arrived for a battle.

The police did not listen and yet continued to push us even hitting people with riot shields if they did not move. On my right was a girl who was having a panic attack (from claustrophobia) – shrieking “Where do you want us to go!? There’s no space!” – and behind me was a girl screaming and crying because she was in pain from suffocation and being crushed. The police allowed neither girl to leave. Shouts of “We are peaceful. Why aren’t you?” ensued.

This continued. As we could not move any further, police started getting agitated and started using their batons, forcefully pushing people forward and squashing protesters even more. This was all despite knowing that the space was scarce or non-existent; policemen were climbing up walls on the side to see if there was any space. It was at this point that mounted horses were introduced and imposed themselves upon protesters, causing them to dart into any space they could find and running back towards Parliament Square. Five minutes later a large number of students were allowed to leave.

Students had been taunted and police demanded such a response. Yet these measures were preventable. Police had been blocking students the entire day and would not let them leave. When groups emerged towards police wanting to leave, the police saw this as a provocation and would force themselves upon students, charging at them and hitting them with utmost ferocity. It was brutal.

Later, students were forced onto Westminster Bridge and they were kettled onto a narrow section of the bridge (instead of using the entire bridge). Rosa Martyr, who was one of those kettled on the bridge said, “We were all terrified to move incase [sic] anyone went over the edge.” She told TSJ that as protesters were given permission to leave the kettle, they were all but forced to have their pictures taken. “[As] we left in single file, lead through a corridor of police, we passed by two riot police with cameras with big blinding lights on. We had no warning so I feel that my attempts to cover my face may have failed anyway”. I also heard from other students earlier in the day that they had been searched and forced to give their details (which is not legally acceptable).

The tactics employed by the police were vicious, malicious and undemocratic. Yes, it is true the car of the Royal family was kicked in and windows broken yet that was a small breakaway group intent on causing violence. The focus must rest on the majority of protesters, the ones who remained peaceful and actively encouraged peace. Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that violent protesters “must face the full force of the law.” Yet Alfie Meadows was not violent but merely at the front line when bottles and firecrackers were being thrown from other students. Police used ‘full force’ in attacking him; he required surgery to save his life.

12-year-old Nicky Wishart, who wanted to organise a picket outside Cameron’s constituency office, was dragged out of his classes and warned by anti terrorist police that he would be held responsible and arrested if any public disorder broke out at the office. Can we simply allow such scare tactics to be employed in what is meant to be a democratic country?

History books will now mark December 9 as a notable date leading to the demise of the Liberal Democrats as a major party. John Denham, stated the Liberal Democrats “have lost all credibility with the country and cannot now claim to be a party of fairness…they should hang their heads in shame.”

But the date will also be remembered as the day when civil rights were severely challenged. Public Interest Lawyers have even embarked upon a legal challenge over the use of kettling. Kettling was used as a tactic to ‘prevent violence’ yet it will soon emerge that the policies of the government are leading to the kettling of the nation. Common opinion depicts students as apathetic to politics; the events of this day clearly show otherwise. The majority of the protesters were fighting a law that would not affect them, but subsequent generations. Students are not the enemy; broken promises in a democracy are.

Notes:


1. Article was originally written for monthly national, The Muslim News.
2. Quote from Rosa Martin was added after initial article published.
3. Article also published in The Student Journals.

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