Wessex Scene writer detained for 6 hours: Eye-witness report and exclusive photographs of student demonstration in London on 24 November 2010
Trafalgar Square, in central London, was the meeting place where thousands of students gathered to demonstrate their continued opposition to the Government’s plans to dramatically cut education spending and increase university tuition fees to £9,000 per year.
Between 11am and midday, hundreds of young people descended on the Square in an extremely lively and seemingly uncoordinated manner. Amid cheering from all sides upon the entrance of new arrivals, students appeared from all directions carrying banners and chanting as walk-outs from schools, colleges and universities across London took effect.
Banners included “Stuff your cuts, we won’t pay”, “No fees, no cuts, save EMA” and “9k, no way!” Large groups of several hundred children moved across the Square, much to the confusion of police who seemed unsettled by the prospect of such young demonstrators.
At around 12.30pm, with Nelson’s Column surrounded by at least 3,000 young people, the protesters began to march towards the Houses of Parliament. Despite a huge police presence, the suddenness of this move meant that traffic around Trafalgar Square came to a complete standstill as children manoeuvred between cars and buses to the Houses of Parliament.
Spirits were high, yet any sense of triumph was quickly squashed when it became apparent that Parliament Square had been completely blocked off by a police line consisting of several dozens of officers and police vans.
Curiously, a single police van was parked in the very centre of the enclosed protest area. Recognising that the protest area was effectively a trap whereby the students would be ‘kettled’ (i.e. physically detained for hours without food, water or toilets), I approached police officers to determine the reasons for the single, empty police van.
Sergeant Lavellin, whose group of officers blocked the area where Derby Gate meets Parliament Street, told me he didn’t know why the van was there, and couldn’t tell me who was responsible for policing that area. Another sergeant, who refused to give his name (his identification lapels read WW55), said “I’ve no idea why it’s there.” He also had “no idea” who was in charge of the police operation. I forewarned the officers that the police van was liable to be smashed if demonstrators were ‘kettled’ in the vicinity and urged them to take action to prevent this occurrence, yet I was repeatedly and flatly ignored.
Fearing that I would be detained without charge, potentially for many hours, I left the main protest area, which was subsequently ‘kettled’ at around 1.20pm.
“It’s just like that G20 [protest, April 2009] when they wouldn’t let people out” I was told by two school-age girls, aged 15 and 16. “Do you know what’s going to happen? They’re just provoking everyone over there, they’re gonna get really angry, and they’re gonna start f**king rioting.”
After some confusion amongst police officers, who had let people into the detention area but not out, an order came through the radio to initiate a “single-belt cordon” – whereby officers form an impassable line by each holding a riot helmet otherwise hidden on their back waist-line.
As it turned out, there wasn’t any ‘rioting’ to speak of. As anticipated, the police van was spray-painted and its windows were smashed. With between 4,000 and 5,000 young students in the vicinity, these acts were completely unrepresentative occurrences which contrasted with the generally jovial mood of chanting and peaceful banner waving.
Having been detained for around 40 minutes so far, many students became anxious to leave but were denied. At 1.59pm, police officers put on heavy protective helmets and batons were drawn. By this time, I was standing on the outside of the police cordon along with many hundreds of late-arriving protesters and onlookers.
Police intimidation continued. I witnessed children in school uniforms pushed by police. At least one officer used a megaphone at point-blank range to shout “Get Back, Get Back”, although this was impossible: police lines on all sides had forced the crowd to stand practically shoulder to shoulder, creating an inevitable sense of fear and claustrophobia.
At least one girl, who couldn’t have been any older than 16 years old, was released from the detention area when it was clear she was having difficultly breathing. Most others who had panicked expressions – some tearful – were unable to leave.
At 2.10pm, on the right-hand side of the police cordon, the first of many baton charges occurred. I received a slight knock on my chin when an officer’s baton was thrust horizontally into my chest, pushing me against the crowd of several hundred behind. The same officer (lapel number BS771) later made waist-level jabs at a student to my immediate left, who was visibly hurt. Shaken, but not seriously injured, I struggled through the crowd to escape.
Standing on a ledge to get a better survey of the area, it was clear that several thousand further demonstrators had arrived. The initial line of officers was now completely surrounded, yet batons (and after 2.15pm, clear riot shields) were used with no apparent purpose. Placards and bottles were thrown in retaliation. By 2.45pm, I had personally witnessed two bloody head injuries.
At 3.15pm a small fire was started by demonstrators outside the ‘kettle’ area. Within ten minutes, several hundred officers appeared from Trafalgar Square direction. At this point, police violence escalated. With nowhere to go, protesters were nevertheless shouted at to move, and pushed or beaten with batons. I was shoved several times for no apparent reason, the most vicious of which by officer CW2583 at around 3.30pm.
Myself, like many other thousands of demonstrators and onlookers, were now trapped, surrounded on all sides by police officers with batons, horses and vans. The police had a clear policy of deceiving the crowd, with officers herding protesters like cattle back and forth between police lines with the lie that it was possible to be let out “on the other side”. For the next 4 hours, as temperatures dropped to just 1°C, the police continued to detain the crowd, stating that we would be released when the violence stopped.
But, of course, there was no real violence to speak of at all. Excluding a couple of further acts of petty vandalism – the destruction of a bus stop and a telephone booth – the several thousand detained students were overwhelmingly lawful and peaceful. The argument that a “potential breach of the peace” was likely to occur was completely ridiculous, a view reluctantly concurred by non-senior officers with whom I talked.
Meanwhile, school children huddled for warmth around small fires, visibly shaking and miserable. I saw one pupil use pages ripped from her school textbook to feed the flames.
Protesters and onlookers argued and begged with the police to be released – yet all requests were ignored. During a detention period lasting for up to 10 hours, no food was allowed in, and only a few dozen bottles of water given to the crowd to be shared. Trapped between Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament and with nowhere else to go, students were forced to publicly urinate on the street.
Remarkably, despite being treated like caged animals by the authorities, no physical violence was directed at police officers, although arguments were plentiful. Some ignored the police as much as possible. A couple of small sound systems had been brought to the protest: these became centres of optimism, as young people danced to music to keep warm in the cold November night.
More pushing and shouting by the police as darkness fell, until once again, students were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder for hours in an tightly enclosed space. We were literally pushed against each other and the officers, many of whom couldn’t bear to make direct eye contact with the angry and miserable faces the policing operation had created.
At 9.20pm, I was finally allowed to leave the detention area. Releasing individuals in small groups of twos of threes, starting with children and then girls first. As I walked past, I saw that some protesters were made to stand in line with their arms lifted, to be photographed and questioned, and sometimes arrested and taken into police vans.
Pushed and shouted at (yet again) by a couple of officers who clearly relished the task, I was nearly away.
In total, I had personally been detained for 6 hours, even though I had not committed any crime, nor was I under suspicion of any crime. Others who had been in the original ‘kettle’ had been kept in near-freezing Winter temperatures, without food, water or shelter, arbitrarily pushed around and shouted at by heavily protected, baton-wielding officers, for more than 8 hours.
Despite all this, a sense of solidarity had grown amongst those imprisoned outside Whitehall. Having been forced to stand for many hours, demonstrators continued to chant anti-Conservative and specifically anti-Nick Clegg chants until the very end. The next day of student action – planned for Tuesday 30 November 2010 – was discussed and cheered.
Although the policing tactics were clearly chosen to punish those who had protested and discourage them from attending further actions, the opposite effect will be true: the resolve of students to oppose the measures has been hardened, and our anger intensified, as a result of this shameful and politically-motivated police operation.
The Government fears the resurgent student movement, because it knows that continued mass protests and oppositional action to their education cuts programme – if students are determined and organised enough – can force them to change the policy.