The View From Inside the Kettle

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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.

Protesters arrive at Trafalgar Square © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Occupying the Square © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Marching to Parliament © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Detained © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.”

No food, water or toilets © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

More protesters arrived during the day © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Megaphone use at point-blank range © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Ready for battle © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Protesters surround police © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Police forcefully separate school children, batons in hand © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Shields © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Head injury © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

Temperatures dropped at night © James Thompson / Wessex Scene 2010

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.

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Wessex Scene Politics Editor, 2008-2009 History and Philosophy BA, Southampton University Modern European History MA, Southampton University

Discussion15 Comments

  1. avatar

    Oh No… Detained for six whole hours… That’s really terrible!

    Well you did decide to go on a protest that had an agreed route and time frame, that in itself in a form of detention. The police are there to make sure you don’t break the rules that the mass you agreed to.

    This is all too little too late…

    James Thompson
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    Actually, the official MET agreed route was blocked by the police themselves, as mentioned in the article. Samantha Lockwood, Police Constable 5475CO, from the MET Event Planning Unit, confirmed with the event organisers that the protest would be allowed past Parliament to Caxton Street.

    The event confirmation email from the police read: “It will definitely be Caxton Street. So your route is: Horse Guards Avenue assembly (can’t have the side street due to road works, so we’re giving you the main street to form up in) Whitehall > Richmond Terrace (15 minute protest) > Parliament Street > Parliament Square > Great George Street > Storey’s Gate > Tothill Street > Broadway > Caxton Street.”

    The police broke the time-frame they themselves imposed, forcing hundreds protesters and onlookers to remain in the area for more than 2 hours after the “event” was due to officially end. The police, therefore, broke their own rules.

  2. avatar

    Eye opening indeed. Your account is harrowing and sounds like the policing was done to a less than satisfactory standard. One must ask however what might have happened had the protest not been contained?

    The food and water shortage should of course have been dealt with, but save from providing them with a burger van, what luxuries should have been extended to protestors in the street wasting police resources?

    James Thompson
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    In terms of wasting police resources, I now understand that 1,600 officers were present on the day to control mostly college and university-aged young people. A police helicopter was overhead day and night at significant expense. In contrast to these numbers, providing food and water to those in need would have been relatively inexpensive. (Most of the police officers would have been unnecessary anyway, had people been allowed to freely leave at will.)

    Of course, the most sensible option in my view would have been to focus on releasing the peaceful protesters during the course of the day, rather than making the vast majority of demonstrators and onlookers wait for many hours until late in the evening. This was intentionally not attempted.

    My personal view, based on several hours worth of conversations with police officers (including sergeants) on the scene before, during and after the protest, was that ‘containing’ the demonstrators was not the primary reason for the kettle (although this was the official line.) I believe that young people were detained unnecessarily and arbitrarily, as a way of punishing those who stood in opposition to the Government’s policy.

    Andy Wilson's lackey
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    “One must ask however what might have happened had the protest not been contained?”

    What are you trying to suggest? Innocent until proven guilty eh…

    Malcolm Ruddock
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    People have a right to demonstrate. This is supposed to be a democratic conountry. The police do not have a right to detain people for 10 hours in the street or anywhere else without lawful authority. Perhaps if all the young demonstrators could go to their Citizens Advice Bureuaux and get legal advice. I am sure the Commissioner would like to be sued for unlawful arrest by thousands of people. It might have an adverse affect on his budgetg, along with the cuts!

  3. avatar

    I am truly grateful for this article, it has been the first media I’ve seen that showed what it was like for the students within, and additionally the only one that showed an accurate timeline of events. I hope this gets linked around – even the BBC was shockingly bias when I finally came back from the protests. However, the police violence has only strengthened my resolve – I intend to return to the same spot on Wednesday prepared with warm clothes, food and drink.

  4. avatar

    James, do you have any photographs of the police vehicle prior to any damage? Specifically any displaying a licence plate. I have not seen one single pic of this vehicle with number plate intact, can you confirm if it indeed at any point had one affixed?

    It would help if you could confirm by email if possible.

  5. avatar

    TBH I 100% agree with all the tactics the police used. I’m not suggesting all the protestors, and evidently not yourself, were out to cause trouble but there was definitely a fair few. If it was scary for the protestors, who ultimately were there out of a decision they had made, just think about the police officers, some as young as 18 and many females, with 1000s of people at stages running towards you with make shift weapons, threatening you and injuring your colleagues infront of you. Everyone saw what was done to the sutton police van within a few minutes, just because it was there, there was no need for it to be vandalised! What a terrible society we live in, if vandalism of an object is acceptable, just because its there. I personally would have been terrified if I was an officer there or if any of the police officers in my family had been called in, just because you wear a met police uniform it makes you a target when really you are just an ordinary human doing a job….a job which expects you to bravely go into a potentially dangerous and volatile situation, no questions asked. If you go to protests such as these, you have to accept that many people there will be there for trouble making and the police cant tell who is directly involved in just a few seconds so have to treat everyone the same….what else can be expected of them!! Sorry for my rant but I think the police methods were completely justified and they have my full support!! Police are such an easy target to criticise in events such as these, no matter what they did, they would be in the wrong!

    Michael
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    No, sorry, if the police had not arbitrary and illegally detained thousands of children for hours in near freezing temperatures without food, water or toilets, they would not have been in the wrong. If they had not aggressively charged down protesters on horseback, while using batons, riot shields and halon fire extinguishers as offensive weapons, they would not have been in the wrong.

    Kettling is a tactic used to provoke a response that can then justify the use of additional force; the police manufactured the entire situation. It wouldn’t surprise me if those who instigated the vandalism of the conveniently abandoned van were police officers dressed as protesters as we saw at the Toronto G20 summit.

    James Thompson
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    Thank you for your comments Rebecca.

    Firstly, “1000s of people at stages running towards you with make shift weapons” did not happen to the police on that day. (The protesters, on the other hand, were charged at by dozens of police with batons repeatedly throughout the day.)

    The police had protective clothing, including fire resistant balaclavas, helmets and gloves. Most had metal batons, some heavy plastic shields, both used offensively. Additional units, I have now learned, charged protesters on horseback. The crowd was mostly composed of school and college-age children.

    The police van wouldn’t have been vandalised had the crowd not been blocked on the officially MET-agreed protest route. The van was vandalised after the police had detained the protesters, not before.

    I understand the view that, regardless of its location, the van shouldn’t have been vandalised. But if you left your car unlocked with the key in the ignition, would you be surprised if it got stolen? If thousands of people are angered by a policing operation which imprisons them, is it really surprising that a handful would subsequently break the window of a completely unprotected police van?

    The most “dangerous” individuals that I witnessed were London school children, a minority of whom had their faces covered. If the situation really was violent or dangerous (it was not at all), a policing operation consisting of hundreds and hundreds of highly-trained officers should have focused on removing the violent from the non-violent, not forcing everyone together using physical force (i.e. violence).

    I do not accept the argument that the people there have only themselves to blame. It is the responsibility of the police to arrest those suspected of having committed criminal acts (of which on this occasion could not have numbered more than a few dozen at most), not to collectively punish thousands of people for lawfully protesting and observing.

    I strongly urge you, Rebecca, to come to the next protest as an observer, to see for yourself. (There is of course nothing wrong with observing a ‘public’ protest – if there are no general observers, it cannot be said to be ‘public’. This point is apparently not understood by the police, who use the language of “facilitating public protest” whilst blocking protesters and observers alike from attending.)

    My purpose is not to criticise the police for being police. Public order situations are complex, but from my own observations I have no doubt in my mind that the operation was intentionally callous and the justifications disingenuous. Furthermore, the MET clearly failed in its Duty of Care by forcing school children to sit or stand on the cold concrete for hours at near zero temperatures. When I implored officers to at least let school children out, I was either ignored, told it wasn’t their problem, told that there was nothing they could do, or threatened with physical violence.

    Name
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    The police denied charging into the crowd on horseback but the Gurdian newspaper reveals police on horseback charging the children who were protesting. One young lad suffered a broken leg while resuing a girl who was knocked down. He was trampled by police horses. I myself was hurt and my phone was broken. I’m an experienced protester and the mounted police charging at children shocked me. The police were bang out of order.

    Idealist Mcee
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    i would like to post a link for you to veiw the 9 points of policing by Sir Robert Peel who founded the MET. On the 24th November the police were in contravention of practically all of the points.
    http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/laworder/9points.htm

    the police should be there to assist the protest and protect the protestors, not punish us. In reality there is no them and us, we need to express love and compassion to make the police and the public realise and remember that we are all on the same side….As always, it’s all love…

  6. avatar

    Thank you for telling it how it was. I just don’t understand how they can justify keeping people against their will for LONGER will make them go home EARLIER? It just reinforced my views that the police will resource to anything to keep us oppressed.

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