Preparation in the run up to the TUC march throughout London was detailed and complex, but at the same time very much down to guesswork. Nobody quite knew how many protesters to expect. An optimistic (or pessimistic) few predicted that it could be as many as a million people, whilst the official website for the march itself predicted a more modest 100,000 – 200,000 people. Given the well reported and publicised police errors that had been made by the inability to cope with 50,000 people at the NUS Demonstration, the Met were under intense scrutiny in the run up to this march.
Currently the estimated number of people who turned up is around 500,000. This goes to show just how many people feel that the cuts throughout the welfare state are not the direction which the government should be taking. Having been present at both marches in a neutral capacity as a researcher, it was interesting to compare them. Straight from the outset it was clear that the TUC march far outstripped the NUS march in terms of size. Walking across Waterloo Bridge at 11.30am, the march stretched as far as the eye could see all the way along Embankment and Blackfriars before vanishing out of sight. This march would be almost impossible to fully police, and so other strategies needed to be deployed.
Keen to utilise social media to help them out, the Met enlisted the use of Twitter. Despite using it for previous protests, they used it far more actively here, sending out regular updates about where parts of the march were; areas to avoid; and any other useful information.
It did prove to be quite helpful, showing that there is definitely room for improvement in terms of utilising social media to keep people aware of what is happening around them on protests such as this. It was this service which alerted me to the fact that perhaps the march was not going to go as peacefully as people perhaps had hoped. I read the following tweet at around 2pm:
Followed soon after by:
Now I think that it is quite clear that police being attacked in Oxford Street perhaps did have something to do with the TUC march, but it almost seems to indicate that the Met had appreciated that these public broadcasts could also be used to attract troublemakers to areas of trouble, and from then on their tweets became more vague, not referring to direct incidences, but rather to generic updates such as:
The rest of the tweets from throughout the day present a very interesting picture as the day moves on, and their change in tone perhaps show better than anything else just how the Met were viewing certain events, as the day unravelled around them.
Understandably many protestors were reluctant to leave, as this would signal that the march was simply a one day event, and not instead a deeply personal affair which everyone felt to be necessary to protect their own and others’ way of life. Unfortunately this led to the scenes in Oxford St, particularly in Fortnum and Masons, as well as later at Trafalgar Square.
On demonstrations such as this, people throughout the political spectrum can always find areas to criticise in retrospect, whether it’s aggressive police or violent protestors. More often than not it’s a mixture of both. The events at Trafalgar square later in the day leave a sour taste in the mouth. There are conflicting reports about what occurred, but the fairly common consensus seems to be that after an initially peaceful atmosphere, one event sparked up hostilities once again between protestors and police. From on then there were ugly scenes of people trying to escape riot police charges, who in turn were overreacting at the end of a mentally and physically exhausting day.
Whatever the cause, it seems that police steadily used aggressive tactics, such as containment (kettling), baton charges and arrests to dispel what had been an otherwise peaceful group of people, showing that not much has changed since 10/11/10.
It seems the Met wanted to make a statement that they were not going to be seen as lax, as perhaps they were after the Fund Our Future Demonstration. They launched a variety of strategies to keep the public informed, and attempt to keep people who didn’t want to be involved in any form of violent protest out of trouble.
Unfortunately this seems to have conflicted with wanting to be seen to be a strong, united force, even if this involves arresting those who had done nothing to merit it and allowing the real perpetrators to walk away. This is a state of affairs which helps no-one aside from those who should be prosecuted, and serves only to alienate police and protestors from each other now and in the future.
[The Met’s twitter page, and all tweets from the march can be found here: http://twitter.com/#!/CO11MetPolice]