On the eve of a major protest against tuition fees, a Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) commander has announced that rubber bullets may be used against protestors in cases of “extreme” disorder, as has been seen at every tuition fee protest over the last year.
Rubber bullets, or baton rounds as they are usually referred to in public order use, are virtually unused on British streets. In Northern Ireland, where they are more often used, statistics about their use show that while they are designed to cause “pain but not injury”, they have, according to one study on 90 patients, lead to a death, 17 permanent disablements and 41 hospitalisations.
The police, usually with the agreement of a senior officer, can choose to deploy them at any time, although batons, protective equipment and shields are much more commonly used in public order situations on British streets, along with mounted officers.
In August, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced she was giving the police permission to deploy baton rounds following the riots over the summer, much to the annoyance of senior officers, who knew full well they didn’t need her permission!
Much as I see a need to reassure Londoners that the police are doing everything necessary, I feel this sends totally the wrong message to anyone thinking of taking part, and especially to anyone thinking of hijacking the event to cause public disorder.
In virtually every case of any sort of crime, from the absolutely trivial to the mass murders, there is always a debate about who started it, whether it’s two boys fighting in the school year because “he said something about me Mum” or the murderer who tries to claim self-defence. By making such a statement, the Met have effectively been the first to show their hand and admit that they expect an otherwise peaceful protest to lead to violence.
Commander Pountain, for who this is in fact his 30th year with the force, works in the Specialist Crime Directorate, and is responsible for planning police resources in the run-up to the march, which will require more police officers on the day than work in the whole of Hampshire, with officers from forces outside of London being borrowed under a mutual aid agreement.
The Met’s response to previous protests has been polarised, from the first attack on the Conservative headquarters last year when they allowed lots of smashing, roof climbing and fire-extinguisher throwing for over an hour before officers arrived in any substantive number, to the almost violence-free group kettled in Whitehall, to the protesters charged by police horses. Strong criticism has been raised of the number of injuries obtained by those attending.
The danger is simply that anyone reading coverage of this story, for example the BBC’s headline stating that the Met have ‘Rubber Bullets Available’ for the day, will immediately expect violence, and, if they do attend, they will be expecting a fight. And technically, the Met started it.
So, everything considered, it looks a lot like tomorrow the Met will be using the full force of their available resources (and those from other forces) yet again. It should be an interesting day.
Following a vote by the Union Council, SUSU will be attending the event, any student can buy a ticket to join the coach, which is still not full.
Obviously, after the summer of straightforward meaningless violence, the force will want to be seen to be prepared for any eventuality tomorrow, but for the tens, or possibly hundreds of thousands of students who are intending to turn up, en masse, to show the Government where they stand, this is a bit of a kick in the teeth.
Photograph by cackhanded on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.