Friday, 10 December 2010

Eyewitness account of yesterday's protests

From Joe Rooney, Green Party member:

Rhythm section of the revolution
So, after the last time I did this, I thought I'd write another post about what it was like to be a member of UCU staff involved in yesterday's political activity. I should say before I start that I'm writing this in my personal capacity, on my personal blog, and nothing I say here should in any way be taken to be necessarily reflective of any position or policy of UCU's. I'm also not writing this as a dig at individual Police or to condone any acts of violence or vandalism (although there is a clear ethical distinction between violence against the person and violence against property so far as I am concerned).

NUS and UCU organised three events yesterday. The first was a lobby of MPs ahead of the vote. The second was a rally with speeches on Victoria Embankment. The third was a "candlelight vigil" using 9,000 glowsticks to make the point that 9,000 is a big old number.

The day started with a briefing for stewards (including me) from the Police. We'd hired a professional stewarding firm for the rally and vigil after what happened at the first demo we did, so we were only stewarding the Lobby. The guy from Westminster Palace Police told us that officers had been shipped in from all over London, and that their upper estimate for number of students in attendance was 100,000 (that's one hundred thousand). I almost fell off my chair laughing - moreso when he told us that he was keen to avoid running battles in Westminster Hall. I'm not sure that was ever a risk, but fine.

Anyway, so I was stewarding outside the Houses of Parliament, right behind the police line. To start with, there wasn't much there - a truck deploying sandbags onto the road, but very few police - although quite a few riot vans drove past us at speed. When a colleague and I went to get a coffee, however, we turned the corner to see a huge number of riot vans parked up, and lots of burly-looking police in sky blue baseball caps* with truncheons already in hand walking around in groups.

Over the course of the next hour or so, a line of regular police just sort of materialised alongside us, while a small number of protesters appeared at the Whitehall police line. There were walls of police everywhere I looked around midday. They brought out the horses around 2pm, and they lined up behind rows of the blue-caps who were now in full riot gear.

And then the protesters arrived - organised by God-knows-who, and certainly not the 100,000 the police had (massively over-)prepared for. The first thing they'd have seen is the three-deep riot cops waiting for them with masks down and shields up.

At this point, the lobby was done - shut down by the cops, two of whom were standing on the ramp down to the visitors' entrance with their automatic firearms in hand. Other police suggested we move away for our own safety, and most of the other stewards did, our work effectively being done. My colleague and I elected to stay, and I spent the time taking photos and tweeting when something noteworthy occurred. We saw riot police dragging out broken fences. In fairness, protesters were using firecrackers and smokebombs (at least I assume it was protesters) but no violence.

It wasn't long after that people started tweeting about Shiv Malik getting hit by a baton and having to go to A&E. Not much after that, a student activist was pulled out of his wheelchair by the police. Twice.

The police told us the line was going to break soon, although it didn't. I did see the protesters turn to leave Parliament Square, though, and later heard how the mounted Police charged into the rear of the retreating students while the front encountered the kettle.

Blissfully unaware, my colleague and I headed into Central Lobby, handed in our fetching pink hi-vis vests, and went to the rally. We had to go cross the river twice to avoid the police lines but we got there, to a pretty understated rally; the Police weren't letting anyone out of the kettles to let them come to the rally despite claims to the contrary. The rally itself was very cool, with lots of quality speeches. The best was, of course, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas, able to say with confidence that we're the only Parliamentary party in England with a genuine commitment to free education. She talked about Business Education Tax and Robin Hood Tax and got a really good response. A later speaker, from the Union of Jewish Students, made the very good point that Labour got us into this mess, and the Tories and Lib Dems made it worse - who can we trust. My personal answer is obvious, but I'm not keen to preach.

Anyway, I headed home at this point, as I was shattered. As I left, however, I read about the Met's claims that the kettle was over with interest - only to discover that it was apparently a trick, as protesters trying to leave were kettled on Westminster Bridge, away from the toilets the Met had "generously" provided, and weren't allowed to leave without submitting to being videoed. Y'know, waiving their rights - a friend of mine checked with a police station and was told that it was non-negotiable.

Other highlights - protesters being told they were being kettled under first common law, then breach of the peace, then common law again, then a spokesperson on News 24 claiming they weren't using kettling tactics..!

Please distribute wherever you'd like.

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