[A version of this piece appeared in the Socialist Worker on the 13th December]
There is a lot to say about the demonstration in London on the 9th. It has been attacked by those on the right as a protest of ‘wanton violence’ – but that statement could easily describe the actions of the real culprits: the Metropolitan Police. This is what I saw happening on the march and in Parliament Square.
A small group of around 10 students from Cornwall headed up to London by minibus, leaving at 2:30am and bringing placards, a megaphone and a Cornish flag to show that students here want their voices heard. We were part of the massive and growing movement defying the government and the Lib Dem’s broken promises.
Arriving at around 10am, we were met with instant support from workers and members of the public, with one woman shouting ‘go for it’, and we had several conversations on the way to the tube in Brixton from supportive Londoners.
At midday in Malet Street there were already several hundred gathered, and stalls had been set up distributing placards and left-wing literature. The vibe was good-natured, and though we did not get a chance to hear the speakers, the reaction from the crowd in response to EAN organisers, RMT executive members and other group representatives was incredible, spreading through the crowd with immense energy.
The march itself was entirely peaceful – thousands walking through the centre of London chanting ‘they say cut back – we say fight back’, with people waving out of windows and clapping the protesters on. But when we arrived at Parliament Square at around 2pm, the atmosphere changed. The police had already begun to kettle us, and horses were brought in without justification. Only then did some ‘violence’ break out, with flares lit and smoke-grenades thrown. Resisting this kettling technique, many broke out onto the main area of Parliament Square, where the kettling was then moved to. The protesters, meanwhile, resumed the positive vibe, with music playing and small groups sat in circles chatting.
On the other side, by Westminster Abbey, the police were agitating further. Nonetheless, the chanting and music continued, even with the condensed crowd being pushed ever further back by thick lines of police. Some tried to get near Parliament itself but the police presence was overwhelming, indeed excessive. As demonstrators realised that the kettling tactic was being extended across the Square, the fight back began.
Around 100 who got out of the kettle at first, and a spontaneous meeting was established to determine what the plan was – with ideas of occupying neighbouring Barclays bank. This was abandoned after police caught on and covered the area. Instead we resolved to refuse to be kettled ourselves, and a line of young people was formed, arm in arm, to prevent the mounted police infringing our right to peaceful protest and movement. It was an amazing moment, as the line of horses came forward and the police threatened to crush the human-wall. The line surged up with a song – ‘break these walls between us’, and the mostly female line of teenagers forced the police to back off. The response from the demonstrators at the Met’s retreat was ecstatic – we had won a small victory.
Though the police wall at the other end was not broken, some were allowed back in to join their friends on the other side. This was around 3pm, and soon the mood got more intense as several dozen extra horses were brought in, an intimidatory move designed to generate fear in the crowd. And then, without warning, they charged.
Over the course of the night several more horse charges occurred, and one protester from Cambridge was crushed underneath one, breaking her collar bone. Other disturbing examples of Met brutality such as police throwing a man off his wheelchair and batoning innocent school kids provide an insight into the attitude the London police have. One of the Cornwall students had his glasses ripped from his face and stamped on by an officer, and I saw a man being pushed back by a policeman into a construction hole where presumably roadworks had been taking place – the hole now uncovered and unsafe. Had he have fallen, it could have broken several of his bones.
But within the kettle, against all odds, the crowd continued dancing, talking and demonstrating. The hacker group Anonymous spoke from on top of the Churchill statue, and small bonfires were lit to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Other groups sat with their laptops or watched from a height the thousands of people filling Parliament Square.
There was a darker element to all this. The police had provided no toilets, with even the Westminster underground toilets locked up. No water was distributed, and many had not eaten since the morning – despite hundreds being kettled until as late as 11:30 at night on Westminster Bridge.
Personally, my phone was broken and I could not find my friends for around two hours, and while climbing up a fence to get a better view to look for them, a policeman ran forward and threatened to pull me down, using insulting terms I won’t even go into here to describe me. There was no consideration for well-being. It was just provocative police action.
Our divided group left at around 7 to catch the minibus (which had been waiting two hours due to the prolonged kettling), shaken by the experience and what we had seen, and returning back to Cornwall for 6am. We had been charged at, kept confined for hours in the cold and refused the right to leave, and denied the ability to remain calm through the constant attacks of the Metropolitan Police.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have released a statement, saying the organisation ‘utterly condemns the violence inflicted on demonstrators by the police’ as shown by the large number of hospitalised protesters and personal accounts of what happened.
Students should and will not be deterred by the result of the vote or the tactics of the police seen on the 9th of December. Instead we will regroup, organise and fight back against the assault on social mobility, our generation and the working class by the ConDem government. There are more protests planned for the 13th to save EMA.