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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 1 · 6 January 2011

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Inside the Kettle

I was on the edge of a group of protesters in Parliament Square, standing peacefully. We weren’t even moving. Suddenly, police on foot in full body armour (and wearing balaclavas) charged us with batons raised. I was pushed backwards into the people behind me in the initial charge but the crowd pushed back to stop everyone falling over. I saw several around me hit by batons and fall, screaming. I was then hit over the head by a baton, hard enough to knock me sideways, then hit again, I think by the same officer. My ears rang, everything went quiet and I couldn’t hold my balance. My knees gave way and I fell over. An officer stepped forward and deliberately stamped his foot into my chest, winding me. Another officer rested his boot on my head. A huge man, a protester, who had stood next to me picked me up and held my bleeding head in front of the police (this I heard from him as I was semi or unconscious). They did not hit him but did not move aside. He repeatedly screamed for a medic but the police pretended not to hear him although it was clear to look at me that I needed one. He held me in both arms and pushed at the police line with his shoulder. They pushed back once, but then let him through – but hit a man who tried to follow. Next to him, a police officer spontaneously collapsed, apparently feigning unconsciousness. As the officer was not on the front line, had had nothing thrown at him and was wearing full body armour including helmet with visor down, he could not have been injured. The only nearby medic immediately tended to this officer. Both medics and police ignored me and my friend who shouted repeatedly for assistance. Giving up, he half walked half carried me to hospital. Once there he attempted to get the police to take a statement from me but was told there was none available.I spent three hours in hospital, dizzy, bleeding from the head and being repeatedly sick. My speech was apparently slurred and I have poor memory of what happened for the rest of the day. I had been told to stay overnight but feeling scared and victimised from being hit I left and returned home. The man who’d saved me was named Adam but I never learned his surname.

Kit Withnail
Birkbeck, University of London

I was fairly sure that, as a society, we’d established that if you find yourself saying ‘I’m just following orders’ it definitely means you’re doing something wrong. It turns out this is still a part of the British riot policeman’s arsenal. Having spent a cold five hours stuck in Parliament Square, I had had my fill of wandering around what basically seemed like a festival of chaos. I’d visited the Treasury Smashing tent, poked my head in at the Mounted Police exhibition and warmed myself at the bonfires. Now tired of police brutality and anarchist violence, I walked around the muddy square looking for my friends. Some time after 9.30 p.m. we were packed onto Westminster Bridge, proceeding at a snail’s pace, and then brought to a halt. It was a dense crowd, I’d say peak-time underground-train kind of packed. What otherwise would have been a nice view of London from the bridge was mostly spoiled by the cold and the wind chill, which was bringing temperatures down to zero. A lot of people hadn’t intended to be out in the elements at ten at night, so they were getting frustrated. We waited for a while, with no indication of how long we’d be there. I was with one of my friends and we were pretty close to the front of the crowd, where the riot police were forever reinforcing their lines with more androgynous personnel and vans. So far there had been sporadic chants of ‘Let us go! Let us go!’ and other three-syllable slogans, but after about 25 minutes the chant spread to everyone and rose to a crescendo. Before we knew it the crowd surged, broke the first police lines, and forced us through the broken groups of riot police. The police got confused, aggressive and started pushing with shields and shouting. The people at the front of the crowd, being forced through the police, began to hold their hands in the air and shout: ‘This is NOT a riot!’ In time, the police managed to re-create a line across the bridge. It was this line which the two of us found ourselves pushed up against, toe to toe with the police. After the momentum gained by the previous push, the creation of a solid line obviously built up a degree of pressure that forced the crowd, their hands held high, into the police. Worried about another line break, they brought down batons and started shouting and hitting. My friend was struck on the head and fell down screaming. I followed her down to the ground while grabbing her and shouting her name. At the boot-end of the mêlée I realised briefly how easy it is for people to get trampled in crowds. I got stamped on a bit and couldn’t get up but soon heard shouts from the crowd of ‘Pick them up! Pick up the people who’ve fallen!’ and soonish we were hauled up by the crowd. I spun around to the riot police, who had mostly stopped beating and were now shouting and pushing. In my most reasonable shout I screamed: ‘What are you doing? Stop! Why are you doing this?’ I was told to stand back and that it would be fine, to which the answer seemed obvious: ‘This is not OK! This is not fine! We can’t move back! There’s no room! What are you doing?’ I received the timeless response that they were ‘just following orders’. Well that’s OK then.

It was a further half an hour before they created a funnel of riot police which culminated in a gauntlet through which people could walk in single file. I couldn’t help but think of cattle ranches. We’d been taken out of our enclosure, herded together, moved forward and now were being sent one by one down a concourse to have our ears stamped. It was significantly colder and darker than I imagine cattle ranches to be. I was told to take off the scarf I’d put over my face. I said ‘no thanks,’ aware that they like to photograph everyone and that it’s legal to cover yourself up. As soon as I’d said that, I was grabbed, and had my scarf pulled down while someone examined my face against a piece of paper. A bright spotlight was shined at us and I could hear the click of a camera. All I could think about through all the waiting was how I wished I was back in Parliament Square sat on top of the statue of Palmerston watching people smash stuff up.

Angus MacDonald
King’s College, Cambridge

It is not in the script for a Cambridge professor to find himself kettled. I walked unimpeded into Parliament Square at 1.30 p.m. Half an hour later I discovered that I was not free to leave: officers told me that the whole of Parliament Square had been designated a ‘criminal location’. At 5.40, just after the parliamentary vote had been announced, I tried at the Great George Street cordon to present two practical points to the police: first, that after four hours of containment the policy of continuing to keep well over 5000 mostly young people in the square, after the moment of protest had passed, was no longer preventive but provocative; second, that there should be some form of communication from the authorities about plans for dispersal. I was refused permission to communicate these points to those ‘up there’. The policeman gestured towards the helicopter overhead. There was no announcement from the police for a further two and a half hours, during which period damage to buildings was done by a small unruly group. The term ‘kettle’ is most apt. Kettling confines large numbers of individuals under a tight lid while applying the heat of fear.

At the end of the night, pushed out of a 50 metre-long ‘spout’ of shield-wielding riot police, we were photographed. No permission was asked – we were collectively ‘criminalised’.

Simon Szreter
St John’s College, Cambridge

The word ‘kettling’ conjures up images of people sitting in boiling pots on some remote island waiting to be eaten. It suggests heat and pressure and the withering away of strength. And this is exactly how it feels once you are in a kettle and not up to violent behaviour. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my recent life, surpassed only by Russian bombs falling at random during the war with Georgia in 2008, where I happened to be visiting family. Then, at least, I could flee to safer areas and eventually leave the country. From Parliament Square there was no such easy escape. I had arrived there after a cheerful demonstration through the streets of London against the cuts in higher education. I understood that there would be a rally at Victoria Embankment at 3 p.m., yet there was no way of getting there. Why the Met prevented peaceful citizens proceeding to that rally is beyond comprehension. Soon, the temperature in the kettle rose to boiling point. Young people tried to break out in groups, triggering a brutal response by the police. Individuals like me, who politely asked policemen to be let through their lines, were told, politely, that this was not possible. Middle-aged women with shopping bags, senior citizens, senior academics and even tourists were all given such answers. We were trapped in a paradoxical situation: meant to disperse, but kept immobile. A sad spectacle in front of the oldest site of parliamentary democracy, one that should make everyone think about the values on which this country was built. Soon, these values will no longer be taught at most universities, as the humanities are phased out as a result of the cuts.

Hubertus Jahn
Clare College, Cambridge

Throughout the afternoon and evening, a small number of people were allowed to leave in dribs and drabs, apparently arbitrarily, with no reliable information being provided by the police as to how the rest of us were to get out. On the contrary, the police repeatedly misled and lied to us, first encouraging us to join what turned out to be a ‘mock’ queue, then telling us that if we went to the other side of the square we would certainly be allowed to leave. On arriving at the other side, we were invariably told to go back where we had been before, by officers who claimed total ignorance of the promises issued by their colleagues.

Lorna Finlayson
King’s College, Cambridge

I recall two powerful scenes from that day. The first: having kept up with the news on my Blackberry, I discovered at about 4 p.m. that Superintendent Julia Pendry, the Met spokeswoman, had reassured reporters that protesters were being released along Whitehall. At that time, Whitehall was virtually empty, except for a few small groups of people seeking, like us, a way out. Passing Downing Street, we saw ahead a line of mounted police blocking the road, but assuming that Pendry had been speaking the truth, we approached the horses in order to pass between them. At which point the police began to charge. I managed to dive out of the way of a horse, and ran across the road to get clear. Once safe, I turned back to check on my friends, huddled pitifully behind the Cenotaph as the horses crashed past.

The second: after two hours on Westminster Bridge, and seven hours after our encounter with the mounted police, we were released one by one, and made to file out through a corridor of officers. As I passed, the policemen took the opportunity to wish me well: ‘Thanks for coming, sunshine.’ ‘You go carefully now.’ ‘Hope you had a good time.’ While it is stated policy that kettling is not intended to punish the innocent, the officers of the Met believe that as little as I do.

Steven Methven
Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

I came to protest peacefully and from very early on it became clear that the police regarded the demonstration as a conflict (rather than a potential source of conflict); this undoubtedly increased the levels of violence. Many of us feel angry at the media coverage the protest has received (bar the Independent) because it overlooks this.

Peter James
London NW5

We mentioned to students in Cambridge that we were interested in hearing accounts of what happened outside Parliament on the day of the tuition fee vote. These are shorter versions of some of the letters we were sent in response from Cambridge and elsewhere.


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