The past few weeks saw some of the most massive education protests in the UK in recent history. The following report was sent in to the ISM by Sam P. with the request to publish it:
(Big news organisation accounts that aren't thaaaat bad:
As I start writing this down, I am not sure what form it will take. Perhaps a time-line of yesterday's events, or a brief overview of what I saw going on around me, or something more in-depth with background and details as I remember them. I have been experiencing great difficulty putting the situations I went through into words, so I do hope that this writing process will be able to draw out a coherent picture from this overwhelming jumble of images and emotions in my head.
Yesterday, on the 9th December 2010, I attended a protest in London, UK. This was the day of the parliamentary vote on whether to cut higher education funding by 80% and force a further reorganization of higher education towards marketization and away from the final residues of free and emancipatory learning left in these lumbering corporate institutions. Attendees ranged from secondary school students to university lecturers, from the unemployed to unionised workers, from parents to friends to members of communities so diverse and special that it felt quite ridiculous to even entertain the notion that they could be even partially represented by a handful of upper-class white men arguing over how best to efficiently subjugate that aforementioned community.
I knew enough about protests to feel it wise to prepare for any eventuality, and I couldn't sleep the night before anyway, claustrophobic of the nervousness pervading the cool air. Of these preparations, some now feel to have been very useful and others not so much. Though I had not attended previous student protests in London, I remembered the threat of being trapped for a few hours and so packed some food; this was a useful idea. I had heard that over on the Continent student protests had been met with copious amounts of tear gas, so packed a pair of goggles; this was.. not so useful. The police's Forwards Intelligence Teams have been taking high quality photographs of anyone attending protests, rallies, or political meetings for quite a while now, assembling a government database of possible dissidents. I hope you can understand how this makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. For this reason, and because of the chilly temperatures forecast, I covered the lower portion of my face, as did many others. I did not plan on breaking any laws, nor did I, though the fact that the laws that I didn't break are already strongly slewed in favour of the state and corporate interests makes me think after writing this that maybe I shouldn't try and excuse myself. People break laws all the time; last night in fighting for our future, and for many people every day fighting for our lives. There is no inherent moral negativity in breaking a law set by those self-interested and authoritarian upper-class men. I suppose this self-correction goes towards illustrating the relatively privileged position I come from and the apathetic conditioning forced on me that I still have to struggle against.
The start of the protest went slowly, annoyingly cliché slogans being belted out while standing around waiting for the labour hacks at the front to finish trying to convince everyone that they aren't the same as the liberal democrats, that they didn't bring in tuition fees in the first place, that the last decade didn't happen. The oppositional role in parliament is great for voting against unpopular legislation that you want to pass, because it'll pass anyway and you get to look all nice and democratic. What a farce. A nearby courtyard was occupied and a music system brought out for an impromptu dance while placards were handed out by the big organisations hoping for new recruits to their coffers as they played their even more fake and opportunistic oppositional role.
The march through town itself was uneventful. For those who have never marched – it is exactly how it sounds. A lot of walking, some people occasionally stopping for a photo-op with the press, and a lot of noise. We were stopped by the immobility of those in front of us a short distance after Trafalgar Square. Reports came back that the police had blocked off the roads ahead. A splinter group started off swiftly through the park towards Buckingham Palace, ominously followed from a side-street by a column of riot police and an empty bus – a symbol of mass arrests. The shout “we're through!” echoed from ahead and the crowd started moving, arriving in Parliament Square to find the green already occupied and fences harmlessly cast aside.
In front of the caricature of British Democracy were tens of police vans, solid metal barriers, and deep lines of police. Some people occasionally lobbed paint, goaded on quite explicitly by television crews, giving the front police line a colourful effect that almost made their appearance less intimidating. A march of police behind their lines were met with a loud sing-along in the crowd of the stormtrooper theme from Star Wars, a sentiment that felt quite appropriate at the time and even more so in the coming hours. Music was playing, people were dancing, others were warming up around a bonfire of placards in the middle of the square. I stared at the scene in front of me, police in front of parliament, until it was burned into my eyes. Then I heard a lot of shouting coming from the west side of the square, where apparently people had been told was the exit as the other roads were completely blocked off.
After rushing over, it appeared that a police line had formed and was not letting anyone past. Aware that the exit had been closed, the people in the crowd were starting to get anxious, and others angry. Pushing from the back started, forcing the police and protesters into close proximity. Those at the front, their arms up shouting “we can't move back, people are pushing”, were summarily crushed by police shields and batons. I saw someone going back through the crowd, blood streaming down from their hair and a blank look on their face. Chants of “Let us go!” went unanswered, and panic started, pushing the line further forward. This advance was met by an unexpected charge of mounted police officers. People scattered and fell over one another to escape, some receiving painful injuries to their legs from sociopathically directed hooves. Firecrackers and placards were thrown in response, hoping to rout them. Asking why animals had to be brought into this, a protester was told to “fuck off” and scared back by one mounted officer. A renewed assault of foot police, now all with shields, surged in the horses wake and met resistance in an increasingly pissed-off crowd. The front rows of protesters seemed to take the hits to the head in stride, linking arms and allowing their bodies to be used as shields for the others. A squad of other police burst through the line and attempted to drag someone out. When they were retrieved and helped away by other protesters, one of these police officers started indiscriminately hitting everyone in front of him before walking back behind the line.
Another mounted officer charge was this time met with a stoic few protesters, though still ones who did not try and push forwards, allowing the police lines to reform and be reinforced. High-vis police uniforms were replaced at the front by black-clad riot police, equipped with the same batons, shields, and full helmets as their predecessors, and a seemingly increased persuasion to use them offensively. Protesters tried to use part of a fence to defend themselves, but the police pushed it down and moved back, forcing the front few rows of protesters to fall to the floor. The call went to stop pushing, which after a moment the protesters at the back heeded as those at the front tried to get up. Unfortunately, the situation was ignored by the police who pushed forwards (all this pushing is starting to sound the opposite of a tug-of-war) against those on the floor, piling people on top of people and forcing them down. At this point, I was incredibly terrified. It seemed inevitable that I was about to be crushed to death. Instead of using my last breath to curse the inhumanity of those trying to kill us, I shouted an apology to those caught even lower on the pile – who for all I knew did not even have a last breath to give. A hand came from nowhere and grabbed my shoulder, pulling me up, and before becoming aware of the situation immediately turned round and pulled up others. Actually, quite surprisingly, two lines of protesters had gone around those on the floor and pushed in front of the police, holding them back while others helped us up. Many had to leave after this, a few in tears, others clutching injuries. Everyone was asking each other whether they were okay, and I suddenly felt a rush of happiness – both at not dying (that's always nice) and at the compassion and thought in these absolute strangers which seemed to be so sadly and sorely lacking in the police.
The crowd felt angry, at being caged in and at the collective injuries sustained, but still not overly aggressive. However whenever an explicit baton came down on someone, as it regularly did, there was always a quick reaction, often forcing the officer to retreat to the chants of “shame on you” and boos. At one point I saw someone shouting sternly at the police and went over to hear. They pointed to a a bald spot among otherwise lengthy hair and explained how an officer who they knew by number (Hurrah, an officer not hiding their numbers! (Although how you're supposed to see these numbers, only ever visible on the epaulettes of these towering men, while they are attacking you, boggles me)) had grabbed their hair and quite literally ripped it out. Tears and shouting were endemic among those protesters still left – the police's orders to go to the opposite side of the square in order to leave finally convincing the tiring mass. A wave of boos echoed out at the inevitable passing of the parliamentary vote. I entered into brief discussion with various officers on the state of things, though their 'sympathetic' responses felt unsettlingly forced. I have heard afterwards that their instructions were to appear sympathetic and blame the upper management in any conversations in order to dissuade the crowd from retaliating the only way they could, which sounds creepily accurate. However those same officers who were in such agreement one moment were the same ones readily hitting those they supposedly agreed with in the next, one of them (who was so jovial and happily noted his opposition to the cuts) screaming “Fuck, off! Fuck, off!” as they kicked my shins and attempted to knee me in the groin after I politely declined to move back without hearing a valid reason. Unfortunately, it seems that the crowd shouting “Your jobs are next!” (Police budget is being slashed and tens of thousands of job losses are expected) has significantly less impact than their bosses saying the same thing. A large proportion of the officers at the protest took visible pleasure in physically hurting the public, laughing at people who came to them in tears asking whether they could go home. The cops are not our friends while they are doing their job, as the state's private army. I honestly did not think this way before this protest. I idealistically hoped their humanity meant something. Following orders is not an excuse, the Nuremberg defence was never valid, these 'people' have a choice whether or not to cause this pain and suffering and protect institutions causing it on a systematic level. Spontaneous chants of “Who are you protecting!?” and “We are human; What are you?” after baton charges felt weirdly poignant, even the rarer “No Justice; No Peace; Fuck The Police” gaining a bit of perspective.
I started trekking optimistically across to the other side of Parliament Square, stopping to share food with people in the middle who were sitting around looking quite ill and scared. Some were moving in the opposite direction, telling us not to bother because that side was also blocked. It was now completely dark, save for the police helicopter shining down its camera light over us like some perverse imitation moon. Some folks had started burning plastic after running out of placards; a security camera was hurled on the bonfire to a massive plume of smoke and flame. The smells in the air were noxious and I moved on anyway, with nothing else to do. When I was crossing the other side towards where the crowd was being blocked in, I heard shouts from my left and turned to see a squad of fifteen or so riot police charging through the crowd, knocking people over and hitting anyone who got too close, shouting sentences mostly consisting of the word “Fuck” with optional attachments of “X off” or “Get the X away. They split the crowd and surged through to the other side. We followed to see what was happening, and as we came through the crowd ourselves saw the riot officers beating anyone and everyone too close to the main police line with direct and forceful baton swings. Many people were slumped against the wall bleeding from head wounds; others were clutching their arms into their bodies and trying to move back; someone was shouting that they had lost a shoe. I felt like I was in a war zone. No protesters seemed to know what was going on, and ran back away from the police, still being pursued. Some at the back had managed to get a fence, passing it forwards to the sweeping cry of “Watch your heads!” and it was swiftly put to use to blocking the baton attacks and associated police surge. Further fences came forward and were used to create an intuitive wall blocking the pavement to a host of cheers. Projectiles ranging from rocks to plants were flying over it but all bounced harmlessly off police shields, and officers with cameras were readily taking photographs of everyone in the front row who were holding up the wall. Someone shouted that penning us in was what the police wanted, but most people seemed to just appreciate the slight protection and rest allowed by this resourceful response. They were tired, and desperate; it was uncomfortably often that an individual would scream “Let us out..” or “I want to go home” hopelessly towards ears too far off to hear, and too uncaring to do anything were they closer. It was about half past six, we had been kettled in Parliament Square for hours without food, water, or toilets.
Round the corner, a small section of a bulletproof window to the treasury building was being lazily broken by a seemingly endless collective of people who tended to each give it one or two whacks before declaring it impossible and leaving the job to the next curious onlooker who found the treasury building offensive. A quiet but noticeable smash, followed by a short beeping alarm, sounded unexpected success, although someone had noticed that the lights had come on in the building and to get away before the police got to the windows, and part of the crowd moved down the side of the building while the rest held up the line and makeshift wall. Another rampaging squad of riot cops ran down the breakaway group but were surprised by the people who had been sitting in the centre of the square playing music and chatting rushing to their aide and briefly blocking the squad in against the wall to shouts of “Who's kettled now?”, though they still lashed out at anyone who got too close. Screams came from behind; The police line we'd just left had bypassed the wall on the pavement and come through the road, forcing protesters back suddenly with batons and full length riot shields. Some protesters staged a sit-down protest in front of the advancing line, and a cheer went out from down the side of the building: Somehow, the door to the treasury had been breached. The entrance was still blockaded from the inside, but it seemed to be seen as a victory nonetheless, and a curtain from inside was being held up as a trophy. Someone came up to me and leaned on my arm as they adjusted bloody jeans and told the story of being attacked three times by police just for standing in their way with their arms up in the air, then showed off a nasty cut to their leg. The blood was drained from their face, the paleness and confusion in their face balanced with the determination in their eyes. I saw them later on and they still looked alive, but I still worry deeply for some of the people I've seen attacked. The big state and corporate news organisations going into great detail about the cop that fell off his horse during a charge against protesters but largely ignoring the people actually attacked and injured by the police officers, except for the mention of someone who actually needed brain surgery in order to save their life after being repeatedly hit with a police baton. I wondered when hearing this which one of the people with bloody heads I had seen it had been, if any. People were routinely refused medical assistance, and someone using a wheelchair was torn from it, in discrimination and targeted violence I've been told is typical against people with disabilities who attend protests.
Police photographers were leaning out of windows taking pictures of the crowd below gathered around the treasury, who were then charged by the riot police who had thrown those sitting down (including one person in a santa outfit with both hands constantly up in peace signs, who was treated more forcefully than the others) to the side. What was left of the group was becoming increasingly surrounded. A large metal pole was handed to the front but immediately confiscated and thrown aside – quite thankfully for everyone involved. I wondered where the others had gone, and went to the nearest police line blocking a small side-street and asked the most common question of the day, “where do we get out?” to which the first response from an officer in a high-vis outfit was “I don't know.” and the response from the riot cops in the line was “The exit is on the other side”, pointing there, and I bet you can guess which side that was! Yes. The side we had come from before being told the exit was on the ooother side. Predictably, this was another complete lie, so I started to wander around what was left of the occupied portion of the square. The graffiti was in some parts nuanced and poignant, some parts explicit and to-the-point, with the usual circle A symbols dotted around. The statue of Churchill had “Education for the masses” on one side, and on another “Racist” was quite appropriately scrawled next to his name. Later on there was an argument between a police officer and a protester arguing over this, with the protester defending this text that the officer took issue with using staggeringly numerous examples and articulate argument given the situation. Quite inevitably, but just as surprisingly, he was roughly moved on.
Fires were dimming. The samba drum band was tiring. Energy was at an absolute low, and the last of it was used by an especially desperate few to try to find a way out through the Supreme Court's basement level. This failed, but a spade was found and used to break its windows. A well dressed person came over and decried the vandalism (See that? Vandalism. Not violence. It is impossible to be legally violent towards inanimate objects. If someone breaks a window and a cop breaks their nose, the cop is the only violent one in the equation. People are worth more than property, as much as this system would have us think otherwise) but was argued down by someone explaining their anger at being trapped here and about the vote's result and about everything the government that owns the building was doing and what evil is there in them breaking a window after being backed into such a corner by such force? So they left, and the window was half broken through before two police lines came and formed up in front of it. At this point, the entirety of protesters were kettled between police officer and police officer, not just police officer and wall. The lines moved forward pushing people together, and there was no energy left to resist, until everyone was tightly encircled. We were told we would be allowed to go “in a bit” and so people milled around and chatted, occasionally someone bringing what a cop described as “sob stories” to the front about asthma, injuries, last trains home, or very young people being there. It was about 8pm. Nothing happened for an hour despite us being told we were always on the cusp of being let out of the kettle. I overheard a senior officer tell the footsoldiers they were about to begin “shit dispersal” (I'm assuming shit refers to the public) and they told us to stay where they were and the police line moved one yard back and then stopped. This was both a test of compliance and passivity as well as training to obey authorities orders and lies as truths and obligations. People wanted to leave so badly, for home, food, water, warmth, toilets, or just to sit-down they were ready to listen to anything. I felt sick as I stood there unmoving. One brave protester took one step forward and was pushed back. I was concerned some in the crowd might turn on him, though this fear was not necessary, and started to seriously consider the whole protest pointless and a failure and the police had won and there's no point protesting. I suppose, I started to think exactly what they wanted me to think. And I knew it, as well, but in that position.. When you've been kettled for six hours, beaten, abused, ignored, refused basic human rights, seen the farce of democracy this totalitarian tyranny operates under.. I guess that's normal. And I could see the same on others' faces. It was heartbreaking.
After another twenty minutes they told us to follow them slowly, leading past parliament and endless lines of police officers towards the river. As we started to cross the bridge, something definitely felt wrong. Someone part of a pair walking in the opposite direction grabbed my shoulders and told me “They're not gonna let us off this bridge, there's no side routes, we have to go back!” [paraphrased] But it seems both my intuition and and other people's explicit prophetic vision were not enough to lull me out of the drone of following the crowd and police instructions. I hated myself for not going with them, for not shouting it at everyone and trying to turn the group around. I hated that I thought they would tell me to “shut up otherwise the police won't let us go” and the part of me that wanted to agree with that as if they were going to anyway. We moved on, a couple of thousand people squeezed onto the bridge.. and then we stopped. My gut sank. Don't trust the cops. Anxiety set in en masse. As time went by, and there was no movement, people started crying. There were reports of people passing out towards the back. There was no room to move or even sit down. Some people who were shorter occasionally shouting that they couldn't breathe. The police told those at the front they would be allowed to leave in ten minutes. An hour went by, I shared out the last of my food amongst those nearby who claimed they needed it the most.. I wasn't hungry. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to throw up out of anger.
Without noticing when it had started, out of nowhere, the quiet isolated shouts became more unified. There was a feeling in the air. You couldn't help but join in; even the people who had seemed on the doors of sleep were suddenly chanting with energy thought lost. “Let us go. Let us go. Let us go. Let us go.” and then “woooooooOOOOOAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH” and everyone moved together as if it had been planned (I assure you, it most definitely was not. We're really not that organised!) forwards, forwards, forwards, taking the police line completely by surprise. They were literally overrun, I actually passed by a few of them myself while being pushed forwards by the crowd. We made a good twenty yards before hitting the next police line and more swarmed from behind the rows of vans up ahead. The head of the push was cut off by a line breaking and reforming, and the officers became extremely violent. Protesters at the front of both sections put their hands up in the air, alternately pleading “We're being pushed, don't hit us” and “Please just let us out” but to little response. The police plan for stopping those at the back from pushing forwards seemed to be hitting those at the front with batons while shouting “Fuck off! Get the fuck back!” and this didn't go very well until the main police force arrived and reinforced the front line to about six rows thick. This, combined with the separation of the front portion of the group, was enough to stop the movement. Freedom snatched away at the last moment. The collective groan was painful to hear, but there was a definite energy still buzzing from such a successful move. I suddenly felt a lot more optimistic. That if we try, together, we can achieve something, and that this was not the end nor could it be. They would let us go eventually, even if it was when people started dropping dead, and we would be back and know what to expect. Someone from overseas was commenting on how screwed up a country is where police can act like this. Someone else was sharing their phone with people who needed to make calls or check the internet. We made room for people to sit who needed it most. My favourite two chants of the day originated here, kettled on the bridge alongside a thousand+ other people with a seed of hope where by all calculation there should have been no hope. The first was a take on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine chorus to the lyrics of “We all live in a fascist regime, a fascist regime, a fascist regime. We all live in a fascist regime, a fascist regime, a fascist regime” and the other was Monty Python's “Always look on the bright siiiide of life! Dee do, dee do dee do deee do. Always look on the bright siiiide of life! Dee do, dee do dee do deee do” - I don't know how, but they made me feel warm through the cold of the night.
At something past 11, people started to be let out from the front, one by one, down between two columns of police officers. I overheard a conversation between cop and protester on the way towards this mythical but seemingly real exit, which ended with “How could you do all this to human beings?” “I didn't, it's the chiefs orders” “So you have no responsibility over your own actions?” to which there was no response. And there is no response. As I was walking down between the columns, I was stopped by a hand clutching my coat, and told to remove my hood and the mask covering the lower portion of my face. I calmly enquired “Under what law am I required to do this?” (Section 60, apparently, which is searching for offensive weapons though that was obviously not at all what they were doing) and I was then immediately set upon by a group of officers. My arms were held back and I was pushed violently to the floor and pinned down, my head pulled painfully back by my hair. I don't remember this, as it was quite a blur, but I was told afterwards by another protesters that they took pictures of everyone passing through. So much for avoiding that government database. I was then chucked out on the street, and I staggered over to the wall where I stood for a moment, before the realisation of what had just happened – not just the last assault, but the whole day, not just to me, but everyone around me – hit me. And it hit me hard. It forced its way out of my eyes, tears streaming down my face. My lungs couldn't cope and panted for air that just wouldn't come. My limbs went numb and my eyes wouldn't open. I cried, and screamed, and felt like the last pretence of a fair society had been ripped away from my desperate grasp. I know that most people worst off because of this system of enforced inequality don't tend to have the privilege of these pretences; that people of colour, previous generations of the working class, women, people who refuse to be mis-gendered or submit to heteronormativity, people from countries physically or economically occupied by Empire, people with disabilities, people the whole world over who manage to put some thought into their position and the hegemony of the system above it, whether by choice or not, knew this or at least knew that something goddamn serious was wrong. I'm not sure what was more painful, this or the cognitive dissonance leading up to it. Whatever. I cried. For what felt like forever. A group of police came over, including a police medic, and when I could not coherently articulate what had happened (How could I?) they declared “There's nothing wrong with him. He's just being a dick” ignoring someone (I have no idea who) saying “He's in shock, we need to get him to an ambulance” with a “That's not helpful, go away”, took me down to the end of the bridge and threw me back down against the floor. Curled up, panting for something more than just air, crying out something more than just tears, shivering with something far beyond cold, confused and alone, feeling the anger and trauma from having been violated. Lightweight, right? .. It was the whole day finally revealing its culmination of effects on me all at once. I couldn't have known.
Another (and admittedly kinder) police medic had come over to tell me to move on, but when I managed to explain through choked words what had most recently happened he tried to check me for injuries, but I couldn't let him touch me. I couldn't tell him my name. I couldn't take down my mask again. I screamed “No!” “Don't touch me!” and (rather unfairly, but still accurately) “You did this!” to whatever platitudes he gave, and desperately tried to will him away in my head. I heard another voice, who's owner introduced themself as a press photographer (who had been injured themselves, and who's equipment had been destroyed by the police (I heard a lot of first-hand accounts of photographers not from the big state/corporate media organisations being targeted)), and they offered to take me away from the police, an offer which I took. Against my protestations, they took me to the hospital nearby to get checked out, as my head had hit the floor pretty hard at least once. On the way a fast moving high-vis jacked caused me to jump to the side and almost fall over in fear, my mind interpreting it as a police officer. Initially I couldn't even answer my name at the hospital, but they (very nicely) checked me anyway and said there was nothing visibly wrong but to get someone to take me back if I blacked out.
It was about 1am when I left the hospital, and the last protesters were leaving the bridge. They had been kettled in Parliament Square and on the bridge near it for over 8 hours, again. I had missed my coach home by about 7 hours and the last train by 1, so had to stay at a friend's place in London. As nice as their house was, I'm just glad to be back now, and sorting through these thoughts as I type. Reading news reports, and swearing at the majority of coverage being given to a 'royal' car being covered in a bit of paint and a window being broken more than the thousands of people being trapped, attacked, and seriously injured by rampaging police officers answering to a goddamn fascist state. This is still probably missing a lot, and I'm probably not writing very well, the tone changes completely every so often, and I haven't read into the events at all beyond the surface and what springs to mind, so there's a lack of context and useful politics in this text. And I suppose an experienced protester could say it was all foreseeable and not actually 'that bad' or that it was pointless, but this meant something to me, and hopefully writing this has been useful for me and whoever I show this to, in some way. I am glad I was there, that I stayed with everyone till the end, and I have no regrets.
I want to say “What's next?” but right now, I'm just struggling with “What”.