The protestors suffered from a violent moral certainty. The police became robotic and brutal. But this protest should not be condemned.
By Ian Dunt
An awful lot of nonsense about the tuition fees demo is about to be emitted by an awful lot of people. Everyone has their own irritant, but for me it's that mock-sombre tone commentators adopt when they condemn protests like these. It's that 'Afghan death toll' tone, which is so false and political.
I tried getting inside the kettle from about three different streets this afternoon, but was constantly turned back. The police were very polite, but it's a good rule of thumb, as a journalist, to go precisely where coppers tell you not to go. I eventually managed to blag it, flashing my lobby card and saying 'parliamentary lobby correspondent' confidently. It really doesn't matter what ID you have at these things. Most of the police don't recognise it. But everyone recognises a confident tone and an assuming manner.
There was trouble within seconds. A gang of young men, dressed in black with balaclavas, were throwing rocks at the windows of the Treasury. With a staggering amount of bravery a middle-aged man with a Liberal Democrat ribbon stepped in front of them. I started taking photos. They shouted at him to get out the way. He refused. He was plainly scared, but his resolution didn't falter. As they got closer, I suddenly thought they might beat him up and, taking myself rather by surprise, I stepped forward. I was literally feeling proud of myself as I got involved, which, as anyone can tell you, is evidence of extraordinary stupidity. If you're about to get into a fight with a group of people who could destroy you individually it's best to keep your mind on the matter at hand. It wasn't necessary. A young girl and two of her friends stood in the way instead, while other demonstrators pulled the man away for his own safety. The group of youths shouted at them, argued with them, and eventually behaved threateningly. Nothing moved these three brave young people.
Interestingly, the violent youths all followed the orders of a couple of middle aged 'elders', whose argument with the pacifists suggested they were highly literate and well-read. The pacifists were eventually pulled away and the youths started throwing rocks at the window again. One of them bounced off and hit me in the chest. The girl asked if I was OK and, when she found out I was journalist, asked me to report that most protestors aren't like those guys. That happens to be both true and false, but I'll report it for you here anyway. A guy to my right begged me to report her saying that, and complained that the press just paid attention to the violence. "That's what makes the most compelling copy," I said honestly, and probably also because I felt I should defend my profession. The brave young girl and her two friends looked at me with disappointment and disgust and walked away.
A couple of minutes later, as the sun finally set, a stream of people seemed to be leaving through the right hand side of the Whitehall exit. People rushed that way until the police suddenly closed that line and started forcing everyone back. It caused chaos. Crowds gathered, either to see or to try or get out. Suddenly I was in a crush with no way out.
It was one of the standard police screw-ups that comes from kettling. Suddenly a group of around 20 police were caught between two sets of protestors. Grossly outnumbered and plainly afraid, they started lashing out. I caught one baton on the shoulder. Demonstrators continued to swarm around them, shouting: 'Look who's kettled now'. I had previously been safely ensconced on a traffic island, its black metal gating protecting me from the fighting but allowing me close enough to take pictures. In the panic that followed the police attack, I was forced into the middle of the street, between angry protestors and angry police. Not a good place.
It's like a conveyer belt. The people at the back keep pushing forward to challenge the police and the people at the front keep peeling away to escape a baton to the face. So you're slowly pushed towards this living wall of battery. The mad ones stand their ground and fight - that's where you get your dramatic front page photos. The more cowardly scramble away as they come under a shower of blows. I was firmly in the latter category.
All the while a constant rain of missiles - metal, rock, bottles, wood, - is thrown at the police. Plenty of reliable bloggers and journalists noted acts of police brutality today. I've been to enough protests to believe them, but it's not what I saw. I saw proportionate policing. I saw scared men lashing out with too much force, but I won't judge the whole police force for it any more than I will the student movement for those boys throwing rocks at the Treasury. The entire time I was there, I saw a reasonable police reaction to a situation they were simply not in control of. Since I have come home I have seen the Met press release saying that the protest proved why kettling is necessary. Nonsense. Kettling was precisely what they got wrong today.
Eventually the standoff in Whitehall calmed down. A scuffle broke out to the left of the street, as demonstrators used a grating as a shield while they threw rocks at a police surveillance camera. Then the attack on the Treasury began again, but this time with hundreds around it. Inside, scared silhouettes held something up against the window to prevent it shattering. They pushed objects - cupboards I suppose - against the window to protect themselves. They must have been terrified. Suddenly a charge of police battered their way in to the crowd to defend the building. Things went mad for a few moments, groups of seemingly rogue police running around beating anyone they could see. I was chased past the Churchill statue, straight into an incoming group of police, all waiving their batons. Your first instinct is to jump on the floor and curl up in the foetal position or, at best, stand to the side with your hands up. I just ran and eventually I turned around and there was nothing behind me. I wanted tea and warmth badly, so I crossed the square and tried flashing my card at a police line. Miraculously, it worked. Breathing a sigh of relief, I walked down Embankment and caught the Tube home. As I type this, the police are kettling protestors on Westminster Bridge.
Yes, there was a great deal of hostility between violent and non-violent protestors, but the 'violent minority' rhetoric is misleading. Active participants are always a minority. But the extraordinary anger belonged to everyone and by the end of the day there was little criticism of violence against property.
The chorus of criticism will now begin, and that standard mantra of a violent minority will become the dominant narrative. If you adopt that view you have fundamentally misunderstood what has happened today. Their anger is widespread, real and legitimate.
The kettle radicalises them. For the Met to pretend today proved its legitimate use is a spectacular folly. It is a democratic disgrace and it cements an 'us vs. them' mentality in young people which they will not easily forget. It should be restricted to very specific events, not become the default position of the police every time a march begins too early or veers slightly off the agreed route.
The spending cuts radicalise them. They know there is no mandate here. The Tories put spending cuts front and centre of their campaign and they didn't win. They are using the financial crisis to radically redraw the nature of Britain, to push through an extremist free market dogma. This isn't to do with the deficit. This is a redrawing of Britain's political and economic landscape. The media tends to atomise issues, to pretend they have thick walls between them. Today wasn't just about tuition fees. It was about a group of young people realising that the country is being rewritten in the name of the rich.
The Liberal Democrat U-turn has radicalised them. They tried the parliamentary route. They voted for the Lib Dems on the basis of fees and it achieved nothing. No wonder they're not interested in having Labour do the same thing to them.
The media consistently makes the same mistake analysing protest movements. Protests are not just about the issue at hand. They are about the future. They rarely stop what they are targeting, even in the case of the poll tax where, in my opinion, the role of the demonstrations was overstated. Protests exhibit the strength of opposition. They raise the stakes. They make government nervous. You don't protest for the present, you protest to frame the narrative of the future. A firm, robust street presence will make the government think twice about some of the more radical ideas bouncing around Cabinet.
I don't like it when people smash windows. I don't like seeing angry youths drowning in a dangerous and violent moral certainty. I don't like watching a demo turn into a mob. But their anger is legitimate. It is a justified reaction to the world they are being presented with. I will not condemn it.
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