Comment: Protesting students should ignore the baton round scare story

If students are afraid that they're going to be shot at by police, they may reconsider attending the protest at all.

By Tony Hudson

Oh dear. The police have been authorised to use baton rounds in the student demonstration tomorrow. This means they're going to be looking for an excuse to fire into the crowd in order to discourage protest, right? Actually, that's not the case. In fact, those promoting this narrative may be doing damage to their own cause. If students are afraid that they're going to be shot at by police, they may reconsider attending the protest at all.

In reaction to the announcement that baton rounds had been pre-authorised, the news media leapt into action. Several news sources focused on the baton rounds for the main angle of their reports.

 Unsurprisingly, a brief search on Twitter brings up a vast array of complaints at this development. @MarkOneinFour says that "I can't say that I think the use of baton rounds sounds like a brilliant idea. Scaring people into staying at home not the same as policing". @PollySamson warns "Students – protest and you could be maimed for life. What an appalling message", and @JonDMack says "@metpoliceuk now want to shoot students with baton rounds, but didn't want to shoot rioters in August? Eh??"

Those expressing outrage at the prospect of baton rounds being used may be unwittingly doing their part in discouraging the protest. While the angst is understandable, especially considering the kettling deployed by the police during last year's student protests, the chances of them actually being used are very slim.

Speaking before the home affairs committee on Tuesday, home secretary Theresa May confirmed that while the police had the option to use baton rounds, they had "no plans" to do so. Liberal Democrat home affairs backbench spokesperson Tom Brake also stated that high ranking officers he had spoken to expressed "no desire" to use such extreme methods of crowd control.

The argument that a student protest about fees is regarded is more dangerous than the August riots falls flat in the face of evidence. When the baton rounds became the focus of the media's reporting, the Metropolitan police quickly issued a statement to put the issue into context. This made clear that baton rounds are only to be used "in extreme circumstances". It pointed out "the Metropolitan Police Service had authority to use baton rounds during the disorder this summer but did not do so." 

The fact that the summer riots did not qualify as "extreme circumstances" should be a relief for any would-be protesters. Those who are tweeting about the threat of police opening fire on students could be doing what they are accusing the police of doing: scaring people away from joining the protest.

It is highly unlikely that the protesting students are in danger. Yes, there is always the possibility that there will be instigators in the crowd that are only there in an attempt to cause trouble and disruption. This is a danger in all large gatherings. However, if the police are able to resist using baton rounds against rioters and arsonists then surely a few rowdy protesters will not push them over the edge.

The police are not cartoon bad guys looking for any excuse to use these measures. The chances of them actually being used are nowhere near as great as some would lead you to believe.

Those complaining that the police want to use these tactics against unarmed students are in danger of hurting their own cause. The right to protest is vital for the health of a democracy. Anyone should be able to protest peacefully without fear. However, if large enough numbers fear that they will be fired upon simply by standing up for something they believe in, they will surely be less likely to show up. That would be the biggest shame of all.

Tony Hudson tweets at @thudson13

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