— Originally written on 1st April 2009 —
On April Fools Day, collective anger at the current state of economic, ecological and political affairs took around five thousand Londoners to the streets. The marches set off before noon, compliantly winding up and down streets as directed by hundreds of police officers. Upon reaching Bank, police hurriedly enclosed the four marches at both ends. It became apparent that the police were seeking to hold off the four protests from converging as planned. However, under growing crowd pressure, the lines broke and people poured into the Bank area.
Police instead moved to contain everyone within the junction, proceeding to block off every one of the eight street entrances with at least two barricades: one keeping the protesters in, and one keeping would-be protesters out. Then the ugly scenes involving a few troublemakers at the RBS building (and at countless more anticipative photographers) occurred. It seems ludicrous, if not downright suspicious, that the one building in the area to remain unboarded during ‘anti-capitalist’ protests was the one with an RBS sign above the door, especially given the recent public vitriol for its former CEO.
Though the majority of the crowd had little idea of what was happening in this isolated side street, the coalition police forces scrambled hundreds more officers in full riot gear, to reinforce the barricades. A several-hour-long stalemate ensued where the police refused passage to anyone for any reason. The majority of protesters were not seeking confrontation, so got settled and enjoyed the sunshine with music and conversation. The impassive masked uniforms contrasted almost laughably with protesters seated along the steps of the Royal Exchange, reading the papers and chatting.
The tactic the police were using is commonly called ‘kettling’ – keeping crowds contained indefinitely, presumably until they fizzle out. Realistically, entirely rational individuals become frustrated at being unofficially detained. Whilst it works to keep undesirable elements within a specified area, it also distresses the crowd at large. Critics question how exactly the kettle’s steam is to be released, other than in a burst, conveniently justifying a heavy-handed reaction.
Later during some police manoeuvring, some of the crowd (myself included) slipped out through an unmanned alley. Shortly that too was closed off, and the unlucky remainder faced real confrontation as the police brought in horses, dogs and brute force to dissipate the stragglers at dusk. Everyone was identified and photographed on departure, regardless of their conduct.
On a personal level, it was a successful day; however, wider issues concern me. Firstly, experiencing police treatment was very unpleasant. Whilst I sympathise, given the security nightmare we were causing, there is something deeply illogical about the premise of ‘kettling’. Surrounding a group with potential troublemakers works immediately to prevent criminal damage; however, this situation cannot be perpetuated indefinitely. At some point the circumstances will have to change, whether through letting protesters leave, or by moving in to break up the crowd peacefully. Neither of these seemed to be considered as options.
Secondly, there is only so long ordinary people will acquiesce to being inexplicably impeded before becoming frustrated and thus it doesn’t work in the police’s stated interest of security. Another protester astutely observed that these were obviously psychological tactics, effectively punishing them precisely for having the audacity to protest. Further, by being detained, many hundreds were prevented from joining the other protests around the capital that afternoon, including the Stop the War Coalition march, and the University of East London’s alternative summit.
Thirdly, media coverage was unsurprisingly inadequate. There were huge numbers of photographers, TV crews, and journalists present, which is in itself positive in facilitating awareness and recording proceedings. However it also galvanised the attention-seeking violent minority. Expectedly headlines went to their newsworthy scuffles, and whilst interviews have included the Met Police, and even Russell Brand, there has been little or no attempt to give voice also to any of the thousands of genuine protesters.
One notable positive evolution though, is the utility of technology for organisation. The micro-blogging site Twitter had a significant role to play in informing protesters of ongoing events in real time, ensuring that some avoided the police ‘kettles’. Moreover, its ease of use via mobile phones enabled the dissemination of genuine protesters’ experiences on the ground. After arriving home safely, Twitter was the outlet by which I could keep track of the ongoing policing debacle into the night, namely riot police charging the peaceful Climate Camp, assaulting non-violent protesters as they chanted ‘this is not a riot’.
Institutional gripes aside, we are left with the question of what the day’s events achieved. The multiple protests did send out a mixed message, but arguably that was the point. For years people have been making themselves heard at demos, rallies and marches for their respective causes, and I think broadly speaking their arguments are relatively common knowledge. The point here was to highlight the structural deficiencies that allow for ALL these injustices to occur. The flaws in our system of government that condition financial irresponsibility do the same for ecological disaster and insidious warfare. In short: the reason these issues can be amalgamated is that the ‘enemy’ in question is one and the same.
Overall though it is important that images of thousands of people on the streets should not be underestimated. Time and time again over recent years we have been subjected to erosion of our civil liberties, as we shift unobtrusively from a libertarian state to an authoritarian one. Perhaps the most important thing to have emerged will be that we, the general public, also have the capacity to exercise our power; in numbers, in voice, and in solidarity. For one day, at least, the remote and otherwise reserved City became ours.