October 15, as I discussed in an earlier article, was a global day of action, with events taking place in 951 cities in 82 countries, inspired by the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the mass mobilization of citizens in Greece, and the indignados in Spain, which has taken off in America in recent months through “Occupy Wall Street.”
In London, the plan was to occupy Paternoster Square, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the London Stock Exchange is situated, but from the moment I approached St. Paul’s yesterday afternoon (at about 2.30 pm, cycling from London Bridge), it was clear that a clampdown was in place — with police vans everywhere, and lines of police blocking all the entrances to Paternoster Square, where notices had been posted, stating, “Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter the premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.”
When I finally found the crowd — in front of St. Paul’s and spilling onto Ludgate Hill — I was delighted to see that thousands of people had turned up, but bitterly disappointed that the police had sealed off those closest to St. Paul’s from everyone who arrived afterwards, and had shifted the focus of the event from the protestors to the police, and fears and doubts about what they would do.
The intention was obvious. Under directions from the Home Office and 10 Downing Street, presumably, the police were planning to prevent the “Occupy” movement’s London offshoot from staging an effective occupation — limiting its numbers so that the protestors couldn’t put down effective roots, and so that, at some point, they could be removed by force if they failed to leave voluntarily.
The result was described by the police as “containment” to “prevent breach of the peace” — not strictly “kettling,” as, for the most part, those inside the cordon were allowed to leave, but no new protestors were allowed in. Even so, the treatment of those in the cordon was not always friendly, as was reported by Rachel Mariner, one of the protestors, who wrote on her blog:
When I tried to leave St. Paul’s Square, though, to find a bathroom, actually, I couldn’t. My friend was allowed out of the Square by the police, but I was not. I was told to stand in a line, single file, to beg the police, after handing over my name and address, to be allowed to leave … My friend waited on one side of the police barricades as I lined up to be permitted to walk down a street that my tax money had paid for. We are in a police state. The police are crushing people choosing peaceable assembly. This situation is unacceptable. I didn’t get arrested and I still found it hard and kind of awful to be detained against my will and to be penalized by the state for saying what I think.
She was not the only critic of the police presence and the tactics used. I left after a few hours, but, as night fell, those reporting from St. Paul’s were shocked by the police behaviour. Student activist Aaron Peters, who tweeted prolifically from St. Paul’s, watched as the police put pressure on the protestors at about 7 pm. “Police currently bleeding inner kettle and squeezing it,” he wrote, adding, “2 concentric lines of TSG [Territorial Support Group] after line of City of London police,” and noting, “Something has come from the top today at the Home Office — real escalation in policing at #occupylsx — desire to nip things in the bud. Occupations really not going to work in UK. Basis of Met policing is, if it’s static, kettle it and/or hit it.” Filmmaker Dylan Etherington also noted, “Guilty until proven innocent. We’ve all been detained to ‘prevent a breach of the peace.’”
Around 8.30, the police assaulted the protesters again, this time on the steps of St. Paul’s. Mark Townsend of the Observer wrote, “Kicking off big time on steps. Extra police just stormed in, women pushed over, people trampled on. No need.” Rosa Wild, an activist, also noted the police had been “pushing my friend flat on her face, into a samba drum; ripping off a girl’s hijab and pushing her down the steps of St. Paul’s.”
Reflecting on this, Aaron Peters noted that the protestors were “doing nothing,” but “they are learning fast that [the] Met don’t care for pacifism.” He added, “If you think for one second liberty is safe in the hands of these people you are utterly misguided. Tonight I saw post-riot policing re: public assembly and peaceful protest [but] somehow they have gotten far worse. You understand that this is being permitted in 951 cities worldwide — EXCEPT London.” Guy Aitchison, another activist, also stated, “The lesson of #occupyLSX is that even if you protest in a peaceful, submissive way the British state will shut you down.”
That was not quite true, it seems, because, after these assaults, the police eventually decided to allow the remaining protestors to stay the night, and, at the time of writing, a grand total of 73 tents had been set up (which is impressive), music was playing, and the original plan for an occupation was going ahead — albeit 12 hours late.
We’ll see what daylight brings in terms of the Met’s response, but today was not a great day for genuine peaceful policing, and nor was it a triumph for protest in Britain as a whole, with far fewer protestors in London than in many other major cities. And that’s disappointing, of course, because it’s not as though we have principled bankers and a responsible government. But then apathy, sadly, remains possibly the biggest enemy of all.