As more than a thousand students and supporters marched through London yesterday, a massive police mobilisation shadowed and chased them without resorting to violence. As a result, the march remained fluid and peaceful. It would make sense that the next step is to stop wasting public money and deploy few or no police in future.
Last Thursday, as students assembled in Malet Street, there was an eerie absence of police. It wasn’t until students had circled the campus that suddenly a large number of police arrived, in what was obviously a pre-prepared and choreographed ambush, later degenerating into scuffles and the mass arrest of both protestors and passers-by (including at least one journalist).
So yesterday, at the start of the national student #copsoffcampus protest in Malet Street, with news spreading that around 16 vans of riot police as well as crowd control horses were assembled nearby at Holborn, the lack of police was not necessarily a welcome sign.
From 2pm, the crowd gradually grew, a samba band played, various speakers addressed the students, and the socialists gathered email addresses and sold newspapers at their trestle tables. Green Assembly member Jenny Jones watched from the ULU steps, as numbers rose to way over a thousand.
While half a dozen clown army recruits played silly games, other people chanted “Cops Off Campus”, and “Who killed Mark Duggan?”
In the sunshine, as the samba band led the march off at 2.30, spirits were high. Near the front of the march were the ‘book bloc’ with their home-made shields (replacements for those nicked by police last week).
Like last week, the crowd made their way past the main Senate House entrance to the gates at the rear, which were locked. This time, there were no cops there, and as some students set fire to copies of the University injunctions banning protest, some forced the gate open and people flooded into the area at the rear of the Senate.
By now, I’d estimate numbers to have swelled to about 2000, the peak for the afternoon, but after a walk around behind Senate House, most of the crowd headed up the road past SOAS and through into the campus area behind Birkbeck College.
Filling the area, some people made their way within the campus back towards the Senate, and in the small square there a bin was set alight and a group of masked people grabbed another bin and used it as a makeshift battering ram on the main rear door of the Senate building. They attracted a scrum of press, and of course this formed the main image of the afternoon in the mainstream reports later.
What wasn’t reported was that several students shouted at them to stop, asking if these images were what they wanted to emerge from the protest, and the rest of the student crowd moved away back into the area near SOAS. The people doing the damage called out for help, saying they’d nearly managed to smash through the huge doors, but by then they were only heard by the press as everyone else had left, so they gave up, leaving a small pile of broken glass behind them.
Around 3.30 the idea began to spread to connect struggles and to take a walk down to the High Court where the Mark Duggan inquest had just adjourned for the jury to decide its verdict. During the course of this inquest it has become clear that police have been far from transparent and honest, and Mark’s aunt, Carole Duggan has recently addressed the students and thanked them for their support, and has also officially asked them to join the planned vigil at Tottenham police station at 7pm on the night the jury verdict is announced.
So, around 1000 set off down Holborn towards the court, while police vans manoeuvred nearby through the back streets. Finally, the policing became overt and sirening vans started to follow the crowd. Outside the High Court, people took over the road, stopping all traffic, and several police vans arrived. A few students taunted the police, and one even climbed onto the front of the foremost van.
Then to avoid a possible kettle, a large section of the crowd set off west towards the Strand, while others remained at the court, where unexpectedly the police withdrew.
Gradually the road cleared and traffic resumed, with a few students holding banners in a continued vigil on the pavement.
The larger group meanwhile headed for Downing Street, Parliament Square, and Scotland Yard.
I was someway behind them by then, and witnessed ridiculous numbers of police vans, all blue-lighty and noisy, tearing round the busy streets causing traffic havoc for no apparent reason. Parliament Square looked like a modern version of a Keystone cop comedy, with some vans going the wrong way round, others going the right way, and at the start of Birdcage Walk there was a jam caused by police trying to get passed each other in opposite directions amongst the by now stationary traffic.
Catching up with the tail of the protest near Scotland Yard, I found the Met HQ under siege with riot cops facing every which way and creating random road blocks, while the students themselves were off approaching Victoria.
I found a FIT (forward intelligence team) unit changing into full riot gear down one street, another fifteen police vans full of cops sitting along Petty France, and still the sound of sirens filled the air as other vans charged round the area.
The only effect of all this action, possibly intentional, was that the students occasionally split off in different directions, and there seemed to be quite a number of people on phones and stopping each other on the street to ask which way the main group had gone.
Still, a crowd of a few hundred managed to keep together and followed by a few vans and finally some cops walking alongside, they got on to Piccadilly, heading east and up Shaftesbury Avenue, and by around 5.45 they were back at ULU, to cheers from a large group of students that had returned or remained there during the afternoon.
In many countries in the global South hemisphere, police have all but vanished, and apart from where there are already existing war zones, contrary to popular myth and common perception, in these areas crime and violence decline.
Last week, police interfaced with protestors both in the Senate on Wednesday night and on the streets on Thursday, resulting in violence and arrests. Yesterday, huge numbers of police chased students around London but didn’t actually engage with them in any way, and violence and arrests were reportedly zero.
Unfortunately, the reason for the change in modus was probably embarrassment after a lot of bad press last week, rather than a sensible analysis of bad and repressive policing.
For the students, yesterday was a huge victory. They came out in huge numbers to challenge the previous week’s repression, showing they were unafraid in the face of police violence and capable of mobilising and joining together with other campaigns in unity. Many of last week’s arrestees also refused to be intimidated by draconian bail conditions and marched openly with their comrades.
There is another protest planned 22nd January and in the meantime, many of yesterday’s protestors will join the Duggan family at Tottenham police station.