On November 10th 2010, the Tory HQ at Millbank was left virtually unprotected by police, despite a passing march by thousands of students angry over government plans to massively raise tuition fees.
Most readers will no doubt know that as a result, a mass occupation and serious damage took place that afternoon. Whether the lack of police was a plan or a cock-up, it led to later student marches being met with a series of police traps, mass kettles, extreme provocation and violence, and severe injuries, in what appeared to be large scale indiscriminate extra-judicial punishment against any students daring to raise their democratic voices. This was backed up with a mainstream media campaign of lies and demonisation. (Links to my reports at the time N24/1, N24/2, N24/3, N30/1, N30/2).
Four years on, a similar scenario unfolded yesterday afternoon over hours rather than weeks – the inexplicably hands-off policing at Parliament Square and the new Tory HQ in Matthew Parker Street turned later into arbitrary violence and arrests as riot police chased, attacked and dispersed a large breakaway group of students around Westminster and Victoria.
The protest began in Malet Street, where, despite the National Union of Students officially pulling out due to “safety concerns”, several thousand student activists still gathered for the march to Parliament which was co-organised and now promoted by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
There were Forward Intelligence Officers as well as many ‘Police Liaison Officers’ (who also feedback intelligence), among the crowd, and given that there were dozens of ‘Blac Bloc’ overtly carrying a large banner that read “Millbank Everything”, it would take a high degree of stupidity, or some ulterior motive, for police commanders not to protect the new Tory HQ if nowhere else.
The main march was largely uneventful apart from a couple of stops at anti-capitalist targets such as Topshop and Starbucks, entrances briefly blocked by students chanting “Pay Your Taxes”.
Given the ridiculous fencing around Parliament Square (which was guarded by a hundred or more police on the recent Million Mask March), it was odd that fewer than a dozen officers were deployed there yesterday. And when the march arrived at the Square, those officers first looked on as people climbed over the double barriers, and then they briefly fought some masked protesters who were staring to dismantle the inner fences.
Meanwhile, behind the scuffling cops, other students easily pulled down the fences, and soon hundreds streamed on to the square, re-enacting the occupation that took place last time students challenged Boris’s democracy-bashing enclosure of the publicly-funded privately-owned grass of Parliament Square. The handful of police withdrew, one of them muttering “this was a fuck-up”.
And while more students ensured the double-barriers were also opened up for free access, and others danced and drummed on the grass in front of Parliament, the only police presence was distant and mainly comprised of surveillance.
Many students carried on to the rally point and listened to various speakers, but several hundred formed the breakaway group around the Square, who after a while decided to move off towards Victoria Street.
As I ran ahead to the Tory HQ, their obvious target, I was surprised to find fewer than a dozen police there, who seemed oblivious to the impending crowd of hundreds of angry activists. Despite the students’ anger and their numerical advantage there was actually only one half-hearted attempt to breach the thin blue line when a handful of students ran forward pushing a wheelie bin. As police raised batons and tried to grab the rammers, two people were arrested.
There were no serious attempts at de-arrest and the crowd moved on rather aimlessly into Green Park, and then in a circle via Parliament Square, to the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills, where again, just a handful of officers stood between the crowd and the entrance, with some mild pushing and noisy chants, and two paint bombs made from sucked and refilled eggs.
It was here though, that things began to change as first TSG officers moved in pushing people aggressively, and then vans of police in full riot gear turned up.
The students quickly moved on up Victoria Street away from the police, and then there was a stand-off as dozens of TSG officers rushed to guard a Starbucks outlet which then became the target of another couple of paint-bombs.
It all started to get quite messy as police tactics seemed to turn to aggression, random lines across the road, and then some running chases. During one of these, I was pushed from behind, Tomlinson style, without warning, despite doing nothing other than photographing all afternoon, and I saw one running protester have his legs kicked out from under him by a thug in uniform. Unsurprisingly, some further scuffles ensued, and there were some seemingly arbitrary arrests.
As more TSG started chasing groups of students anxious to avoid violence, kettling, or arrest, the march dispersed widely.
From the ludicrously unprepared policing of earlier afternoon, to the widespread intimidation and violence of later, took just 90 minutes resulting in 11 arrests, including affray and assaulting police, as well as several injuries.
A few students and a small samba band reconvened in Parliament Square, but when, after around 20 minutes, six riot vans turned up, people dispersed quietly. Then a group of a hundred or so arrived who had ended up marching via Buckingham Palace earlier, but dozens of police lined the precious grass, and protest was safely prohibited once more.
NCAFC have claimed today that all arrestees were later released without a single charge, but the Met haven’t confirmed this yet, and some may have been bailed of course.
Quite how long the GLA intend to keep up the eyesore of fences around our “national heritage” site is anyone’s guess, but they face their next challenge tomorrow when ‘Occupy’ are planning another weekend of events in the Square starting 6pm.