London Embuggerance: You Have the Kettle, Make Us Some Tea

“We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets.” David Cameron, Oxford, 1986

I’ll tell you how it was. For me, at least. That is all I can reliably say.
This will be long and I’m not able to make it much fun, it’s mostly random thoughts in rough chronology.

A summary:
*We were kettled for at least 8 hours with no toilet access, no water, and no way to keep warm.
*We were charged by police horses on at least two separate occasions.
*There was crowd violence.
*There was police violence.
*Things were smashed. 90% of the smashing occurred after containment was started.
*Out of 20000 protesters, only 17 initial arrests.
*No instructions were given, nor any indication of when we would be able to leave.
*I have heard comments from police officers and the media that we were free to leave at any point, if we only followed instructions. This is absolutely false. For most, there was no opportunity to leave.
*We were held on Westminster Bridge for almost two hours. The media apparently did not report this.
*The media reporting is skewed and includes some outright falsehoods. You know that, though.
*Headlines are all about the royal incident. That was absurd, but please ignore it. It is a distraction.
*We lost the vote. But you know that too.

We had gone to the local protest in Birmingham on Wednesday, which was small and felt more like a cheery xmas parade, but it was good to be there. It was clear that people were angry but also optimistic, not a defeatist anger. That’s the right ground-state I think.
Why Birmingham? I’m not a student anymore, obvs. but this is not confined to them. Technically I’m a Warwick groupie but Brum is where I go for fun, and they had a coach down for £5 (organised by Education Activist Network, and funded by trade union members’ donations.) Thanks to them for getting it sorted out.
I have many reasons for feeling moved to protest. You probably can guess at least some of them.
So I get up at half 5, out by half 6 to Hampton-in-Arden (cheap, free parking, pleasant drive), train to New Street, coach at half8 ish. While we’re waiting, man goes past and gives a thumbs-up. I went ‘Buh?’ I’ afraid… apologies, cheerful man, I was just a bit out of it due to morningness.
On the way down there was a lad behind me having officially *the* best conversation I’ve ever overheard on a bus (I have the authority to decree such things, of course)- first he’s on about how he used to think Trotsky was alright but he did advocate revolution after all, and you can’t have that. Then he starts enthusing about Gogol Bordello. Best Subject Progression, Ever.
OK. I have suitably disgusted sign and 6 layers of warmth (extra undies, fleece jumper, 2xsocks, wool coat, ushanka). I have a reading book and a language book, tunes, chicken samosas and a pomegranate. Sketchbook, camera, drawing utensils. I will not be bored.

Get to London about 12 when the march is due to start. As I’m on my own, I try to keep in sight of people who’ll be on the coach back (who were very good for looking out for me btw. although they did not have to). Every time I go to London I have no trouble finding things or getting around, but between visits that knowledge vanishes, so I do not want to get separated. Also you know I don’t have a phone, which admittedly would be useful.
20,000 people are involved.
The march is huge and noisy but sedate and seems cheerful. I don’t notice the police presence until we get to… ooh, a big road, and we are shoved- quite hard, enough to knock you over if you’re wrongfooted- in one direction. Only to face up against a line of more police all gesturing, ‘it’s that way’. That… was the way we were going. Wherefore the shoving?

I think it was at this point we changed routes. What I heard was, they weren’t actually going to let us into Parliament Square at all, so we were going a different way- following the gingerbread man tactics of the previous protest. At one point we seemed to end up at the very front, like being stragglers except the other way round, in front of a linked line of ULU people. I don’t know if they were directing the route, seems likely. We met up with a great many more who were waiting at Trafalgar Sq- after some Running!- then it was back on. Ended up in Parliament Sq probably around 1 (I’m not certain, generous in allowing an hour for the march, but I didn’t think to check the time even though I was right in front of a big clock; the proverbial big clock, even.)
I didn’t see one misspelled sign, apart from mine (but that was on purpose). Some I liked: “Hey Nick Clegg, I found your knife- it’s in my back’ and “Condem- protecting dicks whilst the rest of us get screwed.” “Hi, my name’s Nick Clegg and I promise not to raise tuition fees LOL jk.”
At this point the action consisted of standing about, motions with signs, chanting- nothing specifically agressive, mostly about the cuts, with some anticapitalist slogans. It still felt positive and upbeat. It was clear how many police would be involved, though. At this point we were confined to Great George St. with riot police and barriers all the way down in front of Parliament, and lightweight metal fences keeping us out of the rest of the square. These went down very quickly, and seemed to be a bit of an afterthought. They would not have seriously contained anyone; you could just about shove one over with a rolled-up newspaper. This gave access to the whole square, grass and all, and put us right up against the line of police.

I was about 3 rows back (continually shifting, so sometimes closer, sometimes further). Now, the crowd had become very dense, and I’m only 5’3″ in boots so my view was not comprehensive. I can only tell you what I did see for certain, and what my impressions were- and of course, actions are predicated upon impressions. I cannot dismiss things which I didn’t see, as I do not know- I know that some things being reported are not true, or exaggerated. La, disclaimers.
The crowd was so close together you could not, say, comfortably get a camera out or easily raise/lower your arms. It was not especiall uncomfortable- more than any other unusually close crowd- more like being at a lively gig, but if there was a surge, you could not have stood against it.
It was clear that there was some tolchoking and pushing from the police side. I did not see what that was in response to- proportional or otherwise- although there was a move to lift the barriers and some of the metal fences from earlier were picked up and used as wedges. (I did not see any of these used as missiles, rather than shields or to push through, but could only see the ones directly in front and to the side of me.) Every so often there was a missile thrown, usually a stick or plastic bottle, although there were eggs, and a glass bottle struck someone a couple of rows in front of me. The police were filming and photographing us throughout, resulting in some covered faces. There were some anti-police chants amongst the shouting, although I mostly remember ‘Your job’s next’. A couple of red signal flares- *not* ‘fireworks’- were thrown. References to Ian Tomlinson, and ‘None of you taken your numbers off your shoulders?’
The Mail reported today that they were instructed to take off their flourescent vests because they were too flammable. I don’t know if that is true. One line were always wearing the vests and I never saw any move to take them off; the ones behind, down the smaller side road and everywhere else, weren’t wearing vests at any point that I remember.
Eventually there was a call to turn round and proceed in the other direction. The crowd thinned out in the middle- a couple of people sitting on the side had picnics- but surged towards the other end, where the line of police was thinner but had been shored up with horses by the time we got there. This was coming up to 3 o’clock.
I later read that the horses had ridden through a line of school children who were attempting to prevent kettling.
The police and horses were holding a line, not advancing, and the mood did become considerably uglier with more flares and fences being passed forward. I saw a couple of injured go past. Throughout, the mood within the crowd was co-operative, with no violence towards each other (that I observed). If someone wanted to move in or out, you made room.
I did see one firework (rocket) being thrown. Someone came past from the front covered in paint bomb residue.
This was the first occasion I witnessed of property damage- a lad climbed up and smashed a window on the side of the Guildhall. Behind me, a girl responded “Why did he do that? That’s spoiling it.” A couple of the crowd called out “It’s nothing to do with that building.” It got a few cheers but did not seem to rouse anyone. Later, someone climbed up on the balcony, but all they did was go to and fro and didn’t smash anything.
At one point- I do not know the cause, I speculate that the police were advancing from the front and the crowd was either unable (or did not have room) to move back quickly enough- there was a serious crush, proper off-your-feet can’t move type situation, but it subsided before becoming dangerous. There was a slight panic when somone mistook a flare for a firework about to go off inside the crowd, but there was sufficient room by that point to back away.
It seemed like there was going to be a lull- then we were charged by the police horses.
There was scarcely any time to back away- and nowhere to move to- or assume a more defensive position. They went straight in, direct into a thick crowd, with no warning. The horses had been lined up for a good long while, not seeming about to do anything, and had come through the worst of the disruption. I really cannot understand why they went in at that point. Or where they wanted us to go- up into the air? Sink into the ground? Yes, I was pretty enraged by that. If they wanted us to disperse into the square, they could have advanced slowly giving a clear direction. It seemed out of proportion, illogical and calculated to cause more upset than it would have solved. Although there was violence coming from the crowd, even towards the front it was still composed of mostly non-aggressive protesters.

After they backed off, we could move back into the square and it seemed then that the actual protesting was over. A few lads went past warning ‘They’re trying to kettle you!’ to those further back (in the direction of Parliament) but there was suddenly so much more open space, it seemed a remote threat. The plan was to wait for the result of the vote- meant to be at 5- then move to Embankment and meet the coach, back in Birmingham by about 8.
It was darkening and getting colder, but as the day had been sunny it was not uncomfortable. A few bonfires were lit, not for damage but warmth, and were surrounded by people adding fuel or just enjoying the heat. Few people seemed to know how to build a fire properly, unfortunately, so without paper they soon went out. Not skilled yog-making… there are only so many damp twigs they can sustain. Plinths had been graffiti’d and several statues amended, mostly with banners or bags over the head. Up by the Treasury building, there were two smashed-up phone boxes but no broken windows. Fireworks were lit- not at the police, but in the centre of the square, as at a display. Requisite oohs and aahs followed. There had been music all day, both live (random drumming, someone with a tiny little trumpet) and recorded but it looked like somewhere had been set aside and suitable mood-setting songs were on (Killing In The Name, natürlich). There was no chanting or disruption now- drifting, people sitting in groups, dancing.
Surrounding the square were rows of riot police, one side still with the barriers in front, and all with vans backing them up. Incongruous sight.

So they were kettling us. That wasn’t entirely unexpected, it had been a threat- although it seemed remote at first (kettling having swiftly gone from last resort to standard procedure for protests)- but did make the situation less predictable. My main concern was, I’m due to leave at half 5. If I don’t make that, which seems likely, how will I get home? I had emergency money for trains but I did not want to have to use that. Moreover, I should not have to. But, I still have a book and music and a spare fleece jumper, so it’s not disastrous.
Some people set a Portakabin on fire. That was moronic, mainly because it created noxious black smoke, so thick as to completely block out the clock tower. Someone behind me commented “Don’t do that, you’re just playing into the Daily Mail’s hands.” Too bloody right.
From what I’ve read in the papers, the police were constantly under siege- in truth, most of the lines were open to us, you could go up and chat if you wanted (one corner, where the horses had been, I didn’t go back to so don’t know what it was like there.) Many did. Mostly to ask when they thought we might be let out. From what I saw, they responded pleasantly (with the exception of one who reportedly responded ‘that’s disrespectful’… you’re fecking right it is) but there was an air of ‘we don’t know what’s happening either’. That did not fill me with confidence. I don’t expect them to be superb strategists individually but if they are just *there*, waiting, with no ultimate goal, just making it up as they go along… how can that turn out well? They’d tell you “Go over there, that’s where you’ll be let out.” They didn’t say ‘soon’, granted, but you’d go ‘over there’ only to be told the same thing but with ‘there’ moved. I don’t know if that was disinformation or just a guess on their part, but once again it was not reassuring. It could have caused unnecessary aggravation.
I noticed that the stairs down to Westminster tube were not blocked off. There were barriers underground, but the steps were open and steep, an obvious hazard.
Around then we heard that the street was open because folk had managed to kettle the police. We could get a lot further than had been possible earlier, and an abandoned barrier was visible, but they’d evidently recovered because we were charged again. It was much less crowded here, but you had to step over the knee-high barrier and if you were running or looking back you could easily have gone over.
The vote was at half 5. There wasn’t a spontaneous uprising of outrage at the result (I heard from someone’s mobile, but there was someone with a megaphone nearby broadcasting it), as you might have expected. Perhaps we had anticipated it. It was crushing that we only needed 14 more against, but it’s possible the strength of feeling was what had reduced the government’s majority by such a lot.
Abstaining is an act of absolute cowardice. I wonder how many of those proudly proclaiming their spinelessness in the preceding week had shored up those who weren’t sure whether to vote ‘for’? Or undermined those who’d have gone against?
A bit later I fell over attempting to step over something and lost my group. Someone immediately helped me up. Well, I wouldn’t find them again. So I wander, look at the crowd, see what’s occurring. Getting bored now. Can’t read, it’s too dark, getting too cold to take my hands out of my armpits (where it is forever August, of course). I sit on the kerb and, randomly, a girl asks if I’m alright. I say fine, just having a rest, but I’ve lost the people I was nominally with; she says that a group from Birmingham are up on a ledge on the Treasury and maybe I know them. I don’t, but it’s a better view from there, so I get up. You are helped up when you want to climb, helped down when you want to go. The feeling of co-operation was inspiring.
We hear that the National Gallery has been occupied. I remember actually thinking I hope they don’t trash the paitings. It’s peaceful though, apparently.
This was when the window smashing began in earnest. It was to the left of us and round the corner, and didn’t seem too intense, with only a small group applauding. It got nearer though so everyone who wasn’t up for smashing filtered out when the smashers moved on to the windows next to us. There was a gap down to the lower sub-pavement level of the building, and a group arranged itself at the bottom of the wall helping people down and making sure they avoided the hole. These were total strangers, of course.
I went down to the other end of Great George St and sat by a large group waiting by the police line. There was absolutely no upset or violence here (and not even any chanting). As the Treasury-smashing continued, escalating into battering the doors down with cries of “We want all our money back!”, a group next to me started singing xmas carols. Someone got a window open and pulled out the blind- none of the windows were smashed, but could be opened so evidently they were smashproof but not locked. Odd. There were police inside, of course. I imagine most of the initial arrests were here.
This is what I think is odd. They could have quite easily sent riot police in to stop the attack, pre-emptively even as it began near the corner where there were two fronts of police, one four deep, and easily enough to take out five people. Later, when a group began smashing windows on the Guildhall, they went right in and stopped it. If I were very cynical- which I am as you know, Ted- I’d suspect they were advised to let it happen to make for better copy tomorrow. Like sending a royal vehicle right past people protesting social inequality… hmmm.
There was a big crowd cheering the smashup, but still only about a fifth of the crowd. If that; I never got to see it as a whole, of course. A great proportion were not interested. It was a peculiar atmosphere, as usually watching a thorough wrecking is accompanied by a feeling of menace; this was oddly cosy. There was no indication the smashers would turn on the rest of us. I saw one lad remonstrating with another who was preparing a block of concrete to throw; this is not what this is about, we do not support this, it’s what they want you to do. I don’t know if it had an effect, but I’ve heard there were several occurrances of this.
Sitting on the kerb again, I’m once more asked if I’m ok. Honest, fine, just resting! I put my tunes on. It’s a bit surreal. Some of the ones I’m listening to are good, loud solid to-the-barricades songs, though.
There are occasional scares that the police are advancing, and you’ll see folk start to run, but it didn’t come to anything. Then they do come in- but from the other side, to the left of me, right next to where we are. I get into a doorway with some others so we’re out of the way of the road. That won’t suffice though; they are banging on their shields and shouting MOVE. They push us down the road despite the obstacle of a large crowd in the way, who haven’t got the message yet. Brief crush. I turn down the road to the right and it becomes clear they’re blocking off George Street and surrounding the Treasury.
So I go back to sitting, on a wall this time, and peoplewatch. There’s a news camera and a talking-man, occasionally interviewing people. Someone comes up and wants to be interviewed about ‘police brutality’.
There are two non-riot beat type Met officers inside the kettle. They’re unshielded and although they stick close to the riot lines, wander about a bit. Surely if anyone wanted to attack the police for the sheer hell of it, here was an easy target? No one seemed to take the bait. I saw a couple of people go up and speak with them.
Really cold now. Feet hurt through 2 pairs of socks, hands useless even with gloves. I’ve been wearing the fleece jumper for an hour and it’s not making any difference. Someone has a guitar; I wonder how they made it through undamaged?
I go over to one of the fires (lit in a road, away from any buildings) for extra warmth. It’s tiny though and there are several people so it’s not very effective. I stay for a bit, then notice someone juggling fire over by the front corner, so go and watch. He’s very entertaining. Someone keeps time on a drum.
Round about 9, word goes around that we *might* be let out (this wasn’t an announcement, just passing conversation and everyone drifting). We line up in front of the police facing the bridge. It is peaceful. We’re tired, after all.
We start to move at something past 9. Incredibly slowly, police walking backwards, over Westminster Bridge. It’s a start. Mood is pretty jubilant now that it looks like we’re getting out.
There is the occasional pause, but it looks like we’ll get all the way over the bridge… then, 3/4 of the way across, a complete stop. No explanation. I’m about 6 from the front; I can just see the police. Still fully armed and protected.
The unexplained stop is generally thought to be taking the piss now. We can entertain ourselves- I’ve still got the music on- but feck is it boring and it’s bloody cold and the bridge is only 26 metres wide and there’s thousands of us… are they sorting out how to organise things at the end? They’ve had enough time. I wonder if they knew where they’d be letting us out from, or if it was decided ad hoc.
By this time I will admit to feeling… less than charitable towards the police. No one was ‘protesting’ anymore; no chants, signs down for those of us with sore arms. Tightly packed. Standing still. Yet we cannot go anywhere. Jump into the river? I am feeling like I would shove forward and risk a tolchok to the face if it gave me a chance of getting out. It wouldn’t, individually, but enough of us together, maybe.
What happens is a slow forward surge with shouted instructions to raise your hands as in surrender, and call “THIS IS NOT A RIOT”. This makes it absolutely clear we are not a threat, not up for violence, but do not intend to put up with further enforced containment. That’s sound. We can only get so far as there’s another police van.
We manage to get a good way forward, in sight of the end of the bridge. There’s some kind of huge helicopter overhead; it’s been with us since it got dark, foraging with a great searchlight. It gets waved at, or two fingers, depending on mood. Suspicions that it’s a news helicopter.
A few people try to get everyone to sit down, but there simply isn’t room. A few manage. Three lads next to me start singing ‘The Sound of Silence’, trying to harmonise; they get several of us joining in. Surreal. The mood shifts so quickly: fear, anger, absurdism.
Fellow next to me is on his phone to someone in the Coalition of Resistance. Word spreads that the media, even the BBC, is not covering the containment on the bridge. Someone reads from a phone ‘everyone who wanted to leave was allowed to’, which is such errant bollocks that… well, you know.
Eventually there’s a bit more movement. Van reverses. This might be it. We reach the end of the bridge, then are slowly filtered into an awkward zigzag. I’d thought I could see a few people from the Birmingham coach about 4 people over, and I’d been hoping to reach them, but the new crowd movement makes them vanish. Not ideal. I think by now it might be better to give up on finding them and try and get the train home.
We go right, sideways-ish, then are brought forward, sharp left, and finally funneled out in single file. Single file. Twenty thousand people, one-by-one. Once out, there are lines of police vans and clumps of officers, instructing us not to linger but to go left down the road. Understandable that they don’t want us to linger, but we have no chance to regroup. I’ve lost the coach. Even if it was still around by then, it was on the Embankment, back across the bridge. Train, then.

ETA: Apparently not everyone was kept on the bridge; some say only a couple of thousand. You couldn’t see much behind you so I can’t judge. I’m hearing that some were kept there until 1 in the morning. I wonder what happened to the others?

Waterloo Station is close, so I make it there- although I kno my train goes from Euston- maybe I can buy a ticket there. Inside, I am peered at by a lass with a tall, familiar-ish looking fellow; she says, are you wearing Lolita? Me: yep, but it’s not very well co-ordinated ‘cos I had to keep warm. She recognised the scallops as Baby. So the man she’s with sez, are you going to Bedford by any chance? Well, Bedworth, which is worse than Bedford. Then he asks if I’m in the improv group. Astonishing! He’s Anthony’s brother. He says it’s the best kettle he’s ever been in. Best as in least worst? No, atmosphere-wise. I can see that. They’re to Brighton though, not my direction. Friendly ticket man could only find the expensive train to Birmingham, £13 more than I had, but I could at least get a tube ticket. Four sodding quid! yipe. Cheap train better be cheap.
Tube is surprisingly unmanic. There are seats. Lots of protesters going home, of course, but that meant it was the most interaction among strangers that I’ve ever seen on the tube. Fellow next to me hears lad across the aisle say ‘Finsbury Park’ and comes out with “Big up Finsbury Park!” Amusing.
Anyway, I get to Euston just after half past 11, and the cheap train’s gone. How far can I get for £26? Northampton. Either that or stay in the station all night- I don’t imagine Euston’s more comfortable than Manchester Central, and when I slept there I’d had a full night’s rest previously. I’ll take Northampton. So I have to phone Ben and ask if he can collect me from there (somewhere he knows the way to). He is *beyond* helpful to me.
Home at 2 in the morning.

Officially the kettling began (I gather) at 3 or so, when they brought the horses in. That must have been why the crowd turned in the opposite direction, to prevent it. However, we’d been in the square from at least 1, which was the actual protest, and the police were already surrounding us so I don’t know if it was possible to leave then. We were let off the bridge at around 11-quarter past, but I was relatively near the front- it must have taken at least half an hour to let every single person out. They knew how many people were coming from out of London, and how far, and surely must appreciate that it can be incredibly difficult to arrange backup transport. Especially late at night when you don’t know the place. I suppose those are not valid considerations; we are only noisy plebs from the provinces, after all.
I wonder how many of them personally disagreed with the operation? I have a split attitude to the police at the moment. As individuals they range from pleasant to sadistic; as a force, they are ultimately there to back up the state. And if the state- or at least its leaders- are what you are there to disagree with, they are in opposition to you. I will not treat any individual police officer I meet with contempt. They too will suffer under the cuts, and I will oppose that regardless. I have had recourse to them in the past and in this capacity they were a great help. However, they are required to implement procedures that they might disagree with, and they have little recourse there- it becomes an ‘only following orders’ situation. They cannot strike nor attempt to shape governmental policy in the usual ways; they are a peculiarity in terms of society, being more akin to the Army than other essential services. Consequently I do not feel that I can trust the police force; I can absolutely condemn their policy of kettling, and consider their crowd control procedures to be incoherent and potentially disastrous. I was not there to attack them by any means but I was more than ready to oppose them, and consequently take a walloping, when they forcibly detained me. There was no valid reason for that. I am now hearing police commenters state that we could have gone at any time, that “By this stage at night in Parliament Square/Victoria Street, the protesters should never have been there and so they were effectively breaking their part of the plea.” Apart from the fact that I think you mean ‘agreement’ and not ‘plea’, ossifer, you ignore the reality that we were not permitted to leave. Or perhaps that is what they honestly were told, the reality presented to them. In that case the breakdown in procedure is shocking, and scary.
All indications are that they will continue with this approach. That is disgraceful. There will be more fatalities. It will most likely put some people off, which presumably is the goal. I would go through it again, but probably only in a warmer month. I cannot take that level of cold for so long (I am usually cold where others aren’t, and even wearing so many clothes that I could hardly get my coat on, I was becoming painfully cold). It is probably worse for others in summer though, and I imagine that could be far more dangerous.
I only have a few pictures and they are not very good, but they are on Flickr if you want ’em.

I read that the candle-lit vigil that the NUS was officially behind was ‘called off’, implication being that this was due to the disruption. My impression at the time was that it sputtered out because no one turned up. Maybe all the candles were stuck inside the kettle.
I was really pleased to see a strong trade union presence at the protests, and it is clear there is a lot of support from them. However, I don’t see it as the unions supporting the students, so much as a united movement involving both. Perhaps the students have revitalised the unions, which was needed, but there is a huge amount of potential influence within them. In the new year, with privatisation of the Post Office threatened, it is possible the TUC will call a general strike.
It is shaping up to be some Interesting Times.

*I can’t take credit for the title, I’m afraid. It was shouted by a clever lass on the bridge. Pretty much summed up how I felt at the time, though.
**It was Molesworthian. it hav a pikture of molesworth I looking miffed, and underneath it sa ‘con-lib? i diskard them’.