The Day of the Vote

AARON KIELY provides a student’s eyewitness account of police brutality at the tuition fees demonstration in Parliament Square last week.

First, I have to state that I am a member of Labour Party, a candidate in the upcoming local elections, a Committee member of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign and an elected representative of Kent Students’ Union. I would never act in a way to damage the reputation of any of these organisations as I am proud to contribute and participate in them and I am conscious that at this protest I represent all the students who elected me locally, nationally as well as fellow residents in my local Labour Party.

What I witnessed and experienced at Parliament Square was absolutely horrific, and the levels of police brutality and indiscriminate violence were made all the more shocking due to the fact that a very large proportion of those who attended the march from Malet Street to Parliament were young, either further education students or school students, and a very visible and large number were Black students.

The protest started absolutely peacefully, and I joined the march at Trafalgar Square and made the short journey to Parliament at around 1:30pm with other Kent students. I made my way to the front of the demonstration and as students were pushing to make their way closer to Parliament, made sure that students that wanted to move to the back were allowed to do so, as well as making sure that people were not being hurt in the push.

I think it is important that we demonstrate as close as possible to Parliament as we can, as MPs were in the Palace and hopefully would’ve been able to hear our chants calling for them to not betray students and future generations by voting for the removal of the current cap in favour of variable fees of up to £9,000 a year. The atmosphere was wholly positive, with impressively creative placards, chants and a real strength of diversity in the trade union and student union banners, from the CWU to Unite to LSE, from SOAS Unison to Manchester Met, and many others.

After more than an hour, after discussing with other friends at the demonstration it was thought that we could pop out for a bite to eat and come back to whatever action is taking place. So at around 2.30 to 3.00pm we went to leave, only to find that we had been ‘kettled’ in by the police and exits were sealed. SOAS university students quickly erected a ‘Kettle Cafe’ where those trapped could get some food and drink.

I had made it very clear to students from Kent who were going to attend the day that there was a strong likelihood that the police would use the kettling ‘tactic’, and they freely choose to come. For anyone who does not know what kettling is, it is basically where the riot police surround a group of protesters to ‘control the situation’. What is conveniently forgotten in the official description is that kettling often lasts for hours, with some school students having to endure the freezing cold for nine hours just for being there. It is a collective form of punishment, where those who are kettled, no matter how peaceful or well intentioned, are denied access to food, water, shelter, freedom to move, as well as access to clean sanitation. This tactic has come under increased scrutiny, yet it is continually used. I would argue it acts as a catalyst to anger people and does nothing to ‘control the situation’. Instead, it provokes and sets up an ‘us and them’ scenario between the police and protesters.

We were denied access to the above-mentioned rights, despite the police and media portraying that they were available for a combined total of eight hours on a chilly winter’s day. A tarpaulin was set up in the form of a cubicle so that men (not women) could urinate on the grass, turning it in to a slurry of mud and piss. I could find no portaloos, nowhere to access food and water, and the riot police were not responding to requests for these requirements to be met, nor to the basic request to leave the area. It is no wonder that people became agitated and furious with their treatment by the authorities. Calmly requesting something from a riot police officer is often as productive as drawing blood from a stone as you are deliberately ignored. Sometimes officers will suggest they cannot hear what you are saying, despite being able to have conversations freely with nearby officers.

Eventually, the exits were fully manned by riot police, with police on horses charging young students and using full riot gear, meaning truncheons (a blunt club weapon), specialist helmets and riot shields. I witnessed an officer repeatedly using his riot shield to hit a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ hard hat off the head of a protester before then hitting the unprotected protester for good measure. I also witnessed a young, smartly-dressed woman, who could have been no older than 16, being hit with a truncheon to the head, to much shock. She posed absolutely no threat, was not being verbally abusive, nor physically threatening, yet she was smashed across the head indiscriminately, her head drooped and she was taken back in to the crowd to be treated by St. John’s Ambulance staff.

At one point, many protesters broke through and made it to Whitehall, it looked like we could get out as well and during the several attempts of the crowd to push, with hands in the air the police beat us back violently holding riot shields horizontally and hitting at the crowd. It was at this point I was first hit on the back with a truncheon, having been pushed to the front with my back turned. I did not react, did not say one word of abuse, and maintained my composure. The second and third time I was hit with a truncheon across my forearm and shoulder was when I stumbled across a young man whose head had just been cracked open and was gushing with blood. His light-coloured hoody was distinctive against the vivid red of the blood coming from him. Again, I kept my composure and was then kicked with no reason, with my hands in the air, silent, and the kick was so hard that it has left an imprint of the sole of the shoe on my leg. This not only happened to me, but to many others, young people as well.

The logical question to ask is ‘how did you get to the front’? ‘Why risk being hit and injured?’ These are absolutely valid points but I will say this: I am not prepared to stand to the side and watch young students, many from ethnic minorities, and particularly young women who perhaps might have of been pushed to the front, having their heads cracked open. I would rather it was me than have to live with the thought that someone else was seriously injured when I could have taken the hit much better.

Seeing young students kettled, treated inhumanely, and stained with their own blood is an appalling sight, and something I would never wish anyone to see as it is hugely distressing. The people at that demonstration could’ve been my 19-year-old sister protesting against cuts to her EMA, or my 15-year-old cousin who dreamed of going to university but could never pay off their £9,000 a year fees. I firmly believe that older demonstrators have a duty to protect those who we have encouraged and helped mobilise to protest, and there were many more experienced activists helping younger people out. The vast and overwhelming majority of people were armed with words, not weapons, not truncheons, not riot shields, and definitely not heavy duty protective clothing and specialist helmets. The brutality of the police at this demonstration has to be exposed for what it is, absolutely despicable.

During the coming hours, students set fire to placards for warmth, and shared food and drink, as none had been provided. Later, SOAS students kindly sprayed disinfectant on my small cut from the riot shield. At around 8.30pm, after much back and forth and conflicting information from non-riot police who had entered the kettle, it was established that we would be released soon. All through this, I was polite to every single police officer and I saw none of the ordinary unarmed police officers subjected to any harassment or intimidation.

Eventually, we were allowed to leave the kettle, escorted across Westminster Bridge following a line of police who were slowly moving back until we stopped at the end of the bridge. We were anticipating that we would then be allowed to disperse in three separate directions, perhaps through a bottleneck, however were treated with silence for an hour. We had been stopped in our tracks. In the cold, dark night, thousands of protesters were held on Westminster Bridge, with no access to toilets or water and were packed like sardines with barely any space to move. It was then announced by the police that there were not enough riot police to handle the departure of those who had been trying to leave for hours. Eventually, another hour later at 10.55pm, we were allowed out, in single-file, surrounded by riot police. We were told that section 60 was in action, and that we should move continuously towards Waterloo station.

After hours upon hours of being kettled, we were finally free to make our way home. However, it is important to remember that many of us had been booked on coaches which had fixed departure times, so many had to make their own way home, potentially leaving young members vulnerable as we edged towards midnight in the capital. If students had been allowed to leave, as the vast majority had requested and many had queued up to do, then this situation could have been avoided entirely.

I wrote this to explain my experience of the demonstration and to condemn the police handling of the event. It was excessive, brutal and unnecessary. Kettling has to be stopped as it a violation of basic human rights and does nothing to control the situation, only inflames it.

I have to give special thanks to Kent union staff and leaders who managed to get our coach to wait, although it ultimately couldn’t wait long enough, as well as for their support on Twitter, via text messages and calls. They handled it all very professionally and I thank them for doing what they could in a very difficult situation.

I would also like to thank Zain Sardar, Jonathan Buckner and Andy Hewett for their company and support as we spent most of my time in the kettle together. I would especially like to thank Maham Hashmi-Khan, another Black Students’ Committee member, as she was exemplary in helping to remove hazards, helping students leave, giving advice, standing witness at the front to the violence inflicted on the demonstrators by the police, and making sure students were as safe as she could. And a further thanks to all the re-tweets, all of the messages of support and the calls from so many different people – it made a lot of difference knowing people were working on the outside to pressure the police and spread awareness of what they were doing to us.

The people on that demonstration were not violent or extremist thugs intent on hurting others, the vast majority were peaceful and youthful, yet angry at what the coalition government are doing. What kind of democracy do we live in, when young people are brutalised by the police outside Parliament, while inside a government votes through symbolically violent acts which amount to vandalism of hopes and dreams?

I will always stand side-by-side with those suffering such huge injustices and I invite you all to come to the next demonstration, which I am sure will be about saving EMA. As although we have lost the vote on raising the cap, we are in this struggle for the long haul, and it will take all of us to contribute in whatever way we can, through lobbying, industrial action, vigils, demonstrations and occupations because we have an obligation to leave a better legacy to the next generation, not a worse one.

Aaron Kiely is a Kent Union Ordinary Council Member, NUS Black Students’ Campaign Committee (Open Place), and a member of the University of Kent occupation.

This article first appeared on the Socialist Unity website.

Read Laurie Penny’s account here.

Read the Compass petition for ‘An education for people not profit’ here.