Whilst the vote in the House of Lords in favour of the coalition government’s plans to raise tuition fees in England to £9000 marks the end of the first stage of the battle over higher education, the debate rages on over police and student behaviour at the tuition fee protests.
The Metropolitan Police and other figures of authority including London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron have been quick to quash suggestions of police heavy-handedness, claiming that “a significant number” of student protesters were “intent on violence” and praising the “professionalism and selflessness” of officers in controlling the crowds.
Given the photographic and video evidence of protesters forming huge crowds, the images of the attack on the Prince of Wales’s convoy and police reports of missiles such as snooker balls and bottles of urine being thrown, it is difficult not to be sympathetic with police handling of the crisis.
However there are a great number of rather prickly problems with the idea of writing off the protesters as a mob of thuggish, violent students, intent on rioting and fully deserving of the treatment they received.
For a start, there are the cases of 44 student protesters who were hospitalised during the protests, and the compelling tale of 20-year old student Alfie Meadows, who suffered bleeding to the brain and underwent serious surgery following a huge blow to the head from a police truncheon. Alfie attended the protest peacefully, accompanied by two respected professors, colleagues of his mother, who is a lecturer at Roehampton University. It is rather difficult to imagine in such company that as he tried to leave the area with his companions to join his mother nearby there was adequate cause to suspect him of violent intent urgent enough to require a heavy and immediate police attack.
Then there is the case of disabled protester Jody McIntyre, who was physically tipped out of his wheelchair and dragged across the street by police. McIntyre, who pointed out that “there is no way you can classify me as a physical threat”, described the behaviour of the police as “out of control”.
When you add to this a sheer multitude of eyewitness accounts from students who describe the experience of ‘kettling’ and police brutality as “absolutely terrifying” and the hundreds who claim that they were unnecessarily and indiscriminately struck as they cringed in the crowd with their hands raised in a gesture of surrender, the picture becomes still less clear.
As videos emerged of enormous police horses charging relentlessly and directly into crowds of students to ‘clear’ and ‘move’ the protesters, questions begin to be raised about just how carefully police were considering student safety, with one student reporting that she knows of two friends whose bones were broken as a result of the charges. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has received four separate official complaints about the police violence at the protests and an internal investigation is underway.
It is difficult not to question the heavy-handedness of the police when you realise that of the hundreds of thousands of students who have protested against the government plans to raise tuition fees, a tiny percentage have been arrested or accused of involvement in violence and rioting.
Is it justified to charge indiscriminately at a crowd of young people with enormous horses and batons, striking them from above as they cringe down with nowhere to go, pressed forward by the crowd, when the vast majority of those likely to fall in your line of fire are breaking no laws? Is it justified to ‘kettle’ and ‘contain’ thousands of innocent people within minutes of their arrival at a protest merely on the suspicion of the possibility that some amongst them may incite violence, and to strike and injure them if they choose to try to return home? And perhaps most pertinently of all, would such police behaviour be tolerated and supported by the government to such an extent if those being targeted were not students?
It seems to me that the broad classification of students as ‘thugs’ and ‘troublemakers’ simply because they are generally young people has been used as a blatant excuse by the government, the police and the media to defend and allow the use of unnecessary and inexcusable violence at the tuition fee protests. The problem is not that the police were allowed to use violence to defend themselves against those committing criminal acts and acting violently themselves. It is that they reacted to this very small minority with retaliatory measures of violence indiscriminately aimed at all the student protesters, innocent or not. At no other protest would this attitude of ‘group guilt’ have been acceptable.
What seems extremely pertinent is the fact that of the images released by the police of suspects being sought on accusations of violence during the protests, not one looks of university undergraduate age, suggesting that these were indeed rioters and trouble makers taking advantage of the protests and unaffiliated with the students, yet the vast majority of the protesters were university or college students or younger, as were most of those injured and admitted to hospital during the proceedings.
One thoughtful recent Cambridge graduate we interviewed described his experience of being herded and ‘kettled’ immediately on arrival at the tuition fees protest: “Once my group arrived in Parliament Square, we were driven into the south-west corner by horsemen. At that stage both the SW and NW corners were blocked off…it felt as if we had been led down a cul de sac”. He went on to question police assumption of student disorder even when protests are peaceful, asking; “If you charge protestors as soon as they arrive at Parliament, if you kettle people right from the get-go, and then feed them misinformation about where they can leave, why are you surprised at how they manifest their frustration?”
Having experienced first-hand the terror of being thrust and pushed around as part of a crowd and targeted by charging horses simply for the crime of standing as a member of a protest, he urged the importance of discriminating between different types of violence that may emerge as a result of such heavy-handling. He argues that it is essential to differentiate between “people reacting violently to police brutality; people taking to vandalism after being locked in Parliament Square in the cold for six hours; people taking to violence because they don’t feel they can be listened to in any other way; and the very few people who came specifically to be gratuitously violent.”
Whilst of course we do not condone violence in any shape or form, this student raises some extremely pertinent questions about the handling of this affair, from the government down to the police.
The police themselves admit that a great number of those who were arrested or cautioned had completely clean records and no history of trouble, strongly supporting our witness’s claim that many of these scuffles arose due to sheer frustration at being treated like criminals, at unprovoked and premeditated police violence towards them and at the utter lack of response or acknowledgement from the government.
Cameron has been swift to condemn and write off students and protesters as a whole for their violent behaviour, but he does not seem to have considered the possibility that his own complete refusal to engage or acknowledge the protesters ideologically may have been an important factor in the outbreak of desperate frustration to make their voices heard.