It has been announced that rubber bullets may be used against protesters attending a march against rising tuition fees in London on Wednesday. The controversial decision, revealed by Scotland Yard, is said to be a last-resort measure to prevent rioting and disorder, but critics have responded with outrage, comparing the tactics to those used by “murderous dictatorships” to suppress their people.
Police Commander Simon Pountain, who is in charge of policing the protest, said that “the overwhelming majority of students are law-abiding”, and claimed that “we certainly don’t see it as inevitable that we will witness a repeat of last year’s scenes”. He is referring to the anti-tuition fees protests of last year, when the Millbank office buildings and shops in Oxford Street were damaged by protesters. Yet the casual reference he makes to last year’s “violence and criminal damage” and the stereotypical decision to refer to all protesters as “students” is characteristic of a repeated attempt by police, government and press to vilify UK students and young people as violent thugs and yobs, whose protests do not deserve to be taken seriously.
What he fails to mention is that much of the damage caused at last year’s protests arose only after thousands of protesters had been ‘kettled’ by police for many hours in freezing temperatures without access to food, water or medical aid, many with serious injuries and young children. The actions of the police in using such tactics were heavily criticised at the time as infringing the human rights of thousands of peaceful protesters who were unarmed, non-violent, and yet were not allowed to pass along the planned protest route. The repeated heavy-handed use of kettling by police, often as soon as protests began, gave rise to several major high-court legal battles and serious internal investigations.
Yet the government seems prepared to allow such measures to escalate still further with the decision to allow police the option of firing rubber bullets, a serious and extremely painful measure, against unarmed, legitimate protesters. Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who witnessed first-hand the impact of rubber bullets during service in Northern Ireland, has spoken out vociferously against the decision. He said “I do not think it would be sensible in any way, shape or form to deploy…baton rounds [rubber bullets] in London. Baton rounds are very serious bits of equipment. I would only deploy them in life-threatening situations.” He went on to express his surprise at police and government readiness to use such weapons against protesters, as he believes they have their place only in the event of “an insurgency that is going to topple the country”.
The reference to civil uprising is a pertinent one, as many concerned commentators have also begun to draw parallels to dictators around the world who use force and armed police to suppress their subjects and put down protesters and activists for change. Our democratic political system is intended to allow the public to object to major policy changes via the legitimate medium of protest, but the system breaks down when vast numbers of protests are held, some reaching numbers of up to half a million, like those protesting in London against the cuts last year, yet no policy is altered in any way to reflect their objections. At the same time the consistent suggestion that protesters are likely to be violent and preparation for protests with such extreme measures as these undermines the status of protesting as a legal and legitimate means of expressing opinion. Rubber bullets were approved for dealing with rioting, looting criminals during the riots of the past few months – their approval here strongly suggests a tarring of protesters with the same brush.
As Green Party Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones asks, “How did we come to this? An unpopular government pushing ahead with policies that are all pain and no gain, relying on police armed with plastic bullets to deal with young people who complain about it all.” Once again, the focus is on “young people” rather than protesters, which is the most deeply disturbing aspect of this whole issue. Not for the cross-generational TUC protests of last year, nor the adult-driven NHS marches of this year was this tactic unveiled, but for these student protests, a categorisation which not only attempts to reduce the scale of public opposition to tuition fees by waving aside the substantial number of adult protesters, but also seeks again to whitewash ‘students’ under a stereotypical label of dangerous, untrustworthy characters who do not deserve to be listened to.
Jones quite rightly says that “the prospect of police shooting at unarmed demonstrators with any kind of bullet is frankly appalling, un-British and reminiscent of scenes currently being used by murderous dictatorships in the Middle East”. But perhaps more disturbing still is the decision to alienate and vilify an entire generation in the desperate attempt to avoid answering their valid questions.