An enormous backlash across all levels of society, civil liberties groups and the legal sector has begun in response to the use of widespread violence by the Metropolitan police force against students protesting in London to oppose raised university tuition fees and higher education cuts.
As reported in our previous blog, the level of police violence was described by many protesters as out of proportion and unfairly targeted at all students regardless of whether their behaviour at the fees protests was peaceful or not. Some 40 students were hospitalised, many suffering fractures and broken bones, whilst 20 year old Alfie Meadows required emergency brain surgery following an enormous blow to the head from a police truncheon as he tried peacefully to leave one of the protests. A disabled student protester was twice dragged from his wheelchair and pushed to the ground by officers as students were crushed between police lines and charged at by scores of police horses during the course of the demonstrations.
Now demands have begun to flood in from a host of different sources for an investigation to be made into the tactics and behaviour of the police, as calls are made for the dismissal of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson.
The complaints centre upon a number of disturbing pieces of evidence against the police, the first being the emergence of a video showing one riot police officer wearing no identifying lapels whilst on duty at the student protests. When questioned by students, she reportedly claimed “I am not a fucking number” by way of explanation. This has raised huge protest from human rights campaigners, as it echoes the case of Ian Tomlinson, killed by a blow from a police officer who was not wearing identification during the G20 protests. As Stephenson claimed to have explicitly made it clear to all officers that identification was required at all times before the protest began, this has raised serious questions about his control and authority over the behaviour of his officers, as well as concerns about police accountability for their treatment of protesters.
More anger still has been provoked by the police use of the tactic known as ‘kettling’, whereby thousands of young people, the vast majority of whom were carrying out lawful and peaceful protests, were detained for hours in the freezing cold without offence or charge, denied access to toilets or medical attention, crushed by advancing police lines and charging horses and prevented from leaving even to return home. Many of these were school children and teenagers.
Victoria Borwick, chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority’s civil liberties panel, has described footage of police tactics at the student protests as “appalling” and “ghastly”, criticising the heavy handed brutality that left many protesters “clearly distressed”. It is significant that she, aligned with the Metropolitan police, has actively encouraged student demonstrators to bring legal action against the police for the use of unlawful force.
Meanwhile Jenny Jones, a member of the Greater London Authority for the Green Party and civil liberties panel member, described police behaviour as “the most disturbing so far in a sequence that gets more risky and threatening with each repeat.” She added “the use of horses in such a situation is astonishing, and I’ll be raising this with the commissioner.” As protesters describe police treatment as much more brutal and heavy handed than that seen at the G20 demonstrations, questions are being raised over whether officers fear less recrimination for violent actions against students and young people than against a largely adult demonstration.
A wave of legal action has begun against the Metropolitan police, with legal practitioners and academics from across the country claiming that the immediacy and universality of the ‘kettling’ tactic made it an unlawful breach of protesters’ human rights. David Mead, a public order policing and law expert, judged it “likely not to be a lawful kettle”, whilst human rights group Liberty have commenced legal action against the police for the false imprisonment and assault of school children, citing the “inhuman and degrading treatment” of those carrying out entirely peaceful protests.
The action is brought on behalf of young protesters who were allegedly struck by police and suffered fractures as they tried without violence to leave a kettle after being detained for many hours in the freezing cold and refused medical help for injuries inflicted by officers. This is in direct contrast to claims made by a Metropolitan police spokesperson, who said: “We consider the health and wellbeing of those within the containment and will attend to the needs of any vulnerable people, looking to release them at the earliest opportunity.”
Still further contradiction between police statements about kettling and the brutality at the protests continue to emerge, with their claim that “containment and dispersal will always be done in a controlled way to protect those involved” utterly negated by video evidence of extreme violence against protesters who are simply trapped at the front of a large crowd and are not attempting to push forwards.
Extremely concerned theorists and academics have also raised questions over the effective removal of the right to protest and freedom of speech, as protesters were instantly kettled upon arrival and not allowed to march. Again this contrasts wildly with the police claim that “containment and dispersal is a tactic available to us, but it is only used as a tactic of last resort to prevent an actual or imminent breach of the peace.”
This follows repeated efforts by the police and government to heavily imply that all student protesters are yobs and rioters, and that their very presence at the demonstrations is disruptive and unlawful. Detective Chief Superintendent Matt Horne echoed this sentiment when he publicly announced “”I would urge those who turn up for protests to think about the impact this could have on their future careers,” as if those peacefully standing up for their belief in a universal right to education were somehow committing a crime simply by attending the protests. Emma Norton, legal officer at Liberty, emphasised that: “the police must distinguish between the law-abiding majority and the handful intent on violence”, a requirement that, as yet, simply does not seem to have been enforced.