Here's what happened when me and a few friends went to London to show our opposition to the atrocious Health and Social Care Bill 2011. The one currently being forced through parliament with a middle finger to all who look on.
I feel it's important to document what I witnessed at this demonstration since, as many have noted, there has been little-to-no coverage of this protest by the BBC and other UK mass media. A deeply worrying trend for anti-government protests, but one others are better placed to comment on than me.
The bottom line is: this was a completely nonviolent, unaggressive protest. The police action was hostile and totally unprovoked. There is no way we could have been seen as a threat to anyone.
The goal of the police did not seem to be to confront the protest or get into a fight. Each time a kettle was formed, it was dropped after a short time on some signal. The police were acting in a coordinated fashion, and their only goal seemed to be to suppress and disband the protest. By kettling and separating any big group which formed into smaller groups, they prevented the the crowd coordinating, communicating or decision-making properly. At its start, the protest was self-motivated, passionate, and made up of citizens trying to make a (last) stand for something they believed in. Through their action, the police successfully reduced it to separate groups of disconnected, scared, angry people who didn't know what to do and felt unable to continue.
The way the police acted was, while not actually violent in any cases I saw (grabbing, shoving and restraining, but no beating), extremely intimidating. They incited the crowd to run for safety on multiple occasions, though there were many elderly and disabled amongst us (this was a pro-NHS campaign after all). I did not see anybody get hurt, but if the crowd had been any denser, larger or had any rogue elements, things could easily have kicked off — if they had it would have been completely the fault of the aggression and intimidation tactics of the police. No attempt was made at dialogue, or even megaphoned monologue to warn the protest that action would take place. Instead, the riot police acted quickly and unpredictably, communicating with shouted codes, avoiding eye contact with the demonstrators.
There are other accounts online. Important points to note from my view of events that may contradict or corroborate other points of view:
- All aggression I saw was on the part of the police.
- All the protesters I saw were completely nonviolent, and not even aggressive.
- I saw no signs of police firearms, though there have been alarming reports of this (including photos of police with automatic weapons within sight of the demo) from elsewhere.
Below the fold is my account in full, to the best of my recollection.
Edit: Since I complain here about a lack of media coverage of the protest, I should acknowledge that the Guardian's NHS Reforms Liveblog has just made mention of the protest and included a link to this post. I'm flattered that it's "worth a read" and delighted that they explicitly "don't endorse it's view" :P
We arrive around 2pm, to disappointingly small numbers (given the scale of "support" on Facebook and elsewhere).
Having talked to some others assembled, admired other banners and repurposed a SWP sign (all credit to Jas for the artistic skills), we notice that more numbers are building by about 3:30pm.
That trollface sign is held together with refolded staples and chewing gum, I'll have you know.
When the pavement and pre-fenced-off region of the pavement is full of people, there's a shout from someone, and people move off the pavement and into the road, many people sitting down. It looks as though another march has reached our group from elsewhere. The road has been closed and there are maybe a total of twelve yellow-uniformed police standing around (at least visible from where I am). At one point an ambulance is spotted approaching. Protesters instantly begin to move out of the road, but it's already u-turned and found another route. The police stand idly around, chatting amongst each other and occasionally to protesters. They make no apparent attempt to move us along. A couple of times, riot vans and police cars advance on the crowd, sirens on, but they stop short and wait, before driving off.
We spot an Anonymous presence!
There are megaphone speeches throughout this time and at around 3:40pm, people start to put on medical gear that's handed round. I overhear a woman recounting a conversation she's just had with a police officer, who said (I'm paraphrasing) "you've made your point now, why not just go home?".
Now's about the time when speeches and chants are getting a little tired out. A new "mic check" proposes "more protest on the road, less protest on the pavement". He proposes we get "less polite". Someone stands up and suggests that, as a group, to make a further point, we walk to a Virgin Health building which is on the Strand. There's general ascent so we go. I'm terrible at judging these things, but I'd say there's around three hundred protesters amassed by this point. It's started to rain a bit. There hasn't been a significant growth in visible police presence. Spirits are high.
The march begins. We're almost at the front of it! It must be around 3:55pm.
Let me describe the atmosphere at this point, because in a second things get nasty. COMPLETELY peaceful. The crowd is sparse and moving at a fast walking pace. There is a little chanting but no aggro. The yellow-uniformed police are walking at the same pace of us, and have not (that I've heard) requested that we don't march. The mood is very upbeat. People are smiling and laughing, happy to be doing something positive and perhaps get a little attention (there has been almost no media presence that we've seen, unless you count the Socialist Worker as media). The crowd is made up of people of all ages. There are young children and babies, medical students, young adults, up to middle-aged and some elderly people. There is a high proportion of people who have reduced mobility. I spot several people walking with sticks or crutches. I see someone in a wheelchair wearing a V mask, there with their V-masked family.
Now someone shouts something. I'm within a few people of the front of the march. Suddenly, to my right, tens of baseball cap-wearing cops stream out of concealment, running. They've obviously been waiting for us.
The mood of the crowd turns quickly to dismay. This is completely out of the blue. These new cops are highly organised and running quickly. They have helmets and truncheons on their belts. People are suddenly scared. There are shouts of "KETTLE! KETTLE!" and "RUN!" from those who see what's about to happen. People start to run (including me). But it's too late, they're already blocking the way ahead of us.
Things are happening very quickly now. The first few tens of us get past before the riot cops completely block our path. People are running in every direction, unsure of what's going on or why. I lose everyone that I'm with, and begin by looking for them in the confusion. Everyone is shouting. Protesters shouting to each other, trying to keep safe and out of any harm or kettle. Police shout to each other in unintelligible, numeric barks. It's extraordinarily intimidating and more than a bit scary. Just thirty seconds ago everyone was happy and motivated, now the adrenaline is flowing and people are running from a sudden, coordinated police action.
I notice a group of people are being tightly held behind a wall of police. They're not being let through. I have witnessed absolutely zero violence or aggression from protesters at this point, though now there is some jostling as the captive protestors are being closely confined in this small area.
Protesters inside look confused, scared and angry. They shout "why are you doing this?" and "let us go". Protesters outside shout "you're being kettled! Climb out!" (there is a shoulder-height wall on one side of the captive group). Police shout "don't move" and "stay where you are". I hear a protester shout "hey, that's assault!".
Now something odd happens. The riot cops stop blocking the road, and the march is allowed to continue.
I think the smaller kettled group is kept back, behind the main march, but I'm not sure. By this time I've found my companions and the march continues. The cops make no effort, verbal or physical, to stop us. We march on, but now the protestors are properly angry. The police have been aggressive and have acted seemingly without motive. We've done nothing to deserve this and now we're riled up. We go forth with fresh, righteous anger. Cops keep step with the crowd. We're in public now. There are pedestrians and traffic being stopped. This is, after all, a protest — a demonstration.
Traffic is being stopped as we walk across intersections and along the road. We're told by a cop something like "I suggest you get out of the road, for your own safety". A nonsensical statement, given the situation.
We pass an anti-Mugabe vigil at around 4:08pm outside the Zimbabwe Embassy. Both groups cheer and shout messages of solidarity — it feels good to stand up with comrades for something you believe in!
We're a few paces from the gates of Virgin Health. Suddenly it's clear something is happening. More shouting and running. A line of riot cops is forming ahead, their arms outstretched. Shouts of "KETTLE!" and "RUN!" again from the protesters. We start to run, searching for a break in the line or another way through. All around there is running and screaming, people don't know what's happening. I reach the first cops as they start to grab people. I think I see some people grabbed bodily and with serious force, but I don't stop running. My arm is grasped at by a gloved hand, but I break free. Others are not so lucky, including some of those I'm at the demo with. The line is being held now, people are not being allowed to leave or enter the zone. I see passers by, elderly and disabled people kept inside the cordon. It's about 4:14pm.
Turning around, we see another line has formed ahead, though this line has riot vans. We hear someone say "they've got machine guns". (I and those I'm with don't see any, though.)
The protestors are not being allowed to reach the gates of Virgin Health.
Back at the police line, there is shouting and anger. Nobody is being allowed to approach, from either side. "Stay away from my colleagues' backs" is all I'm told when I ask "why are you doing this?". I hear some one scream and shouts of "SHAME!" and SCUM!". I turn and see a woman picking herself up off the ground. (I didn't actually see her pushed). Her friend points out a uniformed cop who advances towards them, but before I can get a closer look I'm shouted at to move away.
At about 4:30pm, people are being allowed to leave, one at a time, from the side. I'm reunited with my comrades from inside the kettle. People are very angry. Our protest at Virgin Health is clearly not going to be permitted by the riot cops. Someone shouts "regroup at St. Pauls!". But people can only leave the kettle slowly, so the protest group is becoming stretched, as different small groups decide what to do next. Anonymous go one way, the medical students go another. We stay back, talking for a while with a woman who walks with a stick. She is disgusted and outraged at how she's been treated.
People are trickling forwards. We walk with a few others, and see banners ahead in the distance, now the police are no longer blocking the way.
By about 4:40pm we still haven't found the main group, though six or seven riot vans have driven past with sirens, the last few visibly full of riot cops. We decide to follow them.
By 4:50pm we find empty riot vans on the street.
We meet a few protesters on the street. They point back the way they came, telling us that there's a tighter kettle up ahead, and people are being arrested en masse. After a little further, we reach Southampton Buildings, where a crowd is being kept isolated, behind several well-spaced lines of riot cops, who won't let anyone past. We can't see the captives, but we can hear them.
At this point, we don't want to stick around. We don't know if arrests are taking place, but we have no wish to stay and find out. We're no longer really in public or anywhere significant so there is no value in further making a scene. We go out separate ways at around 5pm.