Occupy London: Are We Free to Protest, or Is This a Police State?

16.10.11

October 15, as I discussed in an earlier article, was a global day of action, with events taking place in 951 cities in 82 countries, inspired by the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the mass mobilization of citizens in Greece, and the indignados in Spain, which has taken off in America in recent months through “Occupy Wall Street.”

In London, the plan was to occupy Paternoster Square, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the London Stock Exchange is situated, but from the moment I approached St. Paul’s yesterday afternoon (at about 2.30 pm, cycling from London Bridge), it was clear that a clampdown was in place — with police vans everywhere, and lines of police blocking all the entrances to Paternoster Square, where notices had been posted, stating, “Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter the premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.”

When I finally found the crowd — in front of St. Paul’s and spilling onto Ludgate Hill — I was delighted to see that thousands of people had turned up, but bitterly disappointed that the police had sealed off those closest to St. Paul’s from everyone who arrived afterwards, and had shifted the focus of the event from the protestors to the police, and fears and doubts about what they would do.

The intention was obvious. Under directions from the Home Office and 10 Downing Street, presumably, the police were planning to prevent the “Occupy” movement’s London offshoot from staging an effective occupation — limiting its numbers so that the protestors couldn’t put down effective roots, and so that, at some point, they could be removed by force if they failed to leave voluntarily.

The result was described by the police as “containment” to “prevent breach of the peace” — not strictly “kettling,” as, for the most part, those inside the cordon were allowed to leave, but no new protestors were allowed in. Even so, the treatment of those in the cordon was not always friendly, as was reported by Rachel Mariner, one of the protestors, who wrote on her blog:

When I tried to leave St. Paul’s Square, though, to find a bathroom, actually, I couldn’t. My friend was allowed out of the Square by the police, but I was not. I was told to stand in a line, single file, to beg the police, after handing over my name and address, to be allowed to leave … My friend waited on one side of the police barricades as I lined up to be permitted to walk down a street that my tax money had paid for. We are in a police state. The police are crushing people choosing peaceable assembly. This situation is unacceptable. I didn’t get arrested and I still found it hard and kind of awful to be detained against my will and to be penalized by the state for saying what I think.

She was not the only critic of the police presence and the tactics used. I left after a few hours, but, as night fell, those reporting from St. Paul’s were shocked by the police behaviour. Student activist Aaron Peters, who tweeted prolifically from St. Paul’s, watched as the police put pressure on the protestors at about 7 pm. “Police currently bleeding inner kettle and squeezing it,” he wrote, adding, “2 concentric lines of TSG [Territorial Support Group] after line of City of London police,” and noting, “Something has come from the top today at the Home Office — real escalation in policing at #occupylsx — desire to nip things in the bud. Occupations really not going to work in UK. Basis of Met policing is, if it’s static, kettle it and/or hit it.” Filmmaker Dylan Etherington also noted, “Guilty until proven innocent. We’ve all been detained to ‘prevent a breach of the peace.'”

Around 8.30, the police assaulted the protesters again, this time on the steps of St. Paul’s. Mark Townsend of the Observer wrote, “Kicking off big time on steps. Extra police just stormed in, women pushed over, people trampled on. No need.” Rosa Wild, an activist, also noted the police had been “pushing my friend flat on her face, into a samba drum; ripping off a girl’s hijab and pushing her down the steps of St. Paul’s.”

Reflecting on this, Aaron Peters noted that the protestors were “doing nothing,” but “they are learning fast that [the] Met don’t care for pacifism.” He added, “If you think for one second liberty is safe in the hands of these people you are utterly misguided. Tonight I saw post-riot policing re: public assembly and peaceful protest [but] somehow they have gotten far worse. You understand that this is being permitted in 951 cities worldwide — EXCEPT London.” Guy Aitchison, another activist, also stated, “The lesson of #occupyLSX is that even if you protest in a peaceful, submissive way the British state will shut you down.”

That was not quite true, it seems, because, after these assaults, the police eventually decided to allow the remaining protestors to stay the night, and, at the time of writing, a grand total of 73 tents had been set up (which is impressive), music was playing, and the original plan for an occupation was going ahead — albeit 12 hours late.

We’ll see what daylight brings in terms of the Met’s response, but today was not a great day for genuine peaceful policing, and nor was it a triumph for protest in Britain as a whole, with far fewer protestors in London than in many other major cities. And that’s disappointing, of course, because it’s not as though we have principled bankers and a responsible government. But then apathy, sadly, remains possibly the biggest enemy of all.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Harry Fear wrote:

    Such a great article! Thanks, Andy! Very pleased you were there to cover this… Hope to see you there tomorrow…

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Harry. It was a really hard article to write, probably because the police response ran through everything so negatively, and I was on Twitter for some time trying to piece together the evening’s dark narrative — and trying to avoid the armchair critics of the “Occupy” movement and the poisonous defenders of the status quo, who are much too prevalent in the UK.
    Very inspired by New York today, and Madrid. Haven’t had any time to look further afield. Anyone have any good reports from elsewhere?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for this report Andy. Made me feel I was there with you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    That would have been nice, Ann! I met a lovely couple from Folkestone. She was English, he was German, and they had a lovely little dog with them and some very interesting, quirky placards — one about sending bankers to Saudi Arabia if they didn’t behave. The woman (I’m sorry I didn’t get their names) told me that she came to every protest, and had been doing so since the Aldermaston marches — which took place from 1958 to 1963, of course. What was particularly impressive was how indignant they still were about injustice, but also how they still believed that positive change was possible. A real inspiration …

  5. Inspector Gadget says...

    They can’t even properly lock up terrorists (Google Siraj Yassin Abdullah Ali). They can’t even clear an illegal gypsy site. They can’t deal with Jody Mcintyre for inciting riots on Twitter.

    Some ‘police state’.

    Grow up and stop being so hysterical.

  6. Plugplotter says...

    To play devil’s advocate, preventing access to Paternoster Sq could be seen as protecting private property from unwanted intrusion. But the Dean of St Paul’s actions and support of the occupation this morning show that the same cannot be said for the violence in front of the cathedral. That was clearly an attempt to suppress protest.
    It would seem that it is fine to camp out on the streets of London to buy a new telephone, but not to voice discontent.

  7. Lisa Ansell says...

    The assumption that apathy is the reason people are not protesting with you, is possibly at the heart of the low numbers.

    People do care, are not apathetic- but are alienated from the so called ‘left’ for very good reason. I have spent a year now across occupations, anti-cuts meetings, protests, and also living and working with the effect of what is happening now. The left has a false image of itself, and has subsumed what has happened in the past year in this couuntry. Elitist, misogynist and with assumptions abouot how we ‘fight’ what is happening that assume a divine right. Academic debate about radical politics and politeness, with Labour at the moderate heart and radical politics looking a hundred years ago on the fringes. Economic and social policy discussion marginalised, as is the experience of those who do not wish to discuss what it means to be working class, and would rather discuss the changes to ESA [Employment and Support Allowance]. With Labour at the moderate heart of the left, who are as committed to what is happening. With the left as a social network reinforcing that. People are lost, people are angry, and people have been trying to work with the left all year- because they are fighting what is happening to them. I have seen only one action this year where the left were willing to stand back and be led by those acting, and that was Camp Frack at Hesketh Bank. The only reason it happened there was because those locals were articulate, well spoken, and affluently middle class. I have been described as dim, thick, a self appointed authentic, a capitalist class traitor, etc etc etc I have been in the middle of weird passive aggressive power struggles. This IS a problem and until the left address it, things like todays occupation (which I hope broadens out and establishes) will go the way of the past year, it will continue to recreate elitist and misogynist power structures which exclude those who need to fight. People are waking up, and are starting to organise. the question is whether the left will help or have to be left behind.

  8. Lisa Ansell says...

    But overall a good article, and appallling that the police behave this way. It DOES concern us all, and is a problem.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Plugplotter and Lisa for the comments.
    And Lisa, I very much agree with you. My closing comments were directed at the many, many people who don’t count politics as part of their lives at all, and not at anyone seeking change who has been disappointed with the existing political organizations on the left.
    If you read my work you’ll see that I’m not party political, and that I don’t trust any “old left” movements. I think the only way we’re going to have progress in changing the world is for a new movement to emerge, which those on the left can join, but not try and monopolise. I believe in politics for the people, and socialist ideals, but I think all existing movements — on the left, in the centre and on the right — have failed, and we need something new, not just because it’s the only way to draw new people into politics, but also because no existing organization has adapted to the realities of what’s needed now.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Mahfuja Bint Ammu wrote:

    Absolutely on point coverage Andy! shared :)

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mahfuja. Great to hear from you.

  12. willy bach says...

    Britain has become a police state that rivals the brutality of the USA. Occupy London, some cautious encouragement – the police may become violent at any time. The consent of citizens for governments to rule should be withdrawn at such times. Some pondlife creep in London is noting this statement.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. I was encouraged that the police finally allowed the protestors to stay last night, but as you note, “the police may become violent at any time,” and that was definitely the overriding feeling throughout the day yesterday, deflecting from the true purpose of the gathering. I also thoroughly concur with your note about who’s watching.

  14. Paul says...

    You would be amazed at the police presence about 2 miles or so , the police are pretty much stopping people from attending.

    The numbers may be low , some due to apathy, But how many were turned away by threats and such from the police and I can assure you many officers were offering potential protesters “a night in a cell unless you go home”.

    You are correct this is a police state just we were not told, and the fact many police have committed actions that if carried out by a non officer would see them charged for assault, seems like 1984’s on its way here just a few years late

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul. Your comments about the police stopping people from attending are interesting, as this is clearly a movement that the authorities are only prepared to tolerate if it’s very small and containable, whereas the impetus, obviously, is for permanent occupations, by an unlimited number of people.

  16. John S says...

    Good Post! Funny that NATO bombed Libya, condemned Mubarak in Egypt, mid-wifed a Southern Sudan (rich with oil) and we continue to say how bad and repressive China/India(think untouchables)/Iran/North Korea etc. are… GB & NATO all claimed how they were doing it to ‘protect the people’ and yet here we are… I think the politicians and their cartels have been exposed for who they truly are. Let’s hope the public gets the message – that they can connect their discontent with the guilty rather than be distracted by “Britian’s got Talent” or some other shenanigan.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, John. Good to hear from you — and yes, we certainly need people not to be fooled by the easy distractions.

  18. Occupy LSX | Ceasefire Magazine says...

    [...] area. Instead, people gathered in their thousands in front of St Paul’s Cathedral where, despite police attempts at kettling and dispersal, 500 protesters remained through the [...]

  19. Occupy London: As Possible Eviction Looms, Canon And Chaplain Of St. Paul’s Resign - OpEd says...

    [...] first set up camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, and it was apparent from the very beginning, as I noted the time, that the authorities were determined not to allow the movement to establish itself freely in the [...]

  20. The St Pauls Protest and the invisible hand’s own goal* | manwakesup says...

    [...] Police kept the protestors out of Square but left St Pauls as the next best location.  (see Andy Worthington’s eye-witness account of its [...]

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