London G20 protests: Eyewitness

By Ian Dunt

It’s a strange thing to be told by police that you can’t leave an area.

‘But I need the loo’, you think. ‘And something to eat.’ And you do feel, rather vaguely, that your human rights are being mildly violated.

There’s been much talk in the media about how experienced and accomplished British policing of demonstrations is. And most of it is true. There was a great deal to be commended in the Met’s strategy yesterday, in what was, it must be said, a massive logistical nightmare. With anarchists and anti-capitalists around the Bank of England, a not-so impromptu tent city erected in Moorgate, an anti-war march outside the American embassy, environmental activists by the Excel centre, a crucial England qualification match in Wembley and every important leader in the world arriving in London, the police would have been well within their rights to overreact.

They did not. The majority of the police I spoke to, or watched speaking to protesters, were courteous and informative. They calmly explained to protesters what was happening, and the only moments I saw them wield batons or inflict violence was in situations where chaos was threatening to break out. The vast majority of individual policemen today were professional, disciplined and good-natured. But from an entirely impartial perspective, as a journalist for a prominent political website which rarely goes down to street level, there does seem to be something terribly unhealthy about the way protest policing is conducted in Britain today.

The demonstrators I mingled with began their day at Liverpool Street, before marching towards the Bank of England to join together with other groups at midday. They were in good spirits – laughing and dancing and chanting phrases many people in this country would agree with. Police implemented a ‘boiling kettle’ mechanism almost as soon as they reached the Bank of England. ‘Kettling’ involves cordoning off a section of the protest and not allowing anyone in or out. There are often good reasons for doing this – you’re basically trying to drive a hostile crowd to boredom and apathy. But this was a stunningly unfortunate decision.

I spoke to a man named Andy. Andy is over 50, an IT worker, and, in his words, “can’t find work for love nor money”. He came to complain about how, in his view, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had mismanaged the economy. With a beaming smile on his face and a placard with a cheeky joke about Britain’s economic police, I warmed to him instantly. As we spoke, I noticed a policeman filing him with a video camera. To our left, police were telling anyone who approached that they could not walk past their line. Things later became rather chaotic, and, in a sea of human bodies, I found myself outside the cordon. Our correspondent inside was forced to remain there until well after the sun had gone down. Did this man deserve to be filmed by police as if he was a terrorist, and then kept in an area for hours on end, without access to toilet facilities or food or water, simply because he wanted to protest against British economic policy? Surely not.

The difficult thing to accept about the ‘boiling kettle’ decision was that it was implemented before any violence flared up. Demonstrators said the later violence was a product of the anger and frustration prompted by this method. That’s grossly overstated – by the time the sun set there were roving gangs of drunk men who were about as interested in the rights and wrongs of Brown’s fiscal stimulus as I am in knitting jumpers. But there was some truth in it.

At the moment police blockaded demonstrators in the square, there was no violence whatsoever. There was no need for the blockade. It was a minor infringement of the gathered crowd’s right to protest.

Individual bobbies have nothing to be ashamed of. They, on the whole, behaved impeccably. But systemically, questions need to be raised about the approach the Met has adopted to demonstrations. Policing is essential. But there is a heavy-handed style to the tactical calculations which seems unnecessary and wrong. It appears the authorities are increasingly reducing protest to a mere public disorder situation, rather than an expression of democracy which must be policed.