Editorial Michaelmas 2011 Week 7: “Students have spent over a year feeling angry”
Students have spent over a year feeling angry. The nature of the relationship between protesters and policemen has changed drastically since the protests this time last year. At last November’s London protest, TCS was lucky enough to be the only student newspaper with reporters embedded with the Metropolitan Police. During the morning before the Millbank riots, an officer told TCS that she really liked policing student demonstrations, because “they tend to be full of life, and not violent”. Just hours later, Millbank Tower was being smashed up, and the Met were being fiercely criticised for not laying on heavier security. Come the December 5th demonstrations, the tables were turned. We reported violent scenes across London as police and protesters clashed. Mounted police charged on groups of students, who in turn set fires across the city and threw missiles.
Leading up to yesterday’s protests, there was a public outcry over the announcement that police were prepared to use ‘baton rounds’ or rubber bullets against protesters in the event of more violence. The idea that our police officers might fire on the very civilians they are meant to serve was met with disgust and disbelief.
Thankfully, such extreme actions were not taken yesterday. The event did not descend into anarchy and the turnout of protesters was much lower than last winter’s – no doubt partly due to a fear of heavy-handed policing. After being unprepared for Millbank a year ago, and after the public outcry and their slow response to the riots in England in August, it seems that the Met are keen to be seen as decisive, and prepared to take action against trouble-makers. That is, after all, their job.
However, the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way now. The police are no longer framed as protectors, but as aggressors. Intimidating letters sent, in advance of yesterday’s demonstration, to people arrested at previous London protests (even those who were subsequently not charged); the stop-and-search of coaches as they bussed students into London; the distribution of police booklets to protesters seemingly to scare, rather than inform, students; and the use of plain-clothes police officers (pointedly not mentioned in the “What will the officers be wearing?” section of the police
booklets) silently moving through the crowds. While some of the anarchic scenes witnessed at previous London protests, and during the August riots, were clearly horrific, menacing ranks of riot police outnumbering protesters by two-to one are just as terrifying.
Yesterday’s lack of violence is not something we should take comfort in. Peaceful protesters with a serious political message about the government’s disastrous higher education policies should not have been to made to suffer retrospective scare mongering and heavy-handedness meant for August’s opportunist looters.
A successful police force brings comfort and harmony to society. Yesterday, there was only fear. There is nothing comforting about cold war on the streets.