To make up for the lack of recent bloggage, here’s a whopper. In fact, it’s such an epic that I’ve divided it into two parts. Here’s the first!
To begin, we need to refer back to a blog I wrote just before the national strike of November 30th last year. Entitled “Got To Do Something” it set out my reasons for supporting the upcoming day of action and wanting to be part of it myself. The fact that much of what follows derives from a statement I produced for my legal team in preparation for a court case might give you some inkling as to how things panned out.
So let’s do the blurry screen thing and go back to central London on November 30th 2011.
I was there to show my support for the public sector workers demonstrating against cuts to their pensions and express my more general outrage at the increasing national and international tendency to squeeze the majority in order to enrich the wealthy. As a supporter (more than participant) of the Occupy movement I knew that people from the London camps and other like-minds would be sharing my aims. Having seen a rendez-vous mentioned on Twitter, I turned up at Liverpool Street Station at 7.30am. A group began to form at around the same time as a banner was displayed. I joined the group as it moved out of the station and we began to carry the banner, which carried the slogan “All Power To The 99%”. This slogan chimed eloquently with the kind of feelings I was keen to express so I was delighted to help convey it. Over the next few hours we displayed the banner in various significant or photogenic locations and linked up with some of the pickets that were taking place. Eventually we wound up at the Occupy camp at St Paul’s and went our separate ways for refreshments.
A little while later I returned to St Paul’s to find a large group gathering, ready for the feeder march to the main TUC meeting point at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Again, I made my way to where the “All Power To The 99%” banner was and took hold of it, along with a number of other people. We carried the banner to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then along the main march route, all the way to Victoria Embankment. If you were on this march yourself, you’ll no doubt remember that it was a calm, jovial affair, marred only by light drizzle and oppressive policing (remember the ring of steel at Trafalgar Square / Whitehall? The horses and Alsatians at opposite ends of the Strand?)
By this time a message had been put out on Occupy’s Twitter announcing a rendez-vous at Picadilly Circus for 3pm. Word went round that we should make our way there independently. I was keen to make sure that the banner got there and I know a couple of knots, so I folded it up tightly and tied it up. On arrival at Piccadilly Circus, it was very unclear what was going on. There was a significant police presence, including a ring of blue-hatted officers standing round Eros, but also a large contingent of PAOK Salonika fans, gathered in London for their match at Spurs that evening. (I now know that the cops in blue hats were members of the Territorial Support Group – TSG – and their role that day was not to watch over Greek footie fans or even particularly to keep an eye on Occupy but to ensure the safety of plain-clothes rozzers in case they got rumbled. However TSG are also the go-to guys for any kind of running around action so we’d see them again later.) The atmosphere was a bit random but cheery enough. A bit of asking around led me to the conclusion that our aim would be to undertake another “public repossession” of an empty building, in the vein of the “Bank of Ideas”. (The BoI was an office building, owned by UBS but unused and empty for years, which Occupy put to use as a resource centre, hosting talks, gigs, workshops and local community activities.) I figured that the “All Power To The 99%” banner I’d spent most of the day hauling round London would be an ideal accoutrement to this new Occupy venue.
After maybe 15 minutes, I heard someone say the banner needed to be opened out. Aware that I’d tied it rather securely, I scampered over and began to undo the knots. Even as I was finishing undoing the last bits of rope, one end of the banner was being pulled away from where I was, in the direction of Haymarket. I grabbed the loose rope at my end and began moving with the banner towards, and then into, Haymarket. The samba band, which I’d last seen early in the morning, had reappeared and was creating a carnival vibe as we fanned out across the road to display the banner clearly. About 100 yards down Haymarket I could see numbers beginning to concentrate around the entrance to a side road on the left. Somebody held a red flare aloft and moved towards the entrance to a building. People rapidly congregated and then I felt a tug on the banner and heard cries along the lines of, “Go on.”
A gap opened in the crowd and again the banner moved away from me as before. Absurdly, I was still trying to get the loose rope organised in my hands. We moved through an open door, to the side of some revolving doors, briskly but walking rather than running. Passing into a kind of atrium, we turned left and began ascending the stairs. After maybe 5 or 6 floors the stairs came to an end and I spotted daylight through a small door. Stepping through the door, we came out onto the roof and, walking round a pathway, came to an open area where the building fronted onto Haymarket. The roof parapet consisted of a lowish wall topped by a sturdy railing just below chest high. The banner was placed outside the railing, pulled tight and tied at each end. I was at the right hand end, holding the top rope, so I tied it securely with a round turn and a slip-hitch. I used a slip-hitch (basically a loop knot) because it would be easier to get undone and it saved having to haul through several feet of rope. I then set about tying off the bottom rope and gathering and re-coiling the loose ends.
As I was doing this I became aware of a TSG officer grabbing at a young lady to my left. He seemed to have completely lost his temper and was tugging very roughly on her arm. Slightly outraged but trying to remain cordial I said, “Hey, steady on”, which sounded ridiculous the moment it left my mouth. He carried on struggling for a bit until more police arrived. They seemed calmer and it looked like they removed their irate colleague from the scene. By this time the banner was being pulled back over the railing and gathered up so I began undoing the rope at my end. Before I could finish, I was grabbed by another TSG who tried to pull me away from the railing and the banner that I was untying. My instinctive reaction was to grab something solid (ie. the railing) to steady myself and then to indicate to the officer that I was in the process of removing the banner. The cop was then joined by some colleagues and together they hauled me away from the railing and spun me round, grabbing at least one of my arms in a lock. Someone was shouting, “On your knees! On your knees!” I couldn’t think why on earth they needed me to be on my knees but I was conscious that I was standing on a wet bit of roof. A few feet to my left the surface was quite dry so I said, “Can I have a dry bit of floor please?” The response was, “On your knees!” I then said something like, “If you let me onto the dry, I’ll be happy to kneel down.” It’s important to stress that, despite galloping adrenaline, I felt quite serene at this point. I had no desire to fight back against the police, I just wasn’t prepared to be bullied or dehumanised. (I’m also really, really fastidious sometimes.)
My serenity took a bit of a jolt as some police officer stamped a foot down between my legs and threw me, judo style, over his leg. So now I was lying face down on the wet roof. One arm was forced up behind my back. I tried to relax and stay supple, rather than tense up. Then I felt a knee pressed heavily into my back. It was in exactly the right location to push my solar plexus against the ground, giving me the feeling of being winded and making breathing uncomfortable. Also my phone charger, in my jacket pocket, was pushing against my ribs. All this was too much. I felt as though I was now being thuggishly assaulted (probably because I was). Although I was unable to look round to see who was kneeling on me, I was able to say, in a short-winded rasp, “Get your knee out of my back you [insert very bad word].” I’m not a heavy swearer but it was the least he deserved. I’ve no idea if he heard me or not but anyway he got off and a few moments later I was cuffed behind my back and then helped to my feet by the first TSG who began the arrest formalities, while I looked down and realised that my left trouser leg was ripped open from top to bottom. There’s just no conceivable justification for that kind of physical violence from the police. I got off quite lightly – some of the others on the roof sustained genuine injuries in the form of sprains and heavy bruising. Glasses and other property were broken, many of us were forced to lie in puddles. And yet we posed precisely zero threat to the police and would have left as calmly as we arrived if they had simply asked us to. It makes you wonder what they get told in their briefings to make them so frightened and confrontational. Or maybe they’re just simple. Who knows?
Anyhoo, I was told I was being arrested for aggravated trespass and criminal damage. All thoughts of withholding my name were undone by a wallet containing about fifteen different forms of ID, so I just went along with the whole dreary procedure. I wasn’t actually that bothered when word buzzed through on the police radios that they should re-arrest us on a charge of burglary. The situation was now firmly in the realm of the surreal. I was photographed on the roof and then we were led down to the top landing inside the building.Unbeknown to us at the time, outside in the street hundreds of police were engaged in their usual wrong-brained tactic of kettling the rest of the group who had come down from Piccadilly. See YouTube for all the usual footage of officers clobbering passers-by and one lighter moment as a plain-clothes snitch is identified and ironically kettled by the crowd. Unfortunately this all resulted in a rather boring afternoon for those of us inside as the cops had decided we needed to be removed, in a rigorously secure operation, to various police stations outside central London. After at least two hours we were taken to the ground floor, photographed again, and then led out through a swarm of flashbulbs and questions onto a waiting coach. My arresting officer got into the aisle seat next to me and eventually we moved off in motorcade fashion, shepherded by at least four police motorbikes.
After the fastest journey through London’s fashionable West End I’ve ever had, I was plonked out at the back entrance to Harrow Road nick, along with my inseparable arresting officer and about half a dozen other arrestees. The time was now 6.30pm and although the drizzle had largely eased, the late November evening air was relatively brisk, especially where it flapped in and out of the remnants of my left trouser leg. Gradually we were moved, one by one, first into a locked cage surrounding the door, then through the door itself and into the booking suite. I got inside at 10.30pm. Tired and cold doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Moments later the arresting officer of the last guy still outside got permission to bring him in because he was worried about him getting hypothermia. The only thing that made the waiting and the cold remotely bearable was the fact that all our arresting officers were there too. I pointed out that they could have all been at home if they hadn’t arrested us. I also felt it was only kind to mention that there were plenty of more interesting, more socially productive things they could be doing with their lives. “I sell and mend bikes,” I said. “I help people have fun.” At this point the Sarge suggested I be quiet and almost seemed to imply that until I opened my mouth we’d all been getting on fine and I’d had to go and spoil it for everyone. At least this made me smile and it helped to while away the hours.
Once inside, thing speeded up a bit. But not much. The Desk Sergeant booked me in, somebody took my outer clothes and boots (but fortunately I was able to keep my base layer, fleece and thermal socks) and finally I was photographed (again!), fingerprinted, DNA sampled, and tested for crack and heroin. “What?” you say. Well, burglary is a “trigger charge” wherein abuse of heroin and/or crack is thought to be a major driver, so for statistical purposes all burglary suspects are tested. Or, to put it another way, by charging us with burglary not only was there the stain of a more serious accusation but also the possibility of uncovering some scandalous drugginess. Or maybe I was just suffering institutionally-induced paranoia by this time. So finally, at 12.30am, I was shown to my cell and given a rubber lasagne to chew on. Frankly I would have eaten my own foot and slept in a bucket so I was actually quite upbeat. I used the T-shirt I’d been given to cover the pillow bit of the rock-hard blue mattress and folded the blanket so it was under as well as over me and just about got to sleep in time to be woken up and asked if I was OK.
Now I’m an introvert; I like solitude and my own company. Plenty of that in the clink, so, time to ponder, to philosophise, to gain perspective. Fortunately, a couple of days previously, I’d read an excellent blog by the wonderful @Scriptonite (www.scriptonitedaily.org) about her experience of being arrested at a demo and bunged in the cells. The knowledge that other people had trodden the path before me made it much easier to deal with. Of course I was aware of many other folk from other times and places who had gone through infinitely worse ordeals than anything I’d faced. I couldn’t compare myself with them for a moment but I could at least draw strength from their perseverance. Scriptonite’s experience was similar to mine and therefore more directly applicable. I was cheered by the thought that there were probably people aware that I and the others were in there and that possibly they were even waiting for us outside. I had no proof but I had the hope that there might be, and that helped enormously. I didn’t feel fearful, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt calm and fulfilled and I slept the sleep of the just.
Next time… How I woke up all achey, but fought on regardless. Hurrah!
So, the revolting students were back in town (copyright: every newspaper). Once more the nation’s thinking classes descended on the capital to vent their rage at a series of moves that seem designed to saddle them with either massive debt or huge bills when they finish studying.
And once more they were met by a policing operation the likes of which you might expect if the Earl of Somewhere was getting up an army and demanding the throne. Vast numbers were amassed and pre-emptive threats were issued. The clear message was, “if you take part in this march we will regard you as our enemy and treat you as such. Furthermore, we’ll make sure your future gets kyboshed as well. So stay at home.” No, really: look at this
Such scare tactics are despicable and signify a worrying move towards the criminalisation of dissent. At a time when Freedom and Democracy are being portrayed as the worthy objectives of our foreign military adventurism, the Government seems to have no appetite for them at home.
The police tactics on the ground included an early deployment of riot equipment and widespread use of “undercover” officers (in reality, absolute sore thumbs). Horses and dogs were also reported to have been used (not undercover).
The march passed off entirely peacefully, with the exception of some confrontations with police. There was clearly no intention to cause significant property damage (unlike last time when Tory HQ was chosen as a totemic target).
So was this passivity because of, or despite, the police operation? Well, who knows? But in a sense, that’s a side issue. The real question is whether or not we want to live in a society so unsure of itself that it has to bully those who disagree with it. Or are we prepared (like the Occupy movement it must be said) to embrace dissenting voices and do the hard work required to move forward in a constructive and adult fashion?