A Quaker view from inside the ‘kettle’

Description of her experiences at the education cuts protest on 9 December 2010

The impact of government cuts will be felt by many people across Britain in 2011. There will be protests. Thousands will take to the streets to express their opposition to the cuts; but what will they experience? Events in late 2010 have given us an insight.

The protests against education cuts on 9 December 2010 in London were described as having been used by ‘anarchists’ (The Times) and ‘Trotskyists’ (Daily Mail), intent on acting violently. The truth is not as simple. I am a teacher at a London comprehensive school, who went to Parliament Square, on a day off, to engage in peaceful protest. It was, at times, a frightening experience.

At 2.30pm we could see ranks of police in reflective coats outside Parliament and large numbers of demonstrators in the square with smoke rising.

Word began to circulate that we were ‘kettled’: confined to the square by police. At about 3.45pm, we decided to go home. As we approached the line of police, some protesters began dragging railings into a barricade and the police moved forward. The police seemed very edgy and would not answer repeated questions. It didn’t seem possible to leave as the police were lined closely.

An hour or so later we again tried. There were police with horses. The situation seemed extremely unpredictable. We were caught between the horses and a line of police. I was filled with panic at the fear that the horses and police might move forward. I ran ahead of my friends in panic, leaving them worried as to where I was.

I tried to centre down but found it incredibly hard to find that ‘still’ place within me. We heard police might be letting people out near Westminster Abbey, so we moved there to join a very long and neat queue, but were eventually told it was not going to be let out. Gradually the crowd became bigger and bigger. I felt incredibly frustrated that we hadn’t been let out when it would have been possible to do so in an orderly fashion.

At about 9pm we were moved to Westminster Bridge with riot police behind us and at the sides of us, with their visors down. We were kept on Westminster Bridge for an hour and a half. We could see at least six police vans arriving and backing up behind police ranks. The later stages were particularly frightening as people were pushing forward while riot police were preventing the front protesters from moving so space was increasingly limited. We finally made it off the bridge at 10.50pm – released one at a time through a funnel of riot police.

I have found it difficult to make sense of the experiences of the day. However, I can say this: I was trapped for about seven hours in a place that became increasingly dangerous, both as a result of police and protester action. I think the use of this tactic of ‘kettling’ is very wrong. It infringes the right to protest; it means police cannot deal with violent events within the space they have marked out; it seems (at least to me) to have exacerbated the violence; it turns people against the police. I am glad I was on the protest. I found it at times very frightening but it showed me the need to work at being able to find a quiet space within in the midst of fear, and it gave me the experience of being detained against my will: an experience many other people across the world undergo in much worse circumstances.

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