THE BLOG

Do Police Tactics at Demonstrations Encourage Rather Than Prevent Public Disorder?

15/03/2013 13:34 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

After three trials, two years and one not-guilty verdict Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two of the protesters charged with violent disorder following the student demonstration on December 9, 2010, are finally free from the judicial time-warp that has encompassed their lives.

Tonight they will be celebrating their long-fought freedom with friends, family and supporters as they attempt to move on with their lives.

However, it would be rash and irresponsible for all those that care about the right to protest in a safe environment to move on before considering and reflecting on the chaotic policing of the event that essentially encouraged the public disorder the authorities sought to avoid.

For what came out over the four week trial at Woolwich Crown Court gives rise to serious questions over whether kettling thousands of protesters in a confined space without warning or explanation does more harm than good - inflaming tensions, provoking conflict and increasing the number of injuries and damage that it's supposed to prevent.

According to the head of police tactics that day, Silver Commander Mick Johnson, there were only one or two hundred people on the march intent on violence yet up to 15,000 were kettled.

Tom Wainwright, Zak King's defence barrister, said it was this tendency by the police to lump protesters together, polarise their view - good crowd or bad crowd - and treat them as one that stokes a flame and produces a fire.

Furthermore, the provocative decisions to kettle and trap so many people in Parliament Square, 'horse-charge' a crowd of peaceful protesters on Broad Sanctuary and sweep thousands of people down Whitehall back into the square were unnecessary and born out of poor communication between police and protesters and between the police themselves.

There was no audio or visual public address system to communicate what was happening with the public and officers readily admit it is near impossible to communicate with anyone, including each-other, with helmets on.

The decision to kettle was primarily taken after a large crowd began pushing against a police cordon on Broad Sanctuary, but according to witnesses speaking under oath, they were told by police it was an exit point from the square.

However, no one informed the officers on the ground that a containment was now in place and that protesters could no longer leave via Whitehall.

Fearing for his colleagues as the crowd burgeoned, a mounted officer unilaterally decided to 'horse-charge' the passive crowd without warning, along with a dozen others.

The fear, panic and shock on protesters' faces as they dived for safety was palpable (as police video evidence played in court revealed), before foot officers moved in striking out with batons and shields. Unsurprisingly the raid prompted angry responses from the crowd, some of whom began throwing missiles at officers.

An hour-and-a-half later, a few thousand protesters either broke through or were allowed through a cordon further up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square.

Headed towards Parliament Square they suddenly surrounded and unintentionally split a group of around 40 officers by some large gasworks on Parliament Street who understandably became panicked and perturbed.

Fearing for their safety Commander Mick Johnson ordered his men to 'push' the crowds on Whitehall, many who thought they had left the kettle, back into Parliament Square.

Johnson later said he only meant for people from the gasworks down to be pushed back into the square and didn't know why his message didn't accurately get through to officers on the ground.

The decision resulted in hundreds of people being aggressively pushed down Whitehall and funnelled and squashed into an already tense stand-off between police and protesters causing more anger and panic.

The police were now in a position that senior officers insisted they go out of their way to avoid; being 'toe-to-toe' with protesters - let alone angry, frustrated, trapped ones.

Unsurprisingly it was only a matter of time before conflict broke out between the two parties.

We will never know who blew the first kiss.

In court some officers admitted being in fear for their lives and hitting out at those around them meanwhile there were clearly some 'missiles' being thrown at various points.

At some point metal fencing was brought over by the protesters and, during 15 minutes of exchanges between police and protesters, was clearly being used defensively to protect against police baton and shield strikes, however, at one point, it was clearly being rammed at head height at officers shields.

It should be said that Zak King and Aldie Meadows were never accused of throwing missiles or hitting out at police and a jury found them not guilty of using the fencing in a violent manner.

Ultimately after police support arrived, the crowd was pushed back into Parliament Square.

It was during that final push that Alfie Meadows received a blow to the head that required brain surgery.

Batons had been frivolously used on people's heads throughout the day, as police video evidence played in court revealed, rather than used as an 'absolute last resort' on limbs as police training dictates.

Something a bronze commander hoped to avoid with Wapping Boxes - two lines of metal fencing in parallel fixed together a metre apart - to keep police and protesters apart, but was overruled by Silver and Gold.

So on reflection, between the lack of Wapping Boxes, the frivolous misuse of batons, the poor communication, the decision to kettle and the anger and confusion they induced; the police provided the perfect ingredients and conditions for public disorder - something the thousand of officers present were there to prevent.