Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't piss in the kettle

Since last posting here, I have become a full time dissident.

We did not rise early on Thursday. There was no need to: the Commons wouldn't be voting until 5pm and the protest began at 12. We were marching to stop Nick Clegg from bringing off his latest and most dastardly plot. The crowd assembled at ULU. Above us was the Apache helicopter off Wikileaks, ready to gun down with relish anyone seen carrying a beach umbrella. Around us people were handing out flyers giving advice on what to do if we were arrested and earnest men were debating the relative merits of mutualism and collectivism; speaking much as if the matter would have to be settled by the end of the day, by which time we would have seized all major offices of state and it would be necessary for us to install some new form of government (or indeed non-government).

There was also a stall selling the Socialist Worker. My friends and I have long taken issue with the Socialist Worker's "F**K FEES" slogan.

"You should have courage in your expletives," my friend told one of the people running the stall.

"That's actually an old argument," he replied, "You know it's actually illegal to display obscenities and actually you can be prosecuted for it."

That's the spirit.

Soon we were marching. My two friends and I had with us blackboards and chalk. On these we wrote withering, ironic phrases which we angled at passing media people. "Don't piss in the kettle" (accompanied by a picture of a kettle) was an early favourite.

We marched and marched and marched and when we reached the north side of Parliament Square we stopped. Now, it was apparently at this stage that we "deviated from the agreed route": we were supposed to carry on up Whitehall then turn right and have a rally up by the Hungerford Railway Bridge.

There are two things that it is worth saying about this. One, most of us had not heard anything about any agreed route and it seemed as though the way up Whitehall was blocked. Two, the proposed rally point, up by the Hungerford Railway Bridge, is about three quarters of a kilometre from the House of Commons and isolated from politically iconic buildings.

The green on Parliament Square was protected by temporary fencing but some people broke it down on the south side of the square and soon we had all piled in. As a crowd, we were pushing to the west towards the Palace of Westminster. Some sort of battling was going on at the front but, back where we were, we practised our chants and drank whisky-laced coffee:

"Whose streets? Arse treats! Whose streets? Arse treats!"

This went on for some time and people began settling in, making fires from placards and so on. It seems perversely radical to burn your own message.

Then, for reasons few of us understood at the time, we all abandoned the eastern front and tried to scarper off down Victoria Steeet in the south-west corner of the square (I learned later that we were trying to avoid being kettled and that this was the last way out of the square). It was in that corner that the Met had stationed its most ill-tempered employees. It had hoisted some on enormous horses.

There was a certain amount of stick and smoke-bomb chucking going on. Soon, there were cries of "make way, make way" as young girls bleeding from the head were carried back through the crowd. My friend, who is taller than me, said that from what he could see, one of the police officers was a special maniac and might have been responsible for this.

Then there was a cavalry charge. Trying to stay upright in a terrified crowd of hundreds of people while carrying a blackboard and fleeing charging horses as fast as you can is difficult. The Python Terry Jones used to say that he was tickled by the use of 'run away!' as a military command and enjoyed putting it in the script of Holy Grail as many times as possible. On Thursday, it was the only command I had any use for. When I turned round I saw two figures standing among the horses holding each other. They each looked about four and a half feet tall. This little phase was later reported by Sky News as "Mounted police attacked by protesters".

As the crowd reformed, the mood changed. Time to redaub our chalky palimpsests with more serious-minded, horse-themed slogans. My friend came up with "We met at the riding club". I had "Courses not horses". The fences around the green had been supported by concrete blocks; people were now smashing these into smaller pieces to hurl at the police lines. While I watched someone doing this, a man said to me that he thought throwing lumps of concrete was going too far. I suggested that so long as they were very small lumps – gravel-size, say – it might not be that bad. Another man explained to him that he only had these reservations because he is English: in continental Europe they do this sort of thing all the time and everybody thinks it's fine – indeed, it is fine (he said).

It became clear that getting out on to Victoria Street was no longer possible. We drifted back to the green for a slow simmer in the kettle and waited for the outcome of the vote, which was to be announced some time after 5.30pm. We ate some homemade samosas and someone set fire to a plastic booth creating a vast column of black smoke. The air was seriously acrid and choking from this point on.

We had a little radio and were able to announce that the bill had passed to some nearby people. No reaction. We booed a bit and then set about trying to leave. This turned out to be impossible and one of my friends became separated from the other two of us.

Twenty minutes later, I spotted him in a surging crowd of hundreds of people running away from a police baton charge. I pulled him into the relatively calmer waters at the edge of the Treasury building. No sooner had we achieved this reunion than we became the front line. We were some of the only people standing between police lines and people trying to break a Treasury window. A strong light shone on us from a helicopter far above.

The crowd began doing some fairly unusual multi-tasking. One eye had to be kept on the agitated police line but the other eye was needed to appraise the work of the window smashers who, at this stage, were doing a clearly inadequate job. For one thing, they were hitting the central and most boingy window panes. For another, they were using blunt pieces of concrete. People began shouting advice: "smash the wood!"; "no, smash the glass and then pull out the frame!"; "get a run up!".

Eventually, some masked men turned up with a big metal pole and began lancing the window. "Sorry, sorry. Excuse me," was their cry as they came through the crowd.

A light came on inside the room, suggesting that there were police inside. This was a bad window, the crowd decided. There is a board behind it and, even though we've got through the glass, there'll be no getting through that board. Next window!

The next window had no board behind it and was helpless in the face of seasoned lancers. The blind was ripped out and burned. Hurrah! said the crowd.

My friend asked me what we would do if people started going in to the Treasury. Would we go in? There was no time to answer this question: the police had picked their moment and were charging full pelt with their batons, whacking everyone in their way. Disarray ensued. My friend and I were briefly part of a sit down protest. "Sit down! Everyone sit down!" we were yelling. Then the police charged again: "Fuck! Don't sit down! Don't sit down!"

Running away, we discovered a man smashing a Treasury door. With a little bit of help from others, he was through and people began streaming into the building. Time for that question again: are we going to go in? But, within seconds, everyone was streaming out again, as if repelled by a dragon.

Then began a long fight against the police officers inside using a piece of fencing. People smashed the windows around the door and chucked in bangers. Some people managed to grab truncheons. People hurled themselves at police shields. A masked boy opened a window that seemed to have been unlocked. Back in the audience, between 2 and 10 metres away, we were busy contextualising. Storming the Treasury: the most significant bit of civil disobedience since the poll tax riots, or even the Chartists. A new 1968.

The debate disbanded as police made another baton charge. At this point, we were in danger of being crushed between two separate police lines so we headed away from the Treasury down towards the Supreme Court. In this, the most quiet part of the square, we encountered a Financial Times journalist. She wanted to know what was going on but refused to go any nearer to the noisy section. We could have told her anything.

Further along, a pasty man who was bleeding from the head in two places was wobbling on his feet and asking police if he might be allowed to leave in order to attend hospital. The police told him that they were not going to let him through. Where had he got that bandage? they asked him. He had got it at first aid tent on the green, his friends told them. The police were suspicious of this. The pasty man's companions were in a mood of perfect consternation:

"What's the quickest way we can get him to hospital? Please get him an ambulance."

"All the ambulances are gone and I can't let you through."

After a lot more of this a police medic let him through.

Towards the abbey, another police officer was moving batonless through the kettle rounding up tired people who wanted to leave. He proposed letting us leave in small groups from the south-east corner. We stood in a crowd in that corner for a long time. The police guarding the barriers said they wanted young girls. The bored crowd offered this virginal sacrifice with no resistance but still we were not allowed to leave. An hour later, the police told us that they wouldn't be letting us out after all. Terrible service.

We moped around at the barriers by the parliament. A while later, the police were up to something. Hundreds more were pouring in from the House of Lords end. They had dogs. As they formed their lines, someone played the Imperial March from Star Wars through a megaphone.

Then some good news: we were to be set free! Simply head up to Westminster Bridge and we'll let you out. Thank you, police. Very kind. We read our what-to-do-if-you-get-arrested slips and walked on to Westminster Bridge. The police line ahead of us halted and a new one formed behind us. Much colder out on the bridge. People made some fires and started doing the hokey cokey.

Someone with a radio said that the news was reporting that we were refusing to leave. We did a lot of non-political, 'let us go'-themed chanting.

Someone else with a radio said that we were being held in the cold in order to allow Prince Charles to get to the Palladium safely. This was angry-making news.

Some time after 11, they started letting us out. When we got home, we found that the news was only interested in the Charles and Camilla paint business.
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