Voices from the Occupation
N30: A Ground’s Eye View - Life Inside the Kettle
November 30th 2011, over 2 million public sector workers held a strike, in protest at government attempts to force them to work longer, pay more and get less. You may very well have seen some coverage of this on your friendly local news network, but this article shares stories and video that you won't be seeing on the 9 o'clock news. Banner making, marching, occupying Panton House, kettles and police brutality...another day in the life.
I woke on November 30th, having had a meagre few hours sleep thanks to roadworks and a very cold tent. My morning routine on camp is to haul out of bed, wander over to starbucks with my rucksack of bathroom stuff and change of clothes, have a wash, come back to camp and have my morning coffee (from camp, not the Starbucks). However, as I walked bleary eyed in the general direction of Starbucks, I noticed a preponderance of high vis jackets. Police were all over the place. I shrugged it off and continued to walk. Then I was grabbed by the sleeve, and spun toward and officer.
“You are being stopped and searched under Section 60”
Know Your Rights
I’ve never been stopped and searched before and was unsure of my right to refuse, and what they could and couldn’t do under the power. So I complied reluctantly and called GBC Legal straight after to check my rights. The officer did two things very wrong – one was to take information from my cash cards in my wallet and write it down in his notebook, the other was not to provide me with a slip, a piece of paper like a receipt confirming the stop and search has taken place.
Once I’d woken up properly and washed, I took out my camera and began to film several of the stop and searches to ensure they were being recorded by someone.
Stopped and Searched Twice in 10 Minutes
On to St Paul’s
There was an atmosphere of quiet, determined preparation at St Pauls. I arrived at 11am to find a relatively small number of police in the vicinity, and lots of people milling around looking purposeful. After a few announcements and final preparation, this mash up of feminists, spiritualists, socialists, libertarians, hippies, concerned of primrose-hills, and an array of public sector workers set off from St Pauls to join the unions at Lincolns Inn Fields for the start of the march.
The march to Lincolns Inn Fields was hilarious in its painstaking progress through the streets. The police first formed a line between the St Pauls march and the Unison march, splitting our numbers in two. Then as Unison trotted off nicely ahead, we were stopped every 1-2 minutes creating more and more distance between the marches, and some frustration in the crowd. However, the general tone was excited and filled with anticipation to see just how many people were assembled at Lincolns Inn Fields.
The March - And They’re Off!
On entering Lincolns Inn Fields, I let out a spontaneous ‘wow!’ There was a wall of people, banners, placards, colours, sounds, filling the place. Giant red helium Unison balloons hovered over the crowd like zeppelins, PCS bright yellow flags rippled in the breeze, a great kettle drum band played awesome tunes, and the Occupy banners and demo units filled the sky at the rear with green and orange declarations of ‘All Power to the 99%!’. It was extraordinary to see this extraordinary number of people, all together, all making their voices heard, making their stand.
The march to Victoria Embankment was peaceful, cheery and uneventful. The policing was unobtrusive; vans, officers and some horses standing in the entrances to roads we were not meant to go down, but not maintaining a constant police line, or kettling along the route as I have been used to.
On arrival at Victoria Embankment I checked twitter to see that something was going to happen at Piccadilly Circus at 3pm. I had a little flurry of excitement about perhaps the idea of a new occupation.
There were a few talks at Victoria Embankment, but within less than an hour of arrival, the talks were done and a mass exodus left the area. As we were walking back to the tube station, more and more officers were streaming into the embankment area where a contingent of protesters had remained, and my wife turned to me and said ‘I don’t like the look of that’.
Panton House Occupation
As I settled in camp with a coffee at the end of the day, pondering how to write up the strike, a call came through that Panton House off Haymarket had been Occupied. Panton House is the London HQ of mining company Xstrata and houses the office of Mark Davis, CEO: the highest paid FTSE100 CEO at £18.4m per year. Aside from the questionable acts of his corporation, Mr Davis has been busily laying off staff, reducing his employees terms and conditions including wage reductions and pension stripping. He is worth £18.5m per annum, but his employees are not worth even their current meagre wages. Occupy London had something to say to Mr Davis, so they went to his office of work to occupy his building and read him a statement, condemning his behaviour as entirely representative of the 1% - a man is seen reading this statement in videos from Panton Street further in the article.
On arriving on Haymarket, at around 5pm, there was a quite incredible police presence. I made my way as close to Panton Street as I could to take some footage of the kettle.
It was incredibly difficult to make out what was happening inside the kettle, from our vantage point on the outside. However, there was a moment where yet another plain clothes police officer was identified inside the kettle. This is an enormous issue for peaceful protest at the moment. Unbadged, unidentified police officers making their way through crowds of protesters taking down evidence for later use in prosecuting people. It is also impossible to make a complaint about the behaviour of these officers, as they bear no identification from which to make the complaint.
The atmosphere outside was one of light hearted incredulity. People were standing next to officers and talking about why they were here in such numbers, why they were prosecuting the people standing up for their pensions. A woman next to me said to the police line ‘after all this, and your pensions and wages being stuffed, don’t you ever just want to quit?’ One officer looked at us and said ‘Yes, I do. I really do’. We thanked him for his candour and moved on.
However, all of a sudden the police line moved and we went from being outside the kettle, to being in our own separate kettle. This kettle included Occupy supporters, passersby, tourists, workers on their way home. There was an angry response on the fringes of this kettle where people had been pushed, shoved and grabbed by police onto one side of the kettle.
After a few minutes, the police line moved again and the kettle unformed. But we were kept well away from Panton Street.
From Onlookers to Protestors
After another hour or so, arrestees started to be marched out of the kettle on Panton Street and aboard coaches waiting inside the police line. At this point, most of the remaining fifty or so onlookers were at the end of the police line where the coaches were to leave. After one call for us to move, to allow the coaches through, the police line surged forward into the small crowd of onlookers and began to push, throw, punch and kick us down the street to make way for the coach. I personally saw a young woman punched in the face, a young man kneed in the chest so hard he collapsed, a slight young black man grabbed by a policeman (badge number VW949) thrown, then pushed into the ground – this officer was pulled off by the crowd and yelled at. In response, the crowd refused to move away. We stood with our hands in the air, in a silent scream, or making the peace sign as the officers came forward again and again, causing injury and upset.
The video below shows the good natured atmosphere completely destroyed by the un necessary actions of the police.
This video shows me in the bright blue coat being pushed, shoved, (at 00:35) and at 00:45 a police officer twists my arm up behind my back and throws me out of shot.
Once the chaos wore down we agreed to hold a general assembly on the pavement to decide our next steps. It was agreed by consensus that we would leave the scene as there was no political reason for us to continue a stand-off with the police at that location, the arrested having been shipped off to three different police stations around London. We agreed to disperse, ascertain the locations of the arrested and provide arrestee support. This means groups of people waiting at police stations with provisions, busfare, a big smile and a hug for every last person arrested until they are all released.
However, it was a long wait as no one was released overnight until the following day December 1st.
Arrestee Support at Kilburn Police Station
With a small group, I made my way to Kilburn Police Station, where 9 of the 21 arrested were staying. I chose to go there as I had heard Priscilla Aroso, who had formed part of arrestee support when I was arrested on 5th November, had been detained. The highlight of our stay at Kilburn was a police officer coming out to tell us we couldn’t charge our mobile phones in the sockets in the waiting room as these were for the cleaner. He told us if we’d been warned and if we continued to use them we would be arrested and charged with ‘abstracting electricity’. He then told us to stop, or else. Literally. We had a little laugh and unplugged our chargers, muttering about the fact we pay for the station.
Finally, people started getting released and at 5.05pm December 1st 2011, the final of the arrestees at Kilburn Police station was released. I took a moment out to interview Joe Spence, one of the arrested.
All in all, there were 23 arrests at Panton Street. All those arrested we spoke to had been charged with Aggravated Trespass, Criminal Damage and Burglary. Their bail conditions are not to go within 100m of Panton Street, and all have been asked to return to Albany Street Police Station on 19th January 2012.
Whatever your views on the Occupy movement, whatever your views on peaceful protest, whatever your views on civil disobedience – there is no denying that the prohibition of peaceful protest swept across our legal system while we were busy doing other things. Now, militaristic police tactics are making criminals of the disobedient. You do not need to be violent, a threat, abusive or aggressive to be arrested. You simply need to disobey. That is the line between the police behaviour on the march, and the police behaviour on Haymarket. The line between you being waved by and being beaten to the floor is that simple, that thin. Having crossed this line recently, I can tell you how bizarre it is to realise that those angry looking people being dragged off at the G20 and me, weren’t so very far apart. You may be reading this thinking these restrictions will never apply to you, that they might not be great but what do they really matter anyway? Consider, you haven’t yet reached the end of your patience. You haven’t yet had a moment where you thought ‘Up with this I will not put’, been given a stark momentary choice between following an order against your principles, and making a stand consistent with them. When that happens, you need the law behind you. Adlai Stevenson, speaking in Detroit Michigan in 1952 stated: “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”
If we continue to refuse to face up to the turning tide, we will simply have a harder struggle, requiring more severe sacrifices further down the line. Act now, join the occupation, join your union, get creative in how, when and where you protest. The time is now.