Friday 27th July was the night of the Danny Boyle Opening Ceremony to the London 2012 Olympic Games. The flame-filled celebration to agricultural, industrial and cyber Britain was also a celebration of the isle’s history of political dissent. The suffragettes, the Jarrow Marchers and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament all getting a nod. As tens of thousands roared approval inside the stadium, outside 182 cyclists were being held in a police kettle for daring to cycle the streets of London freely. It seems the UK is happy to benefit from and bask in the glory of protesters past, whilst police pepper spray, assault and arrest the protesters of today. I was one of the people arrested that night, and this is my story.
What is Critical Mass?
Perhaps Critical Mass can best be described as an opportunity, rather than an organisation or campaign. It is a monthly opportunity for cyclists to join a procession and ride their bikes through the streets of London with a few hundred others. The ride has been happening on the last Friday of every month for 18 years and happens worldwide.
I have found myself in London on these nights and suddenly a sea of cyclists has whizzed by ringing their bells, penny farthings trundling after honking their horns, all smiling. The rides have become, love them or loathe them, a feature of London life. Some cyclists see it as a political statement for better conditions for cyclists, promoting the environmental and health impacts of cycling over cars, or reclaiming public space. Some see it as an awesome bit of fun and civil disobedience and others simply love cycling in their city. The best bit is that none of these opinions is wrong; they are all present and all welcome.
The cyclists always cycle the last Friday of every month, and this month that happened to coincide with the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. The call went out as usual. There is no central body to make a call on whether a ride happens or not. Whoever turned up at Waterloo Bridge at 6pm on Friday was Critical Mass. There is no route other than that decided at each junction by riders who happen to be in the front.
That is how it works.
As it happened, on that fateful Friday around 400 cyclists showed up and about as many police.
A Call to Bear Witness
I was in London as spokesperson for the OurOlympics campaign, awaiting the Counter Olympics Network’s ‘Demonstration Against the Corporate Games’ on Saturday 28th July. Not wishing to risk receiving an Olympic ASBO ahead of the event, I decided to stay in my B&B room in the Kings Arms Guest House on Bow Road. However, the pictures and tweets from the Critical Mass hash tag soon started streaming across my computer screen, becoming ever more alarming. The police had issued a Section 12 Order banning cyclists from going north of the River Thames, police were blocking the bridges creating huge traffic jams, cyclists were attempting to ride freely where they liked and being met with police violence.
A sample of tweets from the #CriticalMass hash tag on 27th July
By 8pm things were sounding fairly horrendous, with tweets suggesting police had pepper sprayed a disabled man at Blackfriars.
At 8.20 the procession had made it to Bow Road and passed my B&B. I was tweeting for @OurOlympics and decided to hop on one of the Boris Bikes across the road and follow the procession to get footage to release of the ride and any police interference. No sooner had I caught up with the procession, than we were ushered by police into a cul-de-sac off the Stratford High Street called Warton Road. As confused cyclists attempted to turn around and make their way out, police blocked them, formed a perimeter and arrested anyone who made an attempt to leave the area.
Inside the Kettle
Between 8.45 and 10pm there was very little communication between police and cyclists. We were kept heartened by the phone calls and tweets of support from those not transfixed by the shiny lights, bells and whistles on the Opening Ceremony. A few are sampled below.
Outside the Kettle
One arrest was of a frequent Critical Mass cyclist. Why? She wanted to give some water to an arrested Muslim man. He'd been fasting for Ramadan, feeling faint and no water was being supplied by police.
The video of her arrest sums up the policing approach that night: smug, bullying and an absolute abuse of the laws of the land.
Others were arrested on the aptly named McDonalds Bow Flyover, footage is captured of these arrests below, which reported to include a teenage boy. I witnessed a woman storming into Charing Cross police station later berating a policeman saying “Don’t you realise he is 14 years old?! Get him off that bus!” But I’ll return to that later.
The Wheels on the Bus…
The moment the atmosphere really turned for me, was the point at which it became clear we were all going to be arrested. I spoke to a man called Simon, who had only been on the Iraq war protest before this event, had never been arrested and was understandably shaken by events.
The legal observers for the ride distributed ‘bust cards’ – these contain information on what to say to police if you are arrested, your rights as an arrestee and phone numbers for solicitors and legal monitoring group Green & Black Cross.
At around 10.20pm police informed us we were being arrested and our bikes would be following us on a separate bus. London red buses pulled up and one by one, we were ushered through the police line, photographed, read our rights, handcuffed, and taken onto a bus. Each of us had an individual police officer assigned to us, leading us onto the bus and standing with us. I was on the first bus to leave the area. We asked where the police were taking us, but they were drafted in from the Midlands and were not aware. Finally we heard Charing Cross.
An hour later, we arrived at Charing Cross. There were no seats left on the bus so I was standing, handcuffed, for this journey. On arrival, a small group from our bus (eight from 20) were ushered into the police station after a short wait. We were led to believe we would be following them in.
However, after an hour had passed people were getting twitchy. The police had provided small bottles of water; however no one had been given access to a toilet for the three hours that had passed. Some people were getting desperate. I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it was to see grown men on the edge of tears in pain and fear that they were likely to wet their pants in public. Finally, at around midnight, an Inspector came onto the bus and told us he would address the toilet problem. His solution was that people could go one by one. Not only this, but the police would stand in the toilet with the person using it. Monitored toilet trips.
This started out ok, but two other buses joined the area equally full. This meant sixty people using one toilet over a four hour period.
The video below is of our queue of buses on the night, taken at around 2.45am. We are still waiting to be taken into the station and processed, having arrived at 11.25pm.
Throughout this time, no one was granted permission to use their phones to contact and inform their loved ones. So since 10.30pm no one had heard any update on our whereabouts.
Finally….Off the Bus!
A detective constable came to our bus and took our names and addresses. They said this was because they wanted to check proof of residence, and that we would be bailed for release that night. Chances were we’d be able to leave once they’d processed us at the Custody desks inside. After half an hour of administration, we were told we could leave the bus with our officers. Still in handcuffs, we were marched from the buses, along the street and into the station.
After completing this, a custody sergeant informed me that due to the high volume of over 130 arrestees, she was authorising my detention. I asked why I was being detained when we’d been told we were being bailed. She told me because that was her decision.
I was taken to a room where I was to be photographed with my arresting officer. This meant we were stood next to each other, her holding a piece of paper with my name and custody record number on it. After the first picture was taken, I was told to turn around so they could take the same photo but with me facing back to camera. I still have no idea what this was all about. It was confusing and dehumanising.
I was then taken to a cell. Cell number 25 on the second floor of Charing Cross police station. It felt like prison. We walked along corridor after corridor of cells. On arrival I was told to ring the bell if I needed anything, the door closed and I was alone with my thoughts.
The cell contained a wooden bench with a blue thing on it which looked like a gym crash mat from school, and a ‘pillow’ made from the same inflexible material. There was also a stainless steel toilet with no toilet paper. Other than that, just me.
It was now nearing 3am and I was suddenly starving. We’d been told throughout the bus stage that food was to be brought out to us, but it had never materialised. Despite being exhausted I wanted to eat more. I rang the bell and after a few minutes, the sliding hatch slid back to reveal a young female police officer.
Me: Hi, is it possible to get some food?
PC: (rolls eyes) Did you not eat dinner before you came on your protest?
Me: I did, but that was 5pm and it’s now 3 in the morning and I’ve been in custody for six hours. The police on the bus said they would bring us food but it didn’t come.
PC: We’ve got a lot on tonight…so….I dunno
Me: Look, can you just tell me whether I can have some food or not?
PC: Hmmm….is 3am a standard meal time? You see we only serve food to prisoners at standard meal times.
Me: Yes or no. Can you just ask?
Hatch slides shut.
I was furious to the point of tears in my eyes. I was trying to stay calm as I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of thinking she’d upset me. The upset made me suddenly miss my wife as the first person I would turn to when upset, and I realised I still hadn’t had my phone call. I rang the bell again. Another officer opened the hatch. I asked for my call and was told I didn’t have the right to a phone call. I had a right for someone to be notified of my arrest. As I had given those details at the Custody Desk, this person would be informed when they had time. I asked again and again to make the call and was refused.
I curled up as comfortably as I could on the crash mat and tried to go to sleep. Thankfully sleep came quickly.
I was awoken by the hatch sliding back loudly.
PC: Here’s your food!
I took the food, ate it quickly and then fell almost immediately back to sleep. I was woken regularly by shouts from other cells, cell doors opening and closing and plain old discomfort. I got cold so asked for a blanket. I woke up at one point coughing with thirst and after asking for water, was given a small cup the size of those from a machine dispenser. The next time I woke up, the opaque window seemed to suggest there was light outside as it was now grey rather than the black it had been before. I had been woken by sound of banging and chatting. Loud, male voices. They were going into each cell saying ‘Hello! Good morning! Its change over time and we’re your new custody officers!’ then slamming the door behind them and moving onto the next cell. This meant, not only did you have the indignity of this once, but had to listen to it all the way up and down the corridor of some twenty cells.
The next time the door opened it was a smiling eastern European officer informing me he was taking me to have my photograph and DNA samples taken. I was photographed sitting in a chair from my left side, face on and right side. Then my fingerprints were taken. This is about 15 minutes of each individual finger, your palm, the side of your hand as if you were writing, each finger rolled, and so on. About every variation of print you could make with your hands and fingers is taken by a machine. A gloved officer manipulates your hands into the various shapes required.
Finally, I was told to open my mouth while a hard plastic stick was scraped against the inside of each cheek.
At this point my property was returned, I signed various bits of paper in a daze and I was informed I was on bail and my conditions were thus:
Note, I am charged with no criminal offence, but am bailed under these conditions until September 18th, when I am to return to Charing Cross police station for further investigation.
I asked what had happened to the Boris Bike I had hired and was told it was in Charlton. I needed to contact the pound myself to arrange release. With that, I walked onto the Strand at 10.45am, in the clothes I’d slept in, hair a mess, smelly, hungry and thirsty, to make my way back to Bow Road.
My first call was to my wife, who had only been contacted by the custody officer at 10am.
Multiply this experience by 182 and you have the human impact on the cyclists of that night. Then consider the impacts on the loved ones who got little or no information for 12 hours as to the whereabouts and conditions of their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.
The behaviour of the police that night confirmed for anyone present or watching that something terrifying and sad has happened to this country. It has become illegal to disobey. No matter the scale of the disobedience, it is crushed by overwhelming numbers of militarised police.
Just last week, 6 members of the Greenwash Gold campaign were arrested on Trafalgar Square for pouring green custard over their own heads!
Furthermore, the use of bail conditions, injunctions and ASBOS, to impose restrictions on our freedom to move, assemble and express our views amounts to the kind of political policing that people are quite happy to denounce when it happens in North Korea or Iran. Where is the mainstream dissent here? Of 182 arrested, only four were charged with a criminal offence, but everyone has these bail conditions.
Dust Yourself off and Get Back to It
Liberty is not something you are guaranteed in perpetuity. It is something which has been won inch by inch by the persistence, passion, and commitment of protesters past who fought for it. They fought for the freedoms not just for themselves, but later generations. Us. To see the Opening Ceremony saluting these battles, while ignoring the one raging outside the hallowed walls of the Olympic stadium is as ironic as it is hypocritical.
The Suffragettes, the Jarrow Marchers, the CND, the Civil Rights Movement….none of these groups was welcomed in their own time. They were beaten by police, vilified by the media and heckled and misunderstood by their communities who didn’t want the boat rocked. They were dirty, smelly hippies who should go get a job…or troublesome anarchists bent on mischief. Now, at the very moment we are basking in the liberties they won us…those same liberties are being crushed. As austerity creeps in and the will and necessity to express political dissent rises, it is simultaneously criminalised by a rash of hastily drawn laws and changes in policing.
182 people were arrested on Friday night not because they presented any real threat the Opening Ceremony, but to put the fear of God into people considering civil disobedience of any kind.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith (pictured above) were banned from the US Athletics Squad and Olympic Village in 1968 after raising their fists in a black power salute during the US National Anthem played during their medal ceremony. However, when asked if he regretted this stand in support of the civil rights movement, John Carlos responded – “I am not afraid to offend my oppressor”.
So, if the aim of the police and the government is to frighten the 21st century protest movement for social, political and environmental justice, to crush not only our acts of dissent but our will to mount such acts, they better think again. We will not be cowed. We will not be diverted. We will not be silenced. We will stand together for our NHS, for our schools, for our elderly having enough money to live in dignity, for people to have the opportunity to work and for that work to be compensated as a living wage, for public money to be spent on public services staffed by public workers, for a world where problems at home and abroad are dealt with by communication and understanding, not guns and bombs, for treating our planet like it is our home and not a dumping ground.
This is OUR dream. This is compelling enough for people to risk their freedom for.
What kind of freedom is it that can be revoked at the whim of some hot headed police officer anyway?