In the days leading up to the student demonstration on 9 November, the Metropolitan Police announced that police would be able to fire plastic bullets [aka baton rounds] at protestors.
In Northern Ireland, between 1970-2005, 125,000 baton rounds were fired. They killed 17 people, the last in 1989. A larger number of people were permanently injured after being shot.
Plastic bullets are a so-called “less-lethal” weapon, allegedly to be used against individuals who pose an immediate physical threat, by being armed and dangerous. Their use in policing was pioneered in Northern Ireland; their use in other parts of the UK approved in 2001.
After August’s riots, Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, came out against using plastic bullets against rioters. He had been responsible for their use in Northern Ireland: “I do not think it would be sensible in any way... to deploy water cannon or baton rounds in London. I would only deploy [baton rounds] in life-threatening situations. What is happening in London is not an insurgency that is going to topple the country.”
Yet, the Met said it was ready to break them out for the student demonstration on 9 November.
Part of the purpose of the police was to put people off marching. The Met also sent letters to people who had been charged in connection with previous political protests — e.g. the student demonstrations last autumn — warning them:
“It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or anti-social behaviour... Should you do so we will at the earliest opportunity arrest and place you before the court.”
Part of their purpose was to avoid a repeat of any such event as the storming of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank Tower last year — they were under political pressure. But they also have their own agenda: to increase their own power.
Out of sight of most of the public, they have been “tooling up” for many years, since the last period of mass labour unrest in the late 1970s. They have a vast new armoury and range of techniques to use, including tasers and surveillance equipment.
The police can be lethal. Since 1969 there have been more than 1,000 deaths in police custody, yet there has not been one successful prosecution. Three people died after being shot with tasers during eight days this August. Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in Tottenham on 4 August, an event that sparked the riots.
A lot of police power was on display on 9 November. They had promised “total policing” on the day and 4,000 police were deployed to corral and herd 10,000 people through the streets of London. It has been called a “moving kettle”.
On the day, riot police kettled several hundred electricians to prevent them joining the student march. They told young people they couldn’t go and buy a sandwich. Uniformed officers arrested some hooded youngsters who climbed on scaffolding. “Plainclothes” officers, badly disguised to look like demonstrators, steamed into the crowd to snatch some targeted individual. Large areas of the City, beyond the demonstration route, were shut down by the police.
At their debriefing sessions that evening the Met presumably congratulated themselves on a job well done, a volatile force channeled and contained and a few techniques in crowd control honed. The rest of us went home with a sour taste in our mouths.
In the coming weeks and months many more protestors, including older trade unionists, will be seeing a lot more of the police, and how they keep “law and order”. What that means in the context of policing protest, and even picket lines, is weighing in on the side of property and vested interest, upholding the cuts, the job losses, the privatisation.
The labour movement needs to take more of an interest in what force and techniques the police use. If we don’t, they will do what they like to us.