I am contained, along with hundreds of other students and children, within a police kettling outside the Brighton City Council building for over an hour. After arguing with an officer over our right to protest freely, a large group of us run towards an alleyway that is less guarded by police – yet they still manage to hold us. I am at the front of the crowd, being pushed into a policeman whose riot helmet is covered in spittle from the inside as he screams at us to “****ing move back!” I insist that we can’t, that the crowd is pushing too hard, and they have to let us through because people can’t breathe; there are schoolchildren amongst the group too small to even see what is going on. The policeman strikes me across the head with his forearm and raises his knee to my crotch while continuing to scream at us.
Another has his baton pressing in to my stomach as I struggle for air, and the crowd continues to surge forward; people are scared. Eventually, the police line falls apart from the collective force of the protesters, and we all rush through the alleyway to the comfort of cold sea air. In this situation we were peacefully protesting when the police contained us, ignored our pleas for release, and then attacked us as we attempted to leave.
A week earlier, at the Millbank protests, thousands of people cheer for the smashing of windows as a group of masked anarchists lead a giant fake carrot through the crowd. Applause erupts for a group of students reaching the roof of the building and releasing banners. The mood is not chaotic, but unified; for the first time, people feel that their views will be heard. There is a strong sense of passionate anger amongst the students – and this is just the beginning.
Hours later, the news headlines declare “riots grip Millbank”, and the cause is belittled, portrayed as simply aggressive teenagers letting off steam. The raising of tuition fees is barely mentioned as across the country politicians condemn the ‘violence’ and the ‘yobs’ involved.
What is violence? It is an action intended to cause a person pain or suffering. That is not what was occurring at Millbank – that was vandalism. Here is the crucial distinction that for some reason has been neglected by nearly every single media representation of the student action: Violence vs. Vandalism. Damage to property is not the same as a physical attack, and yet that is how it is being considered in light of all recent protests. In fact, violence by the police is now being justified through damage to property; if we smash a window, they’ll knock us down. Even when we don’t smash a window, they will use force.
Vandalism, to some, may be considered as much of an offence as violence – instinctively it is seen as an aggressive action, one to be condemned. Understandably it does instil a sense of fear in those whom it is directed towards, and therefore can be considered a ‘bad’ thing to do. However in this situation, a reassessment of our priorities is needed. The institution of education is being commercialised, knowledge is becoming a privilege, and people are angry about it. In fact, not just your average person is angry about it, but children are angry about it. For the first time, children are taking to the streets en masse with a passionate temper for change. If it comes to vandalism to bring attention to the point, then the superficial damage that it incurs is entirely worth it.
The experience of a friend of mine who was present at the Whitehall protest in London gives an alternative account of the day, one which wasn’t present in the media coverage. He explained that many people were left outside for 9 hours, with no food, no water, and no heat; which was why so many fires were started – to get warm. However, when the pictures of students with fires were released in the media, they were in relation to the ‘chaos’ of the situation, with students portrayed as destructive and, yet again, violent.
Several newspapers stated that the police were bringing in portaloos for the protesters to use while contained outside Whitehall. This seemingly well-meaning act is entirely undermined by the fact that the toilets were not, in fact, for the protesters. My friend told me that when he asked a policeman if he could use the portaloo, he was told to “go piss in one of the doorways”. Around the containment area, large portions of the streets were covered in piss, and that’s what he and many others had to walk through to urinate. The portaloos were not an act of police understanding of the situation, but simply an attempt to negate the negative press that they would surely get from detaining hundreds of innocent children.
When the police are employing tactics that are undeniably immoral, where does that leave the protesters? The worst that we have done is smash windows, and we have had our human rights taken away. Police on horseback charge on children; they punch innocent protesters who resent being contained; they deny us food, water and heat. And we are being accused of violence.
Something has to change with the way the police are handling these situations – we are not violent now, but if we are treated with violence and disregard, then we are likely to turn that way. I hope that in the coming protests, the conveniently laid out government routes are not followed, the rules are not obeyed, and they see that the new generation of young people will not stand for lies and subjugation.