Police suppression of peaceful pro-NHS protest, March 17th 2012

Here's what happened when me and a few friends went to London to show our opposition to the atrocious Health and Social Care Bill 2011. The one currently being forced through parliament with a middle finger to all who look on.

I feel it's important to document what I witnessed at this demonstration since, as many have noted, there has been little-to-no coverage of this protest by the BBC and other UK mass media. A deeply worrying trend for anti-government protests, but one others are better placed to comment on than me.

The bottom line is: this was a completely nonviolent, unaggressive protest. The police action was hostile and totally unprovoked. There is no way we could have been seen as a threat to anyone.

The goal of the police did not seem to be to confront the protest or get into a fight. Each time a kettle was formed, it was dropped after a short time on some signal. The police were acting in a coordinated fashion, and their only goal seemed to be to suppress and disband the protest. By kettling and separating any big group which formed into smaller groups, they prevented the the crowd coordinating, communicating or decision-making properly. At its start, the protest was self-motivated, passionate, and made up of citizens trying to make a (last) stand for something they believed in. Through their action, the police successfully reduced it to separate groups of disconnected, scared, angry people who didn't know what to do and felt unable to continue.

The way the police acted was, while not actually violent in any cases I saw (grabbing, shoving and restraining, but no beating), extremely intimidating. They incited the crowd to run for safety on multiple occasions, though there were many elderly and disabled amongst us (this was a pro-NHS campaign after all). I did not see anybody get hurt, but if the crowd had been any denser, larger or had any rogue elements, things could easily have kicked off — if they had it would have been completely the fault of the aggression and intimidation tactics of the police. No attempt was made at dialogue, or even megaphoned monologue to warn the protest that action would take place. Instead, the riot police acted quickly and unpredictably, communicating with shouted codes, avoiding eye contact with the demonstrators.

There are other accounts online. Important points to note from my view of events that may contradict or corroborate other points of view:

  • All aggression I saw was on the part of the police.
  • All the protesters I saw were completely nonviolent, and not even aggressive.
  • I saw no signs of police firearms, though there have been alarming reports of this (including photos of police with automatic weapons within sight of the demo) from elsewhere.

Below the fold is my account in full, to the best of my recollection.

Edit: still no mainstream attention, but a great roundup of social media coverage by Steven Sumpter can be found here.

Edit: Since I complain here about a lack of media coverage of the protest, I should acknowledge that the Guardian's NHS Reforms Liveblog has just made mention of the protest and included a link to this post. I'm flattered that it's "worth a read" and delighted that they explicitly "don't endorse it's view" :P

We arrive around 2pm, to disappointingly small numbers (given the scale of "support" on Facebook and elsewhere).

Photo credit: Eleanor Turney

Having talked to some others assembled, admired other banners and repurposed a SWP sign (all credit to Jas for the artistic skills), we notice that more numbers are building by about 3:30pm.



That trollface sign is held together with refolded staples and chewing gum, I'll have you know.

Photo credit: Eleanor Turney. Banner credit: presumably those pictured.

When the pavement and pre-fenced-off region of the pavement is full of people, there's a shout from someone, and people move off the pavement and into the road, many people sitting down. It looks as though another march has reached our group from elsewhere. The road has been closed and there are maybe a total of twelve yellow-uniformed police standing around (at least visible from where I am). At one point an ambulance is spotted approaching. Protesters instantly begin to move out of the road, but it's already u-turned and found another route. The police stand idly around, chatting amongst each other and occasionally to protesters. They make no apparent attempt to move us along. A couple of times, riot vans and police cars advance on the crowd, sirens on, but they stop short and wait, before driving off.

Numbers grow...

Numbers grow...

We spot an Anonymous presence!

Anonymous and Occupy

Anonymous and Occupy

There are megaphone speeches throughout this time and at around 3:40pm, people start to put on medical gear that's handed round. I overhear a woman recounting a conversation she's just had with a police officer, who said (I'm paraphrasing) "you've made your point now, why not just go home?".

Suiting up.

Suiting up.

Now's about the time when speeches and chants are getting a little tired out. A new "mic check" proposes "more protest on the road, less protest on the pavement". He proposes we get "less polite". Someone stands up and suggests that, as a group, to make a further point, we walk to a Virgin Health building which is on the Strand. There's general ascent so we go. I'm terrible at judging these things, but I'd say there's around three hundred protesters amassed by this point. It's started to rain a bit. There hasn't been a significant growth in visible police presence. Spirits are high.

The march begins. We're almost at the front of it! It must be around 3:55pm.

The march begins

The march begins (sorry for blurriness, I was jogging backwards to get this shot)

Let me describe the atmosphere at this point, because in a second things get nasty. COMPLETELY peaceful. The crowd is sparse and moving at a fast walking pace. There is a little chanting but no aggro. The yellow-uniformed police are walking at the same pace of us, and have not (that I've heard) requested that we don't march. The mood is very upbeat. People are smiling and laughing, happy to be doing something positive and perhaps get a little attention (there has been almost no media presence that we've seen, unless you count the Socialist Worker as media). The crowd is made up of people of all ages. There are young children and babies, medical students, young adults, up to middle-aged and some elderly people. There is a high proportion of people who have reduced mobility. I spot several people walking with sticks or crutches. I see someone in a wheelchair wearing a V mask, there with their V-masked family.

Now someone shouts something. I'm within a few people of the front of the march. Suddenly, to my right, tens of baseball cap-wearing cops stream out of concealment, running. They've obviously been waiting for us.

Riot police reveal themselves

Riot police reveal themselves

The mood of the crowd turns quickly to dismay. This is completely out of the blue. These new cops are highly organised and running quickly. They have helmets and truncheons on their belts. People are suddenly scared. There are shouts of "KETTLE! KETTLE!" and "RUN!" from those who see what's about to happen. People start to run (including me). But it's too late, they're already blocking the way ahead of us.

The way is shut.

The way is shut. (Sorry for horrible blur. I was running at this point.)

Things are happening very quickly now. The first few tens of us get past before the riot cops completely block our path. People are running in every direction, unsure of what's going on or why. I lose everyone that I'm with, and begin by looking for them in the confusion. Everyone is shouting. Protesters shouting to each other, trying to keep safe and out of any harm or kettle. Police shout to each other in unintelligible, numeric barks. It's extraordinarily intimidating and more than a bit scary. Just thirty seconds ago everyone was happy and motivated, now the adrenaline is flowing and people are running from a sudden, coordinated police action.

I notice a group of people are being tightly held behind a wall of police. They're not being let through. I have witnessed absolutely zero violence or aggression from protesters at this point, though now there is some jostling as the captive protestors are being closely confined in this small area.

First kettle

First kettle

Protesters inside look confused, scared and angry. They shout "why are you doing this?" and "let us go". Protesters outside shout "you're being kettled! Climb out!" (there is a shoulder-height wall on one side of the captive group). Police shout "don't move" and "stay where you are". I hear a protester shout "hey, that's assault!".

CW 1195

CW 1195

CW 4093

CW 4093

Now something odd happens. The riot cops stop blocking the road, and the march is allowed to continue.

Riot cops break formation

Riot cops break formation

I think the smaller kettled group is kept back, behind the main march, but I'm not sure. By this time I've found my companions and the march continues. The cops make no effort, verbal or physical, to stop us. We march on, but now the protestors are properly angry. The police have been aggressive and have acted seemingly without motive. We've done nothing to deserve this and now we're riled up. We go forth with fresh, righteous anger. Cops keep step with the crowd. We're in public now. There are pedestrians and traffic being stopped. This is, after all, a protest — a demonstration.

Cops amongst the crowd

Cops amongst the crowd

Fresh purpose. We won't be intimidated that easily.

Fresh purpose. We won't be intimidated that easily.

Traffic is being stopped as we walk across intersections and along the road. We're told by a cop something like "I suggest you get out of the road, for your own safety". A nonsensical statement, given the situation.

We pass an anti-Mugabe vigil at around 4:08pm outside the Zimbabwe Embassy. Both groups cheer and shout messages of solidarity — it feels good to stand up with comrades for something you believe in!

Wanted: Robert Mugabe

Wanted: Robert Mugabe

We're a few paces from the gates of Virgin Health. Suddenly it's clear something is happening. More shouting and running. A line of riot cops is forming ahead, their arms outstretched. Shouts of "KETTLE!" and "RUN!" again from the protesters. We start to run, searching for a break in the line or another way through. All around there is running and screaming, people don't know what's happening. I reach the first cops as they start to grab people. I think I see some people grabbed bodily and with serious force, but I don't stop running. My arm is grasped at by a gloved hand, but I break free. Others are not so lucky, including some of those I'm at the demo with. The line is being held now, people are not being allowed to leave or enter the zone. I see passers by, elderly and disabled people kept inside the cordon. It's about 4:14pm.

Second kettle

Second kettle

A view from inside the kettle

A view from inside the kettle. Photo credit: Eleanor Turney

Turning around, we see another line has formed ahead, though this line has riot vans. We hear someone say "they've got machine guns". (I and those I'm with don't see any, though.)

Riot vans

Riot vans

The protestors are not being allowed to reach the gates of Virgin Health.

Guarding the gates

Guarding the gates

Back at the police line, there is shouting and anger. Nobody is being allowed to approach, from either side. "Stay away from my colleagues' backs" is all I'm told when I ask "why are you doing this?". I hear some one scream and shouts of "SHAME!" and SCUM!". I turn and see a woman picking herself up off the ground. (I didn't actually see her pushed). Her friend points out a uniformed cop who advances towards them, but before I can get a closer look I'm shouted at to move away.

At about 4:30pm, people are being allowed to leave, one at a time, from the side. I'm reunited with my comrades from inside the kettle. People are very angry. Our protest at Virgin Health is clearly not going to be permitted by the riot cops. Someone shouts "regroup at St. Pauls!". But people can only leave the kettle slowly, so the protest group is becoming stretched, as different small groups decide what to do next. Anonymous go one way, the medical students go another. We stay back, talking for a while with a woman who walks with a stick. She is disgusted and outraged at how she's been treated.

People are trickling forwards. We walk with a few others, and see banners ahead in the distance, now the police are no longer blocking the way.

By about 4:40pm we still haven't found the main group, though six or seven riot vans have driven past with sirens, the last few visibly full of riot cops. We decide to follow them.

By 4:50pm we find empty riot vans on the street.

Empty riot vans

Empty riot vans

We meet a few protesters on the street. They point back the way they came, telling us that there's a tighter kettle up ahead, and people are being arrested en masse. After a little further, we reach Southampton Buildings, where a crowd is being kept isolated, behind several well-spaced lines of riot cops, who won't let anyone past. We can't see the captives, but we can hear them.

The third kettle

The third kettle

At this point, we don't want to stick around. We don't know if arrests are taking place, but we have no wish to stay and find out. We're no longer really in public or anywhere significant so there is no value in further making a scene. We go out separate ways at around 5pm.

21 thoughts on “Police suppression of peaceful pro-NHS protest, March 17th 2012

  1. As one of Cai's companions (I'm the shouty, bespectacled blonde in the photos above), I just wanted to say that this is totally represenative of my experiences of Saturday's demo. I tried to run from the kettling on Whitehall (mostly because everyone else was running and it was scary), and was grabbed round the waist by a policeman in riot padding (no helmet) and pushed back into the kettle. I asked, politely, why I couldn't pass and the man utterly refused to engage with me in any way: no answer, no eye-contact. It was unpleasant and intimidating.

  2. As a disabled person, please accept my genuine thanks for being out there and posting this vitally important eye-witness account of what happened and why we object to the NHS being privatised by a government who was allegedly voted into power yet stood for election WITHOUT mentioning their intent to destroy our beloved NHS by selling it to the highest bidding friends and Party financiers.

    I'll ensure this page is read and spread as much and as widely as possible.

    Hopefully you've saved not only our NHS, but also the core morality of our crumbling Nation. Thank you.

    • Thanks a lot for your comment, Rob, I appreciate it.

      I agree. I am constantly floored by this minority party and their manic dash to slash and burn public infrastructure. Every day there is announced another previously unthinkable antisocial policy. The corruption is deep and obvious.

      The lack of coverage of popular dissent by the mainstream media is just as upsetting. So I appreciate your wish to disseminate other coverage.

      Well, the Bill is in the Lords now, so we can only hope that reason and the 1/2 million-signed petition presented to them by 38 Degrees has the desired impact.

  3. Thanks very much for posting this excellent report. There was no way I could be at the demo but I worked online throughout the afternoon to try and get coverage for it in the media. I phoned both the BBC and the Guardian to ask why it hadn't been reported, and I emailed the BBC afterwards with links from first hand accounts and photos which were already appearing online.

    I'm extremely concerned by the lack of coverage and intend to follow this up, particularly as the BBC today don't seem to be reporting on the final Health and Social Care Bill debate in the Lords.

    • Thank you, Angela. I agree that the BBC's lack of coverage is deeply concerning. As others have noted, the BBC has reported other, smaller right-wing protests before, presumably in order to appear balanced. I strongly support following up with the BBC, I will do the same myself. Balance is important in state-supported media, but being allowed to cover criticism of the state is at least as important.

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  5. congratulations on such a detailed account. back in the day i was protesting at a cruise missile base. it was the total lack of humanity shown by the mod police that was most telling. they covered their faces (thought it was only naughty rioters that did that...) and refused to make eye contact or speak. we took great delight in telling them quietly why we were there. one woman gave one a hug - i think it rather freaked him out.

    i was also on the anti-iraq war marches with my now-nine year old in his buggy. the difficulty is to keep things going and keep organised. no answers as to how we do that as a movement but the more we talk, share and co-operate the better our chances. (yes that was a statement of the blindingly obvious!)

    power to you and those with you for protesting - hope the process is just beginning.

    • Thanks. My parents were CND campaigners; I've heard stories.

      I don't want to make out in my post that I don't have respect for the police. In my all non-protest-related dealings with the police they have been individually at least courteous and civil. My impression is that some of the more recent developments are institutional and top-down. As I hope I said with the above, it was the group tactics rather than the individual conduct which was the most intimidating. Myself, I didn't directly experience any violence or thuggishness, but it was the speed and sort-of-paramilitary coordination of the riot police, their unwillingness to engage that was intimidating. This was clearly a tactic — something they'd been trained in and instructed to do — rather than individual "bad-apple" conduct. That and their focus on breaking up the protest and "defending" Virgin Health rather than protecting the rights of the peaceful protesters (as they should), all point towards problems at the top rather than the bottom. At least that's how I see it.

      Other people there had different viewpoints, so I encourage different views (or perhaps even some jounalism?!) but I can only go by what I saw. I've tried to keep things as true to my memory as possible, and not let fears at what may have been cloud it.

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  8. Thank you for posting this important account and being witness to a truly worrying moment for British democracy. We are slowly but surely descending into fascism. My parents fought against that in WW2 and we must fight against it now. The BBC has shamed itself by its lack of coverage of the NHS issue. Nothing on BBC Parliament and the most cursory glimpse of the vote in the Lords in the ten o'clock news. Cowed by threats to the licence fee and chaired by Chris Patten, a Tory grandee with vested interests in the healthcare industry, the BBC has lost any claim to independence. Anyone who doubts that we are seeing a rightwing conspiracy by Tory neo-cons to undermine democracy must be wilfully blind. Little by little our liberties are being eroded. We should be ashamed that we have let things get to this stage but we must not give up. We must continue to fight to make our voices heard.

    • Thanks. Not fascism yet, I think, though I agree there are worrying trends. Both this government and the previous have done their part to erode democracy, but just looking at the Lords' non-reaction (someone even witnessed "eye-rolling"?!) at the scale of democratic (and expert) rejection of the NHS Bill — there are deeper problems here than the Tory's naked privatisation agenda and disregard for public good, and the Lib Dems' confused cowardice. The BBC also seems to becoming part of the problem, which is upsetting as I've always thought highly of them. Good journalism is a keystone of democracy, after all.

      I can't get straight in my head what I think, yet, but I think it's pretty obvious that something (or more likely many things) is very wrong here, and people will suffer because of it.

      Anyway, like I said to Simplywondered, my post here is my best attempt at an honest and unbiased recollection of events. I wrote it as soon as I got back to my computer and could look at my photos. I think what happened is important, as you say, and in the apparent absence of actual journalists I thought it my responsibility more to document than to commentate.

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  12. Many thanks for this hugely helpful write-up. Netpol campaign on policing issues, particularly the use of kettles on protest. We're trying very hard to find people who were held within kettles on the nhs demonstration, especially anyone who was asked or required to provide the police with their name and address before being allowed to go. We respect confidentiality and never publish names or contact details. Any help that people could give would be very much appreciated, and will help to keep up the pressure to end kettling.

  13. The media blackout was most likely triggered by a 'DA-notice', however many sites have picked upon this in the last few days:

    I think there are 5 types of DA notices. But essentially this would explain the 'mysterious' media blackout. It was probably newsworthy of, at the very least, a small story perhaps not on the front page - but it was literally not reported in ANY mainstream media outlet.

    This is just like the 1930s Tories..always evil and the enemy of the working man.

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