Lies, damned lies, and crowd control

A lot has been written about Thursday's protest already, and I imagine there's more to come. I'll include some links to other people's blog-posts and articles under this one.

Personally, I want to focus on one very specific aspect of the day, specifically of the policing on the day, because it struck me as interesting at the time and more so the more I think about it. I'm going to talk about police lying to protestors.

As soon as the kettle was closed around Parliament Square (around 3:30pm), the lying started. The officers on the police line blocking the last exit which had been allowing two-way access (Great George Street) immediately started telling protestors who wished to leave that the exit point had been moved to Whitehall.

I didn't want to leave at that stage - things were still broadly peaceful everywhere except the Victoria Street exit (which for some reason was the location of very heavy-handed policing, including horse charges, throughout the afternoon. I still haven't figured out what was up there that they were defending so adamantly, but I stayed well clear of it because they were very clearly out to hurt people at that corner).

Despite being happy to remain in the square, I felt it was odd that the exit point had been moved, so I decided to go and check at Whitehall. Sure enough, it was still closed. So I went around and checked all the exits in turn.

My first stop was Abingdon Street, just to confirm that this was still sealed by the multiple police lines and barricades which were protecting the front of Parliament (see video of the lines here). It was indeed still very thoroughly blocked, so I moved carefully up to Victoria Street. As previously mentioned, the police at this exit had been enthusiastically enforcing a 'nobody leaves' policy all day, although they had been allowing people in at various times. By this point of the day they had blocked travel in both directions, and when you could get one of them to talk politely instead of threatening you or riding their horse into you 'accidentally', they were still telling people to go to Great George Street, as they had been doing all day. I didn't stop to argue, due to the impressive levels of aggression and general unpleasantness on this line.

Moving along the top of the square, there's a little road halfway along the top called Little Sanctuary (sadly it wasn't, or at least not for protestors). It was full of police vans, and blocked by a light (slightly spread out) line of officers, who were still directing people to the Great George Street exit - which had now been closed for at least half an hour. I pointed this out to the officer who was talking to people, and he explicitly said "That's not what we've been told - Great George Street is the way to leave". When I went back to film him saying it again a short while later, he was wearing a balaclava over his face, and claimed he had no information and hadn't told me anything.

I jogged along to Great George Street, just to confirm once again that they were closed. They were. At this point I started filming, and the officer modified his position from 'Whitehall is open' to 'The square is closed, but as and when an exit is opened, it will be Whitehall'.

Whitehall, when I got there again, was (entirely predictably) still closed, and as far as the policewoman I spoke to was concerned, had never been open and was not going to be opened.

Now, there's a saying, called Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice, that which can be adequately explained by stupidity". And I certainly can't prove that any of the police officers I spoke to that day knew they were lying. But it was interesting to see how they started being far more careful in their phrasing when I asked them the same question but with the addition of a video camera pointed at them, adding qualifiers like "The last I heard" or "As far as I am aware". This effect was even more noticeable from the ones whose shoulder numbers I'd filmed at the start of the conversation, who tended to say things like "I don't know what the current situation is".

So it seems more likely that this was a deliberate tactic. You can find the same behaviour referenced in many other people's reports of the day, both at the time and all the way through to the police tactics leading into the Westminster Bridge kettle that lasted until some time around midnight.

If the police on the street weren't knowingly lying here (which I find unlikely given their behaviour on camera, but let's explore the possibilities), then we have two remaining options. 1. The command officers were deliberately lying to the street officers, or 2. The street officers were being misinformed and/or underinformed due to command incompetence. The situation in the square was not developing rapidly, so there was little chance for confusion. For the whole afternoon, the front line along Parliament was tense but mostly peaceful, the Victoria Road exit was bizarrely aggressive, and the Great George Street to Whitehall edge of the square (and on the green area itself) was a cross between a festival and a tourist excursion. There's simply no good reason that the police on the exits couldn't have been told exactly what was going on, and relayed that information to the public. Doing so would have reduced the level of confusion, and tension, considerably.

The very fact that this 'over there, no wait, over there' tactic works reveals that most of the protestors are peaceful and inclined to work within the rule of law. They don't try to push through the perfectly good exit they can see behind the police line, instead they go politely in the direction they are sent, time and time again, until eventually they give up and mill around in the centre wondering why on earth the police are lying to them.

To be honest, I'm wondering the same thing myself... I'm really not sure what the tactic is meant to achieve. I suppose at a minimum, it saves the officer having to explain why people aren't allowed out - lying is easier than the truth. If it's as simple as that then it's a pretty crappy reason for lying to the public for hours on end - particularly as it results in protestors eventually not believing anything the police say, regardless of its truth or importance.

Perhaps the intention is simply to keep people moving around so that they don't clump up against the police lines in sufficient numbers to potentially break through them? If so it didn't work, because that's how I eventually got out of the Parliament Square kettle at around 5pm - a crowd got fed up with the police lies and decided they were leaving through this exit (Whitehall, as it happened), regardless of what the police said. The exit had been open to a slow trickle of people leaving for about ten minutes earlier, and so a large queue had built up around it (we are British after all - we're good at queueing). Then, for no apparent nor explained reason (and we certainly asked!), the police decided to close off that trickle. People waited patiently for a short while, but with no explanation for why the chance of freedom had been retracted, eventually the crowd started yelling "Let us out!" - and successfully pushed their way through the police line.

Unfortunately that resulted in several minor injuries to protestors, because it turned out that behind a few feet of that police line there were open (and deep) roadworks. Of course, if the police had kept allowing the trickle at the end of their line to leave, then we'd have kept queuing patiently for our turn to join that trickle, so I don't feel the protestors were too much to blame for their bad luck here. As soon as the roadworks became apparent, the crowd almost as one redirected its push onto the end point of the police lines, where they'd been letting us out before, and that was where we broke through and left. As soon as the police stopped trying to block the way, the crowd calmed down and resumed that steady sensible trickle of people along the pavement, staying clear of the roadworks.

As I wandered up Whitehall, I wondered why the police had chosen to intermittently let us out of the only one of the several exits from Parliament Square that had open roadworks on it - surely a bit of safety fail there? In fact, it's a dual carriageway, and they chose to let us out on the carriageway which had roadworks on it. Even the side of the carriageway they chose was the one closer to the roadworks - there was a lot more room towards the central reservation. So why didn't they use a different road, or the other carriageway of that road, or the other side of the carriageway, given the presence of an open trench on one side? I honestly can't decide between conspiracy theories and very low opinions of the intelligence of police commanders at this point.

It bears mentioning that aside from the testosterone fest going on at Victoria Street, most of the police were fairly reasonable and friendly for much of the day in all the areas of the protest I was at. Even when we pushed through their lines, they didn't hit anyone, they just tried to push us back and then gave up and managed the resulting situation. Which is commendable, although there's clear evidence it wasn't the same elsewhere, and I consider myself very lucky that I didn't end up getting hit by anyone in a uniform - and it does just seem like luck, because other than avoiding Victoria Street, I did much the same as everyone else who did get hurt - I tried to leave when I wanted to go home.

There also seems clear evidence from many many accounts that the overall management of the policing of the protest was chaotic - either by design or by abject failure.

People were pushed from one kettle to another (Whitehall turned out to have a succession of kettles, although it was never really clear why or where they were - I got directed straight into police lines twice by officers not in riot gear who were trying to tell me how to leave peacefully).

Police formed hard battle lines ("BATONS BATONS BATONS!", not really what you want to hear when you've just left one kettle!) across Whitehall, advanced about two meters, and then unformed them seconds later (seriously, I turned to pick a good direction to run, couldn't see one, looked back and they'd all wandered off in different directions like it had never happened - what the hell was that about?).

At one point the police blocking off a side street (Derby Gate, I think), apparently upset that the people wandering past were paying them no attention, turned on the lights and sirens on the vans behind them and drew their batons - while everyone stood nearby just looked at them with a look of 'um, what?' on their faces. As blatant attempts to raise the level of tension in the area go, it was a failure - because it was so blatant that people actually laughed at them.

Eventually I got fed up with asking police officers where I could leave and having them tell me things that turned out not to be true... so along with a dozen or so other people, I climbed a fence into the gardens around a rather nice looking building, scooted around the edge of it a bit, climbed another fence, lurked through an alley, and found myself on Embankment. And then I went home. Peacefully.

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Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by lickspittle (86.158.xx.xx) on Sat 11 Dec 2010 at 17:01 [ Send Message ]
Like you, I tried and failed to get through any exits for much of the afternoon and evening. In fact I'm surprise to read that people were able to leave the square later than 2pm.

Oddly, given your report, I was able to leave via the Victoria St exit around 6.30pm, as long as I agreed to be filmed. Guy in front of me refused, and rather than leave him in the square, the cops marched him off to a van.

They were letting us out in threes at this point. At the time, as you know, things were kicking off at the Whitehall exit.

The strategy seems to have been to release enough people so they could squeeze the remainder into the tight kettle on the bridge.
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Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by denny (94.194.xx.xx) on Sat 11 Dec 2010 at 17:05 [ Send Message | View Weblogs ]

The Great George Street exit was the most variable of the day that I saw - at various times I saw it running two-way, entrance-only, exit-only, and closed tight. Mostly it seemed to go between exit-only and closed that I saw mid-afternoon. It seemed very odd to me that they didn't open up that exit in the end, but as you say, they seemed to have been aiming for that kettle on the bridge, which was particularly unfriendly.

Definitely surprised to hear you left via Victoria Street!

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by lickspittle (86.158.xx.xx) on Sat 11 Dec 2010 at 19:02 [ Send Message ]
I suppose the only way to avoid a Westminster Bridge-style kettle in future is to make sure there's just to many of us!

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by denny (94.194.xx.xx) on Sat 11 Dec 2010 at 19:12 [ Send Message | View Weblogs ]

Well, if they start making a habit of trapping people on exposed bridges in winter, (a) that's going to be a particularly conspicuous 'deterrent' tactic, which the papers will pick up on, and (b) they may well end up with someone dead or seriously ill from the exposure, which probably wouldn't play too well in the court of public opinion.

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by Anonymous (89.101.xx.xx) on Sun 12 Dec 2010 at 01:03
and all nice the Brits at home still think the UK is a 'free' country ...

an ex-pat
[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by Anonymous (84.9.xx.xx) on Sun 12 Dec 2010 at 15:05
not all of us do, I've not thought of this place as a democracy for many years.

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by Anonymous (81.155.xx.xx) on Thu 17 Feb 2011 at 20:17
The telly has told them so!

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by mr_magicfingers (87.194.xx.xx) on Sun 12 Dec 2010 at 17:23 [ Send Message ]
Nice to see a less hysterical article about Thursday's demo. Glad you got out safely, it does seem to have been a matter of luck as to who got hurt and who didn't.
[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Re: Lies, damned lies, and crowd control
Posted by Anonymous (81.101.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Dec 2010 at 18:54
The reason Voctoria street was so violent (on the police side) was that the black block (the experienced anarchist activists) broke out of the kettle that way.

At about 3pm they assembled there with big shields and just pushed through the police lines and got out. I followed them. What seemed to happen afterwards is that everyone else then wanted to get out too so the police brought horses to charge at the crowd and got increasingly violent.

The black block then led a crowd running around for a bit before dissapearing, i don't know where they ended up.

But it just shows up the stupidity of kettling. The people who the police really want to contain have no problem with getting out and then its just normally peaceful protests left who are pushed and beaten by the police until they are provoked into becoming violent.
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