Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: it was no cup of tea inside the Whitehall police kettle

Police violence against children.

It's the coldest day of the year, and I've just spent seven hours being kettled in Westminster. That sounds jolly, doesn't it? It sounds a bit like I went and had a lovely cup of tea with the Queen, rather than being trapped into a freezing pen of frightened teenagers and watching baton-wielding police kidney-punching children, six months into a government that ran an election campaign on a platform of fairness. So before we go any further, let's remind ourselves precisely what kettling is, and what it's for.

Take a protest, one whose premise is uncomfortable for the administration -- say, yesterday's protest, with thousands of teenagers from all over London walking out of lessons and marching spontaneously on Westminster to voice their anger at government cuts to education funding that will prevent thousands from attending college and university. Toss in hundreds of police officers with riot shields, batons, dogs, armoured horses and meat wagons, then block the protesters into an area of open space with no toilets, food or shelter, for hours. If anyone tries to leave, shout at them and hit them with sticks. It doesn't sound like much, but it's effective.

I didn't understand quite how bad things had become in this country until I saw armoured cops being deployed against schoolchildren in the middle of Whitehall. These young people joined the protest to defend their right to learn, but in the kettle they are quickly coming to realise that their civil liberties are of less consequence to this government than they had ever imagined The term "kettle" is rather apt, given that penning already-outraged people into a small space tends to make tempers boil and give the police an excuse to turn up the heat, and it doesn't take long for that to happen. When they understand that are being prevented from marching to parliament by three lines of cops and a wall of riot vans, the kids at the front of the protest begin to moan. "It's ridiculous that they won't let us march," says Melissa, 15, who has never been in trouble before. "We can't even vote yet, we should be allowed to have our say."

The chant goes up: "What do we want? The right to protest!" At first, the cops give curt answers to the kids demanding to know why they can't get through. Then they all seem to get some sort of signal, because suddenly the polite copper in front of me is screaming in my face, shoving me hard in the back of the head, raising his baton, and the protesters around me are yelling and running back. Some of them have started to shake down a set of iron railings to get out, and the cops storm forward, pushing us right through those railings, leaving twenty of us sprawling in the rubble of road works with cracked knees. When they realised that they are trapped, the young protesters panic. The crush of bodies is suddenly painful -- my scarf is ripped away from me and I can hear my friend Clare calling for her son -- and as I watch the second line of police advance, with horses following behind them, as a surge of teenagers carry a rack of iron railings towards the riot guard and howl to be released, I realise they're not going to stop and the monkey instinct kicks in. I scramble up a set of traffic lights, just in time to see a member of the Metropolitan police grab a young protester by the neck and hurl him back into the crowd.

Behind me, some kids have started to smash up a conveniently empty old police van that's been abandoned in the middle of the road. "Let us out!" they chant. "Let us out!" A 13-year old girl starts to hyperventilate, tears squeezing in raw trails over her frightened face, unable to tear her face away from the fight -- I put a hand on her back and hurry her away from the police line. Her name is Alice and she is from a private school. "Just because I won't be affected by the EMA cuts doesn't mean I don't care about the government lying," she says, "but I want to go home now. I have to find my friend."

As darkness falls and we realise we're not going anywhere, the protesters start to light fires to keep warm. First, they burn their placards, the words "Rich parents for all!" going up in flames, with a speed and efficiency gleaned from recent CV-boosting outdoor camping activities. Then, as the temperature drops below freezing, they start looking for anything else to burn, notebooks and snack wrappers -- although one young man in an anarchist scarf steps in to stop me tossing an awful historical novel onto the pyre. "You can't burn books," he says, "we're not Nazis."

As I look around at this burned-out children's crusade, I start to wonder where the hell the student activists are. Whatever the news says, this is emphatically not a rabble led by a gang of determined troublemakers out to smash things for fun. In fact, we could do with a few more seasoned radicals here, because they tend to know what to do at demonstrations when things get out of hand. I find myself disappointed in the principled anarchists and student activists I know, who aren't here because they've decided that the best way to make their presence felt is by occupying their own lecture halls. I realise that these school pupils are the only ones who really understand what's going on: even people my age, the students and graduates who got in just before the fee hike, are still clinging to the last scraps of that dream of a better future, still a little bit afraid to make a fuss. These teenagers, on the other hand, know that it's all nonsense. They sat their school exams during the worst recession in living memory, and they aren't taken by the promise of jobs, of education, of full lives and safe places to live. They understand that those things are now reserved for the rich, and the white heat of their rage is a comfort even behind the police lines in this sub-zero chill.

Smaller children and a pregnant woman huddle closer to the fires. Everyone is stiff and hungry, and our phones are beginning to lose signal: the scene is Dante-esque, billows of smoke and firelight making it unclear where the noises of crying and chanting and the whine of helicopters are coming from.

This is the most important part of a kettle, when it's gone on for too long and you're cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it's done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It's unspeakably cruel when it's done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don't even have a jumper on.

Some of them have fainted and need medical attention, some need the loo. They won't let us out. That's the point of a kettle. They want to make you uncomfortable and then desperate, putting your route back to warmth and safety in the gift of the agents of the state. They decide when you can get back to civilisation. They decide when the old people can get warm, when the diabetics can get their insulin, when the kid having a panic attack can go home to her mum. It's a way of making you feel small and scared and helpless, a way for the state's agents to make you feel that you are nothing without them, making you forget that a state is supposed to survive by mandate of the people, and not the other way around.

Strangers draw together around the makeshift campfires in this strange new warzone right at the heart of London. A schoolgirl tosses her homework diary to feed the dying flames. "I don't even know you, but I love you," says another girl, and they hug each other for warmth. "Hands up who's getting a bollocking from their parents right now?" says a kid in a hoodie, and we all giggle.

He's got a point. This morning, the parents and teachers of Britain woke up angry, in the sure and certain knowledge that the administration they barely elected is quite prepared to hurt their children if they don't do as they are told.

It's not looking good for this government. This spontaneous, leaderless demonstration, this children's crusade, was only the second riot in two weeks, and now that the mums and dads of Britain are involved, the coalition may quickly begin to lose the argument on why slashing the state down to its most profitable parts and abandoning children, young people, the disabled and the unemployed to the cruel wheel of the market is absolutely necessary.

Let the government worry about the mums and dads, though -- I'm worried about the kids.

I'm worried about the young people I saw yesterday, sticking it out in the cold, looking after one another, brave and resolute. I'm worried about those school pupils who threw themselves in front of the police van to protect it from damage, the children who tried to stop other children from turning a peaceful protest into an angry mob -- and succeeded. I'm worried that today, those children feel like they've done something wrong, when they are, in fact, the only people in the country so far who've had the guts to stand up for what's right.

The point of a police kettle is to make you feel small and scared, to strike at the childish part of every person that's frightened of getting in trouble. You and I know, however, that we're already in trouble. All we get to decide is what kind of trouble we want to be in. Yesterday, the children of Britain made their decision, and we should be bloody proud of them today.

Read Laurie Penny's account of the original student protests, where dozens of students attacked the Conservative party's HQ here. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leadership contests can be a gory affair – so I was glad to provide some comic relief for Labour

My week, from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brexit satire boom and the return of the Pink Bus.

I have a lot to thank the New Statesman diary for. My rather tragic musings in this column about life as a former special adviser, going from hero to zero and watching Daily Politics in my pants, seemed to provoke great amusement. So much so, that I decided to write a show about the whole thing: my time in the Labour Party, where it all went wrong, and wondering how a hardcore feminist ended up touring the country in a bonkers pink bus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my stand-up comedy show, Tales from the Pink Bus.

I was nervous about performing at the ­Edinburgh Fringe – it was more than ten years since I’d been there as a stand-up. You’re competing against household names and the crowds are very discerning. I opened my set by admitting that I hadn’t done any comedy for a long time, but I’d been advising the Labour Party for the past decade. For some reason, that got a massive laugh.

Memory deficit

I was also anxious about how I would remember my material for the whole show. Fifty minutes is a long time without notes. I’m haunted by the memory of my old boss Ed Miliband, forgetting a section of his final party conference speech after trying to do the whole thing from memory. The bit he missed out was on the deficit. I didn’t want people to miss my deficit material. I’m not going to lie – there’s a lot of it. I’m trying to cut it down but it’s been a struggle. Who knew. 

Thankfully, all my shows went really well, largely thanks to the brilliant team at Funny Women and the Gilded Balloon who made it all happen. I had lovely audiences and decent reviews, and sold out every night like the big fat Red Tory/New Labour Blairite that I am. (I’m here all week.)

Therapy party

A lot of friends and family came to support me. I was so paranoid about no one coming that I made all my family buy tickets, including my cousin, who came all the way from India. Speaking of family, it was also great to get support from so many Scottish Labour folk. Kezia Dugdale, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran, Ian Murray, Dame Joan Ruddock, plus loads of party staffers, were all there to cheer me on. It was like a Labour safe space.

I was worried that it would all be a wee bit too close to the bone, but as one of them said to me afterwards in the bar: “Christ . . . it was a relief to laugh about things instead of crying. You’ve just saved us a fortune on group therapy.”

Stand-up fight

It wasn’t all good times, though. I watched the Labour leadership hustings on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. It occurred to me that any comedian performing in Edinburgh would feel great empathy for Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. There are endless gigs, hard-to-please crowds, brutal reviews, you miss your loved ones back home – and by this point even they are bored by their own material.

The hustings continue to be a gory and vulgar display of a party self-harming. Each side is taking lumps out of the other, with very little discussion about policies or making things happen. Corbyn showed once again that he’s still hugely popular with the members. Smith showed he’s a strong performer who cares about how we can win again – but power doesn’t seem to matter to us any more. I jump in a cab and ask the driver what he makes of it all. He tells me he really likes that Corbyn chap because he doesn’t live in a fancy house, doesn’t claim any expenses and takes public transport. “Will you vote for him?” I ask. “Dinnae be daft, love,” comes the reply.

Sharp takes on our times

Politics was rife at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Everyone was talking Brexit. I chaired a panel on satire and the message was clear. The nation wants to talk about politics, but not in the arid way that we see every day on the news. The audience was crying out for sharp political satire to help us make sense of things and hold politicians to account in a ruthless, truthful way. A group of American students told us their generation was energised and educated by political satire such as The Daily Show. In these tumultuous times, there’s only one thing for it – bring back Spitting Image. I also appeared on another panel on satire with Rory Bremner and Ricky Gervais for Radio 4’s Front Row. I can see David Brent’s next adventure already: running for parliament.

Syrian voices

One of the most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre at the festival this year is ­Angel, written by Henry Naylor. It’s a nail-biting story set in Syria, about a young girl who ends up becoming a Kurdish freedom fighter and killing a hundred Isis men: when a woman kills them they don’t get to paradise and get the virgins.

The lead performance by Filipa Bragança is stunning and you leave feeling floored, as if you’ve watched a cinematic epic rather than one woman amid the bones of a sparse set on stage. It’s a harrowing reminder of the war in Syria and how we have forgotten about it. Angel should be performed in parliament and every MP should see it. It makes our politics seem very small.

No exit from politics

I finally get a holiday and arrive in Rhodes. I need solitude, and most of all a break from politics. I’ve done my time. After a day of relaxing and trying not to look at Twitter, I start to feel the tension ebb away. I’m at the secluded restaurant and suddenly all I hear is: “All right, mate? Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around and there are Roy and Alicia Kennedy – the Posh and Becks of Labour. Roy is a key Lords frontbencher and Alicia is Tom Watson’s chief of staff. As I waddled off after the breakfast buffet this morning, I  heard them call, “Remember to vote, Ayesha – ballots have dropped.”

No rest for the wicked. 

“Tales from the Pink Bus” is in London on 31 August. For tickets or further information, visit: funnywomen.com 

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser