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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.

Photo: Getty
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Emily Thornberry: Why I'm sticking with Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's shadow foreign secretary has explained to her local party why she will vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election.

 

I hope you are all enjoying a good Bank Holiday weekend.

Since returning from holiday, I have been catching up with many of your messages asking me how I am planning to vote in the current Labour leadership election, and giving me your views.

I thought I should write to the membership of Islington South and Finsbury and explain my thinking.

As many of you know, it is my view that our response to the Brexit vote should not have been to turn in on ourselves. At a time of grave constitutional and economic challenge for our country, it was incumbent on us to rise to this threat and ensure that the Labour party should defend the interests of our communities and not allow the Tories a free hand.

I believed that this was a time for people to unite and think of the country, not to turn inwards and indulge in a coup attempt against a leader elected with an overwhelming mandate less than a year ago.

It will therefore come as no surprise to my local party to learn that, having remained totally loyal to the democratically-elected leader of our party since his election, I will stay loyal to Jeremy during the contest that has arisen from that coup, and he will have my vote in this election.

I have not agreed with everything Jeremy has said and done since becoming the Labour leader last year, but where I have had disagreements with him, I have always found him and his team willing to get around a table, listen, reflect and discuss a way forward. And as long as that is possible, I would never consider walking away from that table.

But for those members who may disagree with that decision, and the way I will be voting in this election, let me explain my more fundamental reasons for doing so.

When I first started campaigning to become your MP in 2004, we were suffering as a party because our hierarchy and leadership were totally detached from the party’s membership. This not only meant that members across the country felt alienated, demoralised and ignored, but more importantly their collective understanding of what people’s fears and aspirations were, learnt from listening to the public and knocking on doors, was being deliberately overlooked.

What had begun as the necessary modernisation of the Labour party in 1994, showing how a belief in a dynamic market economy could be combined with the drive for social justice and the transformation of public services, had become distorted into an agenda where the test of every new policy from the leadership was how much it would antagonise the Labour party’s core membership.

Tuition fees, the attempt to marketise the NHS, the careless disregard of long cherished civil liberties and the drive to war in Iraq were being imposed by a leadership who convinced themselves that, if the members hated it, they were doing something right.

When I walked through the voting lobbies against the attempt to impose 90 days’ detention without charge in 2005, Tom Watson –then one of Tony Blair’s whips – growled at me that I was a ‘traitor’. But a traitor to who?

Not to the country, when this was a draconian measure designed to look tough on terrorism, but one that would undermine the cohesion of communities like ours, alienate people and actually undermine our security. My members knew this and I remember when Compass polled party members – at my instigation – it was clear this was the national view as well.

So who exactly was I betraying? Just a party hierarchy and a party leadership who were trying to shore up their relationship with the right-wing press by ‘taking on’ their members, and trying to out-flank the Tories on security.

When Jeremy stood for the leadership after the disaster of the 2015 election, the difference was palpable. Here finally was a candidate interested in listening to the party’s members, reflecting their views, and promising to represent them. As a result, hundreds of thousands more joined, including huge numbers who had left because of Iraq, tuition fees, and other issues.

Here we are now, less than a year after Jeremy’s overwhelming victory, and the party hierarchy – through decisions of the National Executive Committee - is attempting to overturn that result, quash Jeremy’s mandate, and put the party’s members back in their box. And they are doing so in the most naked way.

I was disgusted to see the attempts to try to stop Jeremy from getting on the ballot. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, hundreds of thousands of fully paid-up Labour party members were excluded from taking part in the election, having been told the opposite when they joined. Third, your membership fees were spent on securing that decision through the courts. And then lastly, registered supporters, who had been told they could be involved in the Leadership election, were then told that they must increase their donation to £25 within two days to remain eligible for a vote.

Indeed, you should probably know that even to put on the social events we have held for local members in the last two months – occasions that have been really important to welcome in our new members – we have been forced to seek permission for each event from the party hierarchy.

In short, some people have done their level best to deny the party’s full membership a fair and equal vote in this contest, or even the chance to make their voices heard. Instead of welcoming the enthusiasm of our new members, instead of celebrating the strength of our mass membership, they have been behaving as if it is something to be afraid of.

As someone who spent nearly 30 years as a grass roots activist before becoming your MP, I cannot accept this.

But even more important, as someone who believes our party and our country are best served when our elected representatives and the party membership work together, I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to take us back to the years when our members were deliberately antagonised, alienated and ignored by the people who they helped to put in power.

Islington South and Finsbury Labour Party has a proud reputation for being one of the great campaigning local parties and our election results in the past 11 years have shown what can be done when the membership and its elected representatives work together with respect.

We now have the potential to replicate this success across the country, creating a national activist base that could be unlike anything else in modern British politics, taking our message into the street and onto the doorstep, and turning the activism of thousands into the support of millions.

I do not understand why anyone in the Labour party would want to turn their back on that membership, in the way that the party hierarchy have tried to do this summer.

Instead, it is time to unite as a party – the membership and the elected representatives alike – and together take our fight into the only contest that matters: getting this dreadful Tory government out of office, and punishing them for the mess into which they have plunged our country.

That is what we should have spent our summer doing – uniting, facing outwards, taking on the Tories, and energising the public to our cause – and that is again why I regret so much the chaos and distraction that this attempted coup against Jeremy has caused.

So my plea to all members, and one I will make to my fellow MPs, is this: whatever the outcome of this leadership election, we should stop the internal division, unite as a party, and take the fight to the Tories together.

And I would like my local party to know that I will remain totally loyal to the leader of our party, whoever he shall be.

In the meantime, you all know that I have a very full in-tray with constituency business, and with representing the party on Brexit, foreign affairs, and – together with Clive Lewis – our future defence policies.

I will be concentrating on this vital work in the run up to 24 September, rather than this unnecessary and divisive leadership contest. And when that is over, I hope we can all start focusing on those bigger issues on which Britain needs an effective, united opposition.

I know that not everyone will agree with the conclusions I have reached, but I am completely confident that in Islington South and Finsbury, we will continue to debate this and other issues in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.