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Laurie Penny: Inside the Parliament Square kettle

The supposed heart of British democracy has become a searing wound of rage and retribution.

There is blood on my face, but not all of it is mine. I'm writing this from the UCL occupation, where injured students and schoolchildren keep drifting in in ones and twos, dazed and bruised, looking for medical attention and a safe space to sit down. It's a little like a field hospital, apart from the people checking Twitter for updates on the demonstration I've just returned from, where 30,000 young people marched to Whitehall, got stopped, and surged through police lines into Parliament Square.

They came to protest against the tuition fees bill that was hauled through the House yesterday by a fractured and divided coalition government. They believe that parliamentary democracy has failed them, that the state has set its face against them. When they arrived at Parliament Square, they found themselves facing a solid wall of metal cages guarded by armed police.

Then the crackdown began and it was worse than we feared. As I write, a young man called Alfie is in hospital after a "police beating" that left him bleeding into his brain, and all the press can talk about is the fact that a middle-aged couple -- one of whom happens to be the heir to the throne -- escaped entirely uninjured from some minor damage done to their motorcade. The government will no doubt be able to find the money to repair the royal Rolls Royce, but yesterday it declared itself unable to afford to repair the damage done to these young people's future.

A kind father of one of the protesters has brought in a vat of soup; I'm slurping it and trying to stop my hands from shaking. Two hours ago I was staring into the hooves of a charging police horse before a cop grabbed me by the neck and tossed me back into a screaming crowd of children, and the adrenaline hasn't worn off.

Behind me, on huge makeshift screens showing the rolling news, reporters and talking heads are praising the police and condemning the actions of young protesters as "an insult to democracy". But when you see children stumbling and bleeding from baton wounds and reeling from horse charges underneath the glowering auspices of former prime ministers carved in bronze, when you see police medics stretchering an unconscious girl away from the grass in front of Westminster Abbey, her pale head swaddled in bloody bandages and hanging at a nauseating angle, you have to ask to whom the real insult has been delivered.

What I saw a month ago at Millbank was a generation of very young, very angry, very disenfranchised people realising that not doing as you're told, contrary to everything we've been informed, is actually a very effective way of making your voice heard when the parliamentary process has let you down. What I saw two weeks ago in the Whitehall kettle was those same young people learning that if you choose to step out of line you will be mercilessly held back and down by officers of the law who are quite prepared to batter kids into a bloody mess if they deem it necessary. What I saw today was something different, something bigger: no less than the democratic apparatus of the state breaking down entirely.

In parliament square, huge bonfires are burning as the young protesters in front of the horse lines at Westminster Abbey struggle against a new punishment tactic the police seem to have developed: crushing already kettled protesters back and down with riot shields. I find myself caught at the front of the line, squeezed and clamped between the twisting bodies of terrified kids, and my feet are swept from under me as the kids at the front tumble to the ground.

We all go down together, horses looming above us, baton blows still coming down on our heads and shoulders. I am genuinely afraid that I might be about to die, and begin to thumb in my parents' mobile numbers on my phone to send them a message of love.

On top of me, a pretty blonde seventeen-year-old is screaming, tears streaming down her battered face as she yells abuse at the police. The protesters begin to yell "shame on you!", but even in the heat of battle, these young people quickly remember what's really at stake in this movement. "We are fighting for your children!" they chant at the line of cops. "We are fighting for your jobs!"

I struggle to my feet just in time to see a young man in a wheelchair being batoned. Disabled Jody McIntyre is dragged screaming out of his wheelchair when the police realise that photos are being taken, and shunted behind the riot lines as an even younger man who was pushing the chair shrieks, "Where are you taking my brother?". Then, for some reason, the police decide to attack the empty wheelchair while Jody's brother is still steering it, perhaps in a cartoonish attempt to destroy the evidence.

The protest was never supposed to make it to Parliament Square. Desperate not to be kettled again, the young people who marched out of schools and workplaces and occupied universities all over the city veered away from several attempted containments and diverted into side streets, determined to make it to the seat of government to make their voices heard. When they got there they broke down the barriers surrounding the symbolic heart of the mother of parliaments and surged into the square for a huge party, dancing to dubstep, the soundtrack of this organic youth revolution. Besides the apocalyptic bonfires and thudding drums in the containment area, dazed and battered protesters share out rolling tobacco and carby snacks. "Hey, look at this!" giggles one girl, "I'm eating Kettle Chips in a kettle!"

This time, unlike the first three big days of action, there certainly is violence on both sides. While some students came prepared, even bringing a portable tea-and-cake tent complete with minature pagoda to the kettle, others have brought sticks and paint bombs to hurl at the police. In the face of fellow protesters screaming at them not to "give the coppers a reason to hit us", stones are thrown at horses as angry young people try to deter the animals from advancing.

Many of these young people come from extremely deprived backgrounds, from communities where violence is a routine way of gaining respect and status. They have grown up learning that the only sure route out of a lifetime of poverty and violence is education -- and now that education has been made inaccessible for many of them. Meanwhile, when children deface the statue of a racist, imperialist prime minister who ordered the military to march on protesting miners, the press calls it violence. When children are left bleeding into their brains after being attacked by the police, the press calls it legitimate force.

Hanging off some traffic lights, my back aching from the crush, I have the best view in the house of this "legitimate force" being enacted, as a line of riot cops forms a solid carapace of beetlish menace and marches forward into the crowd, raining down baton blows. Then the protesters cluster together and push back, and my mouth falls open as I see the police retreat into formation. I am suddenly reminded of school history lessons about Roman battle tactics, and indeed, looking down at my hands as I type, I notice that they are covered in blue paint and streaked with blood. It's clear who the Anglo Saxon warriors are in this equation.

When I drop down from the traffic lights, my arms and back aching from being crushed earlier, I find myself at the front of the riot line, being shoved between two shields. Fighting for breath, I am shoved roughly through the line by two police officers; twisting my neck, I see a young woman in a white bobble hat pinned between the shields and the crowd, screaming as the batons come down on her head once, twice, and her spectacles are wrenched from her face. Her friend is shrieking, "please don't crush us, we can't move back, there's no room!" She is pushed through the line, too, and the police refuse to find her a medic. "I've never been on a protest before, I'm a completely peaceful person -- I'm doing my PhD on Virginia Woolf," she pants, her face streaked with tears of anger. "My name is Helen Tyson, and I'm disgusted, utterly disgusted by the police today." We cannot speak any more, because a huge officer in full armour taps me on the shoulder and orders me to leave. When I explain that I am a member of the press and I'd like to observe what's happening, he tells me that this is a "sterile area", and I am dragged away by my arms and legs and dumped by Horse Guards Parade.

A sterile area: that's what the heart of our democracy has become, a searing wound of rage and retribution cauterised by armoured and merciless agents of the state.

Things fall apart. Something fundamental has changed in the relationship between state and citizen over the past month. Increased police violence will not stop our democracy disintegrating: before it's too late, before more children are brutalised at the heart of what once pretended to be a representative democracy, this government needs to consider its position.

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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder