Sunday, 1 May 2011

Brighton May Day

Yesterday I was in Brighton for the May Day march. It was an eventful day:

At about noon we went to the West Pier, on the sea-front, to start the march. There were about 40-50 people there when we arrived, with a sound system playing. There were a mixed group of people, but the atmosphere was very calm, people were just milling about talking and handing out leaflets to each other. We were handed a banner to carry, but didn't open it. More people came along, and by the time the march was ready to begin, the numbers had swelled to about 200. A dice was rolled to find out the destination of the march, and landed on the Town Hall.

We stood up and started walking down Kings Road, flanked on each side by police and being filmed by FIT members from every angle. There were about 100 police officers, and at least 4 mounted police from what I could see. People were chanting and making noise (bells, whistles, drums), and there was a nice air to the march. We turned up Middle Street, which is a fairly narrow road, and continued up it, still totally flanked by police. We witnessed our first arrest, of a young man, but the police wouldn't say what they were arresting him for. We turned into Ship Street and into our first kettle of the day.

We were kettled for about half an hour. The police numbers had gone up by this point to about 150, and there were 4 riot vans. The police were in riot-gear, with helmets on and batons strapped to their sides. A few of them looked like they were spoiling for any excuse to start a fight, but there was no violence. A few protestors got a bit mouthy, but only about the disproportionately heavy police presence for such a (relatively) small group of people. We saw our second arrest at this point, but again, they wouldn't say what for. We unfurled our banner and found it said 'A better world is possible' on it. The clowns were out, playing with the police officers, most of whom took it good-naturedly. Still, the atmosphere was very calm. People were out to have a good day, they weren't out to smash stuff up, cause trouble or fight the police. Eventually, we were allowed to move.

As we were now carrying the banner unfurled, as we turned down North Street, my friends and I were encouraged to the front of the march. We led the march down North Street, walking behind two mounted police, as photographers and passers-by jostled to get pictures of us. We turned onto East Street and walked a short way, when we heard a shout to turn the march around. When we turned around, we were kettled for a second time, but only for about ten minutes. Again, people were just sat around listening to music or dancing to it and chatting to their friends. There was no one set on violence or causing trouble.

When we were let out of this kettle, we moved through Pavilion Gardens, very peacefully. Families having picnics waved at us and took pictures. Nothing was disrupted, nothing was spoilt. Leaving there, we headed towards Regent Street. Outside Tesco, there seemed to be some kind of commotion. All that was was that the police had apparently decided that we were planning something there, and had placed a heavy presence on its doors. As people were walking by, they were shouting at the police that they shouldn't be protecting businesses, they should be protecting people.

After this, people started running. We ran around Victoria Gardens and up Church Street through the North Laines, sadly losing our banner in the process. At this point, two friends and I peeled off from the march and went to sit down for ten minutes (we're not that fit!). Checking the brightonmayday hash-tag on Twitter as a guide, we decided to head towards the station, as there were reports of a 'counter-demonstration' by the EDL in that area. Walking along Queens Road, we saw three vans full of riot police up a side road, and a very heavy police presence, but no protestors. We actually walked past the EDL 'counter-demo' without even noticing them, since their 'demo' took the form of 15 knuckle-dragging skinheads getting pissed in a pub (the Royal Standard).

We decided to turn back and walk back in the direction of the sea-front. Walking past Boots, we noticed that the side entrance was being guarded by five riot police, and the main entrance by more, even there was no protestors in sight. Everyone was just getting on with their shopping and enjoying their Saturday. There was no disruption to trade or to people going about their business.

We picked up a few people who were looking to rejoin the march, and carried on towards the sea-front. Walking down behind the Churchill Square shopping centre, we noticed a group of people surrounding a man who had been arrested (for saying 'fuck' apparently). He was pressed against a wall, penned in by four police officers. One of the group surrounding them was Caroline Lucas MP, who was trying her best to find out what had happened and what was going on. As the man was led away, I asked her if she would be issuing a statement condemning the disproportionate police response to a peaceful march, and she assured me she would. After we left, I was told that she de-arrested the young man, but I can't confirm this.

At this point, we went and had a drink on the beach. We'd been there about half an hour when we were told that people were planning to occupy Topshop. We made our way over to the Clock Tower, where we met a group of about 12-15 people. Everyone was sitting and chatting, and a couple of people were having a beer. We were being watched by about seven police officers, and after about twenty minutes, a group of twelve police surrounded us and told us to stop drinking. One of the police officers telling us to stop was nice and reasonable, allowing the people he was talking to to finish their beer. The others just confiscated it.

We wandered over to Topshop in groups of 3-4, and when we arrived up there, we found four hired security guys looking extremely conspicuous in the doorway, and about eight police officers. The protestors were stood to one side, not doing anything. We quietly decided to cross the road and try to occupy Vodafone, but couldn't get in there because of another group of hired security. We stood outside, chanting 'Vodafone, pay your tax!' and singing 'If you don't pay your tax, we'll shut you down'. There were around 15 of us there, and I counted at least 20 police officers that I could see then (including the now ubiquitous FIT). After ten minutes we crossed back to Topshop and stood there singing and chanting for about another fifteen minutes. The numbers of police were increasing, there were about 30-40 of them by this point (there was still only 15 of us). One protestor was arrested and dragged off, and we all ran over to find out what was happening. We then found that we'd, rather stupidly, let ourselves get trapped in a very small kettle. There were lines of about 15 police at our front and back, and a riot van on our sides, penning us in. There were lots of other police hovering around behind the lines.

We accepted that we'd been tricked and were trapped, so we sat down and started listening to music and talking among ourselves. We rang a legal support group to find out what we could do, and were just told to sit tight and not say anything.

Then the police began removing us one by one in order to search us and get our details. I was one of the first to be taken away - I was walked up a side street that had another 30-ish police officers on and asked my name, date of birth and full address, and searched. I was threatened with arrest if I didn't comply and the whole thing was filmed by FIT. This happened to each of us individually, and nothing was found on any of us (apart from a pen-knife which the owner had forgotten about which was confiscated, and a back-pack full of 'ASBO Army' t-shirts that were being taken to be sold at a gig. The police were not entirely amused by this).  The police weren't interested in dispersing us, even though that was the power they used to search us, as once they had our details, they let us continue to stand around and wait for our friends. The kettle ended with one guy remaining being guarded by 30 police. He gave us a sing-song to keep us amused. Once that was over, that was it, and we went for a well-deserved pint.

I saw nothing yesterday indicative of any violence, any planned violence, or any disruption to the usual running of the town. It was a group of people who wanted to take part in a Workers Day march, and a completely over-the-top police response. One can only imagine how much police money was wasted by the excessive deployment of resources - especially the final encounter we had.

However, an important point to bear in mind is that this wasn't the fault of (all of) the police. It's easy, when faced with having your civil liberties infringed as much as ours were yesterday, to simply say 'all coppers are bastards' and take against them as a group. Yes, I saw some police yesterday who were being facetious, who were refusing to tell us things for no reason other than to annoy us, and who looked like they were waiting for any excuse to give us a good kicking. But the majority of them were just people who were trying to do a job, and it's not their fault that the plans of their superiors were so obviously over-the-top and counterproductive. If we are to condemn anyone for what happened yesterday, we should condemn the commanding officers and the people making the decisions and calling the shots, not the majority of the front-line police, who were just doing as they were told - because, let's face it, they are the ones who will soon be hit by the cuts we are against, not the top brass. Just as we don't want to be judged by the actions of a violent minority, we shouldn't judge the police in that way.

The local paper, The Argus, has included in their article a list of the eight people arrested, and what they were arrested for:
They were: a 25-year-old man, who refused to provide his address, on suspicion of violent disorder following the TUC march in London last month; a 23-year-old man from Chiselhurst, Kent, on suspicion of using threatening and abusive language; a 22-year-old woman from Macclesfield, Cheshire and a 28-year-old man from Brighton, both on suspicion of failing to remove face masks; a 30-year-old man, who refused to provide his address, on suspicion of assaulting and obstructing police; a 25-year-old man, who refused to give his address, on suspicion of assault, obstructing and resisting a police officer; an 18-year-old man, who refused to give his address, on suspicion of common assault and using abusive language; a 28-year-old man from Brighton on suspicion of failing to surrender alcohol.
Hardly the result of violent extremists wreaking havoc on the streets and terrifying ordinary citizens.

One set of pictures from the day

Some of my pictures from it

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