Tom Brake: Commentary
At the beginning of my day with the G20 protesters, I had every hope that my presence as an independent observer on behalf of Parliament would be redundant.
I will report back to my fellow MPs after Easter. Sadly, as I reflect on a day that turned ugly in places, my report has ballooned and the Home Affairs Select Committee and I will have much to discuss.
From the media reports trailing the protests, it seemed almost inevitable that some level of conflict would occur. There is a minority in some protests that does not mind causing trouble, and a smaller number that will actively seek violence, vandalism and aggression, thus stealing the headlines away from issues such as climate change, Third World debt, employment or the world economy. Anyone who has been to a protest, music festival or a football match accepts and understands that crowd control cannot be the easiest of jobs. It is a thankless task, with little praise when things pass off peacefully, but dominating headlines when tragic and appalling incidents such as that of Ian Tomlinson’s death occur.
On the day itself, I was rooted in one of the police “kettles” for five hours. I witnessed the professionalism of many police officers, as well as their final failure to tackle the situation properly and instead fan the flames.
“Kettling” is a tactic that should come under review. At the first sign of difficulty, the police present a wall of riot shields and batons around protesters — the peaceful alongside the problematic — and slowly squeeze them into a tighter space. People are allowed in, but absolutely no one is allowed to leave.
Slowly the number of inmates increases. No access to food. No water. Young trapped with the old. Journalists trapped with anarchists. People, like an elderly couple I spoke to, who simply did not want to be there at all.
It is not surprising that under such conditions an otherwise overwhelmingly relaxed and peaceful crowd can become agitated, then angry, and then violent. The tactic proved misguided and counter-productive. It served to alienate a whole mass of peaceful protesters.
My team and I escorted one protester with a broken arm to a police cordon. Not even his friend was allowed to accompany the injured man as he left the kettle. Journalistic freedom of speech was curtailed too — I filmed a journalist flanked by police, prevented from leaving despite legitimate credentials and contact information for the police to use.
Like the many wholly innocent prisoners around me, I resigned myself to being trapped for the long haul.
I had five hours inside the kettle as pressure built to think about how things could have been handled; but also to question when our hard-fought liberties were lost, when containment became not about containing the mood of the crowd, but about physically penning them in.
There is now a different public mood to contain — one that wants to know why a man died. And the public will not be silenced this time by backing them into a corner.
Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington