On November 9, 10,000 students marched in central London, spurred on by the mounting cost of education and a will to fight the government’s programme of austerity. Recalling last year’s student demonstrations, which often posed severe problems for the police, and aware that the students are a somewhat volatile force, who are not really ‘disciplined’ by legal minded union officials, the state took no chances. The demonstration was therefore treated not to the kettle, but to the ‘sock’, a kind of mobile kettle, where marchers were herded down a prescribed route with seriously equipped police contingents on either side, blocking the possibility of demonstrators breaking off to right or left, or others joining the march along the way.
Meanwhile, several hundred electricians had been holding the second of two demonstrations against pay cuts at nearby building sites. Although the unions had organised a lobby of parliament, a large group of electricians and supporters took the position of ‘sod that, we want to join the students’, and started to move towards the student march. They were very quickly met by a police line, and those who didn’t manage to evade it were kettled. Attempts by those who had escaped to get help from the students were blocked as another police line delayed the student march for some time.
In short: a massive police presence, very well organised, overseen by helicopters, and capable of acting swiftly to prevent anyone from stepping out of line.
On November 30, in central London, 50,000 public sector workers marched in protest against attacks on their pensions, part of one of the biggest national strikes for many decades. This time, the police operation was of the softly softly kind, very low key, no sign of socks or kettles: you could leave the march or join it when and where you wanted. It gathered in good order, marched along in cheerful humour, and dispersed when the speeches at the rallying point were over, if not well before.
Why was this? Could it have anything to do with the fact that, unlike the students and the electricians, the public sector strike had been controlled from start to finish by the unions, who are much more effective than a confrontational police force in containing workers with their march stewards, their well-rehearsed rallies and their widely accepted role as the official representatives of the working class?
Not that the police didn’t show their other side that day. In Dalston, when a group of young people who had been roaming around showing solidarity with pickets staged a short road block outside the CLR James library, they were immediately set upon by dog-wielding heavies and caught up in a kettle, followed by numerous arrests, terrifying a number of small children in the process. At the end of the march, a group of activists who had carried out a banner drop in Piccadilly were given similar treatment.
So let that be a lesson to you: if you start acting unofficially, if you question the trade unions’ History-given right to lead, you will face the full force of the Law. Put another way: unions and police are two arms of the same state.