News from the Whitehall front line

I sent my daughter an email regarding her latest diet requirements as she is vegetarian and only seems to eat Fairtraid bamboo shoots and goat’s bread these days. She is coming out for a few days during our fiestas next week. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is still a cause for a holiday break, even if most Spaniards sadly now seem to hate the Catholic Church and all its teachings.

I had a reply from my daughter and found she was completely in shock after an encounter with police violence in Whitehall. Before you read the following account, please note that she is five feet nothing, looks about fourteen but is actually twice that age, and is of very slight build She is as meek as a lamb (in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if she phoned me one day to say she had been chased by a lamb). She is not given to political activity or protest normally, but felt she should support the student fees protest as she lives nearby in Lambeth and is paying her own fees on a film-making course at Goldmiths College. Here is what happened:

“I innocently and rather all too quickly got caught up at the front of a riot police line physically throwing me about, just because I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time! Suddenly horses charged the width of Whitehall – I managed to throw myself, back pinned against some railings, just in time to look up to see a horse flying by. The next thing I knew a policewoman was grabbing both my shoulders, throwing me out of my safety spot and then it seemed I was tossed from one policeman to the next! I’m still in shock! I was really very frightened.

“…I simply went to join a peaceful, organised protest due to take place at a specific hour outside Downing St, which by that time had been cancelled due to earlier events resulting in the day’s protests taking a course of their own. I was simply trying to find out what was going on, my friend was blocked off at the other end and I was anxious to meet up with them, particularly as I was finding the atmosphere increasingly uneasy, but the police were not interested in being helpful, only aggressive and I found I had no escape. So that was yesterday evening! Poor horses, also…”
I remember situations I experienced in Red Lion square in 1974. When they bring out those horses and go into ‘attack mode’ they seem to behave like the Tsar’s cavalry against Russian peasants. Of course, in Red Lion square they killed Kevin Gately – a student struck by a long police ‘night stick’ wielded by one of these ‘brave cavalry men’ charging a static unarmed crowd. It was the first time they had ever used the tactic of forcing protesters into a closed space – in Red Lion Square – a tactic now called ‘kettling’, and then charging savagely with horses and police wielding batons. It emerged in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry a few years later that the institutional racism of the Metropolitan force was in sympathy with the National Front’s hatred of black people. The Met did their dirty work for them in Red Lion Square.

What my daughter witnessed in Whitehall, her parents had seen in the ‘Lewisham riots’ in 1980. Again, trying to stop the fascists marching through a multi-cultural area, the police went wild on the streets of Lewisham, charging into the crowd at full gallop. Congratulations to the Met: you have now politicised a new generation and shown them the repression of the state when the velvet glove is taken off the iron fist and the crude tactic of extreme violence is used against those who dare to protest.

After my experience with the CRB earlier this year, I have no remaining respect for British policing institutions – even as I now reach the late years of my life and I am broadly conservative in my views (with a small ‘c’) and have little in common with the left, or anarchists and radical lefties who provoke the police. I left any support for student protest behind many years ago!

This peculiarly British kind of repression has not changed in any way since the 1970s, or since the General Strike in 1926, and from the perpective of a modern democratic state – here in Spain – it looks downright primitive. Nick Clegg, you are an arse. Resign! For, after reading the above account from my terrified daughter I am angry. When a state is frightened by protesters, it has lost its way. I also can’t help but notice we have “LIBERALS” in government who are responsible for these Tsarist attacks on students protesting against impossible levels of financial debt. What on earth do they think they are doing? They must resign now.

The image below – simply a photograph of hundreds of shoes after the police had cut a swathe through the students – gives the most graphic indication of the extreme level of violence used. It is lucky nobody was killed. I am aware after my experience of the CRB earlier this year that British state institutions are answerable to nobody. I shall advise my daughter to steer well clear of demonstrations: it is not a country in which such activity is safe. Britain is a banana republic compared with Spain where I live now. Here there is a bill of rights and a written constitution. In Whitehall, you are only allowed to protest if the police decide to let you.

So – it now emerges that the police have lied again: they had denied they did a mounted charge into protesters. Here is the evidence on camera. Read this Guardian news report:

“Bain said she was standing with school and college pupils, some as young as 15, when mounted police advanced. “There were people who fell down who would have been under the horses’ hooves if they hadn’t been grabbed – and these were really young kids as well.”

Jonathan Warren, a freelance photojournalist who was at the protest, said mounted police advanced “with no warning”. “There was a line of police officers, which parted, and then the police on horseback just started charging,” he said, adding that protesters were left “angry and scared”.

Archie Young, 18, who was protesting with his mother, Josa, said he was left bruised following the charges. “I was at the forefront of the crowd of protesters that they charged, yes – my left boot still has a hoofprint-shaped mark on it from where I was trodden on,” he said.

Yesterday a spokesman for the Metropolitan police said: “Police horses were involved in the operation, but that did not involve charging the crowd.” He added: “I dare say they [officers policing the Whitehall demonstrations] were doing the movements the horses do to help control the crowd for everyone’s benefit, which has been a recognised tactic for many, many years, but no, police officers charging the crowd – we would say, ‘No, they did not charge the crowd.'”


About Gareth Thomas

After a mixed career as an aircraft technician, London fringe theatre playwright, Franciscan friar, and secondary school teacher, I find myself looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I like to listen to BBC Radio 4 and the wind in the pine trees. I am writing a comedy about a school in Benidorm. My favourite film of all time is "Jean de Florette". If I had my time again I would not have spent the early 1970s working for Special Branch.
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9 Responses to News from the Whitehall front line

  1. Alys Thomas says:

    I arranged to meet a friend for an organised, publicised rally outside Downing Street, the purpose of which being to unite all of the demonstrators on mass and to give their cause a voice through listening to the advertised speakers. From the moment I entered Whitehall via a side road my anticipation was infused with an oppressive sense of unease. Seeing a crowd, I assumed the demonstrators were congregating as planned, but noted their containment and a robust police presence. Approaching the crowd whilst trying to locate my friend, people began to run towards me, as total chaos ensued. Shocked murmurs of horses trampling over people and police violence towards demonstrators filled the air; people wishing to demonstrate, oppressed by the police who were controlling their basic democratic rights. Alerted to this hostile, unjust environment I wanted to leave, but simultaneously a deep sense of outrage and bewilderment compelled me to stay, as an atmosphere of solidarity amongst demonstrators permeated; I was already involved. How could it be that myself and this crowd were being denied our freedom of speech within a democracy and why? I witnessed the aggression from the solid line of riot police bullying passive demonstrators, who continuously questioned their actions. Signifying defiance, a minority of demonstrators irresponsibly resorted to setting papers alight, the situation was intensifying. As the police line marched forward using brut force, randomly punching at bodies, I heard myself assertively shouting out as one police officer relentlessly punched a man. I attempted to talk to several police officers, to make sense of the situation, only to find myself under physical attack. By this point I was in the midst of a crowd being, I wish to emphasise punched rather than merely pushed, back by police. Suddenly I heard a police officer yelling, “I’m telling you, the horses are going to charge – whether you move or not, I’m telling you they are going to charge!” This wasn’t said with a tone of warning, but one of threat. Given a warning, you would expect enough time to escape, but moments later there came a distinct sense of panic, with people running in all directions. I fled to the edge of the road and as I turned around with my back pinned against some railings, I looked up and felt the full scale of a horse flying past me. Immediately I was grabbed by both shoulders, wrenched away and thrown forwards. “No, no! I don’t want to move, I just want to stay here!” I pleaded, scared to move, but I was angrily thrown back into the crowd. I phoned my friend. “I’ve just been charged at by horses,” I realised I was trembling, “the police are being very aggressive, I don’t understand… Oh! Hang on, I’m being thrown around by the police again… Oh! Sorry, hang on… Why are you touching me? – I’m not touching you, so why are you touching me?!” I exclaimed as I was tossed from one police officer to the next, barely able to stay standing. Gradually I managed to get away and then I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Are you okay, I just saw the horses charging?” I was relieved to receive a hug from my friend, I was severely shaken. 

    Later from Westminster I looked on at the kettled demonstrators, as people were being slowly released. I was told by one officer that the rationale behind holding innocent people captive for several hours was due to a “potential threat to public safety”. I spoke with a father as he awaited his young daughter’s release. “She’s freezing,” he relayed after speaking to her on her mobile phone. Another police officer who told me that this was an illegal protest, set out the guidelines for a legal protest, which included the requirement to inform the authorities of a protest prior to it taking place. I have to give Scotland Yard credit then, for the speed with which they spontaneously responded to this unlawful protest, with the scale of their actions successfully passing for a well informed, highly planned, tactical operation. Foolproof.

  2. Toad says:

    I find, as I get older, that the desire to run up the black flag and start slitting throats gets greater by the year, not lesser.

    The thought of being part of a baying mob hanging politicians and bankers from lamp posts is positively mouthwatering, nowadays

  3. Frere Rabit says:

    “the desire to run up the black flag and start slitting throats gets greater by the year”

    Right: you can join my detention at 2.30 on Monday as well, you rood little oik.

  4. Toad says:

    And, while I’m at it the ‘shoe’ picture is sensational. Did anyone run it? I would have lead the paper with it.

  5. Frere Rabit says:

    Yes, the shoe picture is remarkable. For you and I who have deliberately chosen to live in the quiet backwaters of Spain, such a telling image is a reminder of a violent and sadly desperate world, not too far away but thankfully far enough. My daughter’s experience seems to have had a politicising effect on her. That is the inevitable consequence when the agents of the state behave barbarically, whether it is the Tsar’s cavalry charging starving peasants, the Condor Legion bombing Guernica, or the Met beating up students to help Nick Clegg implement his perverse vision of Liberal Britain…

  6. Toad says:

    You mentioned Unamuno a while back. I bought ‘The Tragic Sense of Life,’ the other day. Interesting.

    On the back it says, “Whether or not Unamuno believed in God himself, has been a subject of violent controversy.” and apparently Gerald Brennan said it ‘was without doubt, the greatest book of its kind to have been written in Spanish.’ Of course, it may be the only book of its kind, for all Toad knows.

    I did have a little booklet in which Unamuno says, “¿Señor, por que no existes?”

  7. Frere Rabit says:

    Unamuno says, “¿Señor, por que no existes?”

    Brilliant! I’m glad you’ve got The Tragic Sense of Life, as that’s much too heavy for me and you can explain it when I see you next! However, it seems we are both reading Unamuno now: I managed to get hold of San Manuel Bueno, mártir. I am now in a fortunate position because two of the Spanish teachers in the international school where I work have now begun to make it their mission to fill in the gaps in my Spanish education, only half finished in Ibiza, at the age of fifteen when I returned to England in 1967. I came across a reference to the San Manuel book when I was exploring the decline of Spanish Catholicism a few weeks ago.

    Spanish Catholicism seems to have declined further in the meantime: I have just returned from a fruitless four kilometre walk to Finestrat and back, intending to go to Mass, but the parish church was closed. The priest was only saying last week that the diocese was running out of money, so maybe that’s it then, and they’ve sold the silverware to pay for the bishop’s mistress or whatever.

  8. Toad says:

    The reason for the decline of Spanish Catholicism is as, I’m sure we both agree, due to its being inextricably linked these days with Franco.
    In this it differs from other countries in Europe, where there is more just general uninterest and a vague sense that the Church is riddled with various forms of corruption.
    Possibly some time in the future it might have a renaissance here when the dust has settled. Maybe.
    But the Italian Church does not seem top be linked to Mussolini. Do you agree? If, so why do you think this is?
    Toad knows little or nothing about this side of Italy.

  9. Frere Rabit says:

    I agree that the decline of Spanish Catholicism is due to the inevitable association with the Generalissimo. It is very complicated, however, and my own perception is that the church, in the immediate aftermath of Franco’s long expected hand-over of power to the monarchy and the surprisingly fast creation of a liberal democracy, the Catholic clerical dinosaurs had not done any work to prepare themselves for the backlash. The real damage was not the support the Catholic church had given to the regime but the lack of any proper understanding of what Spain suddenly became from 1975 onwards.

    I remember being in Madrid in 1976 and seeing the strange effect of the sudden liberation on the theatres and cinemas. Suddenly, every theatrical performance had to have full frontal nudity and the only films to be seen were the various versions of the life of Che Guevara and – incredibly – Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’, which people were queuing up to see for the first time in Spain since 1939…

    The Church looked on at all this overnight change with dread, mourning a ‘golden age’ in which time-serving clerical nonentities had climbed a fairly easy social ladder and aided in a very definite way the three and a half decades of ‘soft repression’. Not only were they guilty of collusion in the mass exterminations of the immediate aftermath of the civil war (some reckon that a million died after the civil war: more than died during it), but they were the boring unimaginative social controllers of the fifties, the sixties, and into the early seventies. The church in Spain simply became fossilised and repressed itself: it did not evangelise the youth because it had nothing to say to them. In fact it feared young people. It was better to keep them out of church than have their dangerous enthusiasm for democracy infecting the dark caverns full of bloodied plaster saints. The church was not so much rejected, but it excluded itself. Then it simply became a meaningless institution that had turned in upon itself in fear.

    That is my reading of it. A bit of a sweeping generalissimo perhaps…? Spanish fascism was not like Italian fascism. It was a peripheral movement used by the military and church conservatives as a bulwark against communism: Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera was no Mussolini; in fact he wasn’t even a Mosley. He was a nothing. The Franco old guard despised the fascists, but they used the trappings of the period, the uniforms and the marching songs, to package a kind of modern fantasy of the crusading monarchism of El Cid.

    When you remember that it was MI6 who flew Franco from the Canaries to Ceuta to start the whole military revolt against the democratically elected Republic, you begin to see that the Spanish right was entirely hand-in-(velvet)glove with western European capitalism acting in unison to teach the workers of Spain a lesson for going too far left. The trappings of fascism in Spain were always quite unconvincing. That’s why they never sided with the Axis powers.

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