Thursday, 19 January 2012

Peaceful Anti-cuts Demonstration in Liverpool Attacked by Merseyside Police

I arrived at the demonstration just after 4pm.  Exchange Street West, to side of town hall, was already closed off by police, presumably to “facilitate” the demo.  Councillors had already entered the building and there was around 100 people outside, more milling around than anything. The atmosphere was subdued compared to recent protests in the same location.  The council meeting began a little later and the demonstration moved along the side street to be closer to the council chamber windows and to make itself heard to those inside.  After some time elapsed with protestors shouting slogans and demanding answers from those within the council chamber, but basically milling around in the barricaded area on the side street, an attempt was made by the police to kettle the demonstration using officers on foot and mounted officers, and the situation immediately became tense.

Realising the position the demonstration was now in, the decision was made to move to the front of the town hall, where Dale Street, Castle Street and Water Street meet, and where there was more space and no barricades.  The demonstration then blocked this junction in response to police tactics.   During this time, I had an altercation with a bus driver who drove his bus at me and another demonstrator as, in his opinion, we were too slow to move out of his way.  

I was threatened with arrest, presumably for a breach of the peace, after firmly asking a police officer to remove his hands from my chest (yes I swore at him). After informing the officer that nobody else could hear what I had said over the background noise and swearing at him was not a crime, he (ironically) called me a gobshite and moved away.  A mounted officer then proceeded to walk her horse into me while my back was turned, and then accuse me of hitting the horse with a flag.  I responded to this blatant attempt at intimidation by informing the officer that my flag hadn’t touched the horse and questioned the wisdom of barging someone from behind with such a powerful animal and was again threatened with arrest for a crime that doesn’t exist.

After a few tense minutes, several protestors sat down in the road.  They were urged to get to their feet by other demonstrators and at this point the police began to pile into the crowd, violently arresting several protestors.  Attempts to de-arrest the protestors led to more violence from the police and the situation began to escalate.  Following another threat of arrest, I turned round to see a comrade’s face covered with blood coming from his nose following a punch from a police officer.  Several protestors were wrestled to the ground by large numbers of officers and police made a concerted effort to try to make sure none of this was caught on camera by riding horses into the crowd to block their view.

Police appeared to be targeting the younger members of the group from Occupy Liverpool and the atmosphere was one of intimidation.  Protestors were being dragged and carried to waiting vans and a stand-off developed across Dale Street.  The road remained blocked, which suggested that the police tactics were not in response to the actions of the demonstration.  Numbers had diminished and to try to avoid round 2 with the police, who had now been reinforced with several Matrix units armed with tasers, the decision was taken to mobilise the demonstration.  We returned, via a tour of Lord Street and Liverpool One, back to Occupy Liverpool’s building, attempting but ultimately failing to lose the police, who were now headed by black-clad and taser-carrying Matrix officers.  During this excursion, one of the demonstrators at the rear of the group, who was riding a bike and accompanied by her child, was accosted by several Matrix officers with the excuse that she shouldn't be riding on the pavement.  The atmosphere became tense again as the group surrounded the officers and the lady was eventually allowed to go on her way.  After arriving at the building, police began to keep more of a distance and once the demonstrators had dispersed, the police did likewise.

For me, this was not a spur of the moment event.  The atmosphere at the demonstration had deteriorated rapidly since the beginning, largely due to police attempts to kettle the demonstration next to the town hall - an unnecessarily confrontational tactic in the circumstances.  When this dubious tactic failed, the police almost immediately became overtly aggressive.  The failed eviction of Occupy Liverpool from a city-centre squat a couple of weeks ago may also have contributed to the attitude of the police and my suspicion is that the police were last night attempting to reassert their authority in the city following that mishandled embarrassment and criticism of their handling of civil disturbance in the summer of last year.  I have no doubt that if the demonstration didn’t mobilize following the stand-off, the police would have waded in again and made more violent arrests and I am sure that if individuals were observed leaving the area alone, they would also have been arrested.  Last night could mark a change in approach to the policing of protest in Liverpool and the real possibility is that wherever they can, police will attempt to intimidate protestors to stop them demonstrating again.  But many will return, and after the evidence of last night, they are sure to better understand what the police are really all about.

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