Opinion

Police, protests and my pointless arrest

Illustration by Rosa Bonnin

I never thought that by the age of nineteen I would have been arrested. For context, I have never even stolen a pastry from Lidl bakery and if you shout at me too loudly, I will tear up, so the fact that I’ve been handcuffed, transported in a police van and spent a significant amount of time in a cell is both ludicrous and frustrating to me. Worst of all, I didn’t do anything wrong. 

Of course, I might say that even if I actually had done something, so I will rewind to the beginning and prove that I was truly innocent. On Saturday 3rd April (Easter Weekend, no less), I travelled from my home in Kent to London to meet my friend, Tumi. We had been walking for a few hours, and I was experiencing tourist destinations like Chinatown for the first time. Basically, just a fun day out. We ended up at Trafalgar Square and noticed a huge police presence which we thought was strange until we realised that a protest was going on. It turned out to be the ‘Kill the Bill’ protest against the new parliamentary bill which attempts to limit protest rights in various ways. If you’d like more information about these protests, see the links at the bottom. 

We hadn’t been in Trafalgar Square long when we witnessed police officers turning on particular protesters, seemingly randomly, and pouncing on them. At least six officers would pile onto a protester, frequently kneeling on their backs. This invariably led to violent clashes between police and protesters where the police would form a barrier around those being arrested and aggressively push away anyone who got too close. As someone who has only been to one protest, I was horrified, and we decided to follow behind the protest at a distance to see what would happen.

Whilst walking, we remarked that it was relatively quiet – no one was really chanting and few people had signs. However, one protester was toppling all of the bins into the road to block cars. A few metres behind, another was picking them all back up. 

We followed the protest to the Strand, at which point many of the protesters turned left and started running. At this point, Tumi and I decided it was best not to follow them since they seemed agitated and, more importantly, we wanted to go to Wingstop. As we turned back onto the Strand, we saw that lines of at least eighty police officers had formed on either end of the road which, along with the buildings on the other sides formed a blockade. Nobody could leave. This included the legal observers and about thirty stragglers at the back end of the protest. It did not, to my surprise, include any of the main protesters. 

The term for this form of blockade, I later found out, is a “kettle”. For me, that term is provocative. Everyone knows that the contents of a kettle are bound to boil. In the four hours that we were kept there, I think many of us did. 

As time passed without answers, people began to get agitated. Bottles filled with amber liquid began to appear as there was nowhere to use the toilet. Tumi spotted a girl having a panic attack. We went over to help her, which drew the attention of the police’s medics. They promptly asked whether she had been drinking or on drugs, as if being blockaded by police wasn’t sufficient to warrant her response. Next they asked, “well, why are you here?”, as if the very act of protesting, or in her case, meeting her boyfriend on a random street in London, was sufficient motivation for the police to blockade her, and she should have known that. Eventually, she was taken for a “walk” and presumably let out.

She wasn’t the only person to have a panic attack, just the only one we spoke to personally. Another man fainted near us, and he was also escorted out by police medics. As he was leaving, an officer taunted him and laughed. One has to wonder what kind of lived experience leads to such an attitude towards people who need help, especially from those whose job it is to protect and serve. 

Finally, about three hours in, we were told to line up so we could be released. Tumi and I went, but Marlon, a friend we had made during the blockade, ended up in a heated discussion with the officers. Tumi and I went over to join him, and she ended up trying to discuss the institutional racism present in the police force, just to have an officer tell her it didn’t exist. She told him to do some research on the topic and he point-blank refused. He and another officer then told her that her views (the views of a well-educated and researched Oxford student) were “sad and embarrassing”. At this point, she walked away from the conversation, and I heard the officer mutter that she would get a “little surprise” when she tried to leave. The surrounding officers laughed. 

I was horrified by that threatening statement, especially in the wake of recent events surrounding police misconduct. I approached a female officer to tell her what had happened, and she laughed in my face and shrugged when I asked her what it meant. 

Soon after, we found out that everyone who was being “let out” of the kettle was actually being handcuffed, searched and arrested. Remember that guy I mentioned who was picking up all the bins as the protesters marched? He was arrested. The legal observers were also arrested.

From that point, we could only get in line and wait for the same to happen to us. It was past 11pm, and I knew there was no way I would make the last train. However, Tumi and I were certain that if we explained that I don’t live in London and had nowhere else to stay, the police would ensure we were taken to the same station. We were wrong. In fact, we were taken to opposite sides of London – her to Wandsworth Station and me to Hammersmith. The officers told us that, since we both had about 15% battery, they would take down her number and call her when I was released. They did nothing of the sort and, in fact, had both gone home by the time I was finally let out. 

I was arrested for “breaching the peace” and taken to a holding cell where I stayed from midnight until about 4.30am on Easter Sunday. I was handcuffed. My bag and my person were searched. My belongings, including my phone and purse were taken. When I was finally released, I asked if I would be charged and the officers laughingly told me that I wouldn’t. Essentially, they knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Isn’t it bizarre that, to them, causing me this level of trauma inspired humour rather than guilt? Before I left, I asked if this event would ever show up on my record. The officer exasperatedly told me that it would not. I now know that this is not the case; if an advanced CRB check is conducted, it will appear. 

When I finally left the station and called Tumi, I found out she had been released at 2am but had been told that if she came to Hammersmith, she wouldn’t be allowed to wait for me. So she had taken a cab home and called one for me, too which cost around £60 altogether. 

I am aware that, all in all, my run-in with the police could have gone much worse. A fellow Oxford student contacted me and told me that she was punched in the face by an officer at the same protest. Meanwhile, I was treated quite well by the officer (George) who arrested me and even ended up singing “I want it that way” with him in the police van. However, the fact that he was nice to me doesn’t make up for the institutional problems present in the police force. 

As Tumi tried to explain to the officers, there is racism and there is unconscious racial bias. There is also consistent, excessive use of force, which I witnessed with my own eyes and also witnessed officers try to defend. There is deindividuation – officers viewing themselves as part of a unit rather than as individuals, which explains why a female officer scoffed at my female friend being threatened by an officer, rather than empathising with a nineteen-year-old girl. Most of all, I think, there is a lack of critical thought. That is to say, there is a focus on following orders rather than on assessing situations and finding solutions. That is why me and Tumi were split up when she could easily have been swapped with Marlon, who went to the same station as me. That is also why an officer plainly refused to do research into the issues in the police force when encouraged. And, ultimately, that is why I think it is dangerous to give officers more power to make decisions in relation to protests. Police are only able to arrest protesters right now because of COVID-19, but if the new bill is passed, this can happen at any time.

In conclusion, Kill the Bill. 

If you want to hear more about what happened from Tumi’s point of view, she runs a fantastic show on Oxide Radio called ‘Sounds of the Diaspora’, in which the 4th episode speaks about this event: https://www.oxideradio.live/sounds-of-the-diaspora-1 

‘Kill the Bill’ articles:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/uk-56400751

https://www.ier.org.uk/news/whats-wrong-with-the-polices-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill