No Fees! No Cuts! No Kettles!

Last Saturday’s student demonstration against the fees increases, the ending of educational maintenance allowance and cuts in public services was a rather tame affair, despite attracting between five and ten thousand marchers, mainly students, with a sprinkling of parents, trade unionists and others.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

Perhaps the main reason for this was the discussion that had taken place beforehand between the organisers and police, and the leaflet that the police again handed out to protesters detailing both the route and the way that it would be policed. This kind of preparation is important to the police as well, as their briefing will doubtless have dealt with the same matters. It begins by stating that police service is committed to upholding the right to protest, something which has not appeared to be at the top of police priorities in some past events.

Of course there was plenty for me to take pictures of, but the lack of confrontation means that the chances of the media using these pictures is greatly reduced; peaceful demonstrations seldom make the news. But my work isn’t mainly for the instant news media, but more about recording events and trends for a future audience. Though making the news would pay some of the bills.

© 2011, Peter Marshall
Bright red flares present colour temperature and exposure range problems at Downing St

You can read my account of the march (first published on Demotix) on My London Diary at No Fees, No Cuts! Student March, accompanied by the usual large selection of images.

By the time I’d walked all the way along with the marchers – probably covering twice the distance they did, including quite a lot walking backwards – I was tired and in pain (I’ve been suffering from plantar fasciitis in my left foot for the past five months and it hurts if I walk any real distance – and unfortunately I mustn’t take Ibuprofen) and decided to call it a day. Most of the marchers were however game for more and a large group – probably between 500 and a thousand – made it to the Egyptian embassy and on to Oxford St.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

There are two stories about what happened at the embassy. A photographer who made it there with them told me that the Egyptians were not very happy with the many placards  from the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and told them to go away, and the second, from a Guardian story, that this was a great result on its first outing from ‘Sukey‘, an anti-kettling system, which uses text messages (and now a smartphone application) to give phone and smartphone users information about which routes are open to them, and which are obstructed or closed by police.  The new app, not available for this demonstration, uses green to show open directions, yellow for obstructed but passable and red for those that are completely blocked.

Sukey gets its information by Tweets with the hashtag #sukey and other messaging from people on the spot, uses a team in their control room to analyse it and then displays the results on its web site and relays it back as text based warnings to protesters; it now also has a compass-like smart phone application to show protesters the status of routes from their current position – green for open,  though this wasn’t ready for last Saturday.  But apparently protesters close to the Egyptian Embassy who had signed up to the system received a text message from the Sukey control room telling them that there were a lot of reports coming in that the police were about to form a kettle – and so they quickly left.

Although police have kettled protesters on numerous occasions (in recent student demonstrations in Whitehall, Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and on Westminster Bridge), the fact that there are a lot of police in a particular place doesn’t necessarily mean that they intend to kettle protesters.

Before Christmas I was with students as they took off on a ten mile fast march around London because every time they saw police at a junction someone shouted ‘kettle’ and the march took off in another direction. Police denied that day that they had any intention of kettling, and apart from one brief incident in Parliament Square and later in Trafalgar Square, they seemed to me to make no attempt to do so. Despite this, some student and left-wing web accounts wrote it up as some kind of victory of the student movement over the police.

Since then we’ve seen two student marches where the police have issued a leaflet to try and counter what I called ‘kettle paranoia’ by students. There has been no obstruction or kettling of students during either of them on the agreed route.

Though attempts such as ‘Sukey’, named from the nursery rhyme ‘Polly put the kettle on’ in which Sukey (Susan) takes if off again are welcome as attempts to share information (along with the police leaflet and police Tweets) I do rather worry that it may well simply provide greater positive feedback to the kind of wild rumours about police behaviour that drove that out of control ten mile student route march.

Police like to keep order. It’s their job after all, but they do take it too far. They like everything cut and dried and going to plan.  The police understand static demonstrations and marches that keep to a prescribed route but characterize the kind of freely moving protests that some groups have been making recently – sometimes called  ‘civic swarms’ – as disorder, and have so far not found an effective and proportional way of dealing with them.

Information about the whereabouts of protesters will be of great interest to them, and I am sure they will both be monitoring the reports provided by Sukey as well as perhaps producing their own applications to track the locations of tweets with the #sukey tag, and possibly making use of location data from mobile phone companies.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

If you are going to mask up to protect your identity, should you take the battery out of your mobile phone too?

No Fees, No Cuts! Student March.

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