Horsing around London

I don’t like police horses. It’s perhaps something that goes back to 1968 and those student demos I took part in, at at least one of which horses were deliberately ridden into crowds unable to move out of their way. But even though I’m sure that both the Met’s horses and riders are highly trained, every time I see them in action at protests there are times when the horses are clearly out of control. One in particular at this protest was proving my point, its rider spending most of her time shouting at everyone to get out of the way as it pranced and kicked out randomly.

Of course, it’s partly this lack of control that makes them effective, particularly in confined spaces and crowds, where large, heavy animals with only partly controlled movements are extremely frightening. If a vehicle with similar properties were to be built, it would quite rightly be banned. There is a place for horses, and they certainly can look impressive on ceremonial occasions, but they are a far too blunt and unpredictable force for crowd control.

March With The Homeless was an event by grass-roots groups which work on the streets with the homeless, providing them with food and shelter, filling the gaps that have become much more gaping in our society, thanks to successive governments failures to deal with problems. In my lifetime we have moved from a society where we cared for everyone and homelessness was rare to one where there are beggars on the streets and people sleeping all over our major cities.

When I was young, there were a few tramps. Some would knock at our door – a small semi on an outer London street – and ask for water, and my mother would give them a cup of tea and talk to them. They tramped to find seasonal work. We seldom had pennies to spare, but I think she would find a few for them. But it was only when in my twenties that I went to Paris that I first saw beggars – and at first I didn’t realise what they were – and people living on the city streets.

People squat unused commercial buildings – there are many around London – and set them up as unofficial community centres, offering free food (often scavenged or donated) and a roof, as well as friendship. They sometimes have problems with police, though officers often see they are providing a vital service and saving lives, police orders come to protect property and the officers enforce them. Owners get court orders and bailiffs come to evict, often helped by police even when legally their role should be to see that the bailiffs keep to the law.

The protest was a relatively small one, and taking place towards the end of the evening rush hour. It was unlikely to lead to any great public disorder, and would have gone ahead rather more smoothly with no police presence at all. The horses – and rather more on foot than was needed – were I think there in case the protesters had decided they wanted to march down the Mall to protest outside Buckingham Palace – as they had at a previous protest.

In fact they had other plans, though they were not letting the police know, wanting to go through Covent Garden and parts of the West End to finish at the squatted Sofia House on Great Portland St. There were a number of confrontations as police tried to get them to go a different way at several road junctions, though it was hard to see why, other than to try to show they were in charge, before the march finally came to a halt at the top of Haymarket, where the police horses were joined by others in the sculpture on the corner and the road was blocked by police and demonstrators.

There were some lengthy discussions between police and the march leaders, with the police insisting the march go down Haymarket, but the protesters intending to go forwards to Piccadilly Circus. I think eventually the officer in charge realised the futility of the police action, which was merely increasing the disruption caused by the march, and an agreement was reached with the march going on towards its destination. But by this time I was tired and hungry and went home.

More at  No More Deaths On Our Streets.


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