By Tim Hardy
(Image via donnachadelong.)
I was part of the UK Uncut demonstration outside Boots on Oxford Street in London this afternoon, a peaceful, fun afternoon being enjoyed by all – until the police decided to use CS gas / pepper spray.
Our goal was to take the hospital to Boots, to show people the link between corporate tax avoidance and cuts to health care. Instead the police took protesters to the hospital.
I was handing out leaflets to members of the public when it happened so was not a direct eye-witness to the incident but the police response was shocking. Armed officers with handguns in their belts arrived within less than a minute, one woman was arrested and around a dozen protesters required immediate first aid. The cookie shop next door kindly handed out milk for people to use to wash out the caustic chemicals that were burning their eyes.
There is some confusion about what the police used. I don’t know what the chemical composition of the gas was. I don’t honestly know what the difference is between CS gas and pepper spray but I do know that those hit by it were in severe pain and were left unable to see and required emergency first aid.
When the ambulance finally arrived around 40 minutes after the incident, some required further medical treatment and three were then taken to hospital for further checks. One of the three is a friend and a member of the Sukey dev team.
No one seemed to be able to understand why the arrest was made. I did not witness it and cannot comment.
The protests were entirely good-natured and peaceful and right up until that moment the police had been generally helpful and friendly with a couple of exceptions. The officer who used the gas was bundled off the scene immediately afterwards.
It was a very peaceful demonstration with a lot of positive response and support from members of the public passing by. This only increased after the disproportionate response by the police with literally hundreds of people asking for leaflets and information about what was going on and expressing their disgust. There were a number of camera crews on the scene so hopefully more information and footage will be made available shortly.
UK Uncut’s campaign has been called “the start of something beautiful” by Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.
This unique grass roots movement is a perfect example of internet-led activism. Meetings are held in public on twitter. Anyone is free to participate. Planned demonstrations are public knowledge. It should come as no surprise that news of the incident spread like wildfire on twitter within moments of it happening.
Today’s unfortunate incident points towards an urgent need for the police to engage more intelligently with protest movements because as the effects of the coalition cuts bite deeper, the number of protests is only going to increase.
The internet is not going away. You can’t put the genie back into the bottle. Instead of giving the stage to dinosaurs like Sir Hugh Orde who like to lump everyone with an internet connection together, from Anonymous to Al Qaeda, the police need instead to intelligently engage with protest groups so that we don’t have a minority of officers prepped to get over-excited like this and can avoid more of these incidents, or worse, happening in the future.
People are becoming too scared to protest and this has to stop. Now. A photographer from the Observer asked me yesterday if I thought it would be safe for her to bring her children on the TUC national demonstration against the cuts in London on Saturday 26 March 2011. We have to seriously ask ourselves what kind of a society we have allowed this to become where someone has to ask this question.