Talking Politics

Eyewitness: Pension strike protest

Policing a demonstration full of teachers is harder than it looks.

Teachers contain two unique qualities which make them perilous in a protest: patience and the ability to crowd control. The police had underestimated how effective that particularly combination could be when they suddenly burst into the march on the Strand, grabbed a handful of children and whisked them away behind the bars of Charing Cross Station.

It's always a little scary when that happens. As far as I could tell they hadn't done anything wrong and they were very young — about 14. But you don't know what the police saw before that moment, when the rest of us were enjoying the sun and the atmosphere.

The vast majority of the demonstration was intensely good-natured, with families carrying their children on their shoulders, drummers doing the mandatory marching beat and a collection of predictable placards about Thatcher and the milk. The people I spoke to were universally intelligent and considered. Agree or disagree - but this is what demonstrations were supposed to be like. From the sidelines, members of the public shouted messages of support. From my limited experience, I saw a considerable amount of that.

The decision to bundle the kids off jolted the atmosphere, with sections of the march crowding against the black railings of Charing Cross to abuse the police as they forcibly questioned and then carried off the last young boy. The treatment seemed far too harsh from where I was stood. That was a feeling felt and expressed more forcefully around the crowd.

One teacher unfussily approached someone with a loudhailer and took it for herself. "Everyone stop there," she barked at the passing protest in a manner which suggested she was used to being followed. She duly informed the marchers that the police had just burst in and taken the children who were marching with them and that she wasn't going anywhere until they gave them back.

As marchers walked by, about eight of them would peel off to join her little sub-protest. A small army of 'gay and lesbian Londoners' stuck around for a while, along with some Asian kids and a handful of anarchists. But mostly it was teachers, who did more to confuse and confound the police than a whole division of the black bloc.

They started chanting. "Let them out. Let them out." Police, most of whom weren't there when the youths had been dragged off, tried to appeal to the ringleader. An NUT organiser, looking perfectly frazzled, desperately tried to urge the passing demonstrators to carry on down to Trafalgar Square. Next to him, a second woman with a megaphone insisted that everyone should stay and demand the return of the boys.

A senior officer, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Jack Straw, insisted that they may have simply been stopped-and-searched. They had no right to tell them what to do after that point, he argued, and they certainly couldn't escort them back to this location.

"That's not good enough," came the response. The teachers were standing their ground. I particularly enjoyed their condescending and suspicious attitude, which is probably the most effective way to talk with police in such situations. He retreated sheepishly. Eventually it turned out the worst had happened. They'd been arrested. A delegation of teachers was dispatched to go down there and look after them.

By mid-afternoon the police had kettled a group on Whitehall (they insisted it was disconnected to the march). The counter-productive nature of this tactic should be plain for all to see, but regardless of its effectiveness it didn't last long. A few minutes after it broke up a group of around 50 peace protesters — they looked about 17 — decided to launch a sit-down protest on Whitehall. As the rain started, the police obligingly came and made the first efforts to have them removed.

None of it made much difference to a march whose family-friendly atmosphere summarised the basic respectability of the cause. You can argue against the strike and you can certainly argue against current public pension arrangements, but it's hard to object to what took place today in London: people cheerfully coming together to defend their interests and make their views plain to government. No amount of over-excited police or stubborn children could derail it.

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