Two first-year undergraduates from Balliol college were allegedly kettled by police at the student march against the government’s cuts to grants on Wednesday. Around 50 to 70 students from Oxford went to the demonstration, with transport funded by Oxford University Student Union (OUSU).
Oxford students Beth Cadwalladr and Pria Bourne, both from Balliol, claim to have found themselves kettled on St James’ Street. This group was escorted by police to Charing Cross Station. As a result, Cadwalladr and Bourne missed the OUSU coach back to Oxford, but Cherwell understands that OUSU will reimburse them for the journey home.
‘Kettling’ is a controversial antiriot tactic which has been used in the past by the Metropolitan Police. It involves surrounding protesters and prevent them from leaving an area for an extended period of time.
Cadwalladr and Bourne were separated from the other protesters when the protest escalated after a stand-off outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), a particular object of the protesters’ anger.
This year, the department will spend £1.6bn on poorer students, but the Treasury has announced that this support will be cut, and replaced with loans.
The demonstration, which marched from Student Central through the centre of London, passing Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament, consisted of thousands of students chanting, “What do we want? Free education”.
James Elliott, one of the lead stewards of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts – the organisation which arranged the protest – and student at St Edmund Hall, told Cherwell, “I think the demonstration was a great success and showed once again that the government need to listen to students on tuition fees and living grants.
“Their cut to maintenance grants is going to leave the poorest students graduating with the most debt – in what sense is that making the system fairer? I hope to see much more of these demonstrations until the government backtracks.”
The protest remained peaceful until paint and coloured smoke bombs were thrown outside BIS. One eyewitness reported that the police’s robust response triggered the more frenetic episodes of the demonstration, which saw students running through the streets around Westminster, with police in pursuit. Outside BIS, where the demonstration was due to end, smoke bombs hid some of the action from view, as police ran towards the building in increased numbers.
At the scene, police liaison offi cers could be heard alleging that criminal damage had been done, though Cherwell’s reporter could see no evidence of this. An errant smoke bomb did strike a police offi cer, however, as did paint thrown by protesters.
In response to the escalation, police split the protest in two, preventing those protesting just outside BIS from joining other protesters attempting to continue down Victoria Street. Some grew angry at this point, believing they were being kettled.
On this occasion, protesters were free to leave the area the way they had come, but many were keen to join the other group further down Victoria Street, and broke through the line of police in order to try and reconnect.
The pace of the demonstration then increased considerably, as students attempted to outrun attempts by police to cordon them off again. As some students ran, the protest dispersed, and some groups of protesters found themselves separated from the main body.
According to those attending, police asked protestors to get out of the road and onto the pavement and although most people did, there was not enough room and the police began pushing some of the protestors, one of whom was knocked unconscious after a police offi cer pushed her. Despite protesters shouting that they could not breathe, police allegedly told them there was nothing they could do and shortly after formed another kettle. 12 arrests were made, according to the Metropolitan Police.
Bourne told Cherwell, “The fi rst part of the protest was really fun, everyone was excited to go to stand up for such an important cause but I was disgusted by the police violence – it was so so bad! Despite this, it was defi nitely worth going; I am just hoping something will come of it. I am really glad I went, despite the police at the end, and I will still be going next year.”
Xavier Cohen, a third-year PPEist also at Balliol, who proposed the OUSU motion to fund transport for students attending the demonstration, commented, “I feel the demo was really important because cutting maintenance grants is a clear attack on the poorest – money people would have received for free will now become debt. The Tories have a clear aim to further marketise education and take the cap off tuition fees – it’s so important that we as students demonstrate that this is totally unacceptable and that we will fi ght these horrible policies at every step.”
Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) President, Jan Nedvídek, told Cherwell, “We are fortunate enough to live in a country governed by laws, not violence. If you dislike a particular policy, fair enough: organise a debate, stand for Parliament, persuade people to vote for you and change that policy! Wearing balaclavas, destroying public property and shouting abusive things at people doesn’t get you very far in a civilised country. What I fi nd particularly disappointing is that the Shadow Chancellor encourages this sort of violent behaviour.”
Shortly before the march, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell delivered a speech.
McDonnell told protestors, “Your generation has been betrayed by this Government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education. Education is a gift from one generation to another, it is not a commodity to be bought and sold.” Green Party leader Natalie Bennett was also in attendance.
Despite the violence, Lucy Delaney, Vice President for Women at OUSU who helped to lead the Oxford trip, commented, “There was fantastic energy and it was really affi rming – as someone who works to represent and support students and their interests – to see people so fi ercely dedicated to getting their voices heard on crucial issues – the right to a free education, maintenance grants, decolonising education, ending racial profi ling, supporting those on low incomes, and supporting refugees and fi ghting against their incarceration and deportation.
“The police tactics, however, were despicable and needlessly violent. Many students, some of whom were attending their fi rst protest, were walled in and kettled with unnecessary force by lines of police – I narrowly avoided this myself. The police numbers were utterly superfl uous and clearly a scare tactic, and many of them were carrying guns. Several Oxford students were kettled, a few sustained injuries from police offi cers, and two freshers were walled in for hours. Luckily everyone made it home safe, and this display of police brutality, whilst frightening, has spurred many activists on to keep protesting and with renewed vigour.”
Kettling has been criticized in the past for its indiscriminate nature, detaining peaceful protesters along with violent ones. Critics also claim that kettling is occasionally used to deliberately encourage disorder, so as to shift the focus of public debate.
Cherwell understands that representatives of legal fi rm Green and Black Cross were giving out their contact details to protestors. The Metropolitan Police confi rmed 12 arrests were made but would not off er Cherwell further comment.