Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Eyewitness Report from Bolton

Below is reproduced a report from a North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) activist who was at the anti-EDL demonstration in Bolton this weekend. His piece focuses on the behaviour of Greater Manchester police. More reports and a substantial debate on anti-EDL strategy can be read at Socialist Unity.

I spent the time at the counter-demonstration with a fellow NorSCARF group member who can walk only slowly and cannot stand for long. With the other Unite Against Fascism supporters who had walked from our coach, we were initially held for about 10 minutes immediately outside the square where the demonstration was being held. We could see into the square but I was not aware of anything of note occurring. We were then admitted to the square sometime before 12:00, in a group of less than one hundred.

Unexpected Police Action
I heard no communication from the police as the UAF supporters with us went into the square and either looked around or ambled forward, and everything appeared orderly. Nor did I hear any communication as (within a minute) a five metre or more long line of police formed shoulder to shoulder behind us and started forward, shortly bumping into us and slowly, lightly pushing us. This seemed to occur in an even method along the line, in a way that I presume required specific prior practice.

Though there was plenty of room for us in the square, I heard no one giving instructions to those further in front of us to make faster progress, and so it seemed those of us at the back felt unable to move faster to avoid being pushed. In any event, I was with someone who could not walk quickly. She spoke clearly to the officers immediately behind her about her [physical] limitations, yet they continued to push silently for another half a minute despite her complaints until one officer spoke to the two of us hinting that we might move slightly to the right against the unstaffed makeshift newspaper stall we were passing. Here they left us alone whilst continuing their pressure against the others.

Within a minute of the pushing starting, a man on the left side of our group walked within three metres of a location where several police dogs were being held facing further into the square. One of the dogs, all of which were unmuzzled and on long leads, reared, barking violently at the head of this man, who was then berated by a police officer for going too near.

Though the tempers of a few UAF supporters appeared to be getting frayed, I could see no sign of a combined confrontational response from any of the UAF supporters, and my colleague and I turned to each other and started discussing our inability to see a good reason for what had just happened to us. She appeared as surprised as I was when, within two minutes, we discovered we needed to move somewhere less exposed to try to stay clear of large numbers of people, including police, hurrying around. Presumably though many of these people were moving just to try and stay out of the way, just as we now were.

We soon discovered we needed to move again to do this, as large numbers of our fellows hurried around our new location, trying to keep distance from a body of police who were hurrying towards them. As soon as we could we moved a greater distance to find a calmer part of the square, which proved to be nearer to where the EDL supporters were. The only clear, positive initiative that I saw being taken towards easing the situation at this point was by one person, not in uniform, with a loud-hailer calling for calm.

Overall Situation Becomes Clearer
As the immediate situation calmed, the general situation became clearer to me: the police had a secure enclosure around the entire side of the square where the UAF counter-demonstration was located, and I saw no sign of their control of this enclosure being threatened throughout the afternoon.

Throughout the event, all the police activity I saw that looked to involve scuffles or pushing or chasing battles with - or arrests of - UAF supporters occurred within the enclosure. In contrast I often had views of the boundaries of the enclosure. Everything I saw of police/demonstrator interaction, including those parts of the boundary facing toward the EDL demonstration, was orderly.

Where they seemed to require order to be maintained most, the police seemed able to easily achieve it. Whenever turbulence periodically flared up in the UAF enclosure I always saw large numbers of police in those areas already, with no need for reinforcements.

So to keep a good distance from continuing sporadic turbulence, from about 12:30 onwards I spent my time at one of the boundaries, specifically 10 metres or so back from the barriers facing the EDL, and against the boundary which had been set out with a one metre high barrier along the base of the town hall steps.

From here I had a clear view of senior police officers watching the activity from the steps of the town hall overlooking the UAF supporters. The only time I saw any of these appearing to break a sweat in controlling their forces were some frantic conversations toward the end of the demonstration shortly before officers carried riot shields from within the town hall and started to eject EDL demonstrators from their half of the square. Until then, I only saw them watching events calmly. The EDL clearance was also the first time I had seen the police hurrying reinforcements to an area of the demonstration.

One particular event illustrates further. All the police I saw were wearing high-visibility yellow vests, except for one group dressed completely in dark gray that had been operating in the UAF enclosure. Shortly before 1pm this group withdrew to take a water refreshment break on the town hall steps. During the break officers could be seen discussing and pointing to an area more than 25 metres away.

Just before 1:05 this "low-visibility" group of about 15 officers came down the steps, over the barrier, and lined up below the town hall steps either side of where I and my colleague were. I complied when one asked me to please stand behind my colleague's portable chair, saying in explanation that he might need to move quickly. They were not encountering hostility from nearby UAF supporters at this point. The, without anything new happening to respond to, all the officers peeled off from the barrier to form a file piercing their way through the UAF, heading roughly towards where they had been pointing a few minutes earlier.

A little later, these officers reappeared, rushed back towards one side of us and over the barrier, carrying a placid woman laid supine and unrestrained across several arms as if on a blanket, whose only sign of resistance was to call out "I've done nothing!" There were dozens of UAF supporters in pursuit but the officers made no attempt to extend the engagement with their pursuers. Once the officers had vaulted the barrier the boundary was respected by both sides.

One UAF supporter told me the woman carried over the barrier was a UAF organiser.

Conversation with an Arrested Man
Afterwards on our coach I spoke with a man who had been arrested and released without charge. He said the police used the arrest to question him about the organisation of the event, such as what company had his coach been leased from and who had done the booking. If the police were looking for an opportunity to question UAF supporters from different areas about their local organisation, a large number of disparate and seemingly random arrests was convenient for this.

Police Failure to Use Public Address
The only time I heard the police using a public address system or loud hailer was after the EDL demonstration had dispersed, when they made an announcement asking us to remain in the square for the time being for our own safety. There was never a call for from the police appealing for calm.

News reports featured the throwing of missiles. I spent the the afternoon from 12:30 on withing 20 metres of the boundary that faced the EDL and stayed there until they had cleared. I could easily see the EDL and never felt in danger from missiles. All the missiles I saw flying between the opposing sides looked like plastic drinks bottles, empty of nearly so, with demonstrators often attempting to catch them. I saw no signs UAF supporters were making large evasive movements in response.

I saw no sign of anything more dangerous being thrown from the UAF side. However on one occasion, at about 1:45 a few UAF demonstrators approached the nearest uncrowded boundary of the enclosure, repeatedly calling out a request to speak to a police officer because if the nature of the missile that had landed. The police studiously took no interest.

These demonstrators were displaying a large fragment of a broken glass bottle and repeatedly called out but were ignored - despite the nearest officers being five metres away.


Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

A most useful, insightful and disturbing report in police action on the day.

big vern said...

What's with that sign being held upside down. Is he just too fucking thick to read it?

Brendan Montague said...

And the police bill came to... £300,000: http://bit.ly/bxLnGX

Paul Sagar said...

For what it's worth, those of us standing further back than the front rows saw a lot of missiles. (Most of them went over the front rows, and from the front you wouldn't have been able to see e.g. the coins being thrown).

Most of the bottles were half-full, and as well as at least 5 glass bottles, there were many, many coins being thrown (rather dangerous...and rather reminiscent of football hooliganism).

I blogged this at length at my place and at liberal conspiracy.

Phil said...

Yes, I don't want to give the impression I haven't believed alternative accounts. The other activist P was with had a different experience of the same event and talked at length about it at Monday's meeting.

ModernityBlog said...

excellent Phil, that's what I have been looking for.