As police warn they could use rubber bullets at the higher education march, a student protest group tells Channel 4 News it is a “scare tactic” aimed at stopping people attending the demo.
Several thousand people are expected to join a march against tuition fees and cuts to higher education, which will see students and lecturers march from the University of London in Bloomsbury to Moorgate in the City of London.
On Monday, the Metropolitan Police (MPS) issued a statement saying that as part of their preparations for policing the march, they have access to “baton rounds” of plastic or rubber bullets. Commander Simon Pountain said around 4,000 officers will be on duty for the protest.
Two other protests are taking place in London on the same day, one by taxi drivers as well as a march by electricians over sector wide pay agreements, organised by Unite.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which is organising the fees demonstration, says students feel betrayed by the police announcement that baton rounds could be used.
The last thing you do when you want a protest to be peaceful is ramp up the violence. Michael Chessum, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
Spokesman Michael Chessum told Channel 4 News: “There were negotiations with the police about the route which were completely amicable and this has come completely out of the blue. What they have done is completely irresponsible.
“The last thing you do when you want a protest to be peaceful is ramp up the violence. This is a scare tactic, designed to scare people from making a democratic stand.
“I’m very worried it will put people off coming. There will be schoolchildren on this demonstration, disabled people, people from all ages and walks of life.”
The police were caught off guard during the student protests last year, when November’s demonstration against a large hike in tuition fees turned violent, with rioters breaking into a building on Milbank and attacking a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. In December, further protests against spending cuts also turned violent, with the police criticised for using “kettling” tactics to contain protestors for several hours.
Scotland Yard says it is not prepared to see a repeat of such action, but says any form of plastic bullet would only be used responsibly.
A police spokesman said: “Baton rounds are carried by a small number of trained officers and are not held and used by those officers policing the route. To give context to their use, the MPS had authority to use baton rounds during the disorder this summer but did not do so. This tactic requires pre-authority and would take time to deploy.”
A controversial tactic
Plastic bullets were approved for use in England and Wales in 2001, but have never been used on the British mainland.
They were used extensively in Northern Ireland against demonstrators after replacing rubber bullets in 1976.
Seventeen people have been killed by rubber or plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, including several children.
The last person to be killed was a 15 year old, Seamus Duffy, who was shot in Belfast in 1989.
The first person to be killed by rubber bullets was Frances Rowntree, aged 11, in Belfast in 1972.
They have also been used by the Israeli security forces against demonstrators in the West Bank.
But those who are unhappy with the decision say the police reassurances are not enough. Jenny Jones is a Green Party representative on the Greater London Assembly. She also sits on the board that monitors the Metropolitan Police. She told Channel 4 News that plastic bullets are a very serious piece of weaponry.
“I have one in my office. It’s four inches long and it’s very, very hard. Rubber sounds small and bendy but they are very nasty objects. If you are hit with one you will have severe bruising or breaking of bones,” she said.
They are very nasty objects. If you are hit with one you will have severe bruising or breaking of bones. Jenny Jones, GLA member, Green Party
She agrees that the police announcement is unhelpful.
“This isn’t the way to handle things. If you want things to stay peaceful you send out positive statements, not negative ones. We have an unpopular government with unpopular policies and they are relying on the police to deal with young people who complain about it. They are the last defence of an unpopular government.”
There has also been criticism from those with direct experience of their use.
Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, was responsible for deploying plastic bullets while serving in Northern Ireland but has been highly critical of the latest decision.
On Monday he said: “I do not think it would be sensible in any way, shape or form to deploy water cannon or baton rounds in London. Baton rounds are very serious bits of equipment. I would only deploy them in life threatening situations. What is happening in London is not an insurgency that is going to topple the country.”