Police Riot

On Sunday October the 9th 1994 I witnessed a police operation in London which I am convinced was a deliberate attempt to turn a peaceful demonstration into a riot, in a clear attempt to tarnish the peaceful demonstration in the eyes of the British public. Inter alia, I also witnessed manifestly criminal actions by the police force. A contemporary news report reveals that more was going on than I saw, yet what I did see is unequivocal, so I record it here.

The demonstration

The demonstration comprised a march through London's streets ending in Hyde Park, where assorted public figures made speeches against a Criminal Justice Bill some of us had re-named the Unjust Criminalization Bill. The whole of this went peacefully and the crowd's mood was cheerful. There were troublemakers discernible in the crowd, some of whom would justly have qualified for being arrested on drunk and disorderly charges. Some shouted rudery at the police, I am sad to say. The police were present along the way in significant numbers but took no action against such rowdy members of the crowd, despite being clearly aware of them.

The Bill included various provisions to enable the police to take action against events with music characterized by a repetitive beat, in response to which some in the rave scene (who reasonably perceived this language as aimed straight at them) had, with a little help from mathematicians, learned about Penrose tilings and used them to generate the rhythms of their music – thereby absolutely guaranteeing no repetition at all in the beat. Several mobile sound systems were along on the march contributing this unique musical accompaniment to the scene and making the atmosphere more cheerful.

On arrival in Hyde Park, the crowd milled about, listened to speeches by assorted public figures – the ones I recognized were politicians – enjoyed their music and partook of refreshments they'd brought with them, doubtless including booze.

There's a large two-carriageway road alongside the park with a substantial space (shaded by trees, if I remember correctly) in between the parts of the road, in which a substantial body of police were marshalled. These were wearing riot uniforms – which disguise the officer's identity, making it impossible for anyone against whom they commit a criminal offence to identify the guilty party. One might hope that police officers can be expected to not commit criminal offences; but that hope is far more likely to be matched by reality if each officer, by wearing a prominently displayed unique number, is made well aware that, should he commit a criminal act, it can be traced back to him.

The aftermath

In due course it came time to leave; I had a bus to meet, along with the rest of the group I'd come with from Cambridge; so I made my way out of the crowd partying peacefully in the park. On trying to leave the park I found that most of its gates were closed. I saw some people jump the fence (which is entirely robust enough to suffer no damage when people go over it) to leave; they were met by police officers on the other side, who lead them away to a temporary building (portacabin) for purposes I know not, though there was no reasonable grounds to detain them. Not trusting what I saw or wishing to be so detained, I continued my search for an open gate.

At this point I also noticed signs on the exits indicating the park's closing time – if I remember correctly, it was six in the evening or sunset (as it happens the two were not far apart at that date) but it may have been five in the evening. The only offences I was aware of, on the part of the crowd generally, were drinking alcoholic beverages in a public place and remaining in the park after its closing time; neither of which, in my opinion, is so severe that a proportionate response could reasonably involve physical assault.

One gate remained open. It was accessible only via a single-file and windy corridor between two solid masses of police in riot gear. This was unmistakably intimidating and I must suppose it was meant to be. I saw plenty of those in the park turn back from going out this way, clearly intimidated. Combined with the closure of all other gates and the (as seen by those still in the park) apparent arrest of anyone jumping the fence, the police's actions thus significantly discouraged those in the park from leaving, which many in the park clearly would have done, in dribs and drabs, but for the police's actions.

Having braved that intimidating defile – my memory claims it was something like ten metres, but that may just be what it felt like – I made my way to where we were due to meet the bus. It was delayed and the place we were to meet it afforded a good view of the area of the park we'd been in, so I had occasion to watch events unfolding in the park after I'd left it.

I had not seen anyone, up to this point, throwing anything at the police, aside from insults as mentioned above. If I understand the news reports correctly, there were other crowds elsewhere in the park, that I had not seen; but the crowd I had been in, that I was in a position to watch, was peaceful, for all that it was (understandably, given the police's intimidating behaviour) somewhat apprehensive. The news reports claim there were some in the crowd agitating for less peaceful behaviour; but I had seen no-one engaging in it.

In a stand of trees, along the side of the park, slightly to one side of my vantage point but otherwise between me and the crowd, a line of (about half a dozen, perhaps a few more) police cavalry carrying yard-long heavy batons gathered. After some time, with no evident provocation I could see, they charged the crowd I had been in, batons held high and behind them, ready to strike. For the most part the crowd scattered. At least one young man stood his ground: calmly and with dignity, but he was struck down anyway by the charging cavalry. The officer who did this was not subsequently arrested by his peers but remained with the group as they returned to the stand of trees to await orders to attack in like manner again. I see no way this could possibly not be construed as criminal assault. To superintendent Cullen's I dare say some officers retaliated. You can't expect police officers to come under such violent attacks and not retaliate I answer: this can not possibly be construed as retaliation. The man struck down, and the crowd of which he was a part, was doing nothing worse than being in the park later than its closing time (for which the police were at least substantially responsible) and, quite likely, drinking alcoholic beverages in a public place. If others elsewhere in the park were attacking the police, that is no justification for the assaults I witnessed. I am, furthermore, persuaded that superintendent Cullen, as the officer in charge, can reasonably be presumed to have ordered this assault and should properly be held criminally responsible for it – especially as it was, presumably, on his orders that the officers involved were all wearing anonymising uniforms, so that the immediate perpetrator of the assault cannot sensibly be identified and could reasonably rely on being safe from any risk of being held to account for his actions.

Speaking of retaliation, it is no surprise to me, nor can I suppose it would be to any reasonable person, that the previously peaceful crowd began, after this, throwing things at the police. It is note-worthy that this first police charge occurred just barely before sun-set; I commented wryly to a companion that we could expect the television news to show this cavalry charge, if at all, only after scenes of the crowd throwing things at the police; but that no-one would notice that the sun was up in the later scene despite having set before the earlier one.

After I had witnessed about three such cavalry charges, my bus arrived and I left for home. On arrival home, my guess about the news's order of display of scenes was confirmed by friends who had remained in Cambridge.


Back in Hyde Park, the police continued assaulting the crowd until it was enraged, then opened the main gates and let them out. Oddly enough, Oxford Street was resoundingly trashed by the enraged mob. I am compelled to the conclusion that this was the exact outcome superintendent Cullen had sought to achieve by his choice of police tactics, presumably in an effort to create bad news about the protest and distract from the public's criticism of a grossly bad law.

Had superintendent Cullen sincerely sought to see a peaceful end to the day, he could and should have left several park gates open and left those leaving in dribs and drabs to do so unmolested and unintimidated. By all means, he might reasonably have stationed police officers (in modest and unintimidating numbers) outside the gates (but at a modest distance from them) to prevent those outside the park from entering – it was, after all, approaching closing time. Were a large group either outside or inside the park seen moving together, the police had every reason to follow them. Yet it made no sense to seal the park and treat those leaving peacefully and singly over the fence as if they were criminals, nor did it make any sense to create a severely intimidating situation around the one exit left open, if the goal of the operation was to get folk to leave peacefully – but both of these actions make perfect sense if the goal of the operation was to create a situation where those calm enough to brave the one exit left and those with any grain of fear or mistrust of the police felt trapped in the park, thereby filtering out the more peaceful elements from the crowd to leave only those more likely to be easily provoked into actions the police could later point to as justification for heavy-handed assaults against the crowd.

It is telling that the police were already in riot gear long before there was any hint of trouble from the crowd; rather than holding a force of police in riot gear in reserve, while policing the event with officers in normal uniforms, the event was policed by officers garbed for the outcome those in charge appear to have intended.

See also

In context, the protest was part of a broader movement against authoritarian efforts to limit protest and non-conformist culture. The upside of the story is that the CJB broght together folk from diverse backgrounds and forged alliances that have served as the foundations of later protest movements.

Valid CSSValid HTML 4.01 Written by Eddy.