Did the Police Use Kelvingrove to Punish the Hetherington Occupiers?

This article was originally written for Glasgow University Guardian over a year ago, however was never published.

In April last year, Britain’s own prince charming, Prince William, Wills (or Big Willy as he is known to those closest to him) was finally wedded to the equally charming Kate Middleton, in a gloriously splendid display of monarchic opulence. All the way from London to somewhere in the north of England, town centres, pubs and shops were decked in union jack bunting in celebration of the betrothal of the two national treasures. It seemed that the nation had fallen in love, and was for a time united in joy for the young couple. Well, maybe not. A fair number of people thought the whole affair to be a gaudy and distasteful distraction from the severe economic situation of the nation, and a ludicrously unnecessary expenditure. But when David Cameron announced that ‘if you want to have a street party, go ahead!’ people as far north as Glasgow began to anticipate the event with a bit more enthusiasm. Of course some kid would make a Facebook event. Thousands said they would attend a party in the park. The prime-minister had said it was okay, right?

I was in Kelvingrove Park that day. I hadn’t planned on it. I had been working a shift which started at 5am. I was on my way home that afternoon when I ran into a friend. The conversation went something like ‘you’ve got to see this.. .’ so we went along to the park. When we were walking down the hill, I could hear the music playing, but by the time we got to the park, the sound system had been turned off. It was quite an odd experience seeing that many people in Kelvingrove. They were a very strange mix, and included many students. There were plenty of people with little flags, who genuinely seemed to be in a celebratory mood. Many had obviously been drinking all day. Some were feeling a wee bit bolshie. All the same, I think the atmosphere was surprisingly calm.

Stone cold sober, and feeling slightly uncomfortable (and tired), I found a group of people I knew. They were mostly people who were involved in the Hetherington Occupation of last year (I hope you will see why this is relevant in a moment). Large numbers of police began to file into the park from the Gibson street entrance. The atmosphere became tense. We sat and watched as a couple of drunks started hitting each other. The police moved in and dragged them to the path at the bottom of the hill. A space had cleared around the officers. The crowd jeered but there was no violence.

Then I saw a young man, clearly off his face, stumble into the clearing. He picked up a box from the grass, put it on his head and start dancing foolishly. The crowd egged him on. Five officers tackled him to the ground and cuffed him. It was the first of many displays of aggression and incompetence on the part of the police that I witnessed that day. It was at that moment that the crowd turned. From nowhere, bottles flew past our heads at the police. Not one of us wanted to be involved in this. But now four officers on horse-back came up the hill towards us and, bizarrely, prepared to charge. Which they did, right into a dense crown of drunken teenagers. And myself. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I stayed and argued with the police for a bit, then left before I got hit by a bottle (but not, I might add, a police horse). It didn’t take long for the police to clear the park. A number of arrests were made that day, and many were injured.

Okay, so a party in the park got out of hand and the police came to clear it. Not a political issue really, is it? I’m afraid, as is so often the case when the police choose to beat and arrest large numbers of young people, it is.

If we set aside the disproportional reaction of the police to what was, after all, a load of people drinking in the park, and forget about the people injured (battoned, trampled, maced) by the police that day (and also the injury sustained by one of the horses they involved in ‘scuffles’ later on in the day), and I’m not saying we necessarily should, but there was still something very sinister about the way the police handled the Kelvingrove situation. And the arrests that followed. Something very sinister indeed.

On 30 may, two full months after the Kelvingrove ‘riot’ (hah!), I was rudely awoken early on a Saturday morning. Not one, not two, but five officers were sent to my door! (You should see me, I’m kind of small).  They cuffed me immediately, arrested me, confiscated my jacket (brown, leather, really want it back.) I took some small comfort in the fact that all six of us couldn’t fit in the car so one had to walk. I was taken to Stewart Street (I think). I was in custody for the next three days. I didn’t realise at the time that I was only one of a dozen people arrested in dawn raids that weekend.

They had even had the cheek to gate-crash my friends’ party. On completing one of their missions that morning, they received information that some of the accused would be at this house party. So they walked in, without a warrant (when a householder asked to see one, he was taken outside and threatened), and proceeded to round up the guests. They were taken to the living-room and their faces were compared with photos of those charged. None were present, having left the party hours earlier (I slept my hang-over off in the cells and, to my annoyance; the light was left on all night). I don’t think they’ve thrown a party there since.

Every one of the people arrested that morning was heavily involved in the Hetherington occupation at Glasgow University last year. For those of you that don’t know the story, the brutal police effort to evict the occupiers was humiliatingly defeated when hundreds of Glasgow university students came to their defence, then stormed the senate building on the 22nd march 2011. For months after, occupiers from the Hetherington and other anti-cuts groups were harassed, threatened and questioned illegally on demonstrations in Scotland. Every one of the students arrested that day, including myself, was questioned by Special Branch agents before going to court. Two plain clothes officers asked me if there had been any ‘sinister’ or ‘political’ element to the party in Kelvingrove, and if I knew of any of the groups involved. I told them they were being weird. It was a party in a park. I have been advised that the court will have no record of our being questioned in this way.

For a year I have waited to see the evidence against me. For a year I have felt jumpy every time someone knocks on my door. I have read recently that many people arrested on the day of the royal wedding in England are now contesting their arrests. It seems I am not the only one who has noticed a certain correlation between the harassment of anti-cuts protesters in Britain and the arrests made that day.

I don’t want to go into the specifics of my case, or those of the students involved. I also thank the GU Guardian for their discretion in not re-printing our names. Unusually for a story of this kind, it was printed in every national newspaper. With the exception of the Daily Record (which went up slightly in my esteem that week), they printed –word for word- what the police had written for them. Our names, ages, and the details of our charges became public information. I was grateful that my employers were understanding (I had already explained the two shifts I had missed while in custody).  I have seen the police statements from the day and none that I could see referred directly to the students who were arrested.

You may not want to believe that, in a democratic society, the police would behave in this way. Until last year, I had faith that I could only ever face criminal charges if I committed a criminal offence. I have now lost that faith. One of the major tenets of a democratic society is that we are free to challenge those in authority if we believe they have acted unfairly. If we cease to challenge cases of this kind, there will be no limitation to how the police can use their powers. Every time an activist is arrested under suspicious circumstances, the procurator fiscal should be inundated with letters of concern. The police have kept anti-cuts activists under close watch for a couple of years now. If they had a sense that the public was watching them, they might not behave with such impunity.

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