All posts by Christian Plowman

Anatomy of a Demo – The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – 19 November 2014

It was getting dark. I was knackered. My back ached from jumping over barriers and chasing police officers. My feet ached from walking and running. My shoulder throbbed from being struck by the camera of  an overzealous TV cameraman. My laptop was refusing to connect to the nearest WiFi network. I took a selfie with my phone and grimaced at the bright orange paint in my hair and on my cheek. It was spattered over my jacket, shoes and borrowed camera. I had Parliament Square mud all over the knees of my jeans. I scrolled through the 619 images I had snapped during the day. Satisfied, I bit into my homemade chicken wrap, and absent mindedly began scraping at a globule of orange paint on my left shoe.

Nine hours earlier, at about 9am, I was firmly ensconced in Malet Street. I had my packed lunch and a borrowed camera. A hastily created ‘Press’ vest too. Just in case. This was my first demonstration as an observer/aspiring journo, and I couldn’t have picked one which is more emotive for students. In this age of austerity, students are suffering. Not just now, but in the future too, with most expected to be saddled with in excess of 40 grands worth of debt after graduating. Thus, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – under the ‘student’ nomenclature – organised the demo for 19th November.

Malet Street at 10am was cold and forlorn. A few organisations had pitched stands, and placards (in their hundreds it seemed) were being prepared. As the minutes passed, crowds began to gather. I had initially thought there might be a poor turnout, perhaps influenced by the lack of NUS support. This was not to be, and, by departure time, the atmosphere was festive (not as in Christmas) and good natured chanting was accompanied by the ferocious waving of some humorous and creative placards and flags. Police presence was minimal to say the least.

I stationed myself at the front of the march. Keen for a ‘story’, I was conscious of a small group of masked youths, and surmised that they may behave in an interesting way. I latched myself to them for most of the march. It was impressive how well the march had been organised and marchers deployed with great efficiency. I thought it great that students had the opportunity to vent their anger, despair and annoyance at student debt and education fees.

As the march wended its way through Bloomsbury and down Holborn onto the Strand, the first small pockets of conflict occurred. It was at the front of the march and perpetrated by the masked-up wannabe anarchists, outside MacDonald’s and Top Shop — no surprises there. These pit-stops passed without major incident, and it was only when we arrived at Parliament Square the inevitable violence erupted. This, I thought, was a shame. We were only a few yards away from the rally point, where the intention was for speakers to address the assembled marchers. Surely one of the major, if not the most important, part of the demo?

Instead, our be-masked chums decided to clamber over the police barriers (fine, I thought), jump up and down shouting anti-capitalist slogans (no problem) and then proceeded to tear down the metal mesh fencing to get onto the grassed area of Parliament Square. Not only do I not have a problem with people demonstrating, I think it slightly abhorrent that demonstrations on Parliament Square are prohibited. So, whilst I perhaps understood the reasoning behind wanting to demonstrate on Parliament Square (although I’m not sure some of the demonstrators did) I didn’t really understand the violence which went with it, and the sad sight of a 60 year-old City of Westminster heritage warden cowering at the sight of dozens of black clad guys surrounding him to kick, push and smash their way on to the square.

I joined them on the Square, perversely proud as I was one of the first dozen journos who breached the lines. After declaring a victorious occupation, the smattering of demonstrators who joined the masked marauders evidently got bored quickly.

There was some flare-ignition, giving the Square an eerie war-zone atmosphere, exacerbated by some slightly unhinged individuals attempting to create a barricade — what they intended to barricade, I have no clue — on the square out of concrete blocks, fencing and railings.

They were, however, foiled by lack of interest. Soon most people began to drift over to the rallying point, to get involved and listen to the speakers. I actually ached to do this, but my desire for front-line journo action made me stick with the anarchist crew.

Disorganised and with very little apparent knowledge of the issues of the march, this small group led a larger group on a mini-tour of government and political bases. Oh, and a Starbucks!

At each point, damage and skirmishes with the police (no helmets, no shields, and not too many batons) ensued with vigour. Anti-cuts chants changed into anti-police chants. At Tory party HQ, I snapped away as several of the masked dudes planned to smash a wheelie bin into police lines. Which they did. Our next stop was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which was declared by one of the pseudo-anarchists to be the ‘Department for Education’. Despite the massive signage declaring otherwise, the massed crowd seemed to concur. Scuffles ensued, paint was thrown and placards chucked. Several tried to get into the building (and do what exactly?) whilst chanting ‘scum’ at the four security guards desperately trying to hold the doors shut. These are the ‘working men’ to whom these people were claiming allegiance earlier.

Again with a lack of direction and apparent boredom – helped by the arrival of riot cops I assume – the next stop was a small Starbucks. Yes, it’s incredible and unacceptable they’ve avoided their tax. Yes, it’s fairly annoying to see them on every street corner. But their tax affairs and ubiquity surely could not justify paint chucking, window smashing and throwing a Barclays bike through the doors?

All along Victoria Street, more scuffles followed, until eventually a sort of semi-kettle took place. The balaclava and mask wearing contingent legged it successfully, and after half an hour, most people drifted away.

I was personally enthused by the day – it’s exactly the sort of stuff I’d like to do. I think I need to learn how to write impartially to become a journalist, but I couldn’t understand a lot of the behaviour. Frightened Starbucks staff, the cleaners who have to tidy up afterwards, the street sweepers and the glaziers. They are the working class. They should be on our side. It’s easy to see why they perhaps are not – the media (myself included) will only ever go where there is something newsworthy, but when such excellently attended and organised student demos are used as an excuse for bizarre acts of violence which prove nothing, it is only ever these incidences which will get into the news.

As I scraped paint off my shoe, I felt somewhat deflated, although proud of my battle scars.  It had started as a great day. Full of fun, and friendliness. For most people, I’m sure it continued that way. I hope it did. It was just a huge shame that the issues of the day were, and will have been, ignored to some extent – students had a great opportunity to show some reserve and strength, and put forward their very cogent and necessary arguments. Unfortunately, to coin a Daily Mail-esque phrase, ‘a few idiots spoiled it for everyone else’.

A cop on campus ­- an ex-­policeman speaks

The archetypally gruff detective inspector was forthright and clear: “These money grabbing student soap dodgers need to be nicked”.

Having only left university prematurely a couple of years previously, after a botched attempt at entering adulthood, and with many good mates still studying, I was somewhat taken aback by his tone. Thirty two years ago ­ yes, I am officially old, ­ I remember chucking conkers at helmeted coppers on a CND demonstration in
Hyde Park, accompanying my mum. Youthful exuberance coupled with my naivete, perhaps.

Some fifteen years later, I sat in a disused police station, a nameless outpost of London’s Metropolitan Police force, awaiting my instructions. I was one of a few police officers selected
to “infiltrate” a busy student bar, and to buy (or make “test purchases”) of the alleged inordinate variety of drugs available there. To save embarrassment, I shall not name the venue, as it still
exists, and indeed, is still a hotbed of student social life.

My fellow undercover officers that night were as diverse as you could hope, ­ long hair, short hair, black, white, wideboy cockneys and rough faced northerners. We had evidently been selected to reflect the inevitable spectrum of clientèle in the student bar. Not one of us looked anything like what we thought students would expect cops to look like.

With no ID checks on the door, we all went into the bar, and mingled for several hours, buying the usual small amounts of drugs ­ mainly, I hasten to add, cannabis resin and poor quality ecstasy.

At our debrief, one overly self-confident swaggerer derided the rest of the group for having bought such “low level” gear. ­ He, apparently, had purchased several rocks of crack cocaine. In a student bar? I thought. No way. Indeed, the “crack” subsequently turned out to be chewing  gum. Several “dealers” were eventually nicked, and life went on.

Up until 2011, I was a detective with the Met, and spent several years in the latter half of my career specialising in covert investigations and undercover work. I was an erstwhile colleague of the now infamous Mark Kennedy.

After 16 years of crime­fighting, I hung up my handcuffs, for many reasons, but in particular, because I was not comfortable with the manner in which we used to operate. As a naive young cop, infiltrating a bar to buy drugs­ students or not ­ was  an exciting and, oddly, glamorous proposition. I paid no heed to the ethical questions: ­ was it right to invade peoples space and lives in such a manner?

In the last 6 months of my career, I spent my time, highly paid and highly trained, luring the poor, underpaid, miserable and grief­stricken underclass into committing crime not as I thought would be the case, taking down the Mr. Bigs of the British crime underworld! I ended up writing a book about it, although I will not shamelessly plug it here (Ed. although we will at the end of the post).

I turned to Birkbeck late this year, with a desire to soak up some intellectual input, and, with the typical ex­lawman’s outlook, a dream of becoming a hard­nosed, flak­jacketed conflict journalist. It was during my pre-­fresher preparation at Birkbeck that I read a lot about the student protests (in the Lamp and Owl, no less) and the activities of both sides, and was astonished to read about demonstrators who had been arrested and detained for substantial periods of time, and then bailed for weeks if not months ­only to learn that no charges would be brought.

Whilst I was not overly surprised at the inefficacy or apparent unfairness of “the system”, I was surprised at the lack of media coverage given to the circumstances of those who were  arrested. As a veteran of a couple of famous violent uprisings ­, 18 June 1999 and May Day 2000 ­ in central London, I know exactly what it’s like to be facing hostility and violence.

Indeed, despite the NATO helmet and body armour, and metal baton and plastic shield, on those occasions, I literally feared for my life. I know how a cop would think. I’ve experienced the “red mist” and the narrow mindedness which comes from focusing all one’s primal senses on the “threat”. It’s far too easy to wade in, willy­nilly, thrashing about with a baton.

Cops will get primed for impending conflict on such occasions ­ and canteen chit­chat will focus on whether its going to “kick off” or not. Cops deployed early on, already wearing their blue boiler suits, helmets clipped to their belts, have definitely been briefed for possible violence. This, in reality, changes perceptions on both sides.

It is this imperceptible shift in attitudes, atmosphere and environment which makes for an uncomfortable scenario. A sense of impending conflict.

The 2013 scenes of apparent police excess, including the alleged abuse of their stop and search powers, and application of pre-­charge bail conditions too ridiculous to contemplate, made me cringe. I certainly can’t condone any form of unjustified violence, from either side, and the reality is, if a protestor is not being violent, or physically threatening, then there is absolutely no need to be struck or hit by a cop. Likewise, it is inexcusable to assault police officers, some of whom are no older than the average UoL student, who are undertaking a difficult task in trying circumstances.

As someone who has been both a cop and a student ­ as well as a cop pretending to be a student! ­ I have a unique point of view. I understand the cop mentality, and know that as a rule of thumb, most cops are downright honourable and decent. But I also know that in the heat of battle, especially in riot gear, fear and confusion takes over, and the adversarial mindset kicks in.

I know that the rights of the individual to demonstrate peacefully are sacrosanct, along with the freedom of speech and expression. I hold very strong views about  personal privacy, and “state” interference in those rights. I abhor any agents of the state abusing their authority or powers, especially when it comes to peaceful demonstrations.

Likewise, I fail to see the usefulness (in retrospect) of the type of operation I was deployed on at the beginning of this article. Is it a justifiable use of cops, time and money to “infiltrate” a student bar? Are the police really dealing with an issue of great concern there?

It will be with great interest that I will be watching the situation closely on 19th November, and monitoring any apparent fallout from both sides. In my new guise as a journalism student, I’ll be there on 19 November in Malet Street, supporting the student cause. This time though, instead of CS spray and a baton, I’ll have much more useful stuff with me. A camera and a pen.

Ed. Here’s the link to Christian’s book Crossing the Line: Losing Your Mind as an Undercover Cop  – I’ve ordered it and if anyone else fancies reading it and reviewing it for Lamp and Owl Digital drop me a line at