Disclaimer: The following post isn’t going to cover copywriting, blogging or SEO. If you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the student protests, police tactics and football crowds, I recommend this post on strapline clichés. And I won’t hold it against you.
I’ll get this off my chest. I’m against the planned rise to student fees. My father had a free University education, mine was subsidised by my LEA, and I don’t think it’s right that today’s schoolkids will be paying for something policy makers had handed to them for free.
With regards to the protests themselves, I’m not in a position to comment. As Anton Vowl has pointed out, everything that’s been reported has been forced through a media prism to meet a predetermined narrative.
I sympathise with the peaceful protestors who’ve been caught up in what appear from the outside to be full-scale riots. And I sympathise with the police, who probably aren’t the facist paramilitary that some quarters paint them as.
But I don’t sympathise with the government. Rumours are being bounced around that the government will sanction the use of watercannons on student protests. This is a bad idea.
I know, because I’ve seen watercannons used at close quarters. They didn’t work then, and I’m damn sure that they won’t work now.
Watercannons – Not a Great Plan
As long time readers know, I like a bit of football. I’ve followed Leeds United and the English national side, home and away. I’ve been kettled in Portsmouth. I’ve been locked in a loading bay in Sheffield station and hid under a child’s slide in a Munich garden. I’ve been prodded with batons and I’ve been thrown off trains because my dad couldn’t convince a policeman that “frustrations” wasn’t a swear word.
And I’ve seen watercannons being used at close quarters.
In June 2000, I was one of the thousands of fans in the town square of a Belgian town called Charleroi. England were playing Germany, and the press were prepared for WW3. As it happens, we spent hours in the company of German fans, laughing, joking and drinking (oh, the drinking). The Belgian police hung around the edge of the square looking bored. Disappointed that the huge disorder they’d been promised wasn’t materialising.
And then some moron threw a chair.
Thirty seconds later, one group in that square had attacked everyone in sight. If you believe the press, England fans razed the city to the ground, and left millions of weeping widows in their wake.
That didn’t happen. I know. I was there. Talking to some Germans.
When the chair was thrown, all hell broke loose. Belgian riot police charged into the square. Instead of “kettling” the fans and isolating troublemakers, they just decided to form a rough sort of line and baton everything within reach.
And then they fired up the watercannons.
Water(cannon) on a Chip Fire
When you’ve got a square full of people, a watercannon isn’t conducive to calm and rational behaviour. Because if you get hit, it hurts. Twice. Once when it hits you, and once when you hit the floor a yard or two later. The police couldn’t move to contain any troublemakers, fans couldn’t get out of the way, and the dozen or so troublemakers had no problem in legging it down a side street.
High pressure water cannons aren’t a defensive measure. When all you’ve got is a shield and a stick, your options are either stand where you are, behind your shield, or push forward in order. It doesn’t look pretty either way, and it’s not a job I’d want to do, but straight away it requires calm thinking and a firm grip on the situation. When you’re backed up with an offensive crowd control system, you can wade around like Robocop meets Judge Dredd.
Anyway, back to London. Watercannons wouldn’t have helped at these protests. Once anyone has a big toy to play with it, they’ll want to play as often as possible. And firing jets of water into densely packed schoolchildren and students (in freezing temperatures) won’t restore order.
Crowd Control, or Crowd Provocation?
Instead of violence being limited to those on the margins of the “kettle”, there’d have been chaos as those in the line of fire push and shove to get out, followed by police who’d been given (implied) carte blanche to go on the offensive. Crowd actions rely on psychology as much as they do direction, and a show of aggressive force would’t have calmed the situation.
Things only calmed down in Charleroi when they stopped shooting water at anything that didn’t speak Walloon, and started to calmly and methodically contain various groups of fans.
And the only way order can be kept at student protests, while ensuring that people don’t get hurt, is if the police don’t use things like watercannons, rubber bullets and CS gas.
Hosing water on a volatile crowd isn’t too different to throwing water on a chip pan fire. It’ll spread the flames far beyond your pan. Or your kettle.