A POLICE commander overseeing the student demonstration that left Alfie Meadows in hospital from a suspected baton strike to the head was more concerned with protecting property than the public a court was told this week.
The accusation was made during the trial of Meadows and Zak King for violent disorder after a senior officer admitted trapping as many as 15,000 protesters in a kettle despite fears there were two armed men amongst them to prevent a few hundred people ‘causing havoc’ across London .
Silver Commander Mick Johnson, responsible for tactics during the student protest on December 9, 2010, denied the suggestion citing concerns over public safety in extracting people from a kettle.
He said: “We witnessed people committing damage to a statue [on Parliament Green], but you have to use a lot of force to go in and get them, but because of the amount of violence already seen we thought people could get hurt; plus we were concerned about people having guns.”
However, Tom Wainright, for the defence, said ‘by imposing the containment you are trapping the vast majority of people’ who were not involved in any violence ‘with people who possibly have firearms. [Your concern] is mainly about property damage’.
Later Johnson admitted ‘the whole point of a containment is to stop people leaving and causing trouble elsewhere’.
He said: “I feared unless we contained the group on Parliament Square, they would move onto other areas and I feared other breaches of the peace that I would not be able to contain.”
Police logs read out in court revealed reports of attacks on commercial properties in the West End during the day and fears of ‘vulnerable properties’, including the Tory and Lib Dems headquarters, being targeted.
Johnson blamed the decision to implement a full containment – by cordoning off the agreed and only exit from Parliament Square, Parliament Street – at 3.23pm without warning on violent protesters and a large crowd that surged against and breached a police cordon on Broad Sanctuary.
However, supported by video evidence, Wainright disputed the levels of violence Johnson inferred prior to the decision to contain saying ‘the only time there’s a problem [with protesters] is when people are cordoned, crushed or when it appeared they couldn’t get out’.
He said: “Initially, before the horses are deployed [on Broad Sanctuary], there’s only a few sticks being thrown. That’s the extent of it. It was only when the horses go forward the sticks are thrown.”
Johnson said: “I disagree. The crowd quite deliberately moved from one police line and attacked another for no good reason. There were a substantial number of people intent on violence.
Wainright described the management of the containment as confused and chaotic leaving police and public unaware of what was happening after radio communications between senior officers were played in court.
He said while bronze commanders two and seven were appointed as containment officers, bronze one appointed himself confusing the hierarchy.
And communication amongst officers and between officers and the crowd was impaired by officers’ protective helmets and the absence of any mass communication system, such as large information screens or a public address system. This made instructing people to leave Parliament Square via Whitehall before the containment was enforced as well as informing the crowd that a containment was now in place impossible, he said.
Wainright also said that guidance on who could be released from the kettle, and where, was confused and inconsistent with one senior officer seeking clarification if and where a coachload of students could leave.
On Bronze One appointing himself as a containment officer, Johnson said: “I didn’t appoint him [but] I would expect the officers on the scene to do what they could.”
On who could leave the containment he said it was at the officers’ discretion, but guidance was given that those who were: vulnerable, could prove they worked in the area, press or had not committed an offence could. However, Johnson admitted it was difficult for officers to decide and that ‘unfortunately you have to be a bit draconian’.
On communication he acknowledged it was ‘very difficult with helmets’ and on exit points he said there were none nominated, but theoretically people could be released anywhere.
But it was Johnson’s decision to ‘push’ protesters on Whitehall outside of the containment into Parliament Square at 5.09pm that created a ‘dangerous’ and ‘rapidly escalating situation’, Wainright said.
He described peaceful protesters, supported by video evidence, on Whitehall as ‘milling around’ harmlessly before officers attempted to sweep them into Parliament Square through small gaps between police vans creating a crush, panic and fear amongst the crowd.
Johnson said the plan had been to only ‘push’ those already by the police carriers, and not the whole of Whitehall, back into the square to ‘alleviate pressure’ on his officers who, he said, were under ‘severe’ attack.
He said: “I don’t know where the push [started] and [the] crowd came from. The push was based on those who were by the carriers but the Bronze may have pushed everyone on Whitehall.”
However, police logs recorded Bronze Commander Seven saying Johnson ‘overruled a decision’. “[Was] the plan to move people away from Parliament Square?” Wainright asked.
Johnson said he couldn’t remember.
Wainright said: “Were you not listening to officers on the ground and pushing more people in closer together?”
Johnson said: “I said the group in Whitehall must go into Parliament Square.”
Wainright said: “You crushed them into a smaller space.”
At 5.58pm, as officers ‘funnelled’ the crowd between police carriers towards Parliament Square to avoid gasworks on the opposite side of the road, video evidence showed protesters screaming and panicking as they were pushed into an increasingly denser crowd with seemingly nowhere to go.
A police evidence gatherer can be heard saying ‘they’re cramming them in a bit tight there’.
Johnson said: “Everyone was facing the officers rather than turning around and leaving. They could move if they wished to and the video shows that the crowd doesn’t.”
“That push down Whitehall was dangerous wasn’t it?” Wainright said.
“No. If you saw the attack on the officers it was necessary. The longer I left it, there was a risk of serious injury to officers and people,” Johnson said.
“[It] was the culmination of poor decisions and dangerous tactics throughout the day,” Wainright said, “and led onto the decision to tell officers to push through using any means necessary.”
“I disagree,” Johnson replied.
Meadows and King deny charges of violent disorder.
The trial resumes on Monday, February 25, at Woolwich Crown Court.