London’s top police officer says he is considering banning student marches in the wake of violent flare-ups at protests opposing a massive increase in university tuition fees.
The move has prompted some observers to declare that Britain may be headed towards “martial law” as police push back against angry youth who find they can no longer afford an education, at a time when jobs openings are rare.
Speaking about a possible ban on marches, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said “it is one of the tactics we will look at and something we will keep under review, and if we think it is the right thing to do then we will do it.”
The declaration has incensed students’ groups, who in recent weeks held four large demonstrations in London to protest the tripling of university tuition fees to the equivalent of $18,000 per year. Britain’s parliament passed the hike this week.
“Peaceful protest is an integral part of our heritage and it is the responsibility of the police to help facilitate that,” said Aaron Porter, president of National Union of Students of the UK.
Under Britain’s Public Order Act, a police chief can request a three-month ban on processions, provided the local government and the national Home Office agree to it. The Act doesn’t give police the power to stop protests, only to keep the protesters from marching.
The most recent protest, held last week, turned violent as protesters smashed windows at the Treasury and High Court buildings. Twelve police officers and more than 40 protesters were injured. Protesters attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, reportedly making physical contact with the duchess.
In all, 182 protesters have been arrested in the protests held in recent weeks.
London police have come under heavy criticism for their tactics in handling the protests. A leading human rights lawyer is launching a legal challenge to the police’s use of “kettling,” a technique in which riot officers surround a group of protesters and keep them stranded for hours at a time.
Bethany Shiner said police “are now using kettling as a stock response to all public protests and appear to have authorized kettling in advance of this particular protest.”
The Metropolitan Police also came under fire after a YouTube video showed wheelchair-bound protester — cerebral palsy sufferer Jody McIntyre — being pulled from his wheelchair and beaten by officers.
Commissioner Stephenson said he is considering a ban on marches because the protests have occupied officers to the point that they cannot police the city properly. But he admitted that a ban may not have the desired effect.
“When you have got people willing to break the law in this way, what is the likelihood of them obeying an order not to march or complying with conditions on a demonstration?” he asked. “Sometimes putting that power in could just be inflaming the situation further.”