Kelvingrove: How a street party became a royal fiasco

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It’s not often Glaswegians heed the words of David Cameron but on 29th April 2011, they certainly did.  To coincide with the Royal Wedding, around 10,000 folk packed out Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow’s West End for a street party which all went a bit tits up.
Today, over two and half years later, the last sentence was passed down against those who police claim were responsible for the much publicised “disorder.”  So what’s the story?  People got pished, fought with each other, got nicked, the end. 
Well, not exactly…

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Despite an abundance of mainstream coverage of the story, there is one thing no-one seems to have noticed – 21 people were arrested for disorder that day and the cops made a big deal about how these folk would be made an example of.  I’ve scoured the press and it doesn’t look like any of those people were ever convicted of anything (although I know from police reports that some got fines).  A few months down the line, 11 completely different people were arrested, 10 faced court proceedings and 5 were subsequently convicted.  Ten of these eleven were  political activists.

To understand why this might have happened, it’s necessary to look at what else was going on at the time.  2010 was a pretty exciting time to be an activist.  Following years of walking the wilderness, we were suddenly on the streets again – protests, and specifically direct action, was all the rage.  Groups like UK Uncut boldly walked in to tax dodging businesses and just shut them down,  Millbank got smashed up, students ran around setting fire to stuff, there was a demo every day of the week about something or other.  It wasn’t exactly the Arab Spring but there was a genuine feeling that people may be rediscovering their ability to get organised and fight back.

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ANARCHY IN THE UK: Protestors occupy…Fortnum & Mason. It was all kicking off by 2011!

For decades, most political activists in Glasgow have had a much better relationship with the police than we ever really liked to let on – demonstrations, at times involving thousands of people were frequent, spontaneous events.  The police turned up in just the right numbers, asked us what we wanted to do and said they knew we were the kind of people who wouldn‘t cause any trouble (in that passive-aggressive way your parents used to do before an empty), we did our thing and we all went to the pub. Deep down, we distrusted the police and knew what they were capable of in our communities and on our streets.  We also knew that, like anyone who works with the general public, they probably dreamed of locking us up and smacking us over the face from time to time (but they mostly didn’t).  In 2010, everything changed.

In an ingenious move, Glasgow City Council decided hard-won rights to freedom of assembly were to be scrapped, under the guise of “anti-sectarianism” legislation.  The new “Code of Conduct for Public Processions” was issued, meaning all demonstrations required 28 days written consent from the Council and the Polis.  This was no bother for sectarian organisations, who knew their marching calendar well in advance but it made things very difficult for political activists.  Given that politicians don’t generally give a months notice of their whereabouts or pre-announce their bastardry, it’s very hard to organise something (and get permission to demonstrate) a month in advance.  This effectively criminalised the majority of demonstrations.

With their new powers to play with, the police still proceeded to make a massive arse of things.  Telling people the demos they’d always gone on were suddenly a crime didn’t prevent people demonstrating, it just meant the relationship between cops and demonstrators changed fast.  Instead of basically stewarding, the police now rocked up at demos and lifted seemingly random people. Worse still, they turned up at people’s doors weeks down the line to charge them with non-specific things and impose restrictive bail conditions to prevent future attendance at demonstrations.  Many were banned from huge swathes of the city centre on the basis of “charges” which were quietly dropped down the line.  Despite the council making politicised policing much easier, the cops knew the courts wouldn’t deem actually charging people with standing around public places with a banner to be in the public interest.  But they did get to give activists a good scare from time to time.

The demonstrations didn’t go away, they just got bolder. Instead of A-to-B marches, there was direct action, occupations and more generally, lots of running around.  On the day on which school, college and uni students organised a mass walkout in Glasgow, as they did across the country, against tuition fees and in support of the EMA, an officer was heard to loudly proclaim, “You said we could stop them Sergeant. Can we fuck!” as the demo took over the city centre.

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Few of the student demos ever had permission to march…but they did it anyway!

In February 2011, Glasgow Uni students took over the abandoned post-graduate club and turned it into a fully functioning space again.  “The Free Hetherington” provided a non-commercial space for students, as well as a focal point for the ever-increasing number of activists.  The cops and the uni were not amused but neither could really do much, given that it was basically just a few folk drinking tea and having meetings in a building.

On 22nd March 2011, the Police entered campus in force.  Estimates of up to a hundred officers, dogs, helicopter, the whole shebang.  The official story was that they were called to “an incident.” In reality, uni security (pretending they were doing a Health & Safety check) entered the building, were suddenly followed by loads more security and then by the Police, in order to carry out a violent eviction.  Pretty quickly, a crowd gathered outside, some arrived in solidarity, many who were just having a nosey.   The evictees joined with the assembled crowd, marched to the Uni Senate and occupied that instead.

At 10:30 that night, the Uni management caved in, instructing the Police to allow the occupiers back to their original location, so long as they got out of the posh bit of the Uni and all the media stopped talking about it.  Later that evening, on Newsnight Scotland, one of the occupiers had a nice chat with Patrick Harvie, the Green MSP, about how great the occupation was and what a massive waste of public money and police time the entire day’s proceedings had been.  Neither the Uni nor the Polis bothered to turn up. Embarrassed at having publicly sent their massive wankhammer and yet still failed to crack some tiny student nuts, the cops slunked off to plot their revenge.

It didn’t take them long, dawn-raiding students the following morning and throwing more overblown charges at them. In reality the only people that’d assaulted anyone during the eviction were the police themselves, with one student even leaving in an ambulance (she got charged too!). In fact, it soon emerged that the Gangs Taskforce had drawn up a “hit list” of activists they were looking to nail whatever they could against. Never ones for subtlety, we know this because they told us.

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How many cops does it take to not evict some students? A lot it seems.

The Royal Wedding was only a month later. With millions given the day off work, as the rest of the country wrapped itself in union jack bunting and prepared for fawning celebrations, a different story was unfolding in Glasgow. In the days leading up to the 29th, an event had appeared on Facebook calling for a huge “street party” in Kelvingrove Park, echoing the Prime Minister’s advice. The numbers attending on Facebook grew rapidly and when the council put a statement urging people to stay away, it developed a previously absent political edge and the ensuing publicity saw the figure top 15,000. A visible but hands-off presence from the police saw drinking openly tolerated, and despite their later efforts to forcibly shut all the offies around the park, with it being a sunny day it’s no surprise that everyone was completely pished by about lunchtime. Inevitably the occasional fight would break out somewhere in the park or surrounding area but these were isolated occurrences involving only a few people.

It wasn’t until around 5pm, when the sound system was suddenly turned off, that the atmosphere soured. With no explanation given, many assumed the police had played a role in shutting the party down and it didn’t help matters when they waded in to start grabbing a few random folk who were guilty of little more than being a bit boisterous, and harming no-one. As the crowd watched the clueless cops arrest a guy who was dancing about with a box on his head, a shower of bottles and cans started to rain down on not just the police, but everyone else standing at the bottom of the hill. Back up arrived, police horses cavalry charged the hill as onlookers dived out the way, and officers on the ground continued grabbing folk and taking them away (or at least trying to, ahem). Calm was restored after about fifteen minutes and while a couple of police vans got their windows panned in, the whole ‘riot’ claim is slightly dubious.

In the days that followed, the authorities and the media entered the throes of a moral panic as a rash of copycat facebook events sprung up and the cops promised to come down hard on those behind the “riot”. Chief Constable Stephen House blasted the “group of drunken louts” who had “brought violence to our city and shame to our country”, while Chief Superintendent Bernard Higgins was under “no doubt” that more arrests would be made and promised that they would be studying CCTV footage. And do that they did, although it would seem they spent most of their time glued to videos of student demonstrations and the Free Hetherington as they sought to make whatever tenuous links they could between them and Kelvingrove, scoring a few more hits on their ‘target list’ in the process. Meanwhile a huge show of force saw the police place the entire park on lockdown one weekend in May over a proposed  ‘Osama bin Laden’s dead party’ and a mass waterfight, an entirely manufactured threat given that both were jokes on social media.

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This was obviously a completely serious idea

A confrontational demonstration at Strathclyde University – which some of the Kelvingrove accused would end up having offences from chucked in at their end of their indictments as well  (& later quietly dropped) – and a massive intelligence gathering operation at the Glasgow Slutwalk followed. This culminated in coordinated Saturday morning raids at the end of July – the day of another Royal Wedding in Edinburgh in fact – at about eight different addresses across Glasgow. With the Gangs Taskforce leading the charge, doors were bashed down and those arrested were held for two days before appearing on petition at the Sheriff Court, meaning trial would be by jury and with heavier sentencing. Their targets weren’t even limited to those who attended Kelvingrove that day – during the questioning of suspects, the police suggested the names of various other people who weren’t there.  Suited special branch officers were called in to quiz the accused on their political past, what they think of the monarchy and their views on the current constitutional makeup of the UK & Ireland.  It became abundantly clear that this had little, if anything, to do with public order.

It was a major police operation, but as ever, the arrogance of the cops had got the better of them. It would later transpire in court that they had unlawfully coerced journalists into handing over photographs to be used as evidence. With the police threatening to seize hard drives and photography equipment, some of the photographers caved in and passed over their material. One, citing journalistic privilege, refused and the courts upheld this and wouldn’t grant the police a warrant. This was enough to delay proceedings for the best part of two years as various judges dithered on whether unlawfully obtained photos were permissible in court.

Ultimately some High Court appeal judges decided they were and it was in October 2013 the two parallel cases, involving nine defendants, eventually came to trial. Or not, as it would happen, as the Crown – privately accepting the farcical nature of their own case – suddenly relented, dropped nearly all of the charges and sought a plea bargain with remaining defendants. For the nine defendants, their lives had virtually been on hold for over two years, never quite sure whether they’d be in prison this Christmas or next.

This isn’t a question about whether those convicted broke the law that day, lots of people did that.  If 10,000 people had a sly drink in the park, then 10,000 people got on the wrong side of the law.  Often with “public order” situations, the most important thing isn’t justice being done, but justice being seen to be done.  The authorities know they won’t be able to get everyone, so they just get someone. It really doesn’t seem like the police were looking for “someone” this time,  it seems like they knew exactly who they wanted.

The net result of this two and a half year investigation vendetta is that five people were given community service.  This means a few more trimmed hedges, some leaves being swept up and maybe even some litter picking.  The raises an obvious question – was it really in the public interest to pursue a handful of political activists and make them pick up different litter in different places, years down the line?  Could they not just have set up a Facebook event to clean up the park instead?

Just days after the incident, Kelvingrove returned to being what it had been before and since; a place for people, many young, many a bit pished and stoned, to sit around in the sun.  Much as they try, there is nothing the council can really do to stop this – they can’t send in the cavalry every day, although we should be asking if a police presence in Kelvingrove is really of benefit to anyone.

Kelvingrove returned to being full of annoying wee cunts shortly after the incident

In many civilised societies, police are simply not tolerated in the public spaces intended for young people to congregate; they are usually banned from entering campuses and most European police forces wouldn’t dream of entering the Piazzas and Squares on the continent.  The act of giving real ownership and control of public spaces to the community is usually sufficient protection against kids acting like fannies.

We seem intent on going in the other direction in Glasgow.  We send our police stoating about Kelvingrove snatching carry outs from weans and wonder why young folk distrust the police so much.  We all basically behaved, or misbehaved ourselves, without any harm being done when the council allowed us to have A-to-B marches or the odd can in the park without a massive barney.  If they insist on making people fight for their right to march or even just sit around, they could be in for a long fight.

Whether they were involved in a massive politically motivated conspiracy or whether they just made an expensive arse of the whole thing, the council and the police still have questions to answer.  Why was the decision made to cavalry charge those sitting on the hill that day and who made it? Why did they first claim it cost £40,000 to clean up, then reduce the figure to £25,000 when questioned? (and what the heck did they spent 25 grand on?) How much did the police investigation and the lengthy pursuit of these people through the court system cost? Most importantly, whose park and whose city is it anyway?

The battle for the future of our dear green place(s) rumbles on.  The council seem intent on removing the public from large sections of our city, whether that’s through legislation, gentrification or by smacking us in the face while riding a horse.  We have to make clear that our public spaces cannot be so easily surrendered. Because no matter how many dugs, ponies, helicopters and local by-laws they throw at us –

they still have no right to stop us having fun.

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Further Reading:

11 Tales from Glasgow’s Quality Council

Confessions of a not proven bin raker

Blow the whistle against police harassment

WEEKLY WANKER #014: THE ROYAL WEAN

Whose city: Are the Commonwealth Games ruining Glasgow?

WEEKLY WANKER #011: STEFAN KING

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Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AThousandFlowers

Follow us on Twitter @unsavourycabal

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