Monday, April 24, 2017

The first time I met Jeremy Corbyn

On the 24th of November 2010, we were demonstrating against a raise in student fees from £3000 to £9000. Following the demonstration at Millbank, the Tory HQ (10.11.10), the police were particularly nasty on those demos, and much of the marches were taken up with cat-and-mouse attempts to kettle us.

That day around 20,000 marched, and in the end several thousand of us ended up trapped from 1pm in the Westminster end of Whitehall from just past the Cenotaph. It was bitterly cold: hovering around zero all day, and we quickly ran out of water and food. There were no toilets and nowhere to sit apart from the freezing ground.

The hours were spent trying to convince blank faced cops in riot gear to let the younger kids out of the kettle. It was the time when they were facing losing their EMA, (now long gone) and a lot of young people had come to the demo from London sixth forms. The police were apparently letting people who were under 16 out: it was a struggle to make this happen in reality.

I ran out of filter tips, and spent a lot of time wandering around trying to borrow some. Once it got dark around 4pm we had to move to stay warm. People burned placards and danced to portable sound systems.

At 8.00pm, a rumour started that people were being let out on the north side of the kettle, into Whitehall. We joined the large queue to leave.

My friend, who is seriously disabled, was by this point very weak. She needs to eat and rest regularly, and if she overdoes it at all, she runs the risk of collapse or cataplexy (you lose muscle control and fall down, while remaining conscious). We stood in a crush of 500 people. My friend was beginning to show worrying symptoms.

I asked for a medic, and was scoffed at. I asked if I could get her out first. The crowd was sympathetic and joined the call for help, letting us to the front. The police eventually let my friend out, but refused to let me through with her, even though she was unsteady and disoriented and struggling to walk. It was 9.30 and we had been kettled for eight and a half hours in freezing conditions.

From the Cenotaph, my sick friend was obliged to walk 500m on her own along Whitehall before she could leave police lines. The entire road had been closed for the whole day up to Trafalgar Square. Staggering like a drunk person, barely able to put a foot in front of the other. There were police officers the full length of Whitehall, some on horseback. Not one offered to help or asked if she was OK.

I was still waiting. Despite the support of the crowd, I wouldn't be released until 10.30. People were slowly released from the kettle this way between 8pm and midnight. It was shown on the national news throughout the day and evening. People were phoning me to see if I was OK, and several emailed or phoned their MPs that very day. My mum asked if she could help by coming down.

At the very end of the police lines, where the taped-off Whitehall met busy Trafalgar Square, stood a reception committee: a few student leaders, people who had managed to avoid the kettle and were waiting for their friends, and Jeremy Corbyn.

He knew my friend as he had worked with her in the past- but also Jeremy knows a lot of people, because he consistently stands up for people and supports movements for change. As she stumbled over the lines, the strength she had been conserving gave out, and she literally fell into his arms. He helped her, and when she had partially recovered she was able to find friends who would support her to get home.

Jeremy stayed at the end of that cordon all evening. Every person who came by, he shook their hand, checked if they were all right, and said 'well done'.

I had a lot of experience of demonstrating, and my major concern was my friend's health. But imagine what it means to be a young student or sixth-former, to go on a protest, and be imprisoned in freezing weather for 10 hours. Without food, water, a toilet, or access to medical attention. What do you learn about your democratic rights and duties? What do you learn about how the state and the police will respond to any demands or action on your part?

The role of the responsible parts of the establishment in this case - and yes, by establishment I include Jeremy, MP for my whole life - is to give a little support to those who are being punished for demonstrating, the victims of police violence like me and my friend. Young people are alternately bullied and ignored in this society, and they deserve respect and support.

I wish demonstrating was as easy as painting a placard and going out on the street, but often it's really difficult, and the obstacles are giant. Jeremy Corbyn was there to say- this work you do is valued, and you will receive support. (My own MP and many others reiterated exactly this sentiment later on, but they weren't there on the ground.)

And honestly, he was so nice.

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