On Horses & Protests
Following clashes with police in London earlier this month, Aaron Loose evaluates the use of mounted units in the suppression of public protest.
On 6 June, thousands of protesters assembled at Whitehall, Central London to stand in solidarity with George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a brutal and uncaring police state.
The Metropolitan Police responded by deploying the Mounted Branch – trained officers on horseback who specialise in hard-line crowd control and dispersal. At around 6pm, violence erupted. According to both the Guardian and The Daily Mail, the police ordered a mounted charge into the crowd after a small number of protesters threw projectiles at the officers.
The footage of that charge, which is widely available on YouTube and Twitter, shows unarmed protestors screaming and running as the armoured police galloped dangerously towards the cenotaph. During the ensuing chaos, a mounted officer fell from their saddle. The now uncontrolled horse bolted and sprinted towards Whitehall, knocking down Jessie Tieti Mawutu, a nursing student, onto the hard concrete.
Although The Sun focused on the minority who did chuck flares at the police, human rights organisations ruled against the use of mounted officers to control a free political demonstration. Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, roundly condemned the Metropolitan police. In a 7 June press release, Allen said “This is policing inappropriate to our times. We have seen police horses charging into protesters and kettling – inappropriate even in more ordinary times, the more so in the light of guidance on social distancing”.
“Kettling” is a crowd control tactic that involves creating cordons to herd demonstrators into a restricted space. It is aggressive, intimidating, and the subject of many a legal challenge. Allen elaborated “Horses should never be used to charge against demonstrators. They should only be used for the purposes of overseeing assembly and facilitating communications with demonstrators”.
There was no loss of life at Whitehall. But there was certainly fear. It was not the first time British Law Enforcement has relied upon officers on horseback to control radical gatherings of dissenting citizens. On 18 June 1984, the South Yorkshire police spearheaded an assault upon striking miners who were picketing a coking plant near Rotherham. Today, historians remember the clash as the Battle of Orgreave, a viscous confrontation between state enforcers and unionised workers that the late Tony Benn likened to a resurgent “civil war”.
In his book, Riot!, Ian Hernon describes the violent clash between mounted police and provoked demonstrators. After Arthur Scargill, the President of National Union of Mineworker was injured, allegedly after being pummelled by a police riot shield, the protests escalated. Waves of mounted police were bombarded by bricks, bottles and sharpened posts. Protesters were trampled, and Assistant Chief Constable Tony Clement, who was in charge of the Orgreave operations, openly admitted that he lost no sleep over injured union members.
These struggles are vastly different in scope and object. Any comparisons made must recognise that class and race are not separate battlefields, but intersecting struggles. The National Union of Mineworkers, who were certainly not all white, resisted a Thatcherite roll-out of depressed wages and massive privatisation during the early days of neoliberalism. The Black Lives Matter movements are attacking the greatest inhumanity in modern history – the ideology of racism that manufactures poverty in Black communities – and as Dr Angela Davis told Channel 4, their efforts have created the most significant opportunity to confront structural racism of our lifetimes.
The Metropolitan police, once described as “institutionally racist”, are doing little to redeem their hateful history
Note that the miners retaliated with violence – violence driven by working class interests, but violence all the same. In comparison, the Black Lives Matter assembly posed no threat to the police. Yet both groups were met with a brigade of stampeding horses. The Metropolitan police, once described as “institutionally racist”, are doing little to redeem their hateful history.
What is important is that the deployment of mounted police insults freedom of speech by empowering police to intimidate the public. Formed in 1760, the Mounted Branch is the oldest division of the Metropolitan police, actually predating the formation of the Met itself by some 69 years. According to Equestrian Life Magazine, there are five working stables located across London. The working horses are kept by trained groomers and can be mounted by tested officers. It is something of an institution; and yet, until recently, there was no real evidence to show whether mounting policing benefitted or damaged the public image of British Law enforcement.
In 2014, RAND Europe, an independent research group for policy, collaborated with the University of Oxford to investigate the “quantitative and qualitative indicators relating to the value of mounted police in various deployment scenarios”. The study aimed to understand how the public responded to use of domesticated animals in modern policing.
The study’s conclusions were overwhelmingly positive. The report, titled ‘Making and Breaking Barriers’, said mounted officers encourage the public to make “positive assessments of policing in neighbourhoods”. It is unclear whether the study consulted anyone who came to know the Mounted Branch during the 2011 London Riots. Although the report was focused upon the public’s enhanced engagement with law enforcement operatives, the authors also provided a telling analysis of the mounted officer as an instrument of crowd control.
The excessive actions of the Metropolitan police do not improve public safety, nor do they enable correct democracy. Rather, such violence impedes conversation
The report continues “They also offer the ability to provide heightened response to crowd situations and can intervene in disorderly crowds in ways that generate compliance more quickly than other options such as police on foot or in vehicles”. Compliance is the key term here. The excessive actions of the Metropolitan police do not improve public safety, nor do they enable correct democracy. Rather, such violence impedes conversation; it silences those who would speak against racism, capitalism and authoritarianism by loosing animals onto peaceful demonstrators.
As Kate Allen pointed out, “These were overwhelmingly peaceful protesters making a serious point about the injustices of racism and they have become victims in their own right”. The events of Whitehall prove that the Mounted Branch is a symbol of an establishment intent on suppressing any movement against the widening gyre of social and economic equality. The cop on horseback is an image ripped directly from the handbook of a repressive state apparatus – and we would all do well to consider the implications of that image.