As dawn broke on Day One, I struggled wearily into my St John Ambulance green boilersuit and waited for a colleague to collect me in an official vehicle. The police anticipated that both they and the regular ambulance service would be over-stretched, so we had been called in to provide on-site support. Arriving at the building that would be our base for the next three days, we encountered an unruly crowd who shouted abuse at us and refused to let us through. The police helped our clearly-marked ambulance to slowly edge through the crowd, but the protesters continued to menace us through the windows and began to rock our vehicle so that the wheels on either side were alternately off the ground. Earlier, they had dragged a paramedic out of his ambulance and stolen the keys while the police effected his rescue, so we were genuinely frightened, and once through I reflected that I had crossed frontlines during the war in the former Yugoslavia and been less shaken. Hostility in a war zone was one thing, but in the streets of the cosmopolitan city where I’d grown up it was wholly unsettling.
Our first aid post was surrounded by hundreds of police donning riot gear and reserves having a well-deserved rest. They had showers set up for us to use on any victims of the large canisters of capsicum spray some of the officers were toting around on their backs like divers’ oxygen tanks. If that happened, the poor patient would be stripped naked and showered in front of everyone – but, if things deteriorated sufficiently for the police to use the spray in large quantities, there would be no time for niceties, and we’d all be too busy to watch. If a protester needed to be showered, the police would allow them to use the outside shower in full view of the mob – they couldn’t afford to risk a breach of the building. We were literally under siege, unable to get out, and it was just as well that we had been called in, because the injuries mounted as the day progressed.
I didn’t see the police deploy any of the dogs – once the order was given to ‘glove up’ we were too busy ministering to the injured – but they were never leashed inside our besieged compound. The handlers told us that as long as we didn’t approach them or make eye contact they would leave us alone, and they did. Their discipline and self-restraint was a stark contrast to the hysterical mob behind the barriers. I only saw one officer cry. It wasn’t the one who had had fence wire stabbed through his knee, oddly enough, but a poor lass who had had a glass bottle smashed over her head. Quite understandably, she was worried she might lose her eyesight as some of the glass had lodged in her eyes. We kept our goggles close by after that.
We were able to go home after fifteen hours for a brief fitful sleep before returning to do it all again. A woman trying to get to work in the building, a cleaner I think, was bashed by the mob. Her injuries were serious – she had fractures and difficulties with her breathing and circulation – and even when the ambulance paramedics told the crowd they needed to get her to a hospital urgently they wouldn’t let her out. We had to call in the air ambulance and medevac her off the roof. We were angry – someone was going die and this selfish and violent rabble didn’t give a damn – and any sympathy we had for these misguided ‘protesters’ quickly evaporated. They weren’t protesters. They were violent, criminal anarchists without the capacity to see outside their own obsessions or empathise with respectable, decent citizens.
The injuries they inflicted on the police were sometimes easier to comprehend than other types of violence, though we treated more than four hundred police over three fifteen-hour days. Officers came in to shower after buckets of urine had been poured over them, and most of the police were more upset about the acid attack on one of their horses than their own cuts and bruises. There were cowardly antagonists amongst the crowd who would push less violent sorts into the police line, in order to up the ante, but they themselves would melt back into the mass of people to confer with their cohorts via text messages as to the next offensive. Watching a violent and angry crowd twenty-people-deep pushing up against a single line of police who often were without shields and only armed with batons was deeply disturbing.
On our third and final punishing day, the maritime union created a cordon for our ambulance to pass through. Traditionally, they had faced off the police in many a dispute, but hearing what was happening they lent their support in a heartening display of solidarity. They lined our route in, backs turned to us, and when the mob tried to attack us they used their muscle to deliver some much-deserved corporal punishment. The police literally averted their eyes, and we gave a restrained cheer from inside the ambulance.
But this wasn’t a few days ago in London. This all took place ten years ago in Melbourne, Australia. So, as we analyse the woes of the mother country with just a hint of smugness, perhaps we should remember that we are not immune.