Protest demonstrations and the police

[Note:  The following comments on police behaviour at protest demonstrations were originally sent in an e-mail by “a young man who blogs under the handle Jamblichus” (his own description) and arose out of some comments on a rather different but related subject in this blog. 

Jamblichus wrote as follows:]

The notion that the police “predictably” but not “justifiably” respond disproportionately to protestors who are being provocative implies that in such cases, justifiably or no, protestors “bring it (a fierce police response) upon their own heads”. This is the trope that pretty much gets wheeled out by most who watch often deeply biased coverage of protests on TV and can’t quite get their head around quite how nasty the police can be with protestors who are not, by any means, violent or provocative.

So, I assume from that comment you haven’t been on any protests recently. (Tomlinson didn’t really look that provocative to me…)  And despite his death, HMIC’s report on the G20 protest (Adapting to Protest), interestingly often seems more concerned about the perception of the police than their actions themselves. (“The high volume of publicly sourced footage of the protests, including the events leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson, has demonstrated the influence of ‘citizen journalists’ – members of the public who play an active role in collecting, analysing and distributing media themselves. Consequently, individual and collective police actions are under enormous public scrutiny.”) Well yes, as you’d hope when an unarmed man has been wilfully assaulted by police officers and died as a result!

The report calls for “Awareness and recognition of the UK press card by officers on cordons, to identify legitimate members of the press.” But what use is a press card when police officers are unconcerned if you are press or not? On April 2nd there was a Section 14 notice (under the Public Order Act) issued to the press. A City of London Police Inspector told the press to “Go away for half an hour and possibly come back to help us resolve this situation.”  For example, the Met have been all over photographers recently, using section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 to rough up those legitimately covering protests. The Home Office claimed that photographing police officers (which the act essentially criminalises) would only be deemed an offence in “very exceptional circumstances”, they added that “for the offence to be committed, the information would have to raise a reasonable suspicion that it was intended to be used to provide practical assistance to terrorists”. Terrorists? What a crock of shit. They are using section 76 willy-nilly…

(The report also has an interesting omission, when it notes: “An article titled ‘The Summer of Rage Starts Here’ was published on a popular protester website by a member calling themselves London Anarchists” … Totally failing to mention that the phrase “Summer of Rage” was coined by David Hartshorn, who heads the Met’s public order branch. Also the genius who called the police plan “Operation Glencoe”?)

The police are entirely out of control when it comes to managing protests: just a few examples other than the G20.   The “pre-emptive” arrest of 114 environmentalists at a Steiner school (“conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass”?);  the incredibly aggressive and intrusive filming of all and sundry at any form of protest by police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) — until you have experienced this first hand, you have no idea quite how intimidating and downright disturbing it is — the use of RIPA by local authorities to mount 10,000 surveillance operations over the past five years (in 2000 only nine agencies were allowed to go into the spying business; now, more than 800 bodies have been so empowered…)

You slapped down my thoughts about context in the Green case as largely irrelevant to the legal ins and outs, which was fair in a sense. Yet even Dame Stella Rimington has warned the government of creating a “police state” and police are, I think, stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable in a democratic society, and not just when provoked. Here’s what the NUJ’s in-house magazine had to say about this recently:

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear wrote to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in May, complaining of “intimidatory policing”. He cited examples of police officers who know journalists by name, follow them and film them all the time they are working.

Regular, low-level intimidation of photographers often goes unreported. David Hoffman, a freelance with more than 30 years experience, told the Journalist: “If you’re just walking down the street and taking a picture of police on the beat, when you’re well away from any problem and not causing an obstruction, they come over and interfere. “It happens constantly.   In May I was taking pictures of the party on the London tube — the last day people could drink alcohol — from a good distance when two police officers started pushing me around and put a hand over my lens. There was no reason at all. I was simply recording the event and they stopped me because they thought they could. That’s a very typical incident. That will happen to me once a week if I’m out working.”

This is the absolute tip of the iceberg for those who are either working to cover such stories or engaging in protest. You can expect for your pains (and no, not as a result of provocation) to have your face punched, hair pulled, shins smashed by the police and probably end up with a criminal record. Purely because as a middle class person with a passing interest in the issues of the day you decided to take to the street, thinking it was in some sense a vital part of a democracy to support the right of people to make “legitimate” protest. (After all, isn’t it one of the biggest gripes of our elected representatives that the youth of this country are depoliticised and apathetic?)

That, in short, and speaking from some degree of personal experience, is the “context” of which I spoke. Hence my, and no doubt a few others’ somewhat knee-jerk reaction to the raid. I know from reading your blog that you are committed to civil liberties and don’t mean to sound shrill. Just to emphasise some personal experience and context for my comment.

— Jamblichus

[In reply, I wrote:]

I’m grateful to you for going to so much trouble over this — and for your thoughtfulness in not, as you put it, wanting to “clog up your [i.e. my] blog with tangentials”. I wouldn’t for a moment dispute either your general case against the police over their behaviour at demonstrations, or your specific examples of police misbehaviour.  I entirely agree that the hundreds of new and mostly badly drafted offences created by New Labour in the torrent of rushed legislation under the pretext of the so-called war on terrorism are a threat to our basic liberties, and that they have (utterly predictably) been grossly abused on a heroic scale by the police as justification for harassment — and worse — of often entirely innocent people in contexts that have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.  Much of the blame for this disastrous state of affairs rests squarely on MPs of both the major parties for their pathetic failure to strangle these disgraceful laws at birth:  Labour MPs, with a few creditable exceptions, out of slavish obedience to the whips and in many cases personal political ambition and hopes of patronage;  Tories out of indolence, an instinct for anything authoritarian, and the fear of being labelled by an unscrupulous Labour government and the equally unscrupulous tabloids as being “soft on terrorism” for daring to oppose whatever measures ministers cared to place in the capacious anti-terrorism folder. 

My suspicion is that Blair, Brown and successive Labour home secretaries have not consciously or deliberately phased in, year after year, this menacing apparatus of the police state:  they have simply been terrified of laying themselves open to the charge of negligent inactivity in the event of another terrorist outrage.  They are obsessively risk-averse, incapable of making a sensible assessment balancing the extent of a risk against the cost of measures to prevent it materialising, and desperate to build up a record of having “done something about it” to protect themselves, at whatever the cost.  As a result we are all losers — and the risk of another successful terrorist attack has anyway hardly been measurably diminished, other than by patient, thorough, painstaking detective work by the intelligence and security services, including many police.

The next time a minister or a policeman tries to justify some law that abridges our human rights and civil liberties by promising that it will be applied and enforced only very sparingly and only in the context of the war on terrorism, he
or she should be howled down with shouts of “Liar!”, before being hauled off to the Tower as a traitor and a danger to a free society.  Yet they keep on doing it.

As for the question of provocative behaviour by some — probably a smallish minority — of protestors and demonstrators, including sometimes acts of violence (such as breaking windows, throwing missiles at the police and assaulting individual policemen), I take it that you wouldn’t deny that such things happen.  You don’t have to be physically present at many demos to know that it’s so: you have only to turn on your television.  I have emphasised that misbehaviour by protestors and demonstrators can’t justify corresponding (or even worse) misbehaviour by the police.  But it’s a statement of the obvious that it helps to explain it.  You and I both know that there are people out there, in numbers that no-one can quantify, for whom participation in a demonstration, especially one that’s likely to involve a punch-up with the police, is a blood sport to be enjoyed, rather than a gesture of support for whatever cause the demonstration is all about.  Certainly the police bear some of the responsibility for the growth of these attitudes and this behaviour, but the people concerned have to accept the greater part of the responsibility for their own actions, as in any other sphere of human behaviour.  The death of deference and the rise of contempt for authority are facts of life, in some ways healthy, in others profoundly damaging.  Among other consequences, the kinds of people who are nowadays attracted by the idea of a career as a policeman (or prison officer) tend to include a higher proportion of people who are temperamentally unsuited to such a career, and a lower proportion of people motivated by idealism and social responsibility — the old-fashioned Dixons of Dock Green.  OK, PC Dixon was absurdly idealised, no doubt: but he represented an idea of policing which has now largely vanished.

You’re quite right to guess that I haven’t taken part in any big political demonstrations lately.  For much of my life I’ve been disqualified from doing so by the constraints on the freedom of political activity rightly laid on all public servants.  Before I joined the public service I marched (or at any rate shuffled along) with thousands of others against the criminal folly of Suez, and after I retired from it I shuffled along again with thousands of others against the criminal folly of Iraq.  On both occasions such police activity as I witnessed was impeccable:  so was the behaviour of my fellow-protestors, at any rate those whom I could see.  I think standards of behaviour on both sides have deteriorated since then and I now prefer to try to make my dissenting and protesting views known and felt by other means (and means more appropriate to my age, by the way!).  But I don’t accept that this disqualifies me from holding an opinion about who (including the cops) does what and to whom, at marches and demonstrations as reported in the media and recorded for television.  Nor do I accept that the innocence of a single victim of police violence such as the luckless Mr Tomlinson proves anything about the guilt or innocence of others who have been involved in violent struggles with the police.  Some have undoubtedly been engaging in lawless and provocative behaviour;  others have clearly been completely innocent passers-by or peaceful
demonstrators who have been doing nothing whatever to warrant violent attacks by policemen, nor even non-violent harassment by filming and photographing and kettling and the rest of it.

It’s a dreadful mess, and I don’t see much likelihood of any future government either cleaning out the legislative Augean stables or reining in the police.  Nevertheless it’s absolutely vital that voices of outrage at what is happening, such as yours and that of organisations such as Liberty, should continue to be raised time and again until our elected leaders begin to take some notice.  After all, it is they who got us into the mess, and it’s mainly their responsibility to get us out of it, which they won’t bother to do unless fiercely and continually prodded.


[‘Jamblichus’ has agreed to the transfer of his and my e-mails to this blog.]

1 Response

  1. Richard T says:

    Brian , I have concluded that what the Labour Government have done over the last 12 years is to enact a great number of poorly drafted laws and instruments which, in the wrong hands, provide the basis for an authoritarian state.  But, some of those wrong hands include the police who have always had a strong propensity to officiousness and, on occasions violence, covered up by downright lying; and they have been indulged by the Labour Government.  The attitude of a succession of Home Secretaries (I include Michael Howard in this) to the police has been either naive or conniving in giving them what appears to be wide powers to use their discretion.  Recent proposals to allow the police to stop motorists at will and impose on the stop fines for say having a drink of water while driving, although they seem to have dropped below the horizon are a case in point.

    In sum therefore, I am not entirely convinced that the Government’s attitude is as innocent as you imply – we had an exchange of comments some time back on this.  I believe that the Home Office is the source of authoritarianism in government.  Look at its history and look at the areas where the Home Office has enforcement powers – immigration.  Then ask yourself whether the way in which the service is frequently reported to disregard court orders or how it shuts up people marked down for deportation is the mark of an authoritarian agency.    

    Brian writes: Richard, I certainly wouldn’t claim that the government has been or is ‘innocent’ for the stream of illiberal and potentially authoritarian measures that it has marched through a mainly unprotesting parliament since 1997: on the contrary it bears the major share of the blame for them. My suggestion that the ministers responsible have been motivated by a cowardly preoccupation with covering their own backs, rather than by any deliberate plan to smuggle into place the machinery of a police state, was in no way meant to excuse them. They must bear full responsibility for the predictable consequences of their own acts (and Acts), and for their cowardice into the bargain.

    It’s difficult to distinguish between government (including successive Labour home secretaries and some Tory home secretaries before them) on the one hand and the Home Office on the other; after all, it was the Home Office that gave us the liberal social reforms of Roy Jenkins as home secretary as well as the ill-conceived and often unprincipled “anti-terrorism” legislation of Blunkett, Straw, Charles Clarke, Reid and the rest of them, not forgetting either the sinister initiatives of Michael Howard. But in general I agree that the Home Office, for whatever reason, has long tended to be a disastrously illiberal centre of influence and practice, although its elected ministers should take the lion’s share of the blame for them.

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