Whatever happened to peaceful protest?

Posted by Anonymous on Fri 6 Nov 2009 at 14:04

Something has gone terribly wrong with public order policing in this country. The threats to our enshrined right to peacefully protest are so serious now that the police are able to harass, intimidate and assault innocent people with impunity, spin misinformation to the media, lie openly and criminalise anyone who dares to turn up at a protest by adding their names and photos to police databases. No one seems to be accountable, and no one is taking responsibility for the depths to which our freedoms have plummeted.

When the MPA announced the creation of a new civil liberties panel that would hear post-G20 public concerns on policing, there was a glimmer of hope that dialogue could be established that could lead to the reforms we wanted, reforms that would facilitate rather than seek to crush peaceful protest.

After yesterday's inaugural public meeting of the panel, I am left with an all pervading sense of gloom that no matter how well presented our arguments, no matter how much documented evidence we produce (from citizen journalists to accredited professionals), and no matter how many lawyers and experts we bring in, little will change.

Five members of Ian Tomlinson's family, including his wife, Julia, were present and complained that events surrounding his death were (still) being ignored by officials. The family was told by the Conservative chair of the panel, Victoria Borwick, that it would be "inappropriate" for an official watchdog to consider whether officers were involved in a cover-up. She later said she would investigate whether this is something the panel could take up.

The web of police fabrications and deception takes in much more than the Ian Tomlinson case. The hall echoed time and again with testimonies of police inaccuracies and inconsistencies in G20 reporting, obstructions of the truth, with journalists highly critical of police attempts to stop them from carrying out their job at the demo. The police misinformation machine was given full rein, as bona fide journalists were treated the same as protesters, the official badge of recognition, the NUJ card, meaning little to the baton waving boys in blue. I can vouch for that as a NUJ card holder. I was corralled just like everyone else.

"If we can't trust the police to report an honest and truthful account of events, how can we trust the police in intelligence gathering?" I challenged the panel. The Met had filmed and documented the details of goodness knows how many of the thousands of innocent members of the public at the demo - including myself and my colleague. I went on to highlight the Guardian's investigative series into the networks of databases used by the police to track and monitor so-called 'domestic extremists', a category they invented to describe campaigners who might engage in civil disobedience - regardless of whether they have committed a crime. The three national police units who manage the databases are apparently run by the terrorism and allied matters committee of the Association of Police Officers (ACPO). I called on the panel to find out what guidelines are given to the police on who should and who should not be on those databases. Who has access to these databases? Who is the information shared with - both in the public and private sectors? And how long is the information retained on the databases?

While we are bullied into submitting our personal details, police officers routinely get away with hiding or ' losing' their ID numbers. I asked the panel: "As there seems to be such a problem with police badges being covered up or lost during public order policing, wouldn't it make sense if the police could wear bibs, or similar, with their ID number on the front and back, a style resembling a footballer's t-shirt, for ease of identification. Will the panel investigate this, along with other alternatives for displaying numbers, in order to resolve this problem once and for all?"

The police had talked up the demos to the media, which we have come to expect now, justifying heavy handed pre-emptive policing on a level that was simply not necessary. The Robocop-styled TSGs (Territorial Support Group officers) were ill-prepared, insufficiently trained and poorly briefed to deal with a non-violent situation involving civil disobedience on the scale of the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate. Someone asked the panel: "What do the Met accept as an appropriate level of self-defence against police violence?" That this is what it has come to, people of conscience, people who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, having to ask the MPA how they can defend themselves against the police, is a deeply depressing situation.

Everyone should have the right to peacefully protest, attend a public demonstration, without risk of harm or injury by the police. If we lose that right, we no longer live in a democracy. The persecution of people of conscience has to stop now. There must be an end to the use of catch-all anti-terror powers, such as stop and search, to harass and intimidate protesters, and a repeal of all laws which interfere with our democratic rights to protest and assembly. Most importantly of all, there needs to be a big clean up of the Metropolitan Police Service, so that it can begin to serve the public again rather than fight it. We need clear lines of accountability and responsibility, and a new culture of openness based on trust. It can be done. This is a wake up call!

Anna Bragga

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