Deterring Peaceful Protest

There's been some good news lately as far as the policing of protest is concerned... the well-established public-order policing policy of 'hit them until they stop, then hit them a bit more' seems to be going out of favour. This is certainly a good thing. Nobody likes being hit over the head, and any reduction in such violence is to be celebrated. However, one of the important concerns such violence raised was that people would be (and have been) put off attending protests due to the possibility of police violence - and while this one issue is now being addressed, there are still plenty of other factors being used to deter protestors from showing up to any given protest.

The first thing that worries me as a deterrent is overt surveillance. August's Climate Camp was widely hailed as a success for the new gentler style of policing, but we still saw quite an ostentatious surveillance operation in place during that event. As well as the relatively well-reported CCTV camera on a crane overlooking the camp, there were also FIT officers walking around the area wearing CCTV camera badges on their chests and taking notes about people, vehicles, etc. Police also attended preparation meetings for the camp, and at the meeting I attended FIT were literally hiding in the bushes taking photos of the people present (as loudly pointed out by a disgruntled passer-by, who was disgusted by this police tactic).

As the Guardian's recent special on 'domestic extremists' showed us, your life can get significantly inconvenient once FIT have taken an interest in you. As well as following people around filming them, there's repeated vehicle stop-checks via the magic of ANPR, sharing your info with private companies that you might be protesting against, and perhaps most sinister of all, having policemen you've never met or spoken to calling you by name as you arrive at a protest - just to let you know that they know who you are, that they've got a file on you, that you're being watched.

I don't know about you, but I find this kind of thing off-putting. It makes me think twice about attending protests - which, we have to keep reminding ourselves, is not only a legal right enshrined in both UK and EU law, but also an important part of political engagement in a democracy.

While we seem to be discussing policing a lot on this site at present, what we really have here is a political problem. The fact that the two overlap so much in the UK now could be seen as one of the early warning signs of a country which is turning into a police state - the use of the police as a tool to suppress political dissent. When I first set this site up I said "I don't think that the UK is a police state", but with each development that degrades our civil liberties, my confidence in that statement becomes shakier.

The current Government, while not unique in its efforts to suppress popular expressions of dissent (remember the Tories' track record during the miners' strike), has certainly done an impressive amount to empower the police and the courts in deterring political protest. Henry Porter wrote recently that this Government believes in 'experimental legislation' - the passing of laws in a hurried fashion, under the assumption that any problems with these laws will be fixed in the future. What this tends to produce is 'broad-stroke' legislation, overly broad in its powers and scope, and because of the way our legislative process works it's rare for such laws to be curtailed once they've been created.

The 'terrorist threat' is often cited as a justification for losses of our liberty, with a series of Acts passing into law which purport to be focussed on this problem. Unfortunately, the 'broad stroke' and broad scope discussed above has led to such laws being applied to cases ranging from benefit fraud, people putting their bins out on the wrong day and people who lied about their school catchment area, to preventing former employees from picketing power stations about unfair dismissal and preventing climate change campaigners from attending climate change talks.

When Kitchen said that anti-terrorist legislation does not apply to environmental activists, he said the officer replied that terrorism "could mean a lot of things".

Interpretation then, is key... and so far, our Government, police and courts all seem to be minded to interpret such legislation very broadly. When turning up at a protest could see you branded not just as a troublemaker, but as a terrorist, with all the legal implications that holds, then the legislation (and its enthusiastic application) seems extremely likely to be having a significant deterrent effect.

The cynical might be minded to wonder whether such an effect is the main point of the exercise. Charges against protestors are regularly dropped before they even come to court - sometimes just a few days or even hours after the initial arrest - and this seems to show that the police objective is to prevent protest from ever happening, rather than to take action against criminal actions which might occur during such protest.

This use of the law as a deterrent may take an interesting turn soon, with the European Court of Human Rights issuing guidance indicating that when weighing up the right to protest vs preventing public disorder, the right to protest should be given higher priority than British police have so far been doing.

It's important to note that while British police have been tending to separate protests into 'lawful' and 'unlawful', the ECHR protects the right to peaceful protest. Many unlawful protests are still peaceful - for instance, road blockades - and should enjoy this protection.

I've noticed in the past that the British police have a tendency to use the word 'violence' in their press releases where you or I might have used the phrase 'property damage' - for instance a protest that smashes windows might be described as "a violent protest". This is obviously a special definition of the word which the police have invented to allow them to make a group of protestors sound like vicious thugs, when in fact they are, at worst, vandals*. It will be interesting to see if our police try to leverage this piece of semantic trickery in the future to justify a continuing policy of suppressing protests which have commited no violence against people, but which have nonetheless damaged property, by using the fact that they are 'violent' to mean that they are not peaceful and therefore not protected by human rights legislation.

* The more philosophical in the audience may wish to insert a rant here about how our laws are all based on property and perhaps hold it more sacred than they should when compared to injury done to real people.

I've already mentioned people being charged with crimes that only a short time later are deemed not worth pursuing, but there is also an emerging trend for police to arrest people without charging them and apply a relatively new police power, pre-charge bail conditions. This means that without even being charged with a crime, the police can impose conditions on your behaviour which, should you not adhere to them, will cause you face the full weight of the law. Popular conditions so far have included 'do not associate with other protestors' and 'do not approach the area where the protest is being held'. There seems little doubt that again, this power is definitely being used to prevent protest, only potentially to prevent crime, and almost certainly not to prevent non-peaceful protest - the climate change movement is overwhelmingly non-violent, and yet it is currently bearing the brunt of this new power.

For peaceful protest in this country to become a safe and normal thing to do once again, our government and its police forces need to not only fix the problems outlined above, but also it needs to become completely obvious to the general public that the current deterrents have been removed, that people no longer need fear these things when they consider going out to protest. Possibly this can only happen over a period of time, as protests and demonstrations take place without the protestors being spied on, harassed, criminalised and beaten for attending.

People shouldn't fear the consequences of standing up to be counted when an issue moves them. They should be proud to do so.




unlawful vs peaceful
Posted by Helen (90.152.xx.xx) on Mon 9 Nov 2009 at 18:10 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]
Thanks for this. It was good to see the Guardian allude to the unlawful/peaceful distinction in their reporting of the Met's legal challenge to the interim HMIC report. That's the first time I've seen the mainstream press pick up on this particular piece of rebranding.

There are a couple more interesting points on the deterrence of protest, but they're too long for a comment - I'll post a follow-up article instead. :)
[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]