The trial of the six climate-change activists accused of plotting to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire has collapsed, as most readers of this site will no doubt already know. The mainstream media has focused almost entirely on the role of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy, and the implication is that it is his role that caused the case to collapse.
Whilst his activities are at best dubious and at worst amount to entrapment and incitement, it seems to me that they are masking the main story. The officer recorded most of what happened - in undercover cases the undercover officer rarely gives evidence in person, and the recordings are used instead. So the fact that he didn't want to give evidence for the prosecution would not have caused the case to fold. The CPS have now stated that the reason they dropped the case against the six activists was not because of Mark Kennedy at all, but because "police officers have suppressed vital evidence".
The BBC announced yesterday that the coalition government is planning to replace control orders, controversial powers introduced by Labour in 2005 which place terror suspects under "house arrest", with a new range of restrictions named 'surveillance orders'. The new orders would give security services the power to:
- ban suspects from travelling to locations such as open parks and thick walled buildings where surveillance is hard
- allow suspects to use mobile phones and the internet but only if the numbers and details were given to the security services
- ban suspects from travelling abroad
- ban suspects from meeting certain named individuals, but limited to people who are themselves under surveillance or suspected of involvement in terrorism
This Saturday we attended the first Netroots UK conference, a day of workshops and networking to inspire and inform progressive online activists. If nothing else, the number of people who were prepared to get up early on a Saturday to attend was inspiring - when we arrived at 9:15am there was already a queue snaking down the street, and the main hall was filled with several hundred activists.
Right-wing critics (listening in via Twitter, ironically) condemned the event as a pointless circle-jerk, but in fact we both got a lot out of the day. The workshops in particular had a strong practical emphasis on strategies for effective campaigning which was inspiring and productive - we would have preferred to have had more workshops instead of the two plenary sessions. It was only a pity that each delegate was only able to attend two workshops out of the eighteen on offer.
Just a brief intro - I am a senior lawyer at a very large criminal defence practise, and deal frequently with defending people accused of a wide variety of offences, and those who are having their civil liberties encroached upon via non-criminal proceedings such as ASBOs, Control Orders etc.
I am not an extreme liberal - I deal with some very unpleasant people who have committed serious crimes and deserve punishment, and indeed rehabilitation. Nonetheless I am dismayed daily at the erosion of our civil liberties by the flood of new legislation targeted at controlling public dissent and protest, and by the fact that the police are more frequently using existing laws (such as the Public Order Act) to unfairly target peaceful protesters and to criminalise those who wish to engage in civil disobedience.
Open letter on the policing of the student protests
I do not doubt that policing these demonstrations has been extremely challenging for the Metropolitan Police. Yet, I am sure you would agree that there are always lessons to be learnt and ways to improve the response in future.
Having listened to many people who were involved in the protests, as well as attending myself, I feel there are many areas that warrant thorough examination to understand what happened and why, that can inform planning and decision-making for future protests.
I have grouped my concerns, and those expressed to me by protesters, parents and observers, under broad headings below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but represents some of the main issues I have been made aware of.
One of the key angles in the mainstream press coverage of the Day3X protest last week, particularly from the BBC, is that the heavy-handed police response was justified because the march "deviated from the agreed route".
This echoes a statement released by the Met at 18.35 on the day of the protest, 9th December:
The Metropolitan Police Service is extremely disappointed with the actions of many protestors who from a very early stage deviated from the agreed route. There were people on this protest who came with no intention other than one of violence and to commit disorder.
This sentiment, which worryingly and wrongly conflates protestors taking a different route and intending to commit violence, has been echoed by many BBC commentators. On the edition of Newsnight which followed the protest, considerable weight was given to the issue of the protest diverging from an agreed route. The implication being that once the protestors had demonstrated this wilful disobedience and lack of co-operation, they brought everything that followed onto themselves; if only they had kept their agreement with police, none of the containment or brutality which followed would have been necessary.
Quite aside from this point of view being somewhat patronising, there are a number of problems with this line of reasoning.
During last week's student protests against the rise in university fees, a young man by the name of Jody McIntyre, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, was caught on video being attacked by the police.
Not only did the police hit him across the shoulder with a baton, they twice forcibly removed him from his wheelchair and dragged him across the road before dumping him on the floor. The second attack was caught on camera, and has caused uproar amongst those who see the "riots" that the media has concentrated so much on as a direct consequence of the police's provocative actions.
A lot has been written about Thursday's protest already, and I imagine there's more to come. I'll include some links to other people's blog-posts and articles under this one.
Personally, I want to focus on one very specific aspect of the day, specifically of the policing on the day, because it struck me as interesting at the time and more so the more I think about it. I'm going to talk about police lying to protestors.
At a recent refresher training course for specials in our local police force, the briefing had a new section called 'witness management' which included some information on public order policing. It seems as if our training is being altered to reflect recent events in the nearest university town. Specials aren't normally called in to support public order situations but it looks like they might be preparing to do just that if the current civil disobedience escalates.
The most interesting thing I learned that day was that if we had to hit anyone with an asp (a metal extendable baton which is more commonly used than the side-handled batons) it was best to do it as hard as possible on the first occasion, as repeated strikes "look bad on YouTube".
In the news today, one of the senior police commanders from the G20, Bob Broadhurst, has been caught out in lies he told to Parliament in the aftermath of that operation. From the Guardian (emphasis added):
Responding to previous reports that plain-clothes officers were deployed at the G20 protests last year, Commander Bob Broadhurst, who runs the Met's public order unit CO11, told a parliamentary committee in May last year: "The only officers we deploy for intelligence purposes at public order are forward intelligence team officers who are wearing full police uniforms with a yellow jacket with blue shoulders."
In a statement this week, the Met said plain-clothes officers were frequently deployed in "day to day" policing. "It is key that as a police service we observe and gather information to provide us with a relevant and up-to-date intelligence picture of what to expect in terms of protest groups and public order policing."
I can only assume that if a normal person lied to a Parliamentary committee that would be considered a bad thing. I'm also going to go out on a limb here and assume that absolutely nothing will happen to Commander Broadhurst and his career prospects as a result of this lie.