Alfie Meadows was on trial yesterday, charged with violent disorder at a protest in which he had been hospitalised with brain damage after being beaten by the police. This move seems heavy handed at best, sinister and cynical at worst. However it also seems strikingly ill-conceived. The move has won the Met widespread condemnation at a time when their reputation and good will among the public are already diminished.
The Police have undermined claims of fairness and proportionality through dark hints of increased violence if the Government did not protect them from the cuts facing the rest of the public sector. The excessive and provocative violence witnessed at the demos at the end of 2010 will inevitably be viewed in this context.
On a more practical level, given the reduced resources available for policing both within the community and at major events, the police must rely more and more on the consent and cooperation of the public. The reservoir of good will on which these factors depend is greatly depleted by the prosecution of a man the Police themselves hospitalised.
Finally the move is a strategic misstep which has succeeded in producing a galvanised and united coalition intent on monitoring police behaviour and holding officers to account. Meadows and fellow protestor Bryan Simpson have set up the umbrella organisation ‘Defend the Right to Protest’ which protested outside the court on Thursday. Jody Macintyre the activist who was prominently dragged from his wheelchair in front of the cameras has also become involved as have UKUncut, members of which were arrested after being deliberately misled on the 26th March TUC demonstration.
The overall impression is of a vindictive and petty force intent on penalising those who inflict upon it unwelcome scrutiny. Even if the logic of the Met’s action is to dissuade others from protest or dissent, it seems to have scored a stunning own goal succeeding only in creating a new cause celebre and brand new movement to do just that.
Of the raids carried out by police the day before the royal wedding, one stood out as particularly strange. As well as squats in Camberwell and Hackney, the Met also chose last Thursday to visit a camp in Sipson near Heathrow airport called Transition Heathrow.
Transition Heathrow stands out because the camp has so little obvious relation to the royal wedding or the protests that have recently caught police attention. The camp is a “transition town”, where the occupants grow their own produce and try to live a carbon free life. It is in part a protest against the proposed building of a third runway at Heathrow, and was born out of many of direct action climate campaigns that have provided some of the most high profile protest in the UK. However, it is also an attempt to provide an example of living differently. By all accounts Transition Heathrow is on friendly terms with its neighbours
, and the camp also has the support of local MP John McDonnell.
Yet on Thursday 28 April, at roughly 7:15, around 40 TSG officers turned up at Transition Heathrow. While 20 of the Met special operations unit battered in the front door, the rest scaled a rear wall. People were woken and the place was searched. Two members of the camp were detained, one cuffed, it seems because they were too slow in getting up.
According to those at the camp, the police warrant said they were looking for items to be used for criminal damage. They didn’t find any, and after a couple of hours the police left having made no arrests.
The targeting of Transition Heathrow seems to back up the police claims that timing of the raids had nothing to do with the royal wedding. Yet it is strange that police would choose to target this location just 24 hours before their biggest operation in years. McDonnell is among the MPs who have questioned the raids in parliament, saying they appeared to be some form of “pre-emptive strike”.
Transition Heathrow resident Joe Rake, 20, says the raid was “pretty bizarre”, and that those living at the camp are “completely baffled about why they chose to raid a community garden”.
However, he says the timing suggests there must be some connection between the raid and the royal nuptials, whether police thought something was being planned at the camp, or were merely using the event as an excuse.
“It’s got to be about the royal wedding, but no one here was talking about the wedding at all before the raid.”
“It was completely disproportionate…yet another example of political persecution.”
Why did the police decide to target an entirely peaceful movement campaigning about the climate? Raids and arrests on protesters planning to make a point while William and Kate got married may be worrying from a civil liberties perspective, but at least they appear to follow some logic. The raid on Sipson suggests that either police intelligence is lacking, or that in the current climate even the mildest signs of dissent are liable to invite police harassment.
The police operation to curtail protests at today’s wedding has increasingly come to resemble the actions of an authoritarian regime trying to scrub out any image of dissent before a major event draws the focus of the world upon them.
The raids and arrests at five addresses across London early yesterday morning were the first evidence of the promised crack-down. The Met claims that the raids were merely an attempt to gather evidence about disorder at the TUC march last month. However the targets and timing suggest otherwise and there are reports of other raids across London last night.
But the police have not just been raiding squats looking for ‘anarchists’. Charlie Veitch, a well known video activist who has only ever conducted peaceful protest, was arrested yesterday. An email from his girlfriend reveals he was arrested for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Veitch had told the police of his intention to protest at the wedding peacefully, and was imprisoned for his courtesy.
Meanwhile, the organisers of a large-scale peaceful protest planned to take place along the route of the wedding were warned that any form of mass protest would be illegal inside the security zone around Westminster.
The group’s statement on Facebook is a lesson in careful wording, designed to encourage protest without falling foul of the legal prohibitions in place today. Nonetheless, individual attempts to get anywhere near the route of the wedding with the intention of protesting will be made very difficult by the huge cordon of private security around Westminster and St James’ Park.
That the wedding should be heavily stage managed is no surprise, all national events are. However the tactics that have surrounded this wedding are more troubling. There seems to be a studious and organised attempt to curtail expressions of public feeling that don’t fit within the framework of patriotic celebration and affirmation of the status quo. Miles away from the Royal Wedding the only open expression of dissent was permitted, a republican street party was licensed in Red Lion Square Holborn, safely away from cameras that might broadcast this minor interruption of the Monarchist narrative.
The wedding has apparently been saved from any embarrassing displays of dissent by heavy-handed tactics and pre-emptive strikes reminiscent of China’s careful stage-managing of the Olympics in 2008. If the government is prepared to go to such great lengths to keep protest out of the limelight for a royal wedding, what will they do next year when London hosts its own Olympics? Despite the paroxysm of patriotism expressed by rightist commentators, one wonders how the event can legitimately be viewed as an expression of national unity and celebration when such aggressive incursions upon civil liberties where required to maintain the facade.
The news that the Metropolitan police have decided to press charges against (among others) 20 year old student Alfie Meadows for violent disorder has caused outrage. Meadows was hospitalised and had to receive major surgery for bleeding on the brain following a violent assault with a police baton during the third student demo on the 9th of December 2010. As well as displaying a callous disregard for the consequences of their own heavy handed actions this forms a pattern of police persecution and partisanship which is deeply troubling in a democracy.
Alfie Meadows has been named as one of thirteen individuals to be tried for violent disorder and criminal damage. The move has aroused suspicion that the Met are attempting to discredit a key witness in the IPCC investigation into their actions on that day. It also can’t have escaped the attention of commentators that this move falls shortly after damning evidence of violence and dishonesty from the police relating of the death of Ian Tomlinson in April 2009. The reputation of the police force in general and the Met in particular is at a distinctly low-ebb among much of the public following a series of protests in which they have been seen to act in an extremely violent and provocative manner, charging teenagers on horseback, sending protestors to hospital (or rather refusing to send them) with brain damage, kettling schoolchildren for hours in sub-zero conditions and dragging young men out of their wheelchairs and across the ground, all the while engaging in acts of breath-taking deceit.
It is natural for an individual or institution facing such this kind of damage to attempt to protect and improve their reputation. However, for a group which is granted the overwhelming monopoly on use of coercive force – both physical and legal – to engage in cynical tactics and gross dishonesty belies the very reputation it seeks to maintain. If a group is allowed to beat civilians round the head, detain them for hours on end, snatch them from their homes and put them at risk of long term incarceration it doesn’t seem too much to expect them to be a little whiter than white in deploying such powers. In fact no one expects the Met to be perfect, but we do at least expect them to behave honourably and honestly when their mistakes and misdemeanours are investigated.
These actions are troubling enough, for those concerned with civil liberties and the right to protest. However, in the last few years the Met has also demonstrated an alarming, openly political edge to its repression. The policing of pro-Palestine marches for instance, have witnessed extremely brutal repression on the day. Often those who attended were subsequently snatched in dawn raids months later in a move that seemed deliberately designed to deter young Muslim citizens from engaging in their democratic right to protest; this tactic was then taken up by the judiciary, who meted out disproportionately harsh sentencing to the accused. Similarly, infiltration of environmental groups and others that employ direct action, all of which have been classified and treated as “extremists”, and the arrest, last month of UKUncut activists who had been assured they could go free. All of these examples imply the Met considers its remit to extend far beyond maintenance of order and facilitation of peaceful protest, and now includes the active defence of the status quo against those who seek to challenge or change it.
Last week’s high court decision that Police tactics at 2009’s climate camp were illegal has been hailed as a victory for civil rights campaigners and the protest movement in general. Yet the significance of the judgement could be overplayed. The court’s decision did not go as far as civil liberties groups would like, passing up the opportunity to engage in a truly radical shake-up of policing and settling instead to allow the police to carry on much as before, though perhaps a little nicer and with an extra eye on for regulations.
The court has held back from declaring the use of kettling itself to be illegal and the Met have subsequently reaffirmed their commitment to the use of the tactic where they consider it necessary. This judgement of course only applies to the policing of the 2009 climate camp protest. Nonetheless, it has inevitably been interpreted in the light of the student protests that convulsed the capital at the end of 2010, which saw the highly controversial tactic deployed for hours at a time, often in dangerous situations and in icy conditions.
Though the Met have defiantly vowed to continue to deploy kettling where they see fit the recent anti-cuts demo notably did not witness large scale kettles deployed. Merely the threat of its use was sufficient to dramatically raise the temperature of the protest however, as Liberty – who provided legal observers and stewards on the day – concluded in a recent report.
This isn’t the final word on kettling. The tactic is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. But until a decision is reached the police will continue to use it. With this in mind, the court must be considered to have missed a valuable opportunity to effect more radical change in policing. Despite paying lip service to the civil right to protest, the Met has regularly shown itself willing to employ extremely coercive and violent means to control protests in the two years since the climate camp incident. The knowledge that they retain the prerogative to employ this hugely resource-hungry, expensive and provocative tactic will continue to greatly raise the temperature of future protests at a time when tempers are already running high due to economic insecurity and government austerity. It seems likely this will lead to more frequent, more violent clashes between protesters and the police which will be used in turn to justify more aggressive, more restrictive crowd control tactics. In allowing the police to retain the right to kettle, but rebuking them for excessive use of force the Court has essentially handed the met a stick and asked them to play nicely with it. A truly progressive move would have been to take the stick away altogether.
6 Billion Ways is a progressive conference organised by, amongst others, Friends of the Earth, The World Development Movement and War on Want. It took place yesterday in various locations around Shoreditch though primarily in the RichMix arts centre on Bethnal Green Road. The program included discussions on the history of money, rethinking democracy and the roll of music in protest movements. It was, in essence a younger, hipper Marxism.
The discussion on ‘Rebel Rock’ in particular prompted me to think about the role of music – and art generally – in protest movements and whether their impact can be overstated. Tom Lehrer was once asked whether he thought his satirical songs had affected the politics of his time. He replied that they’d had about the same impact as “those Berlin cabaret shows that did so much to stop the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s”. Debate about the role of political art often expresses this scepticism. Yet others maintain, and it seems instinctively true that art does affect people and so political art – be it ‘Guernica’ or ‘Killing in the Name’ must help somehow. This particular session was chaired by Yasmin Khan from War on Want and featured journalist and music critic Robin Denslow, John Pandit (Pandit G) from Asian Dub Foundation and Faithless’ Dave Randall. All three panellists were clear that they felt that political music was important and that it should continue. John Pandit talked in particular about the song ‘Free Satpal Ram’ and Robin Denslow discussed “Free Nelson Mandela”. Of course neither claimed that these songs were the agent of liberation of their respective subjects and few would have agreed had they said so.
So, in what sense did this music aid the cause? No one who is passionately committed to nuclear expansion would join CND after listening to ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’. However, Lehrer said that someone who is on the fence or moving towards a position may be encouraged to take the leap. The panellists were all more positive in their expression today but they expressed the same idea. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ did not convince the Apartheid regime to do so but it did convince enough of those all important undecideds to reject the prevailing image Mandela as a terrorist. In this way it strengthened support for the Anti-apartheid movement in the UK.
This seems to be the function that art performs. It contributes a discourse, often more convincing because it is at one remove from direct political rhetoric, to a wider paradigm. In doing so it helps assure those who believe in that paradigm that they are in the right and may help to nudge those not firmly committed to remaining outside it. One could say the same about the 6 Billion Ways conference. Aside from an opportunity to network with progressives from various organisations, it provides a chance to immerse oneself more fully within a paradigm that defines itself as at odds with much of mainstream society. Opposition can be draining so it is beneficial to spend a day surrounded by posters, leaflets, discussions, speeches and activists who – whatever their ideological particulars – affirm by their presence the validity of your position. Tim Montgomery will probably never attend 6 Billion Ways, and would walk out unconvinced if he did. It is unlikely that the solution to rampant capitalism or environmental degradation will spring fully formed from a conference like this, no one expects it to. But by attending they affirm their participation in a process they believe will find one.
Last night’s protest against police tactics was attended by only a handful of protesters. Yet the police had thousands of officers on standby. Once again the Met has demonstrated its inability to keep track of the protest movement. A demonstration focusing on Alfie Meadows, the 20-year-old student who was operated on for bleeding on the brain after being struck with by a police baton, was unlikely to become violent. The display of numbers by the police is testament to how spooked the Met have been by the past few weeks. By now you would have expected that intelligence gathering about protests would have become a little more robust, unless the intention was an overwhelming display of force. Either case represents a misstep.
Perhaps the Met command was too busy preparing ill-chosen words for public statements to cast a critical eye over their intelligence.
Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson has said he cannot rule out asking Home Secretary Theresa May to ban further student marches. He can’t ban all demonstrations, but marches can be prohibited, giving police the power to stop demonstrators from moving on anywhere en masse.
The police have already effectively used this power by stopping students taking agreed routes through central London in previous marches, so a request for a ban seems extraneous. All Stephenson’s statement will do is garner more support for the student movement by reinforcing the perception that the Met is more concerned with crushing protest than facilitating it. In addition, the Met’s recent refusal to rule out the use of water cannon on the streets of London leads one to conclude they need to take a hard look at their PR team.
The fact is that many in the UK still see the student movement as unthinkingly violent and selfish, largely as a result of increasingly hysterical portrayals of the protests in the media. But every time Stephenson or anyone else in authority talks about taking unprecedented steps to suppress protest, he strengthens the student cause.
Tuesday’s demonstration saw two or three thousand protesters take to the streets despite sub-freezing conditions and thick snowfall. In the third student protest in under a month, demonstrators once again dispersed throughout central London, and the Met once again face charges of employing excessive measures in response to protest.
Eager not to lose momentum, organisers called this third protest less than a week since the previous, which saw hundreds of protesters kettled in Parliament Square for nine hours. While the serious violence and public disorder that marked last week’s demo was not repeated the day still resulted in the arrests of more than 150 students and school children following disturbances around Trafalgar Square.
The event was characterised by a widespread fear of kettling. The initial march down Whitehall broke into disarray when protesters dispersed fearing that the lines of police and portable barriers were intent on containing them before any disturbance occurred. The Met have subsequently denied this allegation which, if true could have broken the law governing the way police deals with protests. Kettling is understood to be a tactic of last resort to contain violence and disorder. If it becomes common practice for the police to employ it pre-emptively, it undermines their commitment to the facilitation of the democratic right to protest.
The return of heavy handed tactics at rallies and demonstrations has not gone unnoticed and questions must soon be asked as to the efficacy as well as the legitimacy of such actions. Whether or not the Met intended to kettle the students and school children today, their actions resulted in a mass of several thousand protesters splitting up and spreading out across a wide area of central London from Whitehall to the Strand, Victoria and even up to Holborn station. Police were, once again, left chasing after numerous groups with no clear idea of their location. Regardless of what actions the crowd subsequently committed, this cannot be seen as a public order victory.
The students however, have successfully maintained their momentum despite the weather. They have also succeeded in defining much of the cuts agenda and its opposition, and may have convinced Vince Cable to support his Lib Dem colleagues in abstaining from his own reforms. Occupations continue in universities around the country and demos took place in numerous other cities as well. Campaigns such as UKUncut are widening the scope of their actions and citing the student protests as their inspiration. All that remains to be seen is whether unions such as Unite can follow through with their undertaking to cooperate with the student protest in forging a wider resistance to the cuts agenda, or whether resistance will be left to teenagers and undergraduates.
The news that the Metropolitan Police have closed down Fitwatch – a site dedicated to keeping tabs on the their attempts to photograph pretty much everyone who turns up to protest – is fuelling concerns about anti-democratic police tactics. In a climate of social agitation where confrontation between protesters and police is increasingly likely, the loss of such a prominent monitor of police activity draws suspicion.
The premise for closing Fitwatch was advice given on the website to protesters at last Wednesday’s riots to change their appearance if they were concerned that the police may have footage of them. The site’s managers argued that this was common sense advice and no more significant than a lawyer advising their client to respond “no comment” during an interview.
The use of the Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) that have long been Fitwatch’s target has come under heavy criticism in recent years, as activists suspect that such teams were being deployed to intimidate protesters and inhibit action rather than to catch criminals. The Met is known to be dislike towards the site, which has published the faces, names and badge numbers of police officers it feels have behaved in an unacceptable or intimidating manner. In this context the suspicion that the Met are using the student’s riots as a pretext to remove a thorn in their side is hard to avoid.
These fears feed into a wider set of concerns over the behaviour of the Met and police forces around the UK. Aggressive policing of demonstrations including cases of injury and even death at the hands of officers who were not subsequently prosecuted is only the tip of an iceberg that includes deaths in custody, police harassment of photographers, the intimidating actions of the Forward Intelligence Team and ever present issues around stop and search powers.
There is a growing feeling that police in the UK have lost sight of their obligations to protect and enable the right to protest. While no one is yet arguing that we no longer live in a democracy, defenders of police incursions into liberty often forget that democracy is not the product of a whole range of freedoms, it is a term for those freedoms themselves. The loss of Fitwatch is not worrying simply because it enables the police to carry out serious incursions upon liberty in the future it is a serious incursion on liberty regardless of what the Met may do next.
PS – Within hours of the Met’s decision becoming public the advice that had prompted the clampdown had spread across the net. This was predictable enough; as the Trifigura / Carter Ruck debacle demonstrated nothing arouses interest on the Web like an attempt to withhold info. Fitwatch itself has also apparently managed to find a new host and get up and running again, though for how long remains unclear. The incident still remains a salutary lesson for all involved: for the Met on the unintended consequences of a heavy handed net presence and for the protest scene not to become complacent when it comes to the behaviour of our democratic guardians in blue.