In the midst of inevitable right-wing congratulation, and left-wing declarations of defiance it is worth reflecting briefly on the extent to which Occupy has really suffered from the High Court’s decision yesterday (Wednesday 18 January 2012) to grant the City of London Corporation the right to evict the protesters camped outside St Paul’s. In order to do so, let us ignore the potential success or failure of an appeal and consider a counter-factual. Should Occupy have been granted permission to stay at outside St. Paul’s what would have been the result?
Having secured their residency against the immediate threat of eviction it would then have become incumbent upon Occupy to define a more positive program. As we have already said, it is all very well to stage a protest and issue slogans. However, without the threat of eviction – which made the camp itself a protest, statement and cause all in one – they would have been required to start working towards something more definite.
Potentially they would have succeeded. However, there is little in their actions or statements so far to imply that a serious and committed program would be easily forthcoming. Nor is this intended as a damning judgement. Till now the role of occupy has not been to provide a sustained and analytic critique, or a detailed roadmap for reform, but to express outrage.
Having considered this, it is perhaps to the movement’s advantage that their position as a cause célèbre has been legally established by the High Court. Occupy’s strength was never likely to be as a source of coherent political discourse. As a locus of spontaneous and energising action however it has the potential to throw up and motivate future movements, activists and even – perhaps ironically – leaders.
Of course this is not to say that a future eviction will, or should be welcomed by occupy protesters. It will be potentially violent; it may sweep away a standing rebuke to established – and many would say – compromised political structures and it reconfirms once again the subservience of the legal system to the concerns of capital and property. Nonetheless, it will provide the protest with a national platform again, and save them from having to answer some very difficult and not hugely productive questions.
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.
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.
Police and press are failing to discriminate between those up for violence and protesters who just wanted to do more than march.
Yesterday’s March for the Alternative, organised by the TUC, will inevitably be remembered for the pitched battles in Trafalgar Square. Images of chaosand the resulting desolation around Nelson’s column meant the cameras were unlikely to focus on anything else. Much of the press will follow the police and government line that is always wheeled out when things turn nasty. A peaceful demonstration was spoiled by a small minority. There was a huge contrast between events on the march and rally which attracted up to 500,000 people and the flashpoints around central London: violence and sit-ins, occupations and criminal damage, but a simple dichotomy is misleading.
For once, when the press refer to the instigators of the trouble as anarchists, they are probably right. For perhaps the first time since the G20, escalation was initiated by a recognizable group of organised anarchists – known as the Black Bloc. Around 300 people, dressed for the most part in the cameraman’s dream of black hoodies with covered faces, split off from the main march at around one PM. Once at Topshop, they began pelting the building, and press, security and police with rocks, paint grenades and smoke bombs. At the same time UKUNcut activists were staging coordinated sit-ins, but such peaceful direct action is unlikely to ever attract the same coverage as masked men throwing things. It was this Black Bloc, rather than UKUncut, who would form the core of the violence throughout the rest of the day.
Yet this group were only a few hundred strong at any one point. What mainstream coverage is failing to pick up on is the large contingent of peaceful protesters, mainly young, who decided not to merely follow the path to Hyde Park for an orderly rally. Instead they decided to occupy Oxford Circus, stage strange artistic displays, support those occupying buildings such as Fortnum and Masons on Picadilly, and generally cause disruption without violence.
Sometime after seven PM, when Piccadilly had calmed down and Trafalgar Square had yet to blow up, the police began arresting the around 100 UKUncut protesters who had remained occupying Fortnum and Masons. They are thought to have been arrested for aggravated trespass (fair enough) but also criminal damage. Reports from inside say one display was accidentally knocked over – and given UKUncut’s record of peaceful protest it seems unlikely any malicious damage was caused. Yet these arrests will likely end up being a significant proportion of the total punished for their role in yesterday’s chaos. This shows a failure to discriminate between those peacefully making a point, and those making a point of being violent.
There were people amongst the crowds yesterday that were up for a fight from the start, and who revelled in launching attacks on the police and causing often indiscriminate damage to property. Many of these people will never face arrest because they could so easily disappear into the crowd. In contrast, those who openly made their point by occupying a high-profile building, and waiting there until the police arrived, are currently sitting in cells across London (there were so many the police used a coach to transport them).
There were thousands yesterday who didn’t believe merely marching sufficient to oppose government policies they fear will wreak havoc on UK society. However a simple narrative will class all those who took action in central London as a violent minority spoiling it for the rest. In fact, many are using time-honoured peaceful methods of protest that are respectable, and many more simply felt that by marching where they weren’t meant to would show slightly more defiance. There were hundreds who gathered in Trafalgar Square in the evening for a party preliminary to a 24 hour sleep-in, with no intention of engaging in a riot. These people shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as those who went hoping for violence, but it seems unlikely that the after image of riots in Trafalgar Square will allow such a careful analysis.
Saturday the 26th is the date of the long awaited Trade Unions Council (TUC) “March for an Alternative”. Projected turn out is well over 100,000 and more optimistic union organisers have talked about more than 1m protesters taking to the streets. Given recent conflict between police and demonstrators at protests over the last few months, there is unsurprisingly much speculation over whether we will see similar scenes next Saturday. Yet the TUC’s preparation for the protest suggests greater concern for boosting its bargaining power than mounting a wide-ranging challenge to the government.
Despite the tough talk from many of the unions, the TUC has shown it wants to do its best to avoid any disorder. The council has agreed not merely to cooperate with the police during the demonstration, but actively to assist them in controlling protesters. The police will have input into who will be considered eligible to steward the demo, and union stewards will share information – including opening their walkie-talkies up to the police monitors. If any stewards witness unauthorised protest, sit downs etc, they are to immediately inform the police who have promised a tough response.
Given these stunning concessions that the TUC has granted the police, it seems likely that the intention is not merely to facilitate an expression of public dissatisfaction with government policy. Rather, it is focused on increasing its bargaining power by proving mass support, without causing much upset. Spontaneous and unauthorised actions outside of the TUC’s control simply do not fit this plan.
The TUC’s motivation may be noble, and may view the approach as merely pragmatic strategy to limit the impact of unpopular government policy. But it is also an example of the organisation’s inclination to impose centralised control that drove so many activists to abandon trade unions, and the organised left, in favour of less hierarchical, if often chaotic, forms of protest. It is not likely to go down well with either the student protesters, or the members of UKUncut, who have so far put the unions to shame with their dedication to making their point on the streets.