The action, politics and policing of protest in London.


The Prosecution of Alfie Meadows is huge tactical misstep

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.

Rally Against Debt shouldn’t be underestimated despite poor turnout

Around 300 demonstrators gathered opposite Parliament today for a “Rally against Debt”. The protest is intended to encourage the government to cut public spending further and faster in the name of fiscal responsibility.  The event was largely organised by the Tax Payers Alliance, and featured their Director Mathew Sinclair as well as representatives from rightwing think tank The Institute for Economic Affairs, as well as UKIP leader Nigel Farrage.

Speeches were marked by a denial that any real cuts to public spending had occurred and a repeated insistence that public debt was an irresponsible burden upon future generations. Of course this is the same line followed by the government, however members of the public carried placards and banners which criticised the government for what they considered to be its overly lax fiscal plans. Of course far more ire was directed at the previous government for creating what one speaker called “a morbidly obese state”.

There is an obvious temptation to sneer at such low turnout – organisers had been expecting around 1,000 – and dismiss the group as cranks. Some of the attendees where clearly from the more eccentric end of the right-wing spectrum, one woman was handing out fliers calling for the end of all credit systems and a return to a purely cash based economy.  Some may also question the necessity of protest in support of an on-going process.

Nonetheless, the group – who have been styled in the press as a UK tea party – have the potential to offer the government an aura of credibility for its agenda. By providing vocal criticism from the right they provide the appearance of public pressure to which the government can then seem to be responding. The BBC has already devoted news time to covering the demonstration, for instance; an almost unprecedented move that would certainly not be extended for left-wing protests of a similar size. For this to be effective, they will require a more representative looking group than those assembled today of course, who were overwhelmingly white, and certainly appeared affluent.

Defending our right to protest is an urgent necessity

A range of activist groups, trades unions and MPs have called for an end to “political policing”. ‘Defend Our Right to Protest’ made the call in the wake of a series of violent clashes between police and protesters and particularly the pre-emptive arrests of people in fancy dress in the run up to the royal wedding.  Police tactics in the last few months – if not the last few years – have often been extremely violent, a trend they hinted at late last year, in dire warnings about their likely response to the cuts backlash. They have often also appeared deeply cynical and politically motivated. The arrest of the “Fortnum & Masons’ 140 and the charges brought against Alfie Meadows, who suffered brain damage after being attacked by police at a demonstration in December, are just two recent examples of this.

The actions of the police force come as a stark warning against complacency about the democratic credentials proudly proclaimed as the “British way of life”.  This is a way of life maintained by a noisy and active civil society rather than the passionate instincts of the establishment. Critics of the Met are often told to feel grateful that they do not live in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia where the police and security forces are given much freer reign to impose their authority according to their whim. Political expression is certainly freer in the UK than in these regimes, where there is little pretence that the police operate other than to protect the state against those citizens who wish to change it. What they seem to miss, is the fact that even to make such a comparison is an alarming sign of itself. The whole point about such boasting is that the UK prides itself upon its respect for freedoms of speech and expression; it should go without saying that it therefore has a better track record than the theocratic despotism of Saudi Arabia.

That the police are, comparatively, restrained in the exercise of their power is no justification for the increasing clamp down on our right to protest, or the increasingly open politicisation of police tactics. More importantly, the majority of the freedoms we do have were won and maintained through active and vocal protest from a variety of groups, chartists, suffragettes, feminists, trades unions and Brixton rioters rather than generous gifts from a benevolent state. Finally there is no absolute measure of democracy which a nation can either attain or not, democracy is the sum total of whole sweep of rights and freedoms, the right to protest being one of the most important, any incursion on these is a restriction of our democracy regardless how liberal the state may proclaim itself to be.

Pre-royal wedding raid on Heathrow camp makes little sense

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

Used with permission from Transition Heathrow

, 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.

Preemptive policing: royal weddings and the facade of national celebration

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.

In addition the three organisers of the “Zombie Wedding” which was to take place today, and feature a mock execution of Prince Andrew have all been arrested on a similar pretext.

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.

Police violence and political policing

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.

Court rules against Climate Camp kettle but kettling still legal

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.


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