Originally published at Tilting at Windmills
16 February 2009
This is not the piece I wanted to write! I wanted to write something short and sharp. This piece is neither of those.
I wanted to write a simple piece about the new powers the police have today been given. This piece isn’t that either.
For there were simply too many elements; too much of a scattered jigsaw that had to be assembled for the larger picture to become clear.
I wouldn’t blame you if your attention wandered halfway through, but I hope you’ll find it worthwhile to keep at it to the very end; although I have to forewarn you, this is a long article!
And I think I’m more disturbed now, having written it, than I was when I started.
– mike langridge
16 February 2009
Suggest to the ordinary “man in the street” the notion that this country’s well along the path to becoming a police state and likely as not he’ll laugh at you.
Shut ITT – A mass demo against Brighton’s weapons factory, EDO-MBM/ITT.
Wednesday 15th October ’08
Ask the ordinary “man in the street” what role he believes the police play in society and likely as not he’ll answer something along the lines of “maintaining law and order”.
Put to him the notion that this country’s well along the path to becoming a police state and likely as not he’ll laugh at the suggestion.
The following’s a fairly standard definition of a police state:
– from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary
Or perhaps you’d prefer this one, from Wikipedia:
The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional republic.”
Well, obviously we don’t move from being a relatively free and unrestricted society into a regime of repressive controls overnight. Its a process of transition, and a gradual one at that.
So where would we be likely to observe this process occurring first? Most likely over the “freedom to express or communicate political or other views”.
Why? Because it seems to me that would be the most obvious and necessary first step in the development of a politically repressive regime.
Okay, let’s put the issue of a police state per se onto the back burner for the moment and move on to consider something else.
Freedom to Protest
The Greenwash Guerillas at the Business Design Centre, London. 16 July 2008
That something else being, well, not too far removed from the foregoing… the “freedom to express or communicate political or other views”.
All too often significant sections of the Great British Public find themselves in fundamental disagreement with government policy, or find themselves deeply concerned about a serious social or environmental issue that has failed to engage the population as a whole.
The “accepted” means of registering such disagreement, with the obvious and clear intention of seeking to effect some sort of change, has traditionally been through letters to the Press, or to one’s Member of Parliament, or even to a Government Minister.
All too often however such efforts result in, at best, a dismissive response or, not unusually, a patronising nothing at all.
Ramp up the action a bit then, and we have signatures collected on a petition and delivered to the relevant authority. Effectiveness? Well, if one’s lucky there’ll be a mention in the media, followed by… frequently a patronising nothing at all.
Which is where we move into the grand British tradition of a protest or demonstration; customarily a march, sometimes a picket or other static “demo”… a form of expression much favoured by those who feel themselves ignored, overlooked, or sidelined in the prevailing political climate.
In exceptional cases, or where the cause rouses sufficiently deep passions and where no noticeable effect has been achieved by lesser means, we enter the rather more contentious realm of “direct action”. Which can take many forms, but generally entails some form of civil disobedience or even acts that may fall foul of the law…though not necessarily of the ideal of Justice!
That said though, even direct action has a worthy tradition and a certain sense of legitimacy; I’m reminded, for example, of the Suffragettes. Indeed, the very institution of Parliament that we so affectionately regard as our own has its roots in, albeit rather extreme, direct action! Such is the nature of protest in this country.
Were such freedom to protest curtailed, what other recourse would the public have when they perceive themselves as largely disenfranchised by what is often seen as a mockery of a genuinely representative political system, that our “leaders” still glibly refer to as “democracy”?
Yet that freedom to protest, so lovingly and unthinkingly embraced by all manner of political activists and advocates of social causes has, over the past few years, come under increasing threat.
The most obvious and public example of this was the rendering illegal of protests and demonstrations within a specified distance of the Houses of Parliament absent police approval!
And since when, one might ask, is it necessary to secure police approval of a demonstration in a supposedly “free” society? Does that not already constitute, in essence, one of the elements of a repressive regime in which the police can arbitrarily dictate, without consultation and without accountability, which protests are considered “acceptable” (and would that be “politically acceptable” perchance?) to the State?
However, there are other far more insidious trends at work that threaten our freedom to protest in a much more fundamental way than having to seek police permission before demonstrating outside Parliament. And though insidious, the effects of those trends are becoming increasingly apparent.
Its still only February and already this year seems to have witnessed a larger number of protests than a comparable period in previous years… all of which, in my role as freelance photographer/photojournalist specialising in covering protests and demonstrations (which is, if you like, my own personal form of “activism”), I somehow appear to have missed.
And quite a few of those protests “occupations” and “sit-ins” (many of them in response to another attack by Israel on the population of Gaza) have seen quite significant, and sometimes violent, clashes with the police.
That’s item two for the back burner.
Stop the War rally and march, London, 8th October 2007
To my mind something of a seachange occurred in the direction our society was moving following the long-to-be-remembered events of 9/11.
For me personally it certainly represented a watershed in my interests and activities, causing me to become much more socially aware and marking my re-engagement with, for want of a better phrase, the “protest movement” via the massively supported, and ultimately ignored, antiwar campaign.
Lets not dwell overmuch on the incredible dishonesty of some of the world’s leaders (principally those of the US and the UK) that brought about the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and all the problems that has since caused.
Nor let us dwell too much on the fact that those who were truly culpable for that naked (and arguably illegal) aggression have still not been properly called to account. So much for the Rule of Law.
But parallel with those events other things were occurring that will have repercussions for us all, probably much further-reaching than the fate that befell Iraq.
For 9/11 also seemed to trigger a spate of new legislation that for convenience can be bulked together under the term “Anti-Terrorism Laws”. Undoubtedly a knee-jerk reaction (initially at least) to the tragedy that occurred in America. And undoubtedly ill-conceived and poorly worded (for its stated purpose at least). But now law nevertheless.
However, I’m not entirely certain that it was all a knee-jerk reaction, nor indeed that much of it hadn’t been some years in the brewing. And there can be no doubt that more recent additions and amendments to the “Anti-Terrorism Laws” are no longer just knee-jerk reactions to that terrible event.
One of the things that has always puzzled me about this whole raft of new legislation is why we needed it anyway. Surely any terrorist act is also, per se, a criminal act, and could just as well be dealt with by the criminal law that was existing pre-9/11?
Far as I can recollect, we seemed to deal adequately enough using existing criminal law with the “terrorist threat” posed by the IRA… didn’t we?
But there is a difference between the two “sets” of laws. Moreover, a difference of fundamental importance, and one that has major implications for the sort of future we may all have to look forward to.
Throughout most, if not all, of these new “Anti-Terrorism Laws” (whether they be called by that name or not) there appears to be a common thread… the erosion of what have come to be regarded as basic “human rights” and “civil liberties”, and a shifting of the emphasis away from the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” and toward “guilty by default unless the accused can prove their innocence”.
Back burner again, and let’s reach for the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
The Misuse of “Anti-Terror” Legislation
The CAAT March to Custom House. Disarm DSEi protest, London 2007
Who remembers Walter Wolfgang? The OAP who was kicked out of a Labour Party conference for heckling (heckling, be it noted… a time-honoured tradition in British politics) and then refused re-entry on the basis of powers invoked under Section 44 of… guess what? Yep… the Prevention of Terrorism Act!
In the long-to-be-cherished phrase of a mate of mine… WTF?!!!
September 2005 that was. See here for a write-up of the ridiculous incident, more suited to a Tom Sharpe novel than the real world.
But by then I was already beginning to suspect that the police were using (or should that be misusing?) all their lovely shiny new “anti-terrorist” powers in entirely inappropriate situations.
And why does Section 44 of the Terrorism Act ring bells I wonder? Ah yes, I remember… just mull this over from The Guardian of 2003:
Mr Justice Maurice Kay said the application for judicial review from the campaign group Liberty raised a ‘serious issue’ which should be heard as soon as possible after October 1. Liberty brought the case against the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and the home secretary, David Blunkett, on behalf of Kevin Gillan, a student from Sheffield. He was stopped by police outside the Defence Systems and Equipment International exhibition in London under the Terrorism Act 2000.”
There was also a bit about it in, amongst other papers, The Telegraph.
Now I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there’s a world of difference between someone strapping explosives on themself and wandering into a crowded public place, and someone peacefully protesting against an arms fair (that is, an exhibition where one can see on display – and indeed buy if one’s “credentials” are “right”, which is to say, approved by the State – all the things manufactured to kill people with).
Then there was this, from greatreporter.com, in August 2005…
Five protestors are arrested in a vigil outside Parliament, as the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill (SOCPB) is enforced for the first time in London”
It seems to me there’s a world of difference between someone loading bombs into a car and then leaving said vehicle outside of, say, the BBC, and someone participating in an “unauthorised” though peaceful demonstration outside Parliament. A demonstration, moreover, that was
Nor is the above simply cherry-picking from a limited number of instances.
Its becoming increasingly common (in my experience at least) to find the police using some form or another of this body of new “Anti-Terrorism Laws” (some of which masquerade under another name, as for example the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act that, so the just-quoted article claims, was “designed to tackle terrorism and organised crime”) when policing protests, particularly where there is a likelihood of some form of direct action occurring.
Consider, as another example, the statement that:
which appeared in The Guardian in August 2007.
Armed police using anti-terrorism powers to protect the profits of the airlines and ensure airline customers weren’t inconvenienced… by a bunch of non-violent protesters? Non-violent protesters moreover who in many cases were entire families with a bunch of kids in tow. Oh come on, get real please.
It seems to me that such wanton disregard for the requirement of an appropriate police response in such situations is a misuse (if not an actual abuse) of the powers the police have been granted.
Generally speaking protesters as a body are not violent criminals and thugs.
That there may be the odd one or two borderline psychotic individuals intent on using violence as a means of furthering their “cause” I wouldn’t deny, but to use that as an excuse for a blanket strategy of treating all protesters as potential criminals… nay, as potential extremists… is totally absurd.
To say nothing of the expense and consequent wastefulness of such a vast commitment of police resources. Resources, moreover, that could be more usefully employed in the more traditional areas of policing… like catching muggers, burglars, paedophiles, rapists and murderers for example.
But in the years that I’ve been observing the “protest movement”, I have yet to encounter any protester intending or deliberately planning acts of violence against the person. And certainly nothing that could even remotely qualify as a classic “act of terrorism” in the terms most sensible people understand.
Indeed, when witnessing situations where a group of unarmed and defenceless folk, of all ages and very often in the flimsiest of clothes, are hemmed in and violently set about by an organised body of booted, helmeted, shield- and baton-wielding thugs (I’m sorry, but no other word really qualifies) then I’m fairly clear in my mind who the real terrorists are.
It is no glib exaggeration to say that a line of fully-kitted riot police can strike real terror into the hearts of those confronting such a sight; particularly those for whom protest is not a customary means of expression.
It goes without saying of course that a principal function of a unit of fully-kitted riot police is to intimidate.
Which raises the rather interesting question of why the State should deem it desirable to intimidate those simply seeking to “express or communicate political or other views”.
As I said, your average protester isn’t a violent criminal or thug; your average protester is generally someone with a social conscience who is deeply troubled by what they perceive as an important social, political, or environmental issue.
Yet the police seem constitutionally incapable of making such a distinction.
Incapable? Or deliberately obtuse?
For one effect of the prevailing police attitude toward protesters, one effect of the widespread and persistent misuse of “Anti-Terrorism Laws” against protesters, is to criminalise protesters in the minds of the wider public.
An effect for which the mainstream media may be thanked, as the real facts of a reported case, facts that would put everything squarely into context, seldom get an airing. A situation of which the police must be well aware, and almost certainly use to their advantage.
Okay, so now the “Anti-Terrorism Laws” become one more item for the back burner (which now seems to be getting a tad overcrowded).
The Criminalising of Protest
Climate Camp 2008. Monday 4th August. the Battle for the Rear Gate… aka the Battle for the Red Van… aka the Battle for the allegedly “abandoned vehicles”, whose owners were actually onsite
It appears the police are as accomplished at “spin” as any duplicitous politician.
Let me briefly pass the baton on to someone much more capable than I of illustrating a classic example of police spin… George Monbiot writing in the Guardian in December 2008, “Otter-spotting and birdwatching: the dark heart of the eco-terrorist peril“, in which he explains that:
NETCU aren’t of course the only element of the police capable of such trickery.
The place: Kingsnorth, in Kent. The scene: last year’s Climate Camp. And police claiming to have found a weapons cache “hidden in trees and undergrowth around the site”. No hard evidence offered of course that actually connects this alleged “find” of “an assortment of knives, a pointed throwing star, shields and chains” to the protesters.
We also have police raiding the campsite and seizing a variety of items (which included perfectly normal kitchen utensils… only to be expected on a site that anticipated catering for upwards of 1500 people for a week or so), the whole of which (these and the alleged “find”) were then, by a bit of verbal trickery, obfuscation, and a conveniently laid-on (for the benefit of the media) “display”, used to suggest that “if you look at the equipment we have seized, it is clear the plan was to use these items for criminal purposes”, in the words of Assistant Chief Constable Gary Beautridge.
How’s that for a neat bit of legerdemain then?
Naturally the campers were quick to respond…
The protesters also pointed out that other items confiscated included a board game and wax crayons. Isabelle Michel, one of the campaigners on the site, said: ‘Yesterday we were disappointed with the police, now we are disgusted.'”
But the damage had already been done. The “find” and accompanying police interpretation had already been reported in the mainstream media (The Independent, the BBC etc) thus worming its way into the consciousness of the public at large. The majority of whom, having little or no first-hand knowledge of Climate Camp protesters, will just swallow the whole lot hook, line, and sinker. After all, the police always tell the truth… don’t they?
So in the minds of the Great British Public protesters (and particularly environmental protesters) become just another bunch of criminals or, even worse (shriek, horror), terrorists! And of course we need all those lovely new laws to protect us from them… don’t we?
(The fact that all those lovely new laws succeed where the “real” terrorists dismally failed… in increasingly curtailing our freedoms… is neither here nor there of course!)
Nor are such misrepresentations by the police a new phenomenon. Even back in 1999 they were accusing protesters of “acting in a quasi terrorist mode“!
So, in this process of the criminalisation of protest, on the one hand we have the police twisting, distorting, and manipulating the “facts” to create a false impression of protesters (and no doubt throwing in the occasional downright untruth to boot).
And on the other hand we have all the new legislation being brought in that is misused by the police to obstruct legitimate protest (contrary to their oft-touted claim of seeking to “facilitate lawful protest”), and intimidate legitimate protesters. New legislation, moreover, that on the face of it was never intended for such application.
So have the police simply been handed, unasked, these new laws by a naive Government that, in the rarified atmosphere of Parliament, well removed from the real world, innocently believes they will only be used in the quest to waylay the potential suicide bomber and suchlike? Or have the police actively sought such new laws?
I am reminded of something I encountered a while ago. A sentence so rich in irony that I felt compelled to adopt it as the tagline for my blog…
It actually comes from an article in The Guardian of November 2006 wherein it was reported that…
the full quote being…
Ostensibly this lobbying of the Attorney General by the police (a rather questionable act in itself) was prompted by concerns about the alleged growing threat of “Islamic extremists” and the incitement to racial hatred… with the implied connection to terrorist acts of course (to say nothing of that ridiculously worded offence of “glorifying terrorism”).
But given the police track record for consistently misusing the “Anti-Terrorism Laws” I’m not giving prizes for guessing how such new powers against demonstrations etc would actually be used.
And whilst we’re considering whether or not the police have actively sought new or increased powers, lets not forget all that furore over the extended period of detention for suspected “terrorists”.
Quoting from the Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence:
The whole controversy over an extended detention period was generally discussed, as I seem to recollect, exclusively in the context of the type of individual that would likely find themselves ending up in Guantanamo Bay.
Er… no… let’s not get into the injustices of that particular establishment, or the “extraordinary rendition” techniques that appeared to help populate it and its kind. The point being, it was discussed in the context of the so-called “Jihadist”, the “Islamist terrorist”, the budding suicide bomber.
I honestly cannot recollect one single occasion where it was openly discussed in the context of how it might be applied against the demonstrator, the protester, the political activist.
And yet I know of nothing that specifically excludes that possibility; a crucial consideration given the well-documented police penchant for confusing non-violent protesters with terrorists.
By re-branding the protester an “extremist” or “domestic terrorist”, which is of course one of the consequences of using (misusing?) the “Anti-Terrorism Laws” against such protesters, then all the pieces are in place to clamp down on virtually any form of dissent.
Let me just remind you of part of that Wikipedia definition:
I hinted earlier on that not all of the new “Anti-Terrorism Laws” were a “knee-jerk reaction” to 9/11, and that much of it may have been “some years in the brewing”.
Having come this far in the discussion it begins to seem that maybe 9/11 didn’t represent quite the seachange I’d first suggested. More like a catalyst for the escalation of certain trends that were already well on the way to becoming entrenched.
In December 1994 The Independent was reporting that:
whilst the previous month The Independent had reported that new guidelines revealed:
There was speculation at the time that these changing priorities (at least for the police Special Branch) were prompted by the ending of the Cold War and the winding down of the IRA’s campaigns of violence.
As I read it then, putting it bluntly Special Branch (and by extension all other interested parties within the police and other security services) were looking for a new remit else they’d all be sitting around twiddling their thumbs for lack of anything better to do. And of course, budgets would go down the plughole.
So has all this gradual build-up (of the increasing criminalising of protesters firstly by police-fed propaganda and then by the application of a raft of”Anti-Terrorism Laws” that are deliberately misused to ensnare an ever-widening section of the population, thereby retrospectively “vindicating” the earlier propaganda) been prompted by nothing other than a handful of probable knighthood-seekers high in the police pecking order with one eye on their pension and the other on grabbing as much Government money (our money, your money!) as they can?
Or is there some more sinister agenda in play?
I don’t know. I must leave you to come to your own conclusions, taking into account the pile of things we’ve heaped up on the back burner so far. But before you do, our story is not yet complete.
So far we’ve been thinking about the, for want of a better term, “legal framework” within which the police function, how it has expanded, and how the police have exploited that expansion to vindicate their misrepresentation of protesters and dissidents as “extremists” and “terrorists”, albeit of the domestic variety.
We’ve also briefly touched upon whether this expansion of police powers has occurred as a result of poorly conceived legislation on the part of the Government that the police are then required to enforce, or at the behest of the police themselves. A not insignificant point, I would add.
Nor should we forget that the targetting of protesters etc is not necessarily an end in itself. It could as easily be the first step in a process of transition whereby an environment is created that ultimately renders everybody totally subjugated by the State, and without the means to express any form of dissent.
But that’s only half the equation. The “kid glove” if you like. What about the “iron fist”… such an indispensable element in any police state?
Climate Camp 2007. BAA headquarters was surrounded by riot cops. BAA had closed the offices for the duration of the blockade (result!) and there were rumours that yet more cops were ensconced inside, just waiting for someone to break in.
I’ve already made one brief mention of the Riot Police… or “Public Order Units” as they seem to prefer to be called. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, behaves like a duck, then as far as I’m concerned… etc.
And we all know what I mean by the term, don’t we? So, for convenience if nothing else, I shall continue to refer to them as such.
Anyway, it seems that Riot Police have, over the past couple of years or so, become an increasingly common sight at protests… a trend that I find, to say the least, disturbing.
Especially as most incidents involving their deployment (most incidents I’ve witnessed at least) appear to be triggered by some act or provocation on the part of the police themselves!
What I find truly objectionable, bordering on the obscene in fact, is that the police should even consider it necessary to deploy such units against what are for the most part non-violent (if somewhat noisy… occasionally!) protesters.
Thus it was with considerable interest that I discovered, purely by chance, a series of articles being posted on Indymedia that delve into the genesis of this particularly nasty and… dare I say it?… “unBritish” form of policing.
They are introduced in the following terms:
It’s long overdue that more information about their plans was put in the public domain, so in a series of articles over the next 11 weeks, it will be.”
At time of writing five such articles have been posted:
each of which provides fascinating (indeed, almost mandatory) reading. Indeed, I would urge everyone to read all the articles very carefully, but holding in mind the caveat that I cannot vouch for their source.
However, assuming them to be credible, most interesting to me so far has been the second of these articles which reveals, amongst many other things, how we came to have our Riot Police in their present form.
Apparently this development was not welcomed by all senior serving police officers at the time, but grew out of a “new approach [that] was adopted by members of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) at their private annual conference in Preston” in September 1981.
The article goes on to say:
The article further explains how “ACPO, unlike the police trades unions, [has] no basis whatsoever in statute” but that their influence has become decisive in the formulation of policies.
And it was ACPO that determined upon the change in public order policing from the more traditional form to that of something resembling a paramilitary organisation.
Most notably, throughout this transition
We also discover from reading these articles that the present style of policing for public order situations (that’s to say, our beloved Riot Police) is in fact a foreign import! Equipment, tactics, etc modelled on the Hong Kong style of policing. A colonial style of policing that was clearly intended to subjugate entire communities and populations.
Not, one would have thought, totally appropriate for policing tactics on mainland Britain where the police service so often claim they are “policing by public consent” (a completely meaningless statement of course, particularly so in light of the lack of consultation with elected representatives that has so clearly occurred. Or rather, not occurred! And, furthermore, particularly irritating in its disingenuousness).
And it is into the hands of this rogue police service that the Government irresponsibly entrusts ever-increasing draconian powers that, through either haste, carelessness, or deliberate intent, are so poorly worded as to permit their use in all sorts of situations other than those represented to us, the Great British Public, as being their purpose.
Um… did I just say “rogue” police service? Oops, clearly a slip of the tongue and obviously far too strong a word to use in relation to our wonderful British Police Force.
But one does sometimes get the sense that maybe they’re running a tad out of control. For some unaccountable reason the name Juan Carlos Menezes has slipped into my mind, and recollections of testimony given at an inquiry where numerous eye-witness accounts differed significantly from police testimony.
However, the police that “mistakenly” shot an innocent man in the head… numerous times… weren’t Riot Police so aren’t strictly relevant to this discussion.
What is relevant to this discussion though is how those Riot Police (or more accurately, “ordinary” police that become Riot Police by donning the appropriate gear) behave when they are deployed.
Fortunately I haven’t seen that many clashes with the Riot Police “in the flesh” so to speak. Sure I’ve watched numerous video clips of such clashes, as indeed would anyone with an interest in such matters, but that’s not quite the same as actually being there and, for want of a better phrase, “experiencing the atmosphere”.
But of the half-dozen or so I have witnessed I have always been left with the same impression… that these Riot Police (or their commanding officers) are totally incapable of assessing a public order situation correctly, that they’re unnecessarily brutal and frequently resort to unwarranted violence.
(This of course is to say nothing of the dictatorial attitude of arrogance they all, to a man (or woman!) appear to adopt… even when not directly involved in a conflict situation.)
The key to all of this, so it seems to me, is their inability to distinguish between a protest/demonstration and some other public order situation, like for example a crowd of football hooligans run amok, or a genuine riot where extreme street violence becomes the order of the day and self-evidently the police need to rapidly regain control to minimise, at the very least, the risk of injury to innocents inadvertently caught up in the rioting.
And incidentally, this latter introduces another interesting and revealing feature of protests as distinct from riots etc… in protests, even at the height of conflicts with the police, it is virtually never the case that protesters resort to deliberately inflicting harm on members of the public uninvolved in the protest.
As I’ve said before, almost ad nauseum, protesters are not by nature criminals!
And this inability to accurately distinguish between different types of public order situation works against the police in every imaginable way, not just on the ground at the time, but also in terms of storing up horrendous potential problems for the future.
This touches upon a remark I find myself keep having to repeat…
Protesters are not criminals!
Sure, the police and the Government (sometimes with the connivance of some of the mainstream media) may seek to criminalise them either in misrepresenting their activities, or in applying inappropriate legislation, or even in introducing new legislation to criminalise activities traditionally regarded in this country as freedoms or rights, but that cannot alter the fundamental truth that protesters are not muggers, they’re not thieves, they’re not gangsters or thugs; they’re not even mindless vandals and hooligans.
They are passionately driven (idealistic, one might almost say) people with a cause. A cause moreover which they genuinely believe to be right and just.
(I put it in those specific terms not to imply that they are mistaken in the rightness or justness of a particular cause, but to acknowledge that not everyone would necessarily agree with the rightness or justness of a given cause. Such is one of the prerogatives enjoyed by those living in a free society.)
And the more such idealistically-motivated people are opposed, are bullied, are victimised and are downtrodden, the more hardened their resolve tends to become! And the more their persecutors are perceived to be the willing agents of that against which they protest.
It seems to me there’s the possibility of a very dangerous escalation here… dangerous for all concerned.
For it seems to me that if such “people with a cause” continue to be targetted as common criminals, if they continue to be brutalised and subjected to uncalled-for violence on the part of State agencies then there is a very real risk that the so-far groundless accusations of extremism and domestic terrorism levelled against them may begin to take on the hue of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which no-one wants, least of all the protesters themselves.
And by ranging against idealistic and passionate protesters seeking remedy for an unresolved cause or issue the likes of the Riot Police, kitted out in paramilitary gear with all the accoutrements of violent confrontation about their person, those self-same Riot Police may well have to bear the brunt of all the pent-up rage and frustrations that accrue from living in a society perceived to be uncaring or unjust.
For those Riot Police will no longer have the face of the friendly “Bobby on the Beat”, will no longer be seen as a person per se, but as a faceless, anonymous symbol of a greater evil.
And this can only be exacerbated if resort is made by these same Riot Police to the use of face masks and removal of identifying numbers (as seems to be a beginning trend), for then they truly do become faceless and anonymous.
Perhaps that is a far too melodramatic and pessimistic assessment of what the future may hold.
And it rests upon a couple of key assumptions or “givens”…
(a) that the actual number of people likely to be driven to protest (in whatever cause) will increase significantly;
(b) that those involved in protest of one form or another will begin to develop sophisticated tactics to counter the tactics employed against them; and
(c) that hitherto largely peaceful and non-violent protesters may begin to believe that perhaps their commitment to a preferred policy of non-violence simply isn’t effective.
The Shape of Protest to Come?
(a) Let’s look at the first “given” very briefly, and in the light of two highly topical issues… Climate Change and the Economy.
Either of these has the potential for being the “Issue of our Times”.
Either of these has the potential for impacting upon society to such an extent that our very way of life could be fundamentally and permanently changed, and that of our children, and of our childrens’ children.
Moreover, the probability is that this fundamental change to our way of life would not be generally perceived as a positive one, and could easily escalate to detrimentally impact the very infrastructures of society, such that we witness a serious breakdown in many of the normal services and facilities we have come to take for granted.
It doesn’t require stretching the imagination too much to see how such a breakdown could lead to a dramatic increase in petty crime… to muggings, burglaries, theft, looting etc.
But it could also lead to massive civil unrest, that could so easily tip over into real and violent rioting.
However, such riots might not be “typical” in the sense of being a more extreme form of something like football hooliganism.
It seems to me rather that they would bear a much closer relationship to the hitherto peaceful protest, where people come together united in a common cause and with a belief in the justness of that cause.
The difference being though that the “protesters” would be far more “fired up” and, key to my entire reasoning, probably a helluva lot more of them, simply by virtue of the fact that these “impactful events” won’t just be affecting a few hundred, or even a few thousand, people.
We’re talking here about an entire nation! Indeed, not just one nation, but a similar situation manifesting in virtually every industrialised nation of the world!
And for a crowd such as I visualise to suddenly be confronted by massed ranks of Riot Police would, I fear, be something like throwing a match into a big box of fireworks.
Melodramatic? Unduly pessimistic? Over-reaction on my part? Hmm. Well, maybe… or maybe not.
(c) Strictly speaking I suppose I should next deal with the second “given”… but I won’t. For reasons that will eventually become clear.
So, is it possible that our hitherto largely peaceful protesters, with a majority committed to the idea of non-violence, could be persuaded or provoked into employing rather less peaceful tactics?
(This of course is putting aside the odd incident that occasionally happens whereby a protester may spontaneously and unthinkingly lash out in response to pain needlessly inflicted by the so-called “forces of law & order”).
Its needful that I should make a couple of observations first… “disclaimers” if you like.
The “policy of non-violence” that customarily seems to be adopted at most protests and demonstrations (in the UK at least), even those where “direct action” seems to be on the cards, is by no means a clear-cut one. Within activist circles there appears to be a huge spectrum of opinion about the “non-violence ethic” and thus it isn’t wise to assume that everyone is equally committed to the same extent, or even in the same manner.
This is complicated by a certain lack of clarity over what “non-violence” actually means. Clearly to inflict pain or injury upon someone is an act of violence. But is it, for example, an act of violence to set about the fabric of a military aircraft with a sledgehammer? Is it an act of violence to lock doors together thereby preventing access to, for example, a banking establishment? Is it an act of violence to pour paint-stripper over vehicles parked in the precincts of a research facility that engages in experimentation upon living animals? Is it an act of violence to harass someone, which harassment may actually consist of little other than repeatedly urging them to leave the employ of an unethical company?
If thought through carefully there are no easy answers to these questions, and as there are many such questions so there are many different answers within activist circles.
Given such wide-ranging opinions, that any degree of concensus is reached prior to some protest or other is in fact little short of miraculous!
Interestingly though, such discussions are not especially uncommon in activist circles. And in fact, in a bizarre sort of way, it is testimony to the essential integrity and finely-honed consciences of activists as a whole that they should, fairly frequently, even consider such questions. Would that “mainstream society” were to emulate their example in this respect!
And for my second observation I have to say that, throughout my years of interest in the “protest movement” I have never yet personally encountered, or even heard about, one single instance where violence against the person (any person) has been advocated, planned, or intended!
It seems, certainly of the many people that I have met within activist circles, that the very idea of such intent would be anathema to them. And this despite the many provocations to which they are frequently subjected!
So, having got those two observations out the way, is it at all conceivable that what are largely peaceful and non-violent protesters could be transformed into something that the Riot Police, for once justifiably, should be wary of?
Under normal circumstances I would unhesitatingly answer in the negative. But these are not normal times! And, were either of the issues described as a “given” at (a) to become a reality then, human nature being what it is, its certainly conceivable that the boundaries of normal self-restraint could become, albeit involuntarily, lowered.
Moreover, I do genuinely believe that if the trend to deploy Riot Police in inappropriate situations continues unabated, and if the behaviour of those Riot Police continues down the path its beginning to clear for itself, then violent confrontations such as we have witnessed recently in Greece are much more likely to occur here in Britain, particularly if the cause for which a given body of protesters is assembled is sufficiently arousing of the passions.
And under such circumstances it may well prove that the sympathy of the onlooking Great British Public will veer away from that of the police and toward that of the protesters.
One spinoff from which would of course be, at last, the final giving the lie to the mythical claim that the police act “by public consent”.
The alien image of the fully-kitted-out Riot Police, setting about their nefarious and violent business, does not sit easily with the Great British Public, and I suspect its only a matter of time before the Riot Police themselves become a cause for protest… again, similar to what has already been witnessed in Greece.
(b) And so finally we come to what I regard as the most interesting of the three “givens”: will those involved in protest of one form or another begin to develop sophisticated tactics to counter the tactics employed against them?
To some extent this already happens insofar as the savvy protester will probably employ a variety of techniques to evade the unwelcome attentions of the police; will probably be able to anticipate, with a fair degree of accuracy, which particular tactical moves are about to be employed by the police in the progress of a protest situation; and will probably understand how best to extricate themselves from difficult situations.
But none of this is quite what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of pre-planned strategies to use in the event of specified “developments”; of somewhat better organisation than is currently seen in many activist circles; of a more effective/imaginative use of resources; and, both finally and crucially, the development of effective defensive tactics.
For any of this to come about requires the cultivation of a certain “way of thinking”… a way of thinking that does not seem to be particularly prevalent at the moment, although there are some indications that the whole “protest movement” is slowly beginning to move in that direction.
In fact I have in mind one specific development that has occurred over the past couple of years.
Sack Parliament Protest, London 2006
The fitwatch initiative, approach, call it what you will, originally grew out of a few ideas kicked around by a bunch of people at the Earth First gathering in 2007 (or was it 2006? I forget now). In any event, all these people each for their own reasons had become completely exasperated by the behaviour of a certain type of police unit at protests and demonstrations, and decided it was time to respond in some manner or another.
A variety of responses or actions were discussed, ranging from the fairly innocuous photographing of said police units to tactics that were somewhat more confrontational.
The units in question are the police Forward Intelligence Teams, known by the acronym FIT and thus it was appropriate that “fitwatching” came to be the name associated with those protesters wishing to respond to the intrusive surveillance conducted by these units.
I was especially interested in this initiative as I too had been utterly disgusted by the behaviour of these police units that I had witnessed at the anti-G8 protests in Scotland in 2005.
Consequently I wholeheartedly embraced the notion of “fitwatching” although opting for the least confrontational tactic of photographically documenting their activities at protests etc (alongside my documenting the protests themselves, which is of course my reason for being present in the first place).
This was a deliberate decision on my part in deference to the fact that my role in attending protests is to observe and document rather than to participate.
There is much more detailed information on both FIT and fitwatching on the fitwatch blog and I’ve already described in rather more detail my own reasons for participating on my fitwatching journal here at Tilting at Windmills.
In this context clearly I’ve had an intense interest in how the fitwatch initiative has developed, how it has fed back into the psyche of the protesters themselves, and how the police FIT have responded to this response of the protesters.
The most notable thing I’ve observed has been the gradual adoption of fitwatching by increasingly large numbers of protesters until a point has been reached where it now appears to be incredibly difficult for FIT to perform their function as effectively as perhaps they would wish.
In fact, if one accepts that the overt function of FIT was not their primary purpose at all then it is no exaggeration to say that FIT have been almost totally thwarted in their real purpose!
And that real purpose? Intimidation, pure and simple. Or “deterrence” if you prefer to use police terminology, which obviously has to be “acceptable” and “politically correct”.
I’ve referred to this aspect in the following terms on my fitwatch journal:
A “political” rather than a “legitimate law & order” agenda for, as I remarked earlier, it “raises the rather interesting question of why the State should deem it desirable to intimidate those simply seeking to “express or communicate political or other views”… unless it be for purely political purposes.
Just to clarify this, read now the words of Sgt Gerry Parker of Essex Police’s Mobile Support Division’s Special Operations on the deployment of FIT in his county:
– from Essex Police’s journal “The Law“, May 2006
That was said in the context of community policing and the prevention of anti-social behaviour, but it does rather tend to give the game away.
And just to underline the point that overt police surveillance of protesters (and even potential protesters would you believe?) has nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining law and order but everything to do with intimidation and the compiling of dossiers on suspected dissidents (echoes of the KGB there mayhap?), let me refer you to an experience I had in Nottingham early last year, recounted here.
So, how do I arrive at the conclusion, given that the real function of FIT is to intimidate and thereby deter people from participating in legitimate protest, that the police FIT have been entirely thwarted in their aim?
Consider this (from the fitwatch blog)
Forward Intelligence Teams on the Gaza march on Saturday faced their toughest opposition to date, as people from the march enthusiastically joined Fitwatch activists in blocking police cameras.
As the FIT tried to film the march, they were soon challenged by Fitwatch activists. As the marchers saw what was happening more and more of them came over to support, and before long two FIT coppers and their photographer ended up stranded helplessly on a wall, surrounded by a sea of placards all being held at camera height. They were completely unable to operate, and when they missed getting footage of a group of Asian lads they were after, the anger showed. When, at the head of the march, another FIT team were frustrated by Fitwatchers, the police lost patience. They stopped what had been a very quiet, orderly demo, brought in the TSG, and sent snatch squads in for known Fitwatch activists, sparking a whole load of fuss and even more arrests.”
Clearly if this is the way protesters are beginning to react to the presence of FIT then self-evidently said protesters are no longer intimidated by said FIT.
Thus is would seem that by the police employing this incredibly nasty and intrusive form of surveillance in such a blatant (one might almost say arrogant) manner they have somewhat overreached themselves and scored an own goal.
More worrying for them though must be the recognition that, if protesters are no longer intimidated by one type of police unit, then they are less likely to be intimidated by others.
Its not difficult to draw some rather suggestive conclusions from this, and begin to visualise the way future protests may begin to shape up when confrontations are triggered by ill-judged police action.
Of course, those pesky cheeky little protesters can’t be allowed to get away with this, for its obviously undermining the authority of the police and there’s no way that can be allowed to happen else where the vision of a completely submissive population?
Photographers and the Media
Sack Parliament Protest, London 2006
Now I’m not saying that the actions and successes of fitwatchers, and the fact that subsequently and thereby other photographers and photojournalists have also become alerted to FIT and… er… seen “fit” to start documenting their activities have had anything to do with it, but…
Today, 16th February 2009, yet another new piece of legislation comes into force… Section 75 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. (Oh yes, I forgot to say, another new piece of “Anti-Terrorist” legislation… and we know all about them by now, don’t we?).
I have no intention of either describing or analysing this unbelievable addition to the police armoury. That’s already been done far more competently than I could in numerous places on the Web. As a good overview though one could do a lot worse than read the photojournalist Marc Valeé’s blog here and here.
Be it sufficient for me just to say how easy it would be for the police, in line with what appears to have become their accepted practise, to misuse this particular piece of legislation in order to prevent the photographic or video recording of virtually any incident that may occur at a protest or demonstration.
More specifically, any incident where police officers happen to overstep the mark somewhat.
There is of course the other whole issue of yet another curtailment of our freedoms, this time the freedom to take photographs in a public place, but it seems to me that the former is in fact the issue that should cause greater concern.
For in effect it gives the police virtual carte blanche to do what the hell they like with practically zero chance of such “incidents” ever coming before the public gaze via the media, mainstream or otherwise.
Much as we may despise the occasional unfettered excesses of a free Press, and much as we may castigate the mainstream Media for being overly biased in some situations, it still remains one of the bulwarks of an open society, exposing dishonesty and corruption in the political arena, and ensuring accountability by the agencies of the State.
And, following on from my earlier comment, the Press are all too frequently the only means available to the protester whereby police brutality and police disregard of the law can be brought before the public gaze. It can only ever be a totalitarian State that requires a gagged and blindfolded Press!
And by “Press” I embrace here not just the reporters and commentators of the mainstream Media, but also the army of freelance photojournalists and the newly-arrived but increasingly significant movement of “citizen journalism”. Significant because all too often they have begun to represent virtually the only source of “on the ground” news reportage of events that, for one reason or another, are disallowed by the agendas of the mainstream Media.
Although the Establishment has still to recognise the important role the citizen journalist fills, many of them nevertheless treat their role seriously and professionally, even equipping themselves with “proper” Press credentials and the like.
But all of that will be to no avail if the police are allowed to exercise in their usual fashion the invoking of this new piece of legislation.
Couple this development with incidents such as that which occurred with Indymedia (arguably the leading grassroots alternative news platform in this country) earlier in the year (see here and here) and it becomes very difficult to not form the impression that the State is now, in addition to stifling dissent, also seeking to stifle the free Press.
Would not this be totally consistent with the coming into being of a police state?
But before reaching a final determination on that question, there are still a few other random things that may be worth considering, some of which I shall touch upon incredibly briefly.
Last but not least…
Climate Camp, Yorkshire 2006
The introduction of compulsory ID cards This seems to be one of those issues that’s on, then off, then on, then off again. But I think its a fairly safe prediction to say that at some stage these will become a reality in one form or another. Though they may never again be described as “compulsory” its likely that, for all intents and purposes, that’s precisely what they’ll be. Easy enough to achieve… by the simple expedient of making life in 21st century Britain virtually unliveable without them!
And there seems to be much else in the pipeline, from monitoring of users’ Web activity right through to recording movements of everyone in and out of the country.
It seems to me that we can forget the much-referred-to “1984” of George Orwell. Think instead in terms of a nightmarish Kafkaesque scenario.
Someone please tell me we’re not more, far more, than halfway toward becoming a police state. Someone who isn’t a politician or a policeman. In other words, someone I can respect and trust.
Britain 2009 by mike langridge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License
© 2009 Mike Langridge
Published by fotdpublishing.org.uk