Make legal protest difficult, frightening and degrading:
The main focus of recent protests has been kettling by the police, with police ready to kettle at almost any excuse, or as a default response to any protest.
This omnipresence of police kettles means that protesters need to be young, energetic, and physically able to take care of themselves in kettles, as they are very dangerous places to be. The involvement in protest of people outside these groups is drastically curtailed. The kettle becomes a means to intimidate people away from protest by large numbers of police, designed to keep people from turning up to protest, or ensuring that they leave for fear of being detained.
The unpredictability of police violence serves as another strong deterrent to protest, with the cases of Alfie Meadows serving as an exemplar, and the case of Ian Tomlinson showing how death can be the result of even incidental involvement in a protest. Recent police actions have involved plainclothes snatch squads and “something you would have expected from the former Soviet Union”, and many at Millbank and during the student protests were hit with batons while not being violent in any way.
The arrest process itself is both traumatic and designed to be, requiring mental preparation to face loss of liberty together with potential humiliation and degradation, with police going so far as to place a 15 year old girl in a paper suit. Arrest is a process intended not only to detain the arrestee, but to put them through an unpleasant experience and to stop repetition. The more people the police can arrest with any potential justification, the more are intimidated away from protest. Bail conditions are often also set to stop further protest. UK Uncut arrestees have been advised by their solicitors to take part in no further activism while awaiting increasingly delayed trials, including not to tweet or blog about political matters.
Journalists are also intimidated away by using the threat of arrest, and “citizen journalists” asked by “official” journalists to upload footage have been arrested.
Networking is prevented by taking control of occupied space, through police raids on squatted homes and community centres, and the eviction of university anti-cuts occupations.
Control is taken over online space, with many activist facebook groups shut down for what has now revealed to be linked to “reasons of national security”.
Even with these measures the Evening Standard (31st March) among others has argued for Twitter to be shut down on protest days, and for more anti-protest laws to prevent peaceful and legal protest.
Through these actions the formation of alternative narratives is prevented at source, with speakers being silenced or their forums for debate being taken away.
While individual police officers are often friendly, rational and reasonable, there exist many career incentives for police officers to go with the “spirit” rather than the letter of orders from above, and rather than the letter of the law. This occurs whether they believe in the “old fashioned policing” embraced gleefully by some officers or not. A “canteen culture” exists within the police which valedicts aggressive, “old fashioned” – often meaning prejudiced and threatening – and gung-ho attitudes and practices. Ex-officers often speak about police collusion in giving statements and evidence, which, due to the extreme unreliability of human memory, is a necessary measure to secure any defended convictions at all. Statements which varied so much as human memories of dramatic circumstances do would, without exception, lead to cases uniformly being thrown out. Though police themselves have called for wearable cameras, the technology to store such data continues to be out of reach.
Collusion has only grown slightly more circumspect since the 20th century, and has the side effect of massively reinforcing the police side of contested circumstances. No matter the truth of events, police loyalties must lie with the other officers and bad practices cannot be challenged in a culture which would punish not being one of the team with, at best, ending any chance of promotion throughout the entire career of that officer. One narrative, forged by agreement in this environment, takes on the stamp of “official version of events” and is rarely, if ever challenged.
Once in custody, under whatever circumstances, treatment there, and thus how distressing and punitive an experience it is, varies drastically according to race and class, with it being enough to be “well spoken”, confident and assertive to get better treatment. Institutional and frequently individual police racism makes treatment in custody drastically different for anyone not white.
Police interactions with protesters are problematised from the start due to the collective blaming of all protesters for any violence. Analysis that steps beyond this scapegoats a minority of protesters, with a narrative of violent protesters “hijacking” demonstrations – a word evoking terrorism. As before, police press releases are often reported unquestioned in both left and right wing media.
After release, whether or not charges are brought, the disruptive effects of arrest on life continue. The seizure of mobile ‘phones together with computers takes away essential tools for conducting daily life and work. Some of those arrested must make their way home over long distances in distinctive jumpsuits and without telephones, maximising the practical and emotionally disruptive effects.
The punitive, forcibly controlling nature of this police behaviour can best be seen in light of the radically different treatment of “political” and non-political events. When 13,000 people took part in a flashmob, closing down Liverpool Street station and massively disrupting commuters, only two arrests were made for public order offences. When 20 people picnicked in Soho Square on the day of the Royal Wedding, they were told that “flashmob”was threatening and 18th century, and were forced to leave the square in small groups under threat of arrest. Some were subject to “pre-arrests”, including a group arrested while drinking tea in Starbucks.
The disruptive effects of even a single unfounded arrest on long-term life and career prospects should not be underestimated, with entry to other countries rendered impossible or substantially more difficult, and, with CRB checks becoming massively more common, is a factor that would put many employers off a candidate.
In addition to using the threat of arrest, the police also use Forward Intelligence Teams for various activities including surveillance and keeping of intelligence on protesters never arrested, to harass activists and to make targeted arrests, and to follow and keep note of journalists, and to make police records on political activists which result in consequent harassment including frequent vehicle stops and stop-and-searches.
Police publication of “mugshots” of wanted protesters are widely picked up by the media, a technique which also serves to fix the image of all protesters as a series of mugshots, that of lawbreakers. Police arrest numbers also give an impression of criminality, when often activists are released without charge. Tabloids often go after activists with mugshots, private detectives and personal attacks, printing columns that bear striking similarities to police “spotter” cards.
The Met police’s tactics for suppressing dissent are so effective that they have recently sent trainers to repressive Bahrain as well as to Saudi Arabia (see Private Eye, issues passim), where being gay or belonging to a political party are illegal. While the UK police are not murderous in the same way as police in repressive Arab regimes, there are similarities in tactics. Egyptian activists have commented with shock on how violent the UK police are. Before the recent Egyptian revolution, protest was illegal in Egypt.
All of this together not only acts as a huge deterrent to protest but naturalises police violence and blames protesters collectively for all violence. Police involved at Stokescroft stated that “if you were involved in this disorder in any way – and there were more than 400 people that were there – then when we identify you, we will arrest you”. While the photographs on the police site make all of those people look like criminals, so do police photos make the many innocent people featured on spotter cards, and so indeed do the many profiles of activists in tabloid newspapers.
Because this broad-based negative treatment only happens to those engaged in protest, the forcefulness of this suppression becomes something alien to those outside the event. The minority voice stands without emotional support or corroborative experience by the majority, and is easily dismissed.