Controversy still rages over police handling of G20 protesters. As an inquiry into policing of demonstrations is launched, Liberty’s Bridget Beale looks at how a vital part of democracy can be safeguarded
A strong, healthy democracy depends — at least in part — on its attitude towards protest. Without the right to challenge and dissent, how can a society call itself free and open? Recent events give pause for thought over how serious Britain is about protecting this most fundamental of freedoms.
First we had the G20 protests, where a passer-by with his hands in his pockets was assaulted from behind by an armoured policeman and died a short time later. The IPCC was slowly grinding into gear when footage emerged of a huge policeman back-handing a much smaller female protester across the face and then battoning her in the legs when she objected.
Liberty has long campaigned on the right to protest, and as we see it, these recent events pose very worrying questions about the culture and attitude of the police.
Were the individual officers involved in the G20 assaults members of the same unit? Were their identification numbers removed or obscured, as appears to be shown in the footage? What does this say about instructions on the ground that day – or at the very least, about their training for dealing with protesters?
The kindest stance is that these were two rogue officers who rose to provocation and lashed out. But the footage and eye-witness accounts don’t appear to back this view. More than a few protesters and bystanders have spoken of being struck by police without cause or warning.
They also complain about ‘kettling’ and the alleged unwillingness of officers to explain the powers they were acting under when they corralled and photographed those present.
In between the G20 incidents coming to light, there was a worrying development in Nottinghamshire when 114 climate protesters were pre-emptively arrested – allegedly on charges of conspiracy to commit criminal damage. As yet only the police have the full details in this case but we wonder whether the arrest of all 114 protesters was a truly necessary and proportionate response.
In the history of peaceful protest there will have been few demonstrations unmarred by one or two individuals bent on causing criminal damage or otherwise going too far. But this cannot be taken as an excuse for the wholesale arrest of everyone present. Once charges of ‘conspiracy’ are thrown into the mix it becomes a little too easy to arrest everyone in sight, bail them to a date in the future and — voila! — the protest is effectively shut down and a nuisance removed before it’s even begun.
Taking this in the round, are we looking at a cultural shift in the policing of peaceful protests? The words of the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, and his actions in swiftly suspending one of the G20 sergeants go some way towards allaying these fears. However the proof will be in the pudding – and this particular pudding is presently being baked by the IPCC.
A swift, effective and transparent investigation is what is now required. This fledgling watchdog has not got off to a good start but there is still time for it to show that lessons from the hopeless de Menezes inquiry have been learnt and to restore much needed public trust and confidence.