Securing the right to protest
16 Apr 2009

g20_protest_policeControversy 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.

2 responses to “Securing the right to protest”

  1. Zdzislaw says:

    Police violence against demonstrators in London 1 April 2009

    Two cases have been highlighted of people being assaulted by police: Ian Tomlinson because he died and Nicola Fisher because she is a woman – and in both cases video evidence shows very clearly what happened.

    Police authorities will try to pass off Tomlinson and Fisher as isolated cases using the ‘rotten apples in the barrel’ argument. However this approach deliberately deflects attention from the wide scale use of police violence.

    The truth is that tens (if not hundreds) of demonstrators, who were neither violent nor vandalising property, were beaten with truncheons, riot shield, or were kicked or punched by police officers. Officers removed their identification number en masse precisely so they could assault with impunity.

    Many of the victims were people who were corralled for hours into street concentration pens (the so-called kettling) who could not even leave the demonstration if they wished.

    After several hours without food, water or toilet facilities demonstrators were allowed out the kettles, only if they agreed to identify themselves and be photographed. No legal authority for this exists; yet neither police management nor the government cares.

    It is impossible not to draw the conclusion that police tactics were to punish demonstrators, not to police the demonstration. And the government is quite content, it would seem, to let that stand.

    For the government Lord West has already congratulated the police on their operation. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is anything but independent, has thus got the political support to procrastinate and to exonerate the police whenever it can. We need not hold our breath for them to finish their deliberations.

    Indeed Tomlinson and Fischer need justice in their individual cases. But what really needs to happen is that large numbers of these police thugs need prosecuting and should be dismissed from the police force – and those senior officers in charge of these police on April 1st should be put on trial for conspiracy to assault.

    The fact that nothing like this will happen shows just how far Britain is from being a liberal-democratic society governed by the rule of law.

  2. Sandy says:

    A member of the public was swiftly dealt with by the courts for his RBS infringement. Not so the police actions, these are slowly dissolved away while videos are cut and edited to reveal little evidence of brutality. Clearly the style of behaviour of TSG is that without a uniform these thugs would be arrested for grievous bodily harm and manslaughter with hours. Not this lamentable delay while the MET spin doctors invent a solution. If this was Paris the French would have turned to arms. Not so these courageous young people who raised their arms to prove they were peaceful.