Trouble at climate camp

Freelance photographer Marc Vallée is not having the best of times at Climate Camp in Blackheath, London. Following his complaints last week about the conditions placed on media by camp organisers, Vallée, along with fellow freelancer Jonathan Warren, has today claimed to have been assaulted by camp members while trying to photgraph a confrontation between them and members of the Socialist Workers Party. The photographers claim that one individual attempted to take Vallée’s camera, and that Warren, attempting to intervene, was kicked in the stomach.

In an open letter to the Climate Camp, Warren and Vallée said:

We ask the man who assaulted us to come forward and apologise and that the camps organisers unequivocally condemn his actions. We would also ask the Camp’s organisers to seriously consider their responsibility for the negative atmosphere they have created within their movement towards journalists.

The media are not your enemy, but nor should we be your implicit friends either. We are independent and will report all sides of the story truthfully without fear or favour and that should be what you want of us too.

Climate Camp criticised

Photojournalist Marc Vallée has been criticising Climate Camp’s handling saying on his blog he was forced to wear a “media badge”, and that his request for a copy of the code of conduct for journalists was refused. He argued that the camp’s policy towards journalists was comparable to the police using anti-terrorism laws to harass journalists. Read more here

Kingsnorth: the last word?

Now that the missing report on last summer’s Kingsnorth climate camp has finally been published, it is becoming clear why Kent police were so keen to bury it. From the force’s perspective, the report is both revealing and embarrassing. But the story of how it was hidden for four months raises new questions about the ability and willingness of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to challenge the police.

I described in May how a report by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) about the controversial police tactics at the Kingsnorth demonstration had been airbrushed from history. After it was delivered, Kent police commissioned a new report from South Yorkshire police. Both the police and the Home Office answered enquiries about the first report by reference to the second one. For a while it looked as if the original report would remain buried, as I wrongly predicted last week, after Kent police told me that they were only publishing the second one. But — perhaps because of the publicity or perhaps under pressure from the Home Office — the force has now published both documents.

While both reports were strongly critical of Kent police, the NPIA report also contains evidence of a cover-up. The document’s properties show that it was last amended on 5 March. This suggests that Kent police already had the final version of the report when they refused to hand it to the IPCC, claiming that it was unfinished.

On 12 March, the Liberal Democrats published a report on Kingsnorth, produced by the Climate Camp legal team. Kent police then referred this to the IPCC, whose regional commissioner, Mike Franklin, and its regional director then met with Kent’s chief constable Michael Fuller to discuss it. According to the IPCC, Franklin was aware of the NPIA report and asked the police to bring it to the meeting. But, it says, “Kent police told the Commissioner that they had asked for additional work to be done on the report and that they would share it with him when it was complete”. Earlier this month, the IPCC told me that its position remained the same and that Franklin “expects to see the report when it is completed”.

Following their meeting, the IPCC and Kent police released near simultaneous statements stating that the issues in the Liberal Democrat report were mainly outside the IPCC’s jurisdiction and that it had been agreed that Kent police would ask the NPIA to look into the issues it raised. Neither organisation referred to the existing NPIA report. Despite knowing that the NPIA had already produced a report that he had not seen, Franklin declared that “the NPIA can play an important role in reviewing the operation”.

But Kent police’s press release on the same day provides evidence that the NPIA had already declined to carry out the new review. It stated that it had asked the NPIA to carry it out and that this would be undertaken by a senior officer from another force. Although Kent police continued to portray the new review as an NPIA process, the NPIA’s role amounted to little more than saying that someone else — South Yorkshire police — should do it. The published report merely states that it was commissioned by Kent police “in consultation with” the NPIA.

So it appears that Kent police misled the IPCC not only about the status of the original report but about the extent of the NPIA’s involvement in the new review. As Liberal Democrat Norman Baker said last week, the new review was actually the police investigating themselves. Baker has now called for the IPCC to carry out a new review.

A few days after declining to follow up the Liberal Democrat report, the IPCC was criticised for being too ready to accept the Metropolitan Police account of the circumstances surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson at April’s G20 protests.

So what were Kent police trying to hide by suppressing the first report? It is a mixture of criticism and praise of the force’s handling of the protest. The criticism included comments from junior officers that “the senior command of the force did not fully engage in their understanding and realisation” of what such a huge operation involved. It was also revealed that the operation’s “Gold Commander”, Kent’s assistant chief constable Allyn Thomas, was not appropriately qualified for the role.

But, more significantly, the report was critical of Kent police’s use of stop and search powers at a time that the force was trying to fight off claim for a judicial review of this very issue. It notes that the “Silver Commander… made it clear that officers would use their power under Section 1 Police and Criminal Evidence Act to carry out any searching. This instruction was interpreted by officers that they were required to carry Section 1 searches on everyone.”

A member of the Climate Camp legal team has told me that these comments are very significant in the context of the judicial review and would have been at the time. They undermine in the force’s claim that the Section 1 powers were used not as a blanket policy but on the particular circumstances of 8,000 individual cases. The report itself comments that “this approach to search does raise issues surrounding the lawfulness of this practice”.

There is another significant revelation in the report, but one that says as much about the mindset of the NPIA as that of Kent police. One of the things that “went well” was that “the inclusion of a roads policing strategy as part of the overall policing plan delivered a very effective disruptive tactic towards protesters”. The revelation that the force sought to disrupt “protestors” is at odds with its claim that one of its main objectives was to facilitate lawful protest.

The report explains that police “very effectively deployed Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) Interceptor Teams along the strategic road network leading to the Camp which worked extremely well”. This seems to confirm fears that ANPR will be used to track and harass protestors. Climate Camp say that police harassment of drivers trying to get themselves, other demonstrators, food supplies and camping equipment to the protest reached unprecedented levels at Kingsnorth.

In defence of its comments, the NPIA has told me that it believes in people’s right to peaceful protest. It says: “ANPR is a valuable operational tool which gives police early warning of people who are likely to disrupt peaceful protests. It enables the police to redirect resources where they are most needed so that protests can pass off safely and peacefully for both the public and protestors.”

Three weeks after Kent police received the NPIA report, Thomas made the same distinction between peaceful protestors and those with criminal intent, acknowledging that “most of those attending were clearly well intentioned and law abiding”. But both reports show that the police largely failed to make such a distinction. As the South Yorkshire police report said of the blanket use of stop and search powers, the “post event reality” was different from the theory. All protestors were subject to intrusive search, harassment and disruptive tactics. Whether by accident or design, sometimes those most likely to disrupt peaceful protest are the police themselves.

To hell with good intentions

So who exactly is in charge here? Reading the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) into the policing of protest (a follow up to an earlier report), you sometimes wonder.

Recently the police have not exactly covered themselves with glory. The policing of the G20 protests — which involved “kettling” protesters and then keeping them contained in tight areas for hours and hours — was a mess, as anyone who was there can report, a provocative, incendiary mess. If you wanted to come up with a way to convince peaceful protesters that the police are heavy-handed brutes who have no respect for anyone’s rights but their own, and who are really all out for a good ruck, it would be pretty hard to top this.

The JCHR is clearly not happy. Its earlier report clearly called for police to pay more attention to human rights issues, and suggested that the Northern Ireland model, where “policing means protecting human rights” is the one we should be looking to. And this report says it all over again, but slightly more plaintively. The committee doesn’t want a wholesale rewrite of the law, but it does think some small changes could preserve the sacred right to peaceful protest.

But what powers does the committee have to enforce this? The government and the minister of policing seem disinclined to leap off their bums and follow up. At one point during the inquiry which preceded this report, the minister even said, bemusingly, that he is not sure that police should be legally required to show their badge numbers because “you have to ask yourself, if you have got a very, very small number of officers who are determined to obscure their number, even if it is a legislative framework, whether it would make much difference to them”. It’s worrying that someone working in the Home Office should not understand the basic point of a legal requirement, which would mean that officers not displaying it could be made to. Surely this is ABC level?

The government also, it emerges, cannot force the police to undergo human rights training. In fact it does not appear that the government can do very much at all.

Now much as one applauds the good and balanced work of the JCHR, one cannot help but wonder where it is going to get us. Anyone observing the actions of the police this year can easily infer that they are working with the aim of scaring off as many protesters as possible — the recent closing down of the Big Green Gathering certainly enforces this hypothesis.

The government may murmur politely to the JCHR that it absolutely support its work, that it’s marvellous dear, marvellous; couldn’t agree more. But unless they actually come out and say very, very loudly that peaceful protest is a human right, that the police must calm down immediately and that there are going to be smacked wrists all round if this heavy-handedness carries on, I’m afraid that the police will continue to feel that they have a mandate. They may well feel that actually this government is happy for them to keep on quashing these pesky protesters and keeping them as quiet as possible. And all the good intentions of the JCHR will count for very little.

Bibi van der Zee is the author of Rebel Rebel – The Protester’s Handbook