Plastic bullets, police, protest and the press

Several reports yesterday and today suggest that police will have baton rounds “available” to them at the student demonstration planned for 9 November.

This has led to some outrage. The Guardian got this absurd quote from Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones:

Any officer that shoots a student with a baton round will have to answer to the whole of London. How did we come to this? An unpopular government pushing ahead with policies that are all pain and no gain, relying on police armed with plastic bullets to deal with young people who complain about it all. The prospect of the police shooting at unarmed demonstrators with any kind of bullet is frankly appalling, un-British and reminiscent of scenes currently being used by murderous dictatorships in the Middle East.

This is a bizarre and wrongheaded comparison. To suggest that the possibility of baton rounds being used on protesters in London is somehow the same as the fact of tank shells being fired at protesters in Homs is insulting to people standing against genuine tyranny, as opposed to an “unpopular government”.

Then there is the idea that plastic bullets are somehow “un-British”, which will be news to the people of Northern Ireland, both the ones who identify as British and those who don’t.

Meanwhile, Chavs author Owen Jones has tweeted that the police are using “threats about rubber bullets” in an attempt to “intimidate protesters”. Jones fails to identify what exactly the “threat” is.

In fact, if one examines the language of the Metropolitan Police statement, what we are dealing with is a contingency rather than a threat. This from the BBC:

In a statement, Scotland Yard said rubber bullets – also known as baton rounds – were “carried by a small number of trained officers”, none of whom would be patrolling the route of the march.

“This tactic requires pre-authority, and would take time to deploy, and is one of a range of tactics we have had available for public order, and not used, in the past.”

The story seems to have first emerged on London radio station LBC yesterday. But it is really not a story at all, or at least not a development. The Metropolitan Police have always had the capacity to use rubber bullets, and chosen not to do so.

If it is the case that an LBC reporter contacted the police to ask them if plastic bullets were part of the police’s arsenal to deal with disturbance, it would have been wrong of the police to deny this was the case. But this is very, very different from saying they would be used, and indeed counterintuitive to Met tactics on protest. Plastic bullets are not very useful for containment, which is the Metropolitan Police’s current method of dealing with protesters. Containment (including “kettling”) involves close quarters engagement with protesters, circumstances in which, again, the use of plastic bullets would be absurd (and absurdly dangerous to all parties).

Perhaps the police should be clearer on their tactics and arsenal, but those who claim to be on the side of the protesters should be careful not to create unnecessary tension.