Thursday, 25 November 2010

Student Protests - Leaderless Doesn't Have To Mean Disorganised

It’s is entirely reasonable that students involved in yesterday’s protest on Whitehall are enraged about brutal police tactics, particularly the use of enforced ‘containment’ or kettling and the repeated baton-charges of young people. Simon Hardy of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts speaks for many when describing the actions of the Metropolitan Police as “absolutely outrageous".

But as well as quite rightly condemning yesterday’s oppressive police behaviour, we mustn’t forget it was only last year that the use of similar tactics caused the death of Ian Tomlinson, drew the same angry response from G20 protesters and led to a review of public order policing, Adapting to Protest, by Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Dennis O’Connor. At the time some saw this as a significant turning point, although O'Connor's review didn’t propose to abandon the use of kettling, only new guidance and better training. Now it seems that nothing has really changed. However, if we see yesterday’s police brutality completely in isolation, there’s a real danger that outrage over the policing of protests eventually becomes little more than an annual expression of frustrated impotence.

So why didn’t the supposed ‘reforms’ promised after the G20 protests in 2009 stop the aggressive policing we witnessed yesterday? There are two very different ways of explaining this. The first is to say that the police are essentially benign, have a difficult job but do their best to ‘facilitate’ protesters, so the blame must lie elsewhere. Before yesterday’s protest, the Green Party’s London Assembly member Jenny Jones argued on Liberal Conspiracy that the cause of police brutality is the provocation provided by “the people who have come along for a punch up”. She says:

For example, one of the reasons for the appalling policing of the happy, peaceful, singing, dancing G20 climate camp protesters who put up their tents in Bishopsgate last year is that they were dealing with police officers who had been through a hard time with less than peaceful demonstrators earlier in the day at a different location.

It’s an appalling argument, one that is riddled with holes. To begin with, placing the blame on a supposedly ‘violent minority’ makes a huge assumption that the police are either able or willing to make a distinction between violence and ‘civil disobedience’ – even though experience shows that confrontational tactics such as kettling lump everyone together and do not differentiate between those who are peaceful or belligerent. Indeed, they are a direct reason why crowds react with increasing hostility to their treatment by police officers. Moreover, it’s an argument that sets up an ill-defined boundary around what is ‘acceptable' protest, one that can be continually tightened and controlled by those with little interest in supporting the right to demonstrate.

The other, more logical explanation for the apparent failure of last year's public order review to stop police beating teenagers with batons yesterday is that the 'reforms' were always entirely meaningless – the police simply reacted to unexpected criticism last year by promising a new approach, knowing that memories are short and public opinion is fickle. Furthermore, the one thing that hasn’t changed is an underlying, historical fear within the ranks of the police of ‘the mob’ – unruly, leaderless and difficult to contain – and that their role has never really shifted from suppressing protest rather than ‘facilitating’ it.

This explains their favoured form of ‘acceptable’ demonstration, along a prearranged route with organisers, stewards and perhaps a rally, and why anything outside of this kind of ‘self-kettled’ protest is always likely to lead to a violent response. However, the problem now facing senior officers, as I argued last year, is that “many protesters became disillusioned with this kind of sterile ‘stroll through the streets’ after the massive anti-war demonstrations failed to have any impact on the government”. Yesterday’s student demonstrations around the country were an obvious example of this - organised using social media, they had little involvement from trade unions, the National Union of Students or other political organisations.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that aggressive police tactics are not just “absolutely outrageous" – they are entirely to be expected. On the one hand, this means that anyone who really does want to “come along for a punch up” understands that they’ll almost certainly lose a pitched battle against one of the most powerful instruments of the state, face the prospect of prosecution and possibly a long prison sentence.

But it also means that a new generation of protesters who want to demonstrate creatively, no matter how peacefully or disobediently, should have no illusions about the police’s role – they intend to stop you at all costs, Direct action therefore involves preparation and planning, knowing what your legal rights are, setting up affinity groups and learning ways to avoid tactics like kettling: much of which has already been tried and tested over countless protests.

Unruly, leaderless and difficult to contain may well be the future of protest – but that doesn’t have to mean disorganised.

See the Activists Legal Project and The SchNews Guide to Public Order Situations for more information on taking part in protest with your eyes open.

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