At the beginning of the month, the Independent reported that Liberty (the former National Council for Civil Liberties) had been asked by Scotland Yard and the TUC to provide legal observers for the forthcoming anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March.
The news raised a few eyebrows amongst experienced protest watchers. Not only is this a role that Liberty has little recent practice, having abandoned street-level work years ago in favour of parliamentary lobbying, but the paper claimed the NGO had agreed to provide some observers who would “watch from the Met's operations centre”. Quite how they would manage to maintain their independence in such circumstances is unclear, but we now know that Liberty does not have the promised “200 legally-qualified volunteers” and is trying to recruit around 100 law students to take on this role on 26 March.
In an “external opportunity for students” e-mail, Liberty says:
The independence of legal observers from the police is critical for their safety and credibility. That’s why casually repeating the Met’s common refrain that violence is the result of a “tiny minority” who are “unconnected” with a protest – rather than, say, an inevitable result of brutal and oppressive policing – is deeply worrying.
Liberty was founded in 1934 in response to police brutality against hunger marchers. One of the first actions of our founder members was to “maintain a vigilant observation” of a march in February of that year.
77 years on and we are seeing an upsurge in protest as people respond to the Coalition Government’s austerity measures. Recent demonstrations have seen the police respond to the threat of disorder with some controversial tactics, particularly “kettling”. Liberty opposes the use of kettling. But we also appreciate that the police sometimes have to deal with people – often a tiny minority unconnected to the protest’s organisers – intent on causing trouble.
Moreover, Liberty’s e-mail goes on to say that volunteers “will need to give unbiased evidence of what [they] witnessed, regardless of whether bad behaviour is alleged against a police officer, demonstrator or other member of the public”. This is equally alarming. The role of a legal observer is not to simply act as a bystander with a notebook but is specifically political: to monitor the treatment of legitimate protesters by a state institution with sweeping powers to deny basic liberties in the name of maintaining order.
Any suggestion that observers may also monitor ‘bad behaviour’ by demonstrators increases the risk that they’ll be seen as an integral part of the police operation (more so if anyone at Liberty is foolish enough to involve officers from the Met’s CO11 Public Order Operational Command Unit in a planned morning briefing for observers on 26 March). Considering that Liberty is recruiting people who, in the majority, are likely to have little experience of monitoring demonstrations, this is bordering on outright irresponsibility.
All of which suggests that Liberty doesn’t know what it is getting itself into and that the Met, keen to cosmetically repair some of its tarnished reputation for brutality at demonstrations, has far more to gain from the NGO’s involvement. Certainly none of the veteran legal observers I know would make statements like those in Liberty’s e-mail. But then none would ever be allowed within a mile of the inside of a police operational centre – and I mean that in a good way.