Sunday, 31 July 2011

Report Your Local Anarchist

I doubt many people have heard of Project Griffin. It is a joint initiative between the City of London Police and the Metropolitan Police, set up in 2004 and based at the City Police's HQ, which has spread its network to police forces around the country and seeks to "advise and familiarise managers, security officers and employees of large public and private sector organisations across the capital on security, counter-terrorism and crime prevention issues".

Every week, Chief Inspector Nick Smith and his team at the 'Westminster Counter Terrorism Focus Desk', one of the Project Griffin projects, send out a briefing to businesses and this week's edition [PDF] includes the extraordinary advice above. Leaving aside the rather limited definition of 'anarchism', the suggestion that "any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local Police" is another example of the attempted criminalisation of ideas.

For the time being, holding anarchist sympathies is not a crime - although presumably any gossip, however dubious and ill-informed, will be passed on by borough-level SO15 Counter Terrorism Liaison Officers to the feverish data collectors at the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit. Are the Metropolitan Police simply starting to run low on 'Islamists' to keep tabs or are we seeing a shift towards the creation of a new amorphous, imaginary bogeyman?

Hat-tip: @willcommon

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

One Year To Go To Olympics - Some Unfinished Business

Exactly one year before the London 2012 opening ceremony, local people in east London have reminded Olympic organisers busy congratulating themselves today on preparations for the Games that there remains one piece of important unfinished business.

This morning, papers seeking a judicial review of the Home Office’s botched consultation on amending a 123-year old law protecting Wanstead Flats, the proposed site of a massive police operations base during the Olympics, were filed in the High Court. The Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Corporation have also been visited and served with notice of the judicial review.

It will come as little surprise that the people serving papers to the Metropolitan Police today were refused entry to even the foyer at Scotland Yard and were made to stand outside and wait for a representative of the Met's legal department to take a copy of the claim form and court bundle from them.

The case has been brought by a local resident living close to the Flats, with the Save Wanstead Flats campaign included as an ‘interested party’. The aim of the judicial review is for the High Court to quash the Legislative Reform Order that amends the Epping Forest Act and therefore removes the legal obstacle to the Metropolitan police’s plans next year, because of the unfairness and inadequacy of the Home Office’s alleged ‘consultation’ with local people.

Today is also an appropriate one to highlight the trailer [see below] for 'Ahead of the Game', a feature length documentary set in the heart of the neighbourhoods hosting the London 2012 Olympics. It is a personal exploration of the multi billion pound project as seen through the eyes of AJ, a 20 year old from Newnham who exposes the reality of development in one of the poorest places in the UK.

Monday, 25 July 2011


At the Rio in Dalston on Sunday, I admit I had severe misgivings at the start of a screening of Just Do It, a film that describes itself as "a tale of modern-day outlaws" and focuses on the experiences of some of the campaigners who took part in environmental direct action during 2009 and 2010. During its first ten minutes, director Emily James' documentary seemed likely to reinforce the cynical, stereotypical portrayal of climate activists as essentially rather lovable English eccentrics, people who are privileged enough to pursue their unconventional activism full-time but are concerned more with the appearance of doing good than really changing anything. My heart sank at the agonisingly long silence that followed a question put to one of the film's main protagonists, Marina Pepper, about whether her actions really make any difference.

But then appeared the images that I have seen so many times through my involvement in the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign that I can hardly bear to watch them now: the footage of Ian as he is pushed violently to the floor and of G20 protesters battered and corralled by riot police. It was a reminder that the low-level policing of the Camp for Climate Action on Blackheath in August 2009 was a surprising exception, the result of huge pressure upon the Metropolitan police following its brutal tactics three months earlier. Far more often, climate activists engaged in direct action choose to risk the possibility of violent policing, the likelihood of arrest and the realistic prospect of conviction. Eccentric some may well be, but it's far from a game: everyone who appeared in the film are also incredibly brave individuals.

This willingness to get stuck in, to forcefully but peaceably disrupt the companies contributing to climate change and the police and security guards that defend them, really came to life as the film moved on to the Great Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe on Soar power station in October 2009, focusing on the tactics adopted by the protesters, how affinity groups are organised and how carry out a 'de-arrest'. Sadly, recent developments involving the unmasking of the undercover police spy Mark Kennedy came too late for the film's final cut and its most powerful section therefore focused on what became a turning point for many climate activists: the UN's COP15 conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, when the world's governments came together to try and thrash out a deal to cut global carbon emissions.

Billed in advance as a 'last chance' to tackle climate change, Denmark's government brought in sweeping new police powers to try and prevent protesters from causing disruption and almost 1000 arrests were made during demonstrations. The film documents the deplorable treatment of activists by the Danish police, including the prolonged detention without charge in cages, and how little police officers understood the powers they had been handed (something they have in common with their counterparts in the UK). But in spite of the protesters' efforts and the huge anticipation that had proceeded it, the conference failed to deliver. Some activists returned disheartened and many questioned where the climate justice movement should go next but for others, including Sophie Nathan who appeared in the film, the experience was radicalising and led to a more openly anti-capitalist viewpoint that has been strengthened by the election of a new government in Britain. Climate Camp activists have gone on to provide the driving force for the emergence of UKUncut.

Just Do It does have its weaknesses: it would have benefited from spending more time explaining the grassroots campaigning by Plane Stupid in support of residents fighting the planned third runway at Heathrow and how this campaign, with a clearly defined objective, led to eventual victory. It is also difficult to see what its target audience really is - in the question-and-answer session that followed the film, Emily James told a sympathetic Hackney audience, surely its core demographic, that it isn't aimed at activists but at those who are thinking of becoming more active. I'm not entirely convinced.

Another weakness is that in many ways the Q&A was almost more enlightening than elements of the film itself, providing answers to some of the unresolved questions about the purpose of direct action (disappointingly, the focus was more on its individualistic value in offering 'personal transformation' than on movement-building). It also addressed the dilemma posed by heavy handed policing, which helps to draw people together as it did in Copenhagen and at Kingsnorth in 2008, which Marina Pepper said was "the making of the movement", but can drown out the issues. The debate on Sunday allowed the director to talk about the the difficulties of not "engaging in riot porn" but never backing away from material simply because it might scare new people away.

Overall, however, Just Do It is an absorbing, illuminating and at times very funny film that opens up what is the necessarily secretive world of planning and executing direct action. It also highlights how climate activism's initially peculiar 'flappy hands' consensus decision-making, although far from perfect, has ensured that women are central to its planning and participation, which can't always be said for other movements of the anti-capitalist left.

Equally, as a means of documenting the work of activists, the film is also a model for others to follow: the process of talking to campaigners, gaining their trust and working through potential legal implications with lawyers, for six months before filming began, is an object lesson in preparation that the Guardian's proposed new crowd-sourced book on undercover policing could really learn a great deal from.

'Just Do It' is screening again tomorrow (Tuesday 26 July) at Picturehouse Greenwich at 6.30pm. See here for more details

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Update: Council Ignores Questions On Prevent Programme

As I reported in May, council officers who turned up to a community meeting to sing the praises of Newham’s 'Preventing Violent Extremism' (PVE) Programme faced some tough questions: at the time, I said that it felt like "the first time that their upbeat and rosy view of Prevent had been challenged at a local level”.

The Newham Community Cohesion Network, who arranged the discussion on PVE, was due to meet again this morning and had therefore asked a number of questions and points of clarification to pass on to its members today:

How much of an allocated £200,000 in 2010/11 for developing in-house capacity was spend on specific projects to improve resilience to extremism in Newham – and what were these projects and what was their intended outcome?

How was the allocated £67,425 in 2010/11 to “undertake a programme of communications and events to improve community cohesion throughout the borough” actually spent?

How many people within Newham’s Channel programme caseload are Muslim and how many are non-Muslim?

Whether the Office for Public Management final report 7740 “Research into best practice in Preventing Violent Extremism and understanding the causes of violent extremism”, written for the London Borough of Newham and dated October 2010, can be made publicly available so that the members of the Community Cohesion Network can read an external assessment of the delivery of the programme & its exceptional standard.

Whether a copy of the London Borough of Newham’s current strategy document for delivering the Prevent programme locally could be distributed in light of the recent review [by the Home Office].

Newham council officers claimed in May that its PVE Programme is ‘uniquely’ excellent, with none of the problems that have occurred in other parts of the country. However, that hasn't stopped the council from insultingly failing to respond to any of these perfectly reasonable questions – despite having almost two months to do so.

We've become so used to this kind of stonewalling locally that it's no longer a surprise. But how can a PVE Programme really be described as ‘uniquely' excellent when it so obviously lacks transparency and is shrouded in such intense secrecy?

Let's see whether a Freedom of Information request will help to reveal a little more.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Peculiar Kind Of Britishness

Last week at a meeting I attended in Barking, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Trevor Philips was asked what he thought of the concept of ‘Britishness’ and his reply was interesting: according to my notes he said:

“We need to worry about Britishness less. It is less about institutions and more about manners, the way we treat each other. We ought not to get caught up in talk about ‘British Days’ and focus on this instead”.

For those who don’t recognise it, the reference to ‘British Days’ relates to a 2006 Fabian Society speech by this week’s unlikely anti-Murdoch crusader, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who proposed that Remembrance Sunday should become a national day of patriotism. The idea was still staggering along in 2008, when it was condemned by Scottish nationalists as “desperate, motivated by self interest rather than national interest.”

For once (and it doesn't happen often), I agree with Philips – the notion of ‘Britishness’ is so completely confused, particularly in a multi-ethnic borough like Newham, that it has almost no real meaning, while the way we treat each other most certainly does. But Philips is wrong to suggest that we needn’t worry about it, for as I noted recently, Newham council’s Executive Member for Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour, Cllr Unmesh Desai, has taken to the pages of a national newspaper to extol the virtues of “building Britishness” and the development of “common values around a common agenda”. In Newham, it seems that some form of 'Britishness' is now council policy.

So what might this mean in practice? In May we heard that Mayor Sir Robin Wales' has removed foreign language newspapers from the borough's libraries because he feels they discourage local people from learning and speaking English. There are many who profoundly disagree, arguing that the decision is “illiterate and ignorant” and that bilingualism is an important skill “enabling cultural and commercial relations to operate well both within and between countries”.

A meeting on Tuesday of the campaign against the Mayor’s decision has revealed one particularly interesting fact, however: as well as community language newspapers and journals, the Mayor has chosen to cut English language publications serving Black and Asian communities, including The Asian Age, The Eastern Eye, The Voice, Ebony and Pride. However, both the Irish Times and Irish Independent have been spared.

Coming, as I do from a family that traces some of its roots to County Cork and having a keen interest in Irish politics and current affairs, I naturally have nothing against either of these papers. But what does it say when Newham’s libraries stock material aimed mainly at the borough’s 2500 White Irish people, 1% of the local population according to 2007 figures, but removes those serving the 84,500 (33.85%) Asian and 49,100 (19.67%) strong Black communities?

Trevor Philips last week was keen to promote the new Equalities Act 2010 and in particular the new ‘equality duty’, which is designed to place an obligation on public authorities “to demonstrate that they are making financial decisions in a fair, transparent and accountable way, considering the needs and the rights of different members of their community.”

Newham council claims it has carried out an Equality Impact Assessment but now it has to be prepared to actually prove that it has made decisions based on evidence and that its decision-making process is transparent.

Having scrapped all the newspapers that happened to be written and published by Black and Asian communities and kept the ones that aren't, apparently on nothing more than the whim of the Great Helmsman himself, how on earth does the council expect to be able to offer, if required to, that kind of convincing proof to the EHRC?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Forest Gate Raids And Secret Briefings To Journalists

Now that the issue of secret briefings by police officers to journalists is suddenly all over the news, it is time for a "we told you so" moment.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Police Authority held a scrutiny of communication and media at the Metropolitan Police Service, with particular reference to the way the police handling these issues during the Forest Gate 'anti-terrorist' raids of that year. In a submission I wrote for Newham Monitoring Project, we said:

If the constant stream of unofficial briefings that appeared in the press following the Forest Gate raids as ‘police sources’ were not officially orchestrated, then the MPS has by allowing them condoned the actions of a small group of police officers. who have anonymously fed information to the media in return either for cash, the conducting of inter-agency feuding between the Met and the security services over apportioning blame or simply in order to undermine the accountability of a public service. In either scenario, police officers based at Scotland Yard have been responsible for misconduct and this needs to be investigated urgently.

A further outcome of the selective leaking of misinformation, half truths and unrelated associations was to place further strain on the slender strands of public accountability over the MPS by the Metropolitan Police Authority. Those with a role in holding the MPS to account appear to have no effective means of rescuing a media strategy that is seemingly out of control. Moreover, after the Forest Gate raids, there does not seem to be mechanisms available to the MPA to effectively evaluate the basis of what MPS ‘thought was true’, even when the police’s presentation of information contradicted common sense and the reality of physical evidence.

The full submission is available here. It shows not only a further example of the cosy relationship between the Met and the press, but also how complete useless the Metropolitan Police Authority has always been at holding those responsible for secret briefings to account.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

London in Peril - From The Threat Of Ineffective Protest

“Protest,” said the journalist Robert Elms at London’s Bishopsgate Institute last Thursday, “is the lifeblood of London.” That may be so: the city has a long and rich history of protest and dissent. But how much longer can it remain an integral part of London life, when there is a fundamental disjunction between the police's increasing tendency to brand demonstrators as 'criminals' and the desire of the protesters to genuinely influence change?

The cultural and literary centre near Liverpool Street has been running a series of events hosted by Elms under the banner London in Peril, which have explored the past, present and future threats facing the capital. Last week's 'Protesting London' debate was ambitiously billed as an exploration of “the effectiveness of protest, the attempts at constraint, the impact on London and its communities and what the future of protest may hold” and without doubt, the inclusion on the panel of one of the Metropolitan Police's most senior officers, Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, who has overall responsibility for public order, was the reason why tickets had sold-out well in advance.

That the debate failed to deliver, however, was perhaps inevitable. There was insufficient time to properly probe and question the speakers, who also included Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German and the academic and writer Clive Bloom. More importantly, Assistant Commissioner Owens might have provided a certain novelty value, but no-one rises to such an elevated position in the Metropolitan Police without learning how deflect questions and say very little. Throughout, her message was resolutely upbeat, despite the audience’s awareness of the intense criticism the Met has faced after the G20 protests in April 2009 and subsequent demonstrations.

In her opening remarks, Owens steered clear of these controversies, focusing instead on the “public order successes” of the Notting Hill Carnival and the annual Gay Pride March, although both are now examples of corporate-sponsored street entertainment rather than protests. The Royal Wedding was also cited as an “example of peaceful protest,” which may come as a surprise to the small number of anti-monarchist protesters who were snatched in Soho Square and faced pre-emptive arrests that in all likelihood were unlawful.

However, it was evident that the Met is particularly pleased with the way it took hold of and controlled the narrative around the TUC’s demonstration in March this year. Owens was quick to praise the political cover provided by the human rights charity Liberty, who provided 'official' legal observers during the march itself, whilst contrasting the union protest with other events on the day. In attempting to do so and in response to a question about the arrests of UKUncut activists in Piccadilly, she quickly overreached by insisting, to the surprise of many of us, that “ the route of the march did not go past Fortnum & Mason” (a fact, for those who couldn't make it on 26 March, that a glance at this steward's route map [pdf] will confirm is nonsense).

It was a sign, perhaps, of the awkward position the Met continues to find itself in since its mass arrest of protesters who briefly (and peacefully) occupied the exclusive store. Back in March, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Owens seemed to suggest that the Fortnum & Mason arrests were an intelligence gathering 'fishing trip', saying that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities”. Last week, when asked about the prospect of increased use of baton rounds or water cannon on London streets, Owens was keen to point out that in recent protests in Greece, “it didn’t reduce the level of violence on the street” and to contrast this with the “value of intelligence gathering”. The experience of UKUncut campaigners and Owens' own testimony suggests the Met's idea of intelligence gathering can be just as indiscriminate and even more likely to result in the criminalisation of protesters (whether 'violent' or not) as the overwhelming use of force.

Owens did make one statement, however, that I am in complete agreement with – that senior officers have a “leadership responsibility to prevent a locker-room mentality” amongst their officers. If only this really meant something in practice. From G20 and the death of Ian Tomlinson to the Gaza protest and student demonstrations last year, senior officers have repeatedly failed to shoulder responsibility for the misconduct of their officers and in this respect, Assistant Commissioner Owens was no different from her colleagues. “What we have seen,” she said, “is ill-informed communication about our actions”, a message intended to suggest that confusion over police tactics, rather than outright police brutality, is the reason why the Metropolitan Police has faced criticism. She even claimed that the removal of epaulette ID numbers by riot officers, condemned by both the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, were simply “isolated incidents”.

The gulf in understanding between police and protesters, however, really emerged over the question of what makes an effective protest. Owens' answer was straight-forward: “people coming peacefully and who don’t engage in violence”, adding that “the best of all worlds is a protest that is self-policed”. This is a perspective that sees 'effectiveness' simply in terms of the rigid containment of demonstrators by a combination of stewards or police officers and without reference to the impact that a protest hopes to make. It is also one that makes the attention given to the merits of the tactic of 'kettling' almost superfluous – the ideal protest, in the view of the Assistant Commissioner, Is one that is kettled from start to finish.

Unfortunately, neither Lindsey German and Clive Bloom were able to compelling draw out the counter-argument. German said that “every tactic” is important to ensure that a protest is effective but was keener to praise the huge numbers on the TUC demonstration as an indicator that “most protests are not violent”. However, it is questionable whether a march lacking any coherent strategy about what would happen after the marchers had listened to Ed Miliband make a poor speech and gone home was really any less of an ineffectual stroll through London than the post-2003 Stop the War Coalition marches, whatever the numbers who attended. Bloom, meanwhile, was too busy reining back from the faux-radical position he had begun the evening with, that “the only successful marches are the violent ones”, to offer anything more than a confused argument that 'virtual protest' means “you don't have to be on the street any more”.

Both missed the chance to persuasively argue that a 'contained' protest and an effective one are almost always mutually exclusive - and that the police's implacably rigid view of what constitutes 'legitimate' protest is by far the greatest threat to the future of effective protest in the capital.

Friday, 8 July 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - "Plot Device"

Another great Friday lunchtime distraction for film fans in particular - when an aspiring filmmaker adds a "Plot Device" to his Amazon shopping basket, he has no idea of the consequences.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Liberty Backs Police Over Bail Judgement

It was reported today that the government is rushing through an emergency bill in the wake of a Salford magistrates court ruling, subsequently backed by a judicial review at the supreme court, that means police officers cannot bail suspects for more than 96 hours without either charging or releasing them. For years, the police and the courts have assumed that this time limit could be spread out, often over months, whilst suspects often have severe restrictions placed upon them before being called back for further questioning.

The BBC's Mark Easton, in an excellent article last week, highlighted the potential consequences of such restrictions on political activists and campaigners:

Consider the case of four women peace protesters arrested in February last year for obstructing a highway following a day of action at the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston.

Police didn't have enough evidence to charge them with any offence, so they released them on bail pending further enquiries. But the bail included strict conditions as to where they could go, including a ruling that they couldn't join their friends on the peace camp at the Trident factory.

Now, whatever you might think of the protest, we are talking here about four women against whom the police do not have sufficient evidence of a crime having been committed to charge them. For two months their liberty was restricted while detectives apparently searched for clues and found none.

A letter to the Observer yesterday from a number of lawyers and experienced civil rights campaigners (including Newham Monitoring Project) has welcomed the supreme court ruling, arguing that bail conditions have been routinely used "as part of a wider public order strategy aimed at disrupting protest movements". Interestingly, one prominent civil liberties group, Liberty, is missing from the signatories to the letter - which is not surprising, because it supports the police's position that they should be allowed to bail suspects for more than 96 hours, despite evidence that the practice can lead to severe restrictions on the freedoms of people who have been convicted of no crime.

This is not the first time that Britain's "pre-eminent" civil liberties charity has adopted decidedly strange positions. In the past, it has minced its words over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and over new anti-terrorism stop & search powers and entered into an unhealthily close collaboration with the police over March's TUC demonstration. As Mark Easton accurately points out, there really is no basis to the alarmist right wing nonsense warning that "tens of thousands of suspected murderers, rapists and other criminals could walk free". However, it appears that Liberty has decided, once again, to play it safe and call for 'safeguards', instead of grasping what Easton describes as "the opportunity for a public debate about the use of police bail and how we might encourage speedy and just processes".

In doing so, the emerging gulf between its 'respectable' Westminster and media focused approach to policing issues and that of the people with first-hand experience of the abuse of police power has grown a little wider. Not for the first time, I'm so glad that I cancelled my membership long ago.

Wanstead Flats - See You in Court Home Secretary

It was reported earlier in the week that MPs have voted to temporarily amend the Epping Forest Act, in order to allow the Metropolitan Police to leap a legal hurdle standing in the way of its plans for a base on Wanstead Flats during the Olympics. This, in all honesty, was no great surprise. The House of Lords must next debate the Legislative Reform Order and they too will nod it through. The prospect that parliamentarians would stand in the way of the Olympic juggernaut was always remote.

A number of local reporters have been in contact asking whether this is the end of the battle by residents against the Met's plans. So, to clarify, this is the current position. I can state categorically that there will be a judicial review once the House of Lords has voted, that papers are currently in preparation and that one resident has agreed to act as Claimant, with the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign appearing in the proceedings as an Interested Party. Anyone wanting to get in contact with the Claimant can contact me in the usual ways.

This is what was promised back in October 2010 - and we weren't joking.

Friday, 1 July 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - "These Strikes Are Wrong"

Despite the fact that this is such a dispiriting but inevitable betrayal of the labour movement, Ed Miliband behaving like an spin doctor's automaton is one of the funniest things I have seen in ages. The sense that the eyes are open but nobody is really home is almost too painful to watch.

So repeat after Ed for two minutes and 30 seconds - "reckless and provocative manner" .... "set aside the rhetoric"... ""get around the negotiating table"..."resistance is futile"... "exterminate!"

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.