By Paul Stephens, Extinction Rebellion Police Liaison
As I watched the footage of police wrestling women to the ground and cuffing them at a peaceful vigil for the death of Sarah Everard, whilst a serving police officer was charged with her kidnap and murder, I felt horror, embarrassment, sympathy for those being abused at a vigil and also empathy for all the good police officers who I know would feel outraged. As a retired Detective Sergeant and police liaison for Extinction Rebellion, and having witnessed the use of COVID-19 regulations being stretched beyond their limit in order to minimise protest, I could not help feeling that this policing media car crash on Clapham Common was inevitable, but I had never imagined this level of insensitivity and stupidity.
Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who defended the police’s actions by arguing they were proportionate with concerns over the spread of COVID-19, was heavily criticised by members of the public, as well as Home Secretary Priti Patel and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Yet days later, MPs passed the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts bill – legislation that will hand police the power to put conditions on processions, assemblies and now single protesters, based upon what they decide is a relevant impact.
‘Ought to have known’
The new policing bill adds a further dimension to existing restrictions: noise. This can be noise that causes an office worker or a passer-by to feel serious unease, alarm or distress. It gives Priti Patel the authority to change the definition of serious disruption using statutory instruments. i.e. without parliamentary oversight. The existing legislation requires police to prove that a person knowingly breached a law, which, with the use of body worn video, is not a problem. The new law will convict those who “ought to have known” the conditions.
In other words, if you want to express your dissatisfaction in public, it is your legal right to do so, but if it is a bit noisy, then police can dictate where you protest, with how many people and how loudly, just so as not to cause anyone unease. If you are not aware of conditions and have not checked the Met’s Twitter feed for the latest updates, and shout too loudly, then you’re at risk of being nicked. In addition, you could be part of a public nuisance that carries up to 10 years imprisonment. Damaging statues (actually memorials, even wreaths) has also received attention in the bill, with a similar 10 year sentence.
Watching the Conservative MPs in the house supporting the bill on March 15, I saw the same examples used time and again to justify the new measures. They talked about how XR had blocked an ambulance – referring to when 150-200 cyclists stopped at Millbank for a spontaneous dance for 15 minutes in September last year, initially agreed with police on Lambeth Bridge. The Command Team responded to the actions of a minority by ordering the bridge be sealed off for six hours to arrest everyone and seize every bicycle (of which about 30 have been lost). It was this police response that blocked the ambulance.
A further example given was of activists gluing themselves to a tube train in Canning Town in October 2019, when those involved were charged with S36 Malicious Damage Act 1861, which carries up to two years imprisonment. MPs also recalled how XR activists blocked three of Rupert Murdoch’s printing presses last September, arguing that this was an attack on freedom of press. They did not mention that all those involved have been charged with Highway Obstruction and face the possibility of additional civil action.
All three cases show there is already more than adequate legislation which empowers the police to prohibit any effective protest. In fact, the massively disproportionate police response chosen to police peaceful protest has not only cost taxpayers millions, it has often caused much greater disruption than the action itself (as with the ambulance on Millbank).
‘Silencing dissenting voices’
A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), a body which independently assesses the effectiveness of police forces, accepts that protest cannot legally be banned, and that all must include a level of disruption. It recommends that protest groups should liaise with police in the interest of safety and to agree an acceptable level of disruption. I used to agree with that.
The actions of the Command Team for Public Order (MO6) for the Met Police has clearly demonstrated that they are not interested in facilitating protest, the safety of protestors, the safety of the public or agreeing acceptable levels of disruption. In the case of the Sarah Everard vigil, they did not accept the responsibility of balancing the right to protest against public health regulations until the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ court challenge made it clear. They are hugely under resourced and should work with communities rather than being obsessed with controlling them.
If, as I suspect, the main reason for the woeful performance of police protecting women is mainly down to a decade of huge resource cuts, merging of London boroughs, police station closures, omni-competence and moving away from neighbourhood policing, why not have the moral independent integrity to say so, and point the finger at those responsible in government instead of blaming those trying to do something about it? We mustn’t forget that whilst Scrooge is now pretending to be Father Christmas with 20,000 recruits planned, the actual numbers have only just passed 6,000, and those won’t be fully trained for at least two years.
Why is it that police outside the metropolis do a much better job at striking this balance with proper respect for the communities they serve? Proximity to power perhaps, creating a toxic macho need to demonstrate authority above all else. This may seem imperative for policing potentially violent and disorderly protests, but it just provokes outrage and determination amongst non-violent protesters. From a Command Team perspective and from a Conservative perspective, if protest is deterred it’s a win-win. It may reduce the low risk of COVID-19 transmission outdoors (which experts say is fairly low) but it also saves resources, it reduces the risk of mishandling a protest on the media stage, by being perceived as either too heavy-handed or impotent, and of course, it keeps the Home Secretary happy by silencing dissenting voices who may dare to hold power to account. From a societal perspective, it is disastrous and will escalate protest and further damage the principal that we are policed by consent.
Main image: Blocking of Lambeth Bridge by Extinction Rebellion, London. By Stefan Müller via Wikimedia Commons.