February 20 2024
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‘Routinely violent’: a history of policing protest

‘Routinely violent’: a history of policing protest

REVIEW: ‘The government will always defend the right to protest,’ said Priti Patel to the virtual Conservative party conference in 2020. ‘That is a fundamental pillar of our democracy, but the hooliganism and the thuggery we have seen is not. It is indefensible.’ In other words, the immediate past home secretary would defend the right so long as it didn’t hold up the traffic or upset the law-abiding majority.

Her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, described by Lib Dem peer and deputy assistant commissioner of the Met Brian Paddick as ‘draconian and anti-democratic’, is now on the statue books enabling the police to impose start and finish times as well as maximum noise levels.

  • This article first appeared in the New Law Journal on May 12 (here)

Never has our supposedly cherished right to protest been under such attack. A timely new book Charged: How the police try to suppress protest (Verso, 2022) explains how the policing of protest has been conducted in a routinely violent way for more than four decades. It reveals a shocking history of state-sanctioned brutality from striking miners assailed by mounted police officers at the Battle of Orgreave, to the ‘kettling’ of anti-capitalist protestors on Oxford Street, the cracking of the skulls of students protesting tuition fees (Alfie Meadow) and, most recently, the manhandling of women who came to the Clapham Common vigil to express outrage at the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a police officer.

Charged’s authors, defence lawyer Matt Foot and journalist Morag Livingstone, make clear that such excessive force was not just signed off from ‘above’ but government ministers were complicit in writing the police’s own manual – more on that later.

The book claims that in every protest investigated the police were ‘backed to the hilt’ by the Home Secretary. Matt Foot is a solicitor who specialises in actions against the police at the human rights firm Birnberg Pierce. He is well known for his tenacity on behalf of notorious miscarriage of justice cases including Eddie Gilfoyle and Sam Hallam, both raise serious concerns about the conduct of the police. Morag Livingston is a documentary filmmaker.

Their analysis exposes the myth of ‘policing by consent’, supposedly so different from (and superior to) the approach of our more authoritarian-minded neighbours. Our police, we are told, draw authority from those who are being policed as opposed to the might of the state and, in exercising their powers, rely on minimal force. Charged tells another story.

The politicisation of policing has never been so blatant as in recent years. The use of serving officers as a photo opportunity became a cliché of Boris Johnson’s premiership – for example, the former PM used ranks of police cadets as a backdrop to deliver a tubthumping pro-Brexit speech and joined officers on press-friendly raids complete with a bullet proof flakjacket (see also Priti Patel). The Washington Post identified such stunts as part of the ‘Trumpization’ of British politics. American politicians had ‘long used soldiers and police as props’ during political speeches, the Post noted. ‘But in Britain, politicians have avoided such staging as inappropriate and tacky.’ Until, that is, the arrival of ‘Johnson, the country’s convention-buster in chief’.

Charged charts the hidden history of protest, clash by clash, from the battle of the Beanfield, via Wapping, to the Conservative clampdown on the rave culture of the early 1990s when Michael Howard infamously attempted to outlaw rave culture by outlawing music defined as ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

There is a connecting thread. In the wake of the Brixton riots of 1981, a new secret police handbook was introduced. The Home Office approved the Public Order Manual of Tactical Options and Related Matters which set out military-style tactics inspired by increasingly violent policing in the colonies used to suppress anti-imperialist resistance.

The ‘sinister activities in the back rooms of the Home Office’ in the early 1980s provided senior police officers with ‘a comfort blanket’, Foot and Livingstone argue. ‘From that point forward, they knew that their new powers not only had the seal of approval from the Home Secretary, but also be instigated by his department, no doubt for his own political ends.’ The manual first comes to light in 1985 at the trial of miners arrested at a mass picket at Orgreave. This is down to the persistence of Michael Mansfield KC who was defence barrister at the trial and writes the foreword.

The Blair years come in for critical scrutiny from Charged’s authors with their ‘frenzied approach to law-making’ which led to, according to Nick Clegg as Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, ‘thousands of new offences’ and revealed an ‘obsession with controlling the minutiae of everyday life’. As a result of New Labour’s punitive turn, chief police officers felt emboldened to mobilise vast numbers of riot police to clamp down on protest. ‘By this exceptional tactic, the police even went beyond their own secret manual,’ the authors write. ‘How far they had come from “normal policing”.’

Nor do the media get a free pass. For example, it is reported that the BBC apparently reversed the order of their Orgreave footage in order to blame the miners for causing the violence.

Charged is a compelling social history that goes beyond recounting the troubled relationship between the police and protestors but reveals the hidden power of the state to suppress legitimate dissent and stifle progress.

This article first appeared in the New Law Journal on May 12 (here)